America as a lesbian safe haven?

According to asylum seekers, it's better to be a lesbian in the U.S. than in most other places in the world.

By Catherine Price

Published June 26, 2007 4:50PM (EDT)

Maybe I've become too cynical, but when I think about places that are friendly to lesbians and gays, the United States -- politically, at least -- doesn't top my list. But unfortunately, much of the rest of the world is even worse than we are. An article from Women's eNews reports that "confronted with barriers to legal U.S. immigration, a small number of foreign lesbians are seeking safety through political asylum."

The article reports on several cases, such as that of Mehre Palzanova (a pseudonym), an immigrant from Turkmenistan living in New York and the first lesbian from Turkmenistan to be granted political asylum in the United States. When asked about whether she would participate in New York's Gay Pride Parade, she responded, "If they let me walk with them, I will walk with them. I could never be so proud or so out in my country. And it's not going to happen any time soon."

Palzanova lost her job in Turkmenistan because of her sexual orientation and was blacklisted by the government to prevent her from finding another. According to eNews, her father lost a promotion and her family tried to force her to marry. And when the family arguments grew violent, the article reports, police did nothing to help her.

Palzanova's arrival in America touches on several immigration issues. First, the number of gay men seeking asylum in the United States far outnumbers that of gay women -- according to the Asylum Documentation Program of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, 62 lesbians have been allowed to stay in the United States since 1994 (out of 435 inquiries), as opposed to 643 gay men (out of 4,134 inquiries). The article points out that this discrepancy may partially be due to the fact that most persecution of lesbians happens in private at the hands of family members, and "is similar to domestic violence." Gay men, on the other hand, are more likely to be persecuted by "authorities." (Interestingly, though, women make up only 37 percent of all asylum requests, according to the Department of Homeland Security. And to put these numbers in context, in 2005 alone, 25,000 people were granted asylum -- so homophobes needn't worry about a "gay wave.")

The gays and lesbians who are granted political asylum also highlight an unfair aspect of America's immigration policy: The United States doesn't recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. That means that gays and lesbians can't sponsor foreign partners, which puts them at a serious disadvantage to heterosexual couples when it comes to bringing loved ones into the country. According to eNews, in 2006 "approximately 27 percent of the total grants of permanent residency were awarded to members of a heterosexual couple." That policy no doubt contributes to the fact that, according to an immigration policy analyst at Queers for Economic Justice in New York quoted in the article, 40,000 same-sex partners are living in the United States without proper documentation.

I was raised to think of America as a place where people can come to escape persecution and be allowed to live their lives as themselves without fear of punishment. I hope that Palzanova has that experience. But I also know that when it comes to gay and lesbian rights, we have a hell of a long way to go. Here's hoping that we start taking more steps in that direction so that the phrase "liberty and justice for all" isn't just a nice thing to say when you're hoisting up the flag.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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