Until recently, gay people in Egypt faced limited options: never share their secret with anyone, or speak out and face the prospect of government persecution and social ostracism under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Now, in the wake of a youth-driven revolution that removed the autocrat from power, many gay Egyptians have reason to feel more hopeful.
“They absolutely should feel optimistic,” says Ahmed (a pseudonym; he declines to give his real name), a young gay Egyptian who fled the country. “[The revolution] really destroys so many myths, so many assumptions about Egypt and the Middle East generally.”
Unwilling to live in secrecy and fear, Ahmed obtained a student visa to the United States, where last year he applied for and won asylum with help from Immigration Equality and its network of law firms willing to do pro bono work. Only a small number of gay Egyptians left under the Mubarak regime, widely recognized as one of the world’s harshest for LGBT people in reports by the media and by human rights organizations.
“There are few Arabs who can actually make it to the United States,” Ahmed says. “It’s much more difficult for us to get visas than people in Europe, for example. There is that security obsession when it’s somebody from the Middle East.”
New statistics from Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that works with binational gay couples and LGBT asylum seekers, support Ahmed’s observations. A regional breakdown shows that of its record 101 successful asylum cases in 2010, only five involved people from the Middle East. Nine asylum seekers hailed from Africa, which is under increasing scrutiny because of the murder of prominent Ugandan gay activist David Kato and a bill proposed in that country’s parliament that would impose the death penalty on gay people.
By comparison, a total of 62 successful asylum seekers came from the Caribbean and Central and South America, with Jamaica leading all countries with 28, followed by seven from Russia. In addition to the 101 resolved asylum bids, 97 cases from last year are still pending, with a large percentage of those from Jamaica as well. Advocates say proximity to the United States and a strong, if less widely acknowledged, antigay climate prompt the exodus. Jamaica’s sodomy law imposes a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
“LGBT people report to us that Jamaica is an incredibly dangerous place to be openly gay or to be assumed to be lesbian or gay,” says Steve Ralls, communications director for Immigration Equality. “It’s true that most of the asylum seekers we hear from are literally running for their lives from Jamaica. It has become an incredibly dangerous place for LGBT people.”
Ralls echoes Ahmed’s concern about Middle Easterners’ access to the United States.
“The first step in pursuing an asylum claim is reaching the U.S. border. That’s a significant hurdle for LGBT people from the Middle East after September 11,” he says. “The one group least likely to receive a visa for travel to the U.S. is young single men from the Middle East.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, the hurdles tend to be economic.
“In most countries on the African continent, a single LGBT person would really have to struggle to find the financial resources to make it to the U.S.,” Ralls says. “In some cases, there are visa limitations.”