To the Gay South Korean Soldier, the U.S. Remains a Beacon of Hope

By Alexander Wheeler and Katie Sgarro

South Korea: a country with a booming economy, cutting-edge technology, addictive K-Pop music, and internationally celebrated barbeque. Many people know it for its rapid industrialization, beauty obsession, and proximity to its Northern neighbor. While its human rights failures are often beat by close and neighboring countries, it’s important to recognize that LGBTQ Koreans are still forced to live in the margins of mainstream society.

South Korea is a fiercely heteronormative place – where the recently elected president, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, has participated in anti-gay rallies and made anti-gay statements, in line with many of the country’s influential Christian churches and lobbies. The government refuses to take action against the violence and discrimination faced by its LGBTQ citizens – consistently failing to pass anti-discrimination laws that would protect sexual minorities.

The South Korean military has been accused of a “witch hunt” against gay soldiers. According to the 2016 Human Rights Country Report issued by the U.S. Department of State, “LGBTI individuals and organizations continue to face societal discrimination. The Military Criminal Act’s ‘disgraceful conduct’ clause criminalizes consensual sodomy between men in the military with up to two years imprisonment.”

In May of 2017, for the first time, the Korean military enforced this decades-old ban and sentenced a gay soldier to six months in jail for having consensual sex with another male soldier.

In the latest roundup, 18 gay service members were identified and are now facing criminal charges, even though they had sex on leave or off duty. In contrast, when a male and female officer were caught having sex on duty, they were suspended for three months without criminal charges. During this recent crackdown on gay soldiers, mobile phones were seized without warrants in order to identify other gay soldiers through contact lists and dating app profiles. Since all able-bodied men aged 18-35 are required by law to compulsory military service for 21 to 24 months, being gay in South Korea is becoming increasingly dangerous.

As the Korean military continues to target gay soldiers and the government fails to institute anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual minorities, seeking refuge in countries like the United States is becoming a tried-and-true option for gay men afraid of being victimized during compulsory military service. Yet, while right-wing Christian groups in South Korea consider homosexual activity in the military to be a disruption to its readiness to fight North Korea, President Donald Trump recently announced a ban on transgender people serving in the United States military – citing “disruption” that “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.” It is suspected that pressure from the Family Research Council, a powerful Christian conservative group, strongly influenced President Trump’s decision.

Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back social progress and civil rights, the United States remains a “beacon of hope” for many persecuted LGBTQ people worldwide. For LGBTQ Koreans, even in this highly charged sociopolitical context, the U.S. continues to represent safety, freedom, and a rare chance for authenticity. And as a result, persecuted LGBTQ people from around the world will continue to seek asylum in the U.S. It’s imperative that we all – including the Trump administration – remember this.

Organizations, like AsylumConnect, exist in order to ensure that persecuted LGBTQ people are able to find safety and community when they arrive in the U.S. – even in the face of bigoted administrations. Through resource guides and information sharing, we can arm LGBTQ asylum seekers with the information they need to successfully integrate into safer environments. The United States needs to remain a beacon of hope, because for many, there is simply no other option.

Team Member of the Month: Joanna, Creative Director

By Alexander Wheeler, AsylumConnect Blogger

AsylumConnect is fueled by a team of committed volunteers who live all over the world and bring a breadth of skills, experiences, and perspectives to the organization. Seasoned directors and new associates alike innovate through various mediums to serve LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. by providing a user-centric platform. At AsylumConnect, we face growing pains and celebrate advances together, and it’s important for our users and supporters to know who we are. With this in mind, our blog will feature a profile on one of our team members each month to offer a glimpse behind the scenes of our operation.

Joanna, Creative Director at AsylumConnect

Joanna, Creative Director at AsylumConnect

Joanna Tasmin is about to celebrate her “sweet sixteen.” She’s a math nerd, design wonk, and also our Creative Director here at AsylumConnect. As Creative Director, Joanna is able to combine her left-brain design style with a lifelong commitment to asylum seekers. She currently lives in Singapore, where she’s a student at United World College, and grew up in the U.S., where her parents sought asylum from Indonesia in 1998.

