Stop Neglecting the True State of LGBT Refugees




Crowd gathers to watch as ISIS throws man from roof after accused of being gay.

LGBT people face mortal danger from ISIS and around the world, yet few ever obtain refuge in the U.S.

In December 2011, President Obama published a trailblazing memorandum vowing to apply U.S. power to create safety for LGBT people oppressed and endangered around the world. Among the key means: securing LGBT refugees’ access to the U.S. refugee system. This venerable goal is eluding us.

As the president delivers his final State of the Union address tonight, the perils facing LGBT people in many countries around the world have never been so dire.

Never have so many LGBT people been so viciously targeted by state and nonstate actors in so many countries. Never before have leaders outside the U.S. used LGBT issues for political gain with such ease. And far from gaining access to refugee systems, the few LGBT people who escape carnage in their countries are unable to access the fortress of international refugee protection or the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Several months ago, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power shocked the world when she revealed that of the 70,000 refugees the U.S. took in during 2014, fewer than 100 were LGBT. The numbers for 2015 will not be better.

Without a solution, LGBT people will continue to be executed in places like Syria, where the bloodthirsty Islamic State terrorist group and the masses alike execute accused gays in the name of piety.

With so much goodwill and commitment on the president’s part, something is terribly wrong. Without a firm understanding of how and why LGBT refugees access — and are locked out of — refugee systems, the State Department, which runs our country’s refugee program, has been faltering at efforts to improve the dismal picture, using methods that have been tried and have failed.

But there is a way. The U.S. certainly can admit vastly more LGBT refugees.

LGBT refugees face insurmountable barriers accessing protection, as self-disclosure puts them in mortal danger. We’ve all heard the countless horrifying stories of innocent people being thrown from buildings simply because they are accused of being gay. Yet receiving protection requires revealing their identity.

To begin creating access routes, the State Department must work much more closely with LGBT organizations already in the field. To create a sliver of trust and safety in such treacherous territory, refugee professionals must not only have extraordinary expertise and sensitivity, they must also embody the message they utter.

The humanitarian community understands that a female survivor of rape should not be expected to tell her true story to anyone but another woman. Yet LGBT refugees are expected to blithely allow ostensibly heterosexual adjudicators into the most difficult vaults of their personal lives.

A rainbow flag and a concerned look are a good start. But for an LGBT refugee escaping certain death after being hounded by decades of external and internal homophobia, these gestures are not nearly enough. To collect the courage to come out — even in order to save their own lives — most refugees need to derive strength and solace from other LGBT people. Yet in most places, this essential touchstone is nowhere to be seen.

In a recent informal survey of Gaziantep, Turkey, the ground zero refugee city housing 220,000 Syrians, I found not a single “out” LGBT refugee. Not surprisingly, of the thousands of nongovernmental organization workers in that border city, not one refugee worker is “out.” If well-protected refugee agency staff will not dare come out of their comfort zone to colleagues, how can we possibly expect a powerless LGBT refugee to expose this most private and lethal vulnerability to a stranger?

Many refugees have paid with their lives to safeguard their secret sexual orientation or gender identity. We cannot bring them back. But we can spare those now clamoring for dear life in hundreds of places like Gaziantep.

The president’s bold call for increasing the Syrian refugee quota by 10,000 slots is commendable. Employing and protecting openly LGBT staff and partnering closely with openly LGBT groups is the key to creating system access for LGBT refugees. We ask that the Obama administration take these essential steps to fulfill the wise objectives originally set out by the president in 2011.


NEIL GRUNGRAS is the founder and executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, an international nonprofit devoted to advocating on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers, including those fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Russia's LGBT youth left isolated, victimised by "gay propaganda" law

By Kieran Guilbert



LONDON, Sept 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Russian drag artist Yulianna Prosvirnina was revelling in the success of the buzzing gay and lesbian party she had organised in Moscow when a hooded mob burst into the venue.

“They stopped the party and shouted ‘Who wants to be first?'”, the 26-year-old lesbian performer said.

