[Editor’s note: This article was reported on before social distancing measures were put in place by New York City to combat the spread of COVID-19.]
On a recent rainy Tuesday March night in Harlem, Amanda Lugg, the upbeat British-Ugandan director of advocacy and LGBTQ programming at the longtime nonprofit African Services Committee, served a hearty homemade meal of chicken, cabbage, and rice-n-peas to seven young clients, all of them LGBTQ-identifying immigrants who have either attained or are currently seeking legal asylum (based on their sexual or gender identity) in the U.S.
“We always do a meal, and then we go around and do check-ins to see how everyone is doing, then we’ll discuss a relevant topic,” said the liltingly accented Lugg, herself a lesbian and ACT UP veteran, of the twice-a-month group, which is funded by the AIDS Institute, a division of the New York State Department of Health. (This week, the relevant topic would be the much-talked-about new coronavirus.) African Services provides HIV-related support and linkage to care, but, in fact, HIV statuses within the group are confidential. (Later, one participant volunteered confidentially that they were living with HIV, in good health, and receiving care and treatment at nearby Harlem Hospital.)
The group, which was started by Lugg and is part of the broader mission of African Services to help immigrants largely from African, Caribbean, and Latin/South American countries—English, Spanish, and French are the main languages spoken at the agency—has a purpose beyond HIV: to help these LGBTQ immigrants, most of whom have left violently homo- and transphobic environments, not only to navigate the legal intricacies of applying for and obtaining asylum green cards but also to adjust financially, socially, and emotionally to life in a liberal and open but also massive and expensive city.
Around the table sat R., a young male photographer who came from Brazil two years ago (some participants asked to use only their initial, and/or not be seen in photographs, so as not to be discovered by family back home or to jeopardize their asylum petition in any way); Douglas, who came from Nigeria 15 years ago and was attending his first group meeting; Eddie, from Jamaica; O., a young man here from Guyana the past seven months; Paul, a tea-maker from Uganda who came to the U.S. for a conference and decided to stay to seek asylum; Leilah Babirye, an established artist from Uganda and the group’s only woman that night; and Patrick, a doctor from Nigeria who is trying to raise about $5,000 to take his medical exams to be licensed to practice in the U.S.
Discussing asylum status took up much of the night. Lugg explained that, perhaps surprisingly to some, the Trump administration is still granting asylum to LGBTQ people from violently homo- and transphobic countries, but at a much slower processing rate and fewer numbers than under Obama–and with a frustrating twist. Now, asylum newcomers go to the front of the line for their initial interview and temporary legal status, which has meant that seekers who’ve been waiting for years for news of their asylum green card—such as Eddie, who’s been waiting nearly four years—keep getting pushed to the back of the line.
On top of that, said Lugg, the new fast-track status for newcomers often doesn’t leave them and their attorneys, who usually work for low or no cost at nonprofits like African Services, sufficient time to pull together needed evidence from home countries to build a strong case. “Stephen Miller just thinks everyone is coming here to get a work permit,” said Lugg, naming the Trump senior advisor who has created the administration’s extreme anti-immigrant policies.
Babirye, who spoke confidently and commandingly, had a very unique story. She came to the U.S. in 2015 for an artist’s residence on Fire Island’s Cherry Grove, a famously LGBTQ-heavy beach retreat not far from New York City. In a blink, she’d gone from the streets of Kampala, Uganda, where LGBTQ people must behave with extreme secrecy and discretion to avoid harassment and violence, to a way-gay vacation paradise. She decided to stay in the U.S. and apply for asylum, recycling cans and bottles off the streets of New York and driving an Uber to support herself until she was able to get a gallerist who started selling her paintings and sculpture. “I sold out a whole show!” she exulted. She now has a room in a Harlem apartment and studio space in Brooklyn. That night, she offered to pay one of the boys at the group $20 an hour the next day to come in and help her move stuff at her studio. (Douglas took her up on her offer.)
“I want to give people a break like I got a break,” she said. “You really have to be persistent and work hard to make it here. I just got my first bed that I paid for and didn’t drag off the street.” She said that, despite being vulnerable in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, she was safer than many LGBTQ folks there because she was among the few openly LGBTQ activists. “If something had happened to me, everyone would’ve known about it, versus someone who wasn’t well-known.”
R. had just gotten back from one of his first fashion photography gigs, in Miami, where he’d also marveled at the city’s sexy tropical glamor. “I’m going to the gym and trying to stay fit,” he said. Back in Brazil, he’d become more afraid than ever of walking the streets under an openly homophobic new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has said that he would rather see his son die in a car accident than be gay and that he doesn’t want Brazil become a gay tourist paradise. “I feel safe here in New York,” R. said. “My friends in Brazil call me and say they’re afraid because now the homophobes are out in force. Bolsonaro has basically said to them that if they want to kill gay people, he doesn’t mind.”
Some in the group had fled their home countries without telling their families and didn’t want to reveal their identities for fear of their families discovering them. O., who lives in the Bronx and works as a beautician in Brooklyn, had fled Guyana to Barbados before coming to New York. “My family hates me,” he said. “I only talk with a gay cousin in Canada.” But he said he was beginning to loosen up in New York. “I’m opening myself up, falling in love with me for the first time. On the subway, I can cross my legs and wear tight jeans” without fear of harassment. He also said he was meeting transgender and gender nonbinary people for the first time in his life. “I’m learning all about using the right pronouns,” he said.
What was the hardest thing about their new home? “Learning English,” said R., from Brazil, whose English was better than he apparently thought it was. The legal process of seeking asylum was also long, tedious and sometimes complicated, many said. Also hard was scratching out a living and building an entirely new life in an expensive city, especially for those who had come from middle-class or professional backgrounds, such as Patrick, the doctor.
But everyone said that the freedom was worth it. “In Nigeria, if people know you’re gay, then it’s dangerous for you,” said Patrick. “It’s very religious, both Christian and Muslim. I had a few gay friends there, but everyone was on their guard. Here, you can go to a gay bar and relax.” He said that the Stonewall 50 Pride festivities in New York City last summer had been amazing, and he’d enjoyed watching them from the perch of the Hangar Bar on Christopher Street in the heart of Greenwich Village.
What would they say to Trump supporters and others who felt they didn’t have a right to be here? “Everyone deserves a fair chance,” said O. “This country was built by immigrants and is made up of immigrants.”
Then, as Lugg passed out free Metrocards so everyone could get home without having to dip into precious funds, O. added: “America is the place where we can be ourselves.”