Am I Wrong to Love?

LGBTI refugees in Canada speak out on their journey to safety and proudly show who they are.

They were beaten, tortured, their lives threatened — just for loving who they loved or not wanting to hide who they really are. The photo exhibition “Am I Wrong to Love?” curated by the non-profit organization JAYU with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, features portraits and first-person stories of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers living in Canada.

The intimate, creative portraits were taken by Canadian youth from under-served communities and are the result of JAYU’s photography workshop. Bushira Nakitende, 17, from Uganda, was one of the photographers. She portrayed Biko, a Kenyan activist, refugee and transgender woman.

“She is really strong,” Bushira says. “Imagine being a refugee, having to fight for your life because you can’t change who you are.”

Bushira wanted to symbolize her admiration for Biko through her portrait: “She had a lot of weight upon her. Getting rid of the coat was like dropping that weight. And she’s still expanding.”

By the end of the photo shoot, Bushira felt like Biko was family. She told her what the exhibition encapsulates without words: “I feel your pain. You are not alone. We love you.”

This is a selection of portraits and stories from the exhibition, told by the refugees and asylum seekers in their own voices.

JAYU/Bushira Nakitende
“Growing up, it was hard to understand what being ‘trans’ was because there was no language around it.”

Biko Beauttah, Kenya

If you identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or trans in Kenya, things could go very badly. Growing up, it was hard to understand what being trans was because there was no language around it and there were simply no trans people out in the open. I always felt like I was different, but also special. I traveled to the United States for college and visited my first gay club, where I saw Maya Douglas — the first trans person I’d ever seen. That’s the moment I not only discovered what it meant to be transgender, but that was also how I viewed myself. I felt liberated. That year, for Halloween, I actually dressed up like a woman for the first time and felt like I was finally in my own skin. I knew I couldn’t go back to Kenya, where I could be killed, so I applied for asylum in Canada in 2006. I was detained for 36 hours upon arrival and spent my first six months in Canada in a refugee shelter before a landlord finally agreed to rent me an apartment. I’ve been on the Tyra Banks show and am now one of the faces of Nordstrom [retail chain]. Despite these successes, I still experience transphobia here in Canada, just like every trans person anywhere in the world.

JAYU/Reia Tariq
“I knew immediately that life for me in Pakistan would never again be comfortable and safe.”

Muhammad Adeel Iqbal, 39, Pakistan

In Pakistan, being homosexual is viewed as a huge sin. You simply can’t talk about it. If you do, you’ll find yourself spending your whole life in prison. I began to understand that I was gay at around the age of 15. I was hanging out with my male friends and there was one guy I spent a lot of time with. Our relationship became sexual when I was 18. Because homosexuality is unacceptable in Pakistan, I married a woman at the age of 27. We had one child. I was still having sexual relationships with other men in private. One evening, I was caught at a gay party by the police in Lahore. I managed to run away but the police still tried to find me and charge me. I had a brother who lived in Toronto and I applied for asylum in Canada. I made it to Canada in October 2018. The police raided my home in Pakistan and issued an arrest warrant. My wife read the warrant and learned that I was gay. She notified my family and they stopped talking to me and disowned me. I knew immediately that life for me in Pakistan would never again be comfortable and safe. Even though my brother lives here in Canada, he was still upset and annoyed to learn that I was gay. I can’t describe how hard this situation is for me. I’ve made some friends here in Canada and I’m much happier with where my new life is going. I feel safe.

JAYU/Elise Mozarmi
“Even though they thought they had cured me, I knew that nothing had changed.”

Nicole, 25, Cameroon

To be viewed as gay or lesbian in Cameroon is to be viewed as having a curse or a disease. I had some sexual experiences with guys in high school but there was never a sense of feeling in love. This changed when I met a girl and we began to spend a lot of time together. One night we kissed, but I still wasn’t sure what it meant to be a lesbian. I thought it was just my hormones as a teenager. We kissed again at school and got caught. My parents said they wouldn’t tolerate it. I was suspended for a week. I started getting bullied. I had the opportunity to go to the United Kingdom on a scholarship. There, I realized that I was a lesbian. I also knew that I could never be safe or myself if I went back home, so I applied for a scholarship to study in the United States and moved to Oklahoma for four years. My mom passed away and I had to go back to Cameroon for her funeral. While I was there, my extended family found out about my sexuality. They undressed me, sat me in a chair in the middle of the village, and performed a ceremony on me that they thought would heal me. They spoke in tongues, shouted, and poured some kind of water or potion on me. For 3–4 hours I cried and begged for help. Even though they thought they had cured me, I knew that nothing had changed. My sister in Canada became depressed after my mom’s passing and I went there to help her. I always thought it would be temporary, but then a friend who was gay told me that I should apply for asylum. I decided to finally open up to my sister and even though she was so angry, she began to support me.