Joanna remembers listening to her parents’ late-night, adult-only conversations, exposing her to the complicated and frustrating reality of seeking asylum in the U.S. It’s an issue she inherited and, by now, knows by heart. So, when she first heard about AsylumConnect, she knew she had to join the team and lend a hand to the global community working to serve both asylum seekers and promote LGBTQ rights.

At first, she wondered if she was too young and inexperienced to contribute to a global movement. She saw so much that needed to be done and didn’t know where to start. But, instead of waiting to graduate from high school, or even college, she decided to act now. Joanna answered her calling to help some of the most vulnerable members of society, becoming a key member of a team of digital nomads fighting for basic human rights.

Joanna’s tenure with AsylumConnect is her first of many steps along a lifelong path of advocacy and impact dedicated to promoting LGBTQ rights and advancing immigration policy. She’s fighting the systems faced by her parents two decades ago, and LGBTQ asylum seekers today.

AsylumConnect’s team is still growing, and we are actively looking for our next generation of leaders. If you’re passionate about our mission and committed to service, collaboration, and innovation, check out our open associate and director team positions!

Pride: A Month to Recognize Strides and Setbacks

By Alexander Wheeler, AsylumConnect Blogger

On June 25, 1978, Harvey Milk aired his now-famous words while delivering his “That’s what America is” speech at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade:

Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents…. I know that it is hard and will hurt them…. Come out to your relatives, come out to your friends…. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop…. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.
— Harvey Milk delivering his "That's what America is" speech

According to Milk, it was time for LGBTQ  people to shed light on themselves, screw the light bulbs back in, and open their curtains wide. By calling on  LGBTQ  people to make themselves known to their families, friends, and foes, Milk was advocating for greater visibility of LGBTQ  communities. Almost 40 years ago, Milk rightfully recognized that heightened visibility would prove to be a powerful prerequisite for LGBTQ  liberation and equal rights.

Milk’s plea came nearly a decade after the Stonewall Rebellion of June 28, 1969, which most historians consider to be the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Nearly 50 years later, considerable progress has been made in liberating LGBTQ communities and fighting for equal rights. All over the world, year after year, LGBTQ people and allies come together to celebrate Pride month in June. While Pride is a time to recognize strides and accomplishments within the LGBTQ rights movement, it should also be a time to realize how much work still needs to be done.

At the time of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969, police raids targeting bars catering to LGBTQ customers were common. In contrast, one month ago, police in Dhaka, Bangladesh raided a monthly gathering of gay men at a community center and arrested 27 of them “on suspicion of drug related offenses.” About a year ago, Julhas Mannan, a gay rights activist, was hacked to death in Dhaka after drawing attention to himself for helping to organize a march for gay and transgender youth. LGBTQ  visibility comes at an incredibly high price in some countries, and “coming out” can too often be a matter of life and death. At least 73 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality, and in 10, homosexuality remains punishable by the death penalty.

Arrests and extreme acts of violence, such as those in Bangladesh, stand in stark contrast to Pride events in countries with more visible LGBTQ communities, like the United States. However, despite progress made in the U.S., nondiscrimination laws still only cover approximately 48% of LGBTQ Americans, leaving the majority of LGBTQ people in the U.S. vulnerable to lawful discrimination. According to a 2015 poll, 63% of LGBTQ people reported experiencing discrimination in their personal lives, at work, or in accessing housing and education.

Within the global LGBTQ community, the quest for equal rights remains steep. Harvey Milk’s call for greater LGBTQ visibility almost 40 years ago still rings true to this day.  Access to equal rights shouldn’t be contingent upon LGBTQ communities’ willingness to “straighten” themselves out. But even so, “coming out” in many contexts is costly and dangerous. Fortunately, some persecuted members of the global LGBTQ community are able to seek asylum in countries like the U.S., where they will not face arrest, torture, and death because of their sexual orientation and/or gender expression.

