Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, an award-winning documentary telling the stories of LGBTQ+ refugees in the U.S., will be available to stream on the World Channel, a PBS affiliate, this week and next.
The film from Tom Shepard focuses on four people. Subhi, a gay Syrian refugee, survived multiple death threats from Islamic terrorists and beatings his by father. He became an activist for refugee rights in the U.S. and the first out gay man invited to testify before the United Nations Security Council. Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola, sought asylum through the American immigration courts after having faced brutal harassment from family and neighbors. They are aspiring musicians. Junior, a gender-nonconforming gay man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is shown struggling to find a livelihood and housing while exploring a more fluid gender identity.
“In 2014, when I started this film, I could not have told you the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker or how a refugee is resettled,” Shepard tells The Advocate. “While marriage equality in this country was steamrolling toward the Supreme Court, it was still illegal in 70 countries to be gay or trans. Seven of those countries employ the death penalty to this day. I could see real complacency setting in among queer communities in the West.
“Most Americans don’t know this story, let alone the unique needs and experiences of queer refugees. The refugee resettlement model in the U.S. has always been predicated on families: A family flees a war-torn region of the world and is resettled in an American locale connected to members of its diaspora. An Iraqi family resettling in the Bay Area might be introduced to local mosques, grocery stores, or community centers of other Iraqis and Iraqi Americans. It’s not easy by any means, but there are footholds into the culture. LGBT refugees, on the other hand, are not fleeing with families; they’re fleeing from families So, a gay or trans Iraqi arriving in San Francisco might prefer to see anybody but other Iraqis. This conundrum leaves LGBT refugees isolated and at much higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and what is called ‘internal displacement.’ One of the questions, then, that we asked in the film is who is stepping forward to help these folks?
“In the ’90s, when I graduated from college, as a gay man, I fled my hometown of Colorado Springs, one of the most conservative Christian right strongholds in the country. But I was able to move to San Francisco, find my tribe as a queer man and as a filmmaker, and afford to live in the city. Is this possible, still, for LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers? How can you afford to pay rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a refugee benefit of $350/month? One big question our film raises, then, is whether immigrant and queer-friendly cities like San Francisco will continue to be sanctuary cities, and if not, where will queer immigrants go?”
Unsettled premiered in April 2019 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It won the Grand Jury Away at Los Angeles’s Outfest last year, and it screened at 55 festivals worldwide and won 14 other top awards.
Shepard has produced and directed several other documentaries, including Scout’s Honor, Knocking, Whiz Kids, and The Grove, all of which aired nationally on PBS. In 2001 he won two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival for Scout’s Honor, about efforts to end the Boy Scouts of America’s bans on openly gay scouts and leaders (the bans have now been lifted).