Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people can face discrimination, persecution and violence on a daily basis. In certain countries, same-sex relationships are criminalised – sometimes punishable by death. Many LGBTIQ+ people have no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere. But even in countries of asylum, they can face stigma and abuse.
These four LGBTIQ+ people were forced to flee their homes and are now using their experiences to protect and support other LGBTIQ+ refugees.
Venezuelan mother Yeraldine was in a long and tumultuous marriage to a man before meeting her current partner, Zailet, five years ago. Yeraldine says the decision to come out was an easy one, despite the challenges LGBTQI+ people face in Latin America.
“I practically jumped out of the closet,” she says. “It didn’t matter what anyone said. Once my children accepted me, that was more than enough.”
While Yeraldine and Zailet had the children’s full support, they faced serious ramifications in the community, including being laid off – they worked as salespeople at the same store – as well as sexual harassment from a landlord that forced them to give up the apartment they shared.
“We didn’t have food. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have a place to live,” Yeraldine says.
No longer able to afford the medications she needed to treat a chronic medical condition, Yeraldine fled with Zailet and sought safety in Ecuador. She left her two teenage children behind with relatives, sparing them the difficult journey.
The couple has now settled in Quito and, while they have found some stability, they have continued to endure discrimination. Yeraldine said she and Zailet had to pretend to be cousins in order to sign a lease on an apartment.
“The LGBTQI+ community often has a difficult time finding spaces where they can feel safe throughout the cycle of displacement,” says Giovanni Bassu, Representative for UNHCR in Ecuador.
“They face greater barriers in accessing basic rights and services, such as education, healthcare, housing or employment.”
Through Redes Comunitarias, a UNHCR project giving refugees and migrants the tools they need to become community leaders, Yeraldine has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson for the LGBTQI+ cause.
She has helped produce podcasts, videos and events aimed not only at teaching displaced LBGTQI+ people about their rights but also making their host country a more accepting place for all refugees and migrants, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Amani fled Libya after her family found out she was gay and threatened to close down her business. Amani sought safety in Italy, where she spent almost a year living in a centre for refugees and migrants, along with 60 other women.
“I was sad and crying in my room,” she recalls. “I wanted my privacy, but I was sharing with three girls. You had to be careful who you spoke to. I felt like I was alone and hiding my identity because I was afraid people would attack me. But, after a few months, I started to speak with my case worker and open up about why I was there.”
In an effort to build connections, Amani began cooking for her fellow refugees and eventually started a catering service.
“It was just a small project,” she says. “Now it’s huge – we cook at many centres. I like it because you can speak with the people, you can exchange knowledge and cuisine and music. It’s an exchange of cultures.”
She hopes her latest venture – a group offering support and advice to female gay asylum-seekers in Italy – will make life easier for those who flee hardship at home.
“It’s like my mission,” says Amani. “Because I couldn’t find anyone to help me when I arrived here. Maybe now we can do something.”
Miral and Nouran were forced to flee their home in Egypt after they announced their engagement.
Although close friends were supportive, they began receiving death threats once the news spread. When Miral’s father discovered the news, he threatened to kill her. Nouran fled when her family attempted to send her to a mental hospital.
Now safe in Canada, the couple has participated in the “Am I Wrong to Love?” exhibition, which highlights the stories of LGBTIQ+ refugees. Nouran says she wants to share her story so that she can challenge the fear and stigma around LGBTIQ+ refugees.
“I want to tell the world that I’m not ashamed of being a refugee. This is my story. This is my life.”
UNHCR works to protect LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. But challenges persist and many people remain at risk. We need your help.