“Then tables started flying, glasses were breaking everywhere and girls were kicked in the stomach. Many people hid and most were so scared, too scared to stand together and defend one another,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Prosvirnina threw the ill-fated party, which saw the club trashed and four people hospitalised, just months after a law banning homosexual propaganda was passed in June 2013.

Activists say it has fuelled anti-gay abuse, discrimination and violence, spawned a “chilling effect”, and victimised young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and deterred them from coming out and seeking support.

The Russian legislation banned the spreading of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and introduced fines for individuals and organisations that breach the law, which critics describe as arbitrary and hard to implement.

The law is seen by many as one in a series of moves by President Vladimir Putin to crack down on dissent, smother civil society, and draw closer to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has spoken out against homosexuality and is one of the most influential institutions in the country.

Punishable by jail in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 yet much of the LGBT community remains underground and prejudice runs deep.

The law has only been enforced in a handful of cases, and Elena Klimova, the founder of one of Russia’s only online communities for LGBT youths, Deti-404, where users share stories of attacks and humiliation, was the latest person to be convicted in July and was fined 50,000 roubles (£540).

“We (LGBT people) are treated as subhuman, with no civil or human rights, we are social non-entities, and we are even considered diseased and dangerous to society,” said Prosvirnina, a self-titled drag king who goes by the stage name Iven Batler.


Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the gay propaganda law was part of a wider crackdown on civil society and anybody who challenged traditional Russian values.

Since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, Russia has adopted laws tightening controls on non-governmental organisations funded from abroad and barring those deemed to pose a threat to its constitutional order, defense or security.

“Activists see the propaganda law as part of a broader crackdown to create a chilling effect and clamp down on those who speak out and have opposing opinions,” Cooper said.

“But LGBT people see the law as an assault on their identity and community, driven by violence and state-sponsored homophobia flowing from television screens, radio stations, newspapers and even celebrities,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A vigilante group “Occupy Paedophilia” has gained infamy for using Russian social media to connect with gay men and lure them into traps, attacking and humiliating them on camera then posting the videos online, where they are shared and “liked”.

In July, a video of two men being harassed, abused and threatened for walking hand-in-hand in Moscow went viral.

Another radical Orthodox group, “God’s Will”, seeks to identify pro-LGBT professionals, expose them and campaign for their dismissal.

Cooper fears the law has not only fuelled but also legitimised anti-LGBT sentiment and violence among the public.

She said victims who muster the courage to report such incidents to the police, and reveal their sexuality, are routinely dismissed and even mocked by the authorities who refuse to take violence against the LGBT community seriously.

“Before the gay propaganda law, LGBT people would not have been openly attacked in broad daylight … but now they don’t feel safe on the streets or even talking to people online.”

“The government has portrayed the LGBT community as a hazard to children while groups like Occupy Paedophilia conflate homosexuality with paedophilia … what kind of message does this send out to young LGBT people across Russia?” she said.


Activists fear the law has left young LGBT people feeling isolated and neglected in a country with a child and teenage suicide rate three times that of the global average, according to a 2013 report by Russia’s state consumer rights agency.

For LGBT youths living with HIV, the stigma surrounding their sexuality and illness means they face double discrimination and even greater anxiety, said Evgeny Pisemskiy, founder of Phoenix Plus, a Russian NGO for HIV-positive gay men.

He recalled the account of a gay 17-year-old Russian boy whose mother said she should “have got rid of him” before he was born after he was diagnosed with HIV.

“He saw a great counsellor for two months, who helped him and his mother to understand that life was not over … but as a minor today, he would not be able to receive that support under the gay propaganda law,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although the law has led to a spike in violence and stifled much of Russia’s LGBT community, it has also brought together activists, campaigners and rights groups, according to Anastasia Smirnova, policy officer at LGBT network ILGA-Europe.

