Dressed in a tan argyle sweater and stylish black-rimmed glasses, Michael Ighodaro sits down at a Starbucks in Tribeca during his quick break between work and school. He works at a non-profit in Harlem by day and attends liberal arts courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College by night. Just another multi-tasking New Yorker, perhaps. But Ighodaro holds a special status here. Since March 2013 he has been a political asylee, protected from returning to his homeland of Nigeria.
Ighodaro is gay. He says his parents knew this from early on, but asked him to move out of their home in Benin City, Nigeria because they no longer wanted a gay son living in their house. Ighodaro was just 17, and has not spoken to his parents since. He is now 28.
“They don’t know where I am,” Ighodaro says.
Back in his home country, Ighodaro was a gay rights activist working for an LGBT organization in Nigeria’s capital. Ighodaro asked that the organization remain unnamed because it now operates illegally in Nigeria.
According to a report by Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of Africa’s 54 countries. While most have long had colonial-era laws banning homosexuality, in recent years some have enacted much broader restrictions. In January, Nigeria banned gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relationships and membership in gay rights groups. Violators may face up to 14 years in prison.
“Before, we’re talking about an old colonial law that criminalized something called ‘sodomy’ versus modern laws criminalizing same-sex conduct,” says Michelle Gonzalez, a lawyer for Immigration Equality, a New York City based organization that provides free legal services for LGBT immigrants.
Some of the modern laws, like Nigeria’s, can be interpreted to ban a gay rights conference or same-sex hand-holding in public, says Greyson Brooks, who heads the New York City chapter of LGBT Faith and Asylum Network, a national coalition.
“The laws are the icing on the cake in regards to the social environment for these people,” says Brooks.
Many countries, like Uganda and Liberia, have tightened anti-gay laws in recent years. When South Sudan received its independence in 2011, it made certain that homosexuality was outlawed from the outset in its Constitution. Last month, Gambia passed a bill imposing life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” which it defines as repeat offenders and those living with HIV/AIDS. The bill awaits approval by Gambia’s president who, according to The Guardian, made a state-televised speech in February asserting, “We will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
One result of the legal crackdowns is a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking political asylum in the U.S. on LGBT grounds, according to groups that work with them. Although the federal government says it does not make public the number of asylum requests it receives from those claiming LGBT persecution, Diego Ortiz, communications director for Immigration Equality, says that in 2010 the group took 2,740 cases. In 2013, their intake number was 7,704.
Scott Davis is the Asylum Project coordinator at Housing Works, a nonprofit social service provider. He says they have 26 people in their program, which is two years old.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if each of the 26 had an average of five to ten others they knew who would choose to come here and seek asylum, if they could,” Davis says.
Asylum is a legal status long granted to those who could show they faced religious, political or other kinds of persecution if they returned home. With the U.S. Attorney General’s 1994 ruling based on the Toboso-Alfonso case, where a gay man from Cuba evaded deportation based on his sexual orientation, the precedent was set where LGBT individuals are now allowed to obtain asylum in the United States to escape government persecution. According to an article that appeared in The New York Times on June 7, 1994, the decision affected only a few pending immigration cases and Justice Department officials said they did not know whether it would lead to an increase in the number of gays who would apply for refugee status.
John Ademola was a Catholic priest in Nigeria who originally came to the United States in 1999 for his one year sabbatical, though his hidden agenda was to seek therapy from an evangelical group that he thought could turn him straight.
“Being a priest does not mean that you do no feel your sexuality,” Ademola says. “I was aware that I was gay. I did all I could to change that, but it was futile.”
Ademola recounts how he came to the U.S. being very careful, but that the environment in America gave him the boost he needed to be more open about his sexuality. He obtained asylum in 2007. He says he was outspoken about the politics of Nigeria in regards to the military government, and was scared his sexual orientation would be used against him if he returned.
Many gay West Africans keep their sexual orientation secret even when in the U.S. Ighodaro, however, is used to speaking with the press. His story was made public before he officially moved to New York.
In July 2012 Ighodaro went to Washington D.C. for an international AIDS conference. While there, he was asked questions by a reporter who, according to Ighodaro, did not disclose his profession. Ighodaro’s full name was used in a Washington Post story highlighting gay Africans who were utilizing the conference as an opportunity to go out to bars openly as gay men. The writer of the piece maintains that he identified himself as a reporter from the start and occasionally reminded the group of Africans in his story that he was working on assignment. The story got back to Nigeria and was featured in local Nigerian TV and radio stations and within social media channels.
“When I got back to Nigeria, everything in my apartment was burned,” Ighodaro says.
A few days later he was attacked and beaten by unknown men whom he suspects heard about him from the circulation of his story. Ighodaro sustained a broken hand and rib injuries and says he was almost killed that night.
Ighodaro decided that he was no longer safe at home. He returned to the United States in October 2012, using the multiple-entry visa stamped in his passport from his earlier visit. He enlisted the help of Housing Works, the nonprofit social service provider that also provides support for New Yorkers like himself with HIV/AIDS, and was approved for political asylum about four months later.
In order to file an application for asylum, one must provide documentation confirming one’s sexual identity. This can be in the form of a document proving one’s membership in a gay rights group or photos depicting participation at a gay pride march.
Obtaining records can be problematic for those coming from countries where they have been actively hiding their sexual orientation, Brooks says.
Ighodaro describes his application process as relatively easy since his story had already been made public by the time he applied. Ironically, the Washington Post article that led him to flee his home also served as compelling evidence required for his asylum plea.
Ighodaro says he is now applying for a green card in order to remain permanently in the U.S. He’s hoping to secure New York City as not only a place of asylum, but also a home.
Meanwhile, Ademola, the former Nigerian priest, lives in Chicago and works with displaced LGBT Africans seeking asylum. Before his new life, he feared not only his home country’s government, but also feared “losing heaven” due to his sexual orientation.
“Now, to hell with hell!” Ademola says.