March is Women’s History Month—a time not only to celebrate women’s contributions to history and society, but also to reflect on the injustices and persecution that too many women continue to face across the globe. Among the most vulnerable members of our global society are gay* and transgender women who are victimized and mistreated in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. A lack of financial means to escape persecution and seek asylum in the United States often exacerbates their plight. Even if these women arrive on U.S. shores, they face unique challenges filing for asylum. As Congress and the Obama administration move forward on comprehensive immigration reform, they must take into account the barriers that prevent gay and transgender women from fleeing persecution and pursuing more secure and safe lives as U.S. citizens.
Many gay and transgender individuals face persecution in their home countries
In many countries around the world, gay and transgender people are targets of violence and discrimination. In nearly 80 countries, sexual activity between men is illegal, and about half of these nations also outlaw sexual activity between women. Some of these countries use the death penalty to punish gay men and women, while others resort to imprisonment, forced labor, and even corrective rape.
In addition to the persecution of gay and transgender individuals through laws, repressive societies may also threaten the safety of gay and transgender people when their sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform—or is viewed as not conforming—to prevailing cultural, political, or social norms. As a result, many gay and transgender individuals flee their home countries in search of safer and more tolerant countries.
Women have greater difficulty seeking asylum because of cultural and economic inequality in their home countries
Arriving on U.S. shores often presents the greatest obstacle for women seeking asylum. Unlike an immigrant applying for refugee status, an asylum applicant must be within the borders of the United States—a requirement that poses a significant challenge for women who suffer from cultural and economic inequality within their home countries.
Women often lack the resources to pay for the cost of travelling to the United States and its promise of asylum. Despite the fact that women are half of the world’s population, they comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor, own just 1 percent of property, and earn only 10 percent of global income. For impoverished women in faraway lands looking to the United States for sanctuary, a journey overseas is simply not an option.
Even women with the financial wherewithal to travel to the United States, their asylum may still encounter cultural barriers impeding their escape. Women in some Middle Eastern countries must be accompanied by a male family member when they journey outside the home. Women violating this law may be particularly vulnerable to violence and other forms of severe punishment. For these women, the chances of fleeing their home countries unescorted and undetected are bleak at best, and often dangerous.
The situation becomes even more complicated when a family discovers a female family member is gay or transgender. In that situation a family will often assign more domestic responsibilities to her and limit her movement outside of the household. This is a way of isolating women and depriving them of the opportunity to develop a support network, which would be a valuable resource if they ever choose to flee their home country.
Gay and transgender women seeking asylum in the United States continue to face barriers
Since 1994 the United States has recognized persecution based on sexual orientation as grounds for attaining asylum status. To be granted asylum, U.S. immigration law states that individuals seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation must prove that they are indeed gay or transgender, and that they have or will face persecution by their home country’s government because of their sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, for gay or transgender women nearly all of the precedent-setting court cases that have established standards for successful gay and transgender asylum seekers are based on the experiences of gay men. Gay and transgender women have vastly different experiences than gay men, and current guidelines may not be helpful to them as asylum applicants. Some women, for example, may have been married in their home countries, which often include nations where the government and society exercise extensive control over a woman’s relationship status and family formation. A woman in this situation may have even been forced into a marriage in order to “cure” her of her attraction to women. The fact that a woman is or has been married, nonetheless, may cast doubt on her sexual orientation or gender identity, and as a result her claim for asylum.
Moreover, since a woman’s sexual orientation and gender identity is not always readily apparent, gay and transgender asylum seekers are at risk of having their cases dismissed because they fail to conform to stereotypes of gay or transgender women. In one particular case, which was documented by Immigration Equality, a leading organization working with gay and transgender asylum seekers, an Albanian lesbian, who had been threatened with gang rape to “cure” her of her lesbianism, was denied asylum because she was young, attractive, and single. With no precedential cases about gay and transgender women, establishing grounds for asylum becomes a more daunting task for female gay and transgender asylum seekers.
The Obama administration has already taken several steps to improve the experiences of gay and transgender immigrants and asylum seekers. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security created and mandated a training module on gay and transgender issues to educate asylum interviewers on how to properly assess individuals seeking asylum due to persecution related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Obama administration must nevertheless ensure that the Department of Homeland Security incorporates an understanding of gay and transgender issues that is neither based exclusively on the experiences of men or on those of gay American women.
The one-year filing deadline presents yet another obstacle to successful asylum claims. This is particularly problematic for gay and transgender women because many of them are not open about their sexuality, or have not “come out” when they first arrive in the United States. Moreover, some women live within immigrant communities where being gay or transgender is still unacceptable. These women could be forced to return to their home countries if they do not file for asylum to avoid persecution in their home countries within one year of stepping onto U.S. soil. The one-year filing deadline is arbitrary, does not reflect the psychological reality of “coming out,” and, if repealed, would largely benefit gay and transgender asylum seekers.
In addition to the general inequalities plaguing women worldwide, the pervasive antigay and antitransgender bias in many countries highlights why many gay and transgender women turn to the United States for asylum. While the U.S. government cannot immediately and singlehandedly end the persecution of gay and transgender women across the globe, Congress and the Obama administration can move forward with a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account the challenges faced by gay and transgender women.
Christopher Frost is an intern for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.
* In this column the term “gay” is used as an umbrella term for those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.