“There is more solidarity among civil society now than ever before … and LGBT rights are at the forefront of the human rights agenda. Who knows what change this might bring about?” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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DVD Reviews

Drink Me (DVD Review)

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Last year Richard Mansfield brought us the odd but sometimes effective The Secret Path, and now it’s the turn of his husband, Daniel, to direct a gay-themed Brit Flick, Drink Me. Both movies share being on the verge of the supernatural, as well having as a love of somewhat perplexing horror, but while Secret Path was set in the past, this is a more modern affair.

Andy and James are a couple living a pleasant suburban life, which seems to offer everything they’d want. However when Andy is made redundant their financial stability comes under threat and they decide they need to take in a lodger. The arrival of the sexy Sebastian puts increasing pressure on Andy and James’ relationship and major cracks appear, especially as Andy gets increasingly paranoid and suggests that a series of disappearances may have something to do with the man staying in their house.

Sebastian meanwhile is a mysterious figure, flirting with both of his landlords and perhaps hiding a deeper, vampiric secret. [Read more…]

Hidden Away (DVD Review)

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Rafa is a teenage boy on the verge of becoming a man, who’s starting to realise that maybe his friends are jerks (and racists), something that becomes especially acute when they begin to pressure him to get with girls, which he isn’t interested in.

Then he meets Ibra, a young Moroccan immigrant, who he knows his friends wouldn’t approve of but who he feels drawn to. They spark up a friendship which may be leading to something more. However Ibra’s precarious situation begins to take precedence when it becomes clear the Spanish authorities want to deport him, despite the fact he’s underage and has nobody to go back to. [Read more…]

Silent Youth (DVD Review)

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Marlo (Martin Bruchmann) is a young man wandering around Berlin when his hand brushes against another guys’ as he crosses the street. Marlo decides to follow the man – even though he doesn’t seem to be sure why – who eventually approaches him and introduces himself a Kirill (Josef Mattes).

The film then follows their next few days together, where both men seem to want to fully connect but aren’t sure how. As they hang out Kirill reveals stories of how he was beaten up while visiting his grandmother in Russia, as well as the issues he has with his family, while Marlo attempts to understand and connect to this man he has an undeniable attraction to, even if neither have acted on it with a guy before. [Read more…]

John Boyne writes about his life and abuse

John Boyne: ‘The Catholic priesthood blighted my youth and the youth of people like me’

John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, grew up gay in Dublin. Now, after years of silence he is finally ready to write about sexual abuse within the church – and to talk about the effect it has had on his life

Republished from Irish Times Fri, Nov 7, 2014, 15:25

I’ve spent the past two years recalling experiences from my childhood and teenage years that I would rather forget, reliving events that should never have taken place and recreating through fiction moments that seemed small at the time but that I’ve come to realise caused me great damage. Which makes me think that the real reason I never wrote about Ireland until now is explained in the opening sentence of my novel:

“I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into the middle years of my life.”

When I was growing up in Dublin in the ’70s and ’80s, the parish priest lived in the house to my left while eight nuns lived in the house to my right. I was an altar boy, went to a Catholic school and was brought to Mass every Sunday. I knew there were Protestants in Dublin, and Methodists and Jews and Mormons, but I never laid eyes on any of them, and probably would have run a mile if I had. They were going to hell, after all, or so the priests told us. And as long as we learned our catechism by heart and lived good Catholic lives, we were not.


The importance of church life in my parish during this era cannot be overstated. For a family not to attend Mass would have been to invite immediate exclusion from social circles. To have a priest to dinner was the dream and, if it happened, preparations would take place for weeks in advance. They say the queen thinks the world smells like fresh paint. Well the priests did too. The whole house needed a makeover before he came for his tea. And yet, for all the sycophantic behaviour that went on, it was rare to find true believers. Everyone knew which priests offered the shortest Masses and the briefest sermons, and no one ever told the truth at confession. I remember thinking that if I said what was really going on in my head, I would probably be excommunicated, arrested or both. And so I did what everyone else did: I made stuff up. Ordinary, decent sins.

