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Op-ed: Seeking Asylum, Finding Strength

Op-ed: Seeking Asylum, Finding Strength

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One queer person shares his journey from being outed at school in South Africa to seeking asylum in New York City.

The Reciprocity Foundation works with homeless LGBT youth to continue their education, find work, and build their own lives, using a holistic model. Here is the story of one of the organization's clients, Lareto Mokube.

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I'm originally from South Africa. I lived in the townships. It was not easy. I made it to college and studied literature and film. I was also a poet and was selected to be an African delegate for the 17th Annual International Youth Poetry Slam called the Brave New Voices competition in Philadelphia in July of this year. I had qualified to go in 2012 but we couldn't raise the funds to make it to the U.S. This time we did and I was happy to go.

After serving as the creative director for the African team for Brave New Voices, I headed to New York City for an interview at the Juilliard School for the undergraduate theater program.

After the interview, I moved in with a roommate but it didn't work out, and I was left without a place to stay. I also had to deal with my legal case. I am seeking asylum based on domestic violence and gender identity-based discrimination. It's why I stayed in the U.S. and in New York City, but I still needed a place to stay that was safe. I was directed to Covenant House for housing, where I heard about the Reciprocity Foundation and asked to come on one of its weekend retreats.

I need some time to figure out my asylum status, to continue my education, and to do some work on my next steps in life. Being at Covenant House and with the Reciprocity Foundation has given me a chance to work on those things so that I can prepare myself for a better future.

Moving Forward
If there is one person who models what I want to do with my life right now, it would be Adam Shankman. He directs, produces, performs, choreographs, and teaches, moving (seemingly) effortlessly from one art form to another. I love writing, film, poetry, public speaking, and so much more. Adam Shankman has shown me that one person can embrace everything they're passionate about. I aspire to be a creative leader in many different arenas rather than being limited to just one.

I mentored many youth in my hometown as part of my poetry group. But here, now, I am moved to help youth from the LGBT community who struggle with their sexual and gender identities. This is incredibly important to me because of my background.

Reciprocityproject2x400_0My Sexual Orientation
My sexual identity is queer, and my gender identity is androgynous. I prefer male pronouns, which I'm just trying out. It's taken some time to home in on all of these aspects of myself and to really understand them. I found that female pronouns were like a jacket that just doesn't fit -- you know, it's a little too small or a little too big. The first time a pronoun felt like it fit was when my mentor called me "son." It felt great to be identified in that way.

I have always known I was different. I learned in pre-K that you were supposed to love everyone. I took it seriously! From birth to my pre-teens I had the assumption that I should love everyone, and I did. Sexually speaking, I didn't really mind acting as a heterosexual for much of this time. But then, from age 12 to 16, I shamed myself for having different feelings from my heterosexual classmates. I didn't treat myself as I should have. I didn't say, It's OK to be different. There weren't any people in my South African community who validated my feelings. There weren't any mentors who could help me figure out how to be in the world as a queer female.

I was outed as queer at school in South Africa in 10th grade and was ostracized for months. I was dating one of the girls at my all-girls school and we used to dance together. When we were outed, she stopped talking me to me to avoid gathering attention. People starting asking me questions. I remember one young woman cornered me in the cafeteria and asked, "Do you like me like that?" Now everyone in the school wanted to know if I liked all girls because I was queer.

I told my mom and was really worried. I thought she would kick me out. I had accepted that I would probably have to leave the house. But she surprised me. She was more accepting of me than I was of myself at that time.

I don't believe that I'm really out today. I still feel like I'm in the closet. Some people don't know about my gender identity and I wish that I could correct them. But in my social networks, some people just wouldn't understand. Online, I can't say who I'm in a relationship with because I feel that I don't want to disappoint the people who think that I'm heterosexual.

Going on Retreat With the Reciprocity Foundation
Meeting the Reciprocity Foundation has meant a lot for my personal and emotional growth. I tend to think that I'm pretty mature. What I realized on retreat is that I have a habit of pushing people away. I do this with people who love me and want to support me. I need to learn how to welcome people into my life and to let them in. That is the only way forward. That is part of the reason why I'm feeling stuck right now -- I've been trying to do it all alone.

On this retreat, I finally got to exhale. Instability makes you tense. I have had a lot of instability in my life lately. My emotions were completely pushed down, and on the retreat I realized I had stopped breathing (deeply). The retreat also gave me the opportunity to start forgiving myself for all the things that I have done badly -- and believe me, I have a lot of regrets. Finally, on the retreat I learned to see vulnerability not as a weakness but as a strength. This was a big step for me. I'm learning how to share who I am, as a whole person, rather than just rationing pieces of myself out that I think others want to see.
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What My African Ancestors Say
I was also given a vision for my life from my African ancestors to walk the path of a shaman. I embrace their vision with everything that I am. It has given me so much strength. I don't think I would have survived without the force of my ancestors behind me, that support system, that is not visible to others but for me is tangible and present. I am so proud of what my ancestors have done in the past and what they are still doing now even though they have passed. I definitely want to rehabilitate and heal people, to help them find their true place in the world. I will be ready in a few years. I want to graduate from college first. I need more time to really realize the vision that they see for me.

My clan is Xhosa. And for my people, it is a long journey to fulfill your ancestors' vision for you. I can trace my ancestors' names all the way back. That is part of what we learn. We can remember all the names of those who came before us and we feel part of a long line of people who impacted others.

I recently signed up to receive a healing treatment. During the massage, there was a moment when I saw my ancestors. Sometimes I see them in traditional dress or playing the drums. They wear different outfits on different occasions to signal what I need to understand and to offer me guidance. On this retreat, my ancestors appeared in a different way, a new way. My great-great-grandmother appeared during the massage and said, "Breathe, relax, it's OK." She reassured me. I think she way saying that what I was learning on retreat was good and that this new way of being -- of striving to be open, whole, and deeply connected to others -- is what I need more in my life right now.

LARETO MOKUBE is 19 years old, originally from South Africa, and homeless. He lives at Covenant House in New York City and identifies as queer.

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