JAYU/Ammar Bowaihl
“My dad disowned me and threw me out of the house.”

Antoine*, 28, Nigeria

Growing up, I was teased that I “walked like a lady.” My parents caught me with a boy when I was 13 years old. When my dad found out, he beat me to the point that he gave me a scar on my right arm and when I ran away, I tripped and broke my front teeth. I still can’t forget those memories. I changed schools and moved communities. Years passed until I got to university and I met a male friend who later became my partner. We were together for three years in secrecy before we were caught by his family. I still hid it from my family but when my partner became very sick, I had to disclose it to my mother. She told my family and my dad disowned me and threw me out of the house. My mom found a place for me to stay and always tried to protect me, but eventually I felt like Nigeria wasn’t safe for me anymore. Very quickly, my mom arranged for me to go to Toronto, Canada. I arrived in August 2018 and I knew nobody. When I arrived in Canada, I eventually had to stay in a shelter, but now I am living independently and I am awaiting my refugee status hearing. My mom is the only reason that I’m alive today. My dream is to one day meet my mom at Pearson airport, and for her to be proud of me as her child.

JAYU/Mohamad Lazakani
“When we first arrived in Toronto, we were so happy that we cried.”

Nouran Hussein, 23, Egypt

I first started feeling like I may have been a lesbian in grade 6 but I didn’t really admit it to myself until I was in high school. I made sure to keep it secret and hide it from everyone. My background is Muslim and I felt like I could never come out to my family. When I was in college, my family looked through my phone and found messages between me and my partner. They beat me and couldn’t accept it. They even admitted me to a mental health hospital for one week. In Egypt, the LGBTQ community is so hidden and nobody can show their sexuality in general because they can be taken by the police and tortured. It’s not just the police and government, but the general public too. I met my partner Miral on Instagram. We knew we were in danger and we tried to escape. We traveled and hid around Egypt until we could finally get a visa to leave as refugees. We came to Toronto in June 2018 and neither of us have relationships to our families. We never imagined that there would be a place in the world where we could walk around freely, hold hands and kiss publicly. When we first arrived in Toronto, we were so happy that we cried.

JAYU/Richmond Uy
“Côte d’Ivoire is a very small country and news travels very far. I didn’t really feel safe anywhere.”

Hermann, 24, Côte d’Ivoire

Identifying as an LGBTI person in Côte d’Ivoire is not easy. If you try and associate with the LGBTI community publicly, you’ll get beat up. You can tell your family that you feel different, that you like men, and they will often just feel like something is wrong with you and throw you out on the street. I met a man and we started a relationship but we had to keep it hidden. My family even thought it was just a good friendship. It wasn’t until the both of us got a scholarship to go to school in the United States together that we finally felt at ease. We could be ourselves and be affectionate in public. When I got back to Côte d’Ivoire a year later, I couldn’t hide it anymore and decided to tell my family. My mom was okay with it but my uncles and the rest of my family said I couldn’t stay with them. They started threatening me, telling me that they’d kill me and make me disappear. It was very frightening. Côte d’Ivoire is a very small country and news travels very far. I didn’t really feel safe anywhere. Thankfully I had a Canadian visa in my passport from when I was in the US and I made the decision to come to Toronto. I arrived here in September 2018 with my partner. We really feel comfortable here. Nobody stares at us or thinks we’re weird when we walk hand-in-hand in public.

JAYU/Nicole Raquinio
“I started receiving death threats and had to constantly look over my shoulder.”