I was a quiet, shy and well-behaved child and yet somehow, whenever I found myself in trouble, it was with the priests. As an eight-year-old altar boy, I was so terrified by the consequences of having shown up for the wrong Mass that I broke down in tears on the altar and had to be carried off. It sounds funny now but I can still recall the absolute panic at what would happen to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened, before or since.

At 13, I had the misfortune to be taught by a sadistic priest who carried a wooden stick up his sleeve with a metal weight taped to the end of it. He called the stick Excalibur and once beat me so badly that I was off school for two weeks. The pleasure he took as I crumbled before him was obvious.

Another priest conducted “fair trials”, where a boy – often myself – would be brought to the front for some infraction, tried by his classmates, inevitably found guilty and have his pants pulled down in front of everyone for a spanking.


But it wasn’t just the priests. Lay teachers, fully aware of the accepted practices of their religious employers, could also be responsible for unpleasant acts. A teacher stood over my shoulder as I worked and reached his hand down the front of my trousers, keeping it there long enough for him to get his kicks before moving on to the next boy.

These things and more happened all the time and we never uttered a word of protest. We felt they had the right to do what they wanted because they wore a collar. And they wonder now why my generation has so little respect for them.

Once puberty and an independent mind kicked in, I began to feel more hostility towards the church. It’s not easy to be a young, gay teenager and to be told that you’re sick, mentally disordered or in need of electroshock therapy, particularly when you hear it from someone who groped you on your way to class the day before. I doubt any of them understood how, as they preached love and practised hatred, they blighted my youth and the youth of people like me, leading to the most unhealthy and troubling relationships once I became sexually active.


Problems I have suffered in my life with depression – which have been ongoing and multitudinous and chemically alleviated – I put down to the fact that my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn. Which is ironic, considering that in all other facets of my life I had an extremely happy childhood.

Throughout my youth, as Pope John Paul II travelled the world in luxury, playing on his popularity to reinforce concepts that were not only outdated but also destructive and harmful, he basked in the applause of young people while making sure to cover up every single crime that was committed against them. And still, in behaviour that beggars belief, tens of thousands of people, many of them under 30, poured into St Peter’s Square earlier this year to celebrate his sanctification. Where is their compassion? Where is their humanity? And the more scandals that came to light over the years, the more I grew convinced that there was not a single good man to be found among their number and the sooner they disappeared from our lives, the better it would be for all.

When I started publishing novels 15 years ago, I knew that I couldn’t write about this until I was experienced enough to do so. And then one day a relation told me that he had seen a young priest lying prostrate before the grotto of Inchicore church, weeping hysterically, while a woman – apparently his mother – sat nearby in equal distress. Why he was there, I do not know, but I found myself greatly affected by the image. Was he a criminal, I asked myself? Probably. But how had he suffered when he was young? What had brought him to this place of personal devastation? And to my astonishment, I began to feel something that I had never expected to feel towards a priest: empathy.

A novelist looks for the stories that haven’t been told. It would be very easy to write a novel with a monster at the centre of it, an unremitting paedophile who preys on the vulnerable without remorse. The challenge for me was to write a novel about the other priest, the genuine priest, the one who has given his life over to good works and finds himself betrayed by the institution to which he has given everything. In doing so, I was trying to uncover goodness where I had spent a lifetime finding evil.

I interviewed many priests who will not venture out while wearing their habits in case they are spat at; others who are terrified of finding themselves alone with a child in case they are wrongfully accused. Their pain, and their compassion for the victims of abuse, moved me and forced me to confront my own prejudices.

In writing this novel I hoped that those who blindly defend the church against all critics might recognise the crimes that the institution has committed, while those who condemn it ceaselessly might accept that there are many decent people who have lived good lives within it. It’s a story that Irish writers have for the most part ignored but it’s not written in defence of the church – indeed, by the end of it, the reader has to consider the narrator’s complicity in the events that were taking place before him – but nor is it an outright attack. It is simply a novel that asks people to examine the subject from a broader perspective and to reconsider the lives of all those who have suffered, both within and without one of the fundamental pillars of Irish society.