Durene*, 19, Jamaica

I realized around the age of 12 that I was a lesbian. I was brought up in a Christian home, with a mother and siblings who wouldn’t accept my sexuality. I decided not to disclose it to anyone and kept it to myself. I secretly dated someone who identified as bi-sexual and it was challenging. We couldn’t be affectionate in public because of homophobia in Jamaica. We ended up breaking up because she had a boyfriend at the time and started a family with him. I eventually started a casual and secret relationship with another girl from my community. After we had sex, she disclosed it to a friend and eventually many in the community knew about the experience, including my family. They didn’t take it well and began to say many hurtful things to me. I started receiving death threats and had to constantly look over my shoulder. Someone warned me that if I went to the police, they would kill my mom. In 2018, I was invited to a netball tournament in Toronto. While I was here, I got a phone call from my sister that my younger brother was murdered by the same people who were threatening me and my family. My mom has taken it very hard and has accused me, saying it’s all my fault. I have applied for refugee status and am awaiting my hearing. Being here, I get more support and the people I’m staying with have accepted me for who I am.

JAYU/Lavdrim Odza
“You cannot openly come out and express yourself freely. If you do, you’ll be beaten or tortured.”

Jeff*, 35, Uganda

Nobody knows anything about what it means to be bisexual or transgender in Uganda. They only know about the terms “gay” and “lesbian,” and even then, it’s still completely unacceptable. You cannot openly come out and express yourself freely. If you do, you’ll be beaten or tortured. Even if you go to the police, they’ll arrest and torture you and not protect you. You have to hide as much as you can. I discovered I was bisexual in high school when I noticed I was attracted to boys more than girls. One of my friends introduced me to an underground LGBTI bar and I really felt at home. I found people I could connect with. Years later, I began working for an underground LGBTI human rights organization when a lesbian woman was beaten and tortured by members of the community. We went to rescue her and the police arrested us and charged us with the allegation that we were promoting homosexuality. We were beaten and tortured. It reached a point where I began fearing for my life and knew I had to leave Uganda. My relationship with my family was strained. Rumours grew that the LGBTI community was sponsoring and funding the political opposition and many in our community were targeted and had their computers confiscated. I arrived in Canada in 2018. I’ve applied for my refugee status and I’m awaiting my future hearing. I now live in Toronto. where I feel free and safe.

JAYU/Jadon Lem
“All I could think about was running away.”

Carine*, 45, Cameroon

The first time I had a sexual experience, it was with a girl in secondary school. In Cameroon, it’s very common that when you graduate from secondary school, you get married. My parents were hearing rumours that I was a lesbian and they forced me into marrying a man. We were married for twenty years and had three children. I worked as a nurse within the police unit and witnessed so many moments when they would arrest and detain LGBTI people. They would beat them, torture them and sometimes kill them. Often gay people would just die in jail and there would be no investigation. I had a secret relationship with a colleague of mine. She was also married. One time, we were caught in the parking lot and the police told both our husbands. My husband called my family and told them everything. We were caught a second time in a hotel and my partner’s husband beat us so badly. I remember having to run from the hotel naked. My family was quiet and disappointed, but they never saw me because I went into hiding. All I could think about was running away. Two of my three children came to Canada to study and I decided to join them in 2016. In Canada, I feel comfortable because I feel that I can do whatever I want without fear. My husband and I got divorced and he has since married another woman. My third child came here soon after to be with us.

JAYU/Radha Mestoewa
“You can’t even say the word gay around people, they’ll get angry.”

Rajesh Sakthivel, 35, India

India is a very traditional country where a majority follow the Hindu religion. They don’t accept gays and lesbians. They think they’re not cultured and irresponsible. You can’t even say the word gay around people, they’ll get angry. Even families will disown people if they find out their relatives are homosexual. While I was doing my bachelor’s degree I was staying in a hostel and was sharing a room with another guy. After some time, we had an intimate sexual moment and it was then that I learned I was gay. The other guy’s family found out and they got very angry. The guy eventually married a woman but despite this, we continued our sexual relationship. I eventually got outed and almost immediately after, some guys were sent to beat me. They fractured my ribs and I could hardly breathe. I went to the hospital and spoke with the police but they threatened to castrate me and then put me in jail for two days. After this incident I moved to Gujurat, another province. The gang that assaulted me found me and threatened to kill me. I came back home to Chennai and knew that it was unsafe for me anywhere in India. I spoke to someone about my situation and got a visa to come to Canada. I got here in 2018 and feel free.

*Names changed for protection reasons.