However, seeking asylum in the U.S. is not without its difficulties. According to Human Rights Watch: “The U.S. government stands alone among developed countries in denying asylum seekers both employment authorization and governmental assistance.” AsylumConnect was co-founded in 2014 to help counteract this injustice: to connect LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. with trusted human and social service providers, and to map networks of LGBTQ allies willing and able to help some of the most vulnerable members of society. AsylumConnect aims to bridge this unacceptable gap in human services created (and perpetuated) by foreign and domestic governments.

Without obscuring the diversity of experiences that make up the global LGBTQ community, LGBTQ people and allies in the U.S. must not treat the plight of their LGBTQ counterparts around the world or seeking asylum as separate from their own communities. Pride month is a time to celebrate progress, but it should also be a time to galvanize and unite against persecution faced by our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Together We Can Be Heard: A Video For President Trump

Together We Can Be Heard: A Video For President Trump

Since Donald Trump became the 45th President of the U.S., we have witnessed waves of xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia wash over America. But we refuse to stay silent. In this video, members of the AsylumConnect team share their thoughts on why it is important to value diversity and protect the rights of LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees. 

Many Refugees Don't Have Months

Many Refugees Don't Have Months

As Co-Founder and President of AsylumConnect, I can attest to asylum seekers’ and refugees’ resilience and heroism. They deserve to be in this country. They are an invaluable asset to the U.S. - not a danger.

Trump’s recently signed executive order for “extreme vetting” of refugees flies in the face of everything our nation stands for. It jeopardizes the lives of innocent human beings. This ban is a disaster for our nation, for the global community, and for justice. Many refugees don't have months. 

AsylumConnect Reaction to Trump Presidency

On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, the world watched as Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States. I remember watching the election results with a group of friends with many different identities based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nation of origin, etc. I worried how they as well as myself would feel represented in federal politics beginning next year.

In the sphere of LGBTQ rights, our cause for concern is due to Trump’s decision not to pledge support for the Equality Act — a bill that calls for banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In the past, Trump has also made statements disfavoring the historic Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

At AsylumConnect, our stance on the election of Trump and the future of LGBTQ rights is as follows:

We fully condemn the bigoted rhetoric displayed by U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump. LGBTQ asylum seekers deserve to be in this country. Period. As an organization, we refuse to be defeated by the results of this election. Instead, we plan to channel this shocking result as motivation and proof that there is still so much more work that needs to be done. We believe that it is now more important than ever for us to be vocal about the basic human rights of all people and work even harder to make sure that LGBTQ asylum seekers (along with every LGBTQ-identified person, Muslim-American, person of color, woman, disabled person, immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker) are heard and respected in this country. We will settle for nothing less.
— Katie Sgarro, AsylumConnect Co-Founder & President

We sincerely believe in using this recent presidential election to fuel our cause even further and to make sure that our organization serves as a reliable and high-quality resource for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. We are committed to looking forward to the future and ensuring protection and equality for ALL.

Our response to this election is that the niche we fill is more important than ever. Amongst calls to limit and even ban asylum seekers from entering the United States, we are working to change the existing rhetoric through improving and scaling the AsylumConnect catalog. As the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) stated in their video entitled “Obama & Clinton: Moving Equality Forward”: “All of our progress over the past 8 years is on the line in this election.” In relation to issues of immigration, our cause for concern stems from limitations placed on asylum seekers. For example, Out Magazine released the following statement: “In addition to putting in jeopardy legal unions for bi-national couples, Trump's harsh anti-immigration stance, with unspecified plans to ban all Muslims from entering the country and shut down borders, may prevent at-risk LGBT asylum seekers from finding refuge in the U.S.” Therefore, our work to create a centralized and accessible database for LGBTQ asylum seekers is vital.

To put it simply: we have work to do. We will continue fighting for LGBTQ rights and protection of LGBTQ asylum seekers. Your support is more critical than ever right now. Join AsylumConnect in the campaign to protect LGBTQ asylum seekers and their right to be in this country. Please consider donating to our cause today: http://www.asylumconnect.org/donate/.

We encourage you to also consider joining our passionate team: http://www.asylumconnect.org/join-our-team/.

Thank you for your continued support of AsylumConnect and our cause. We are ready to take on this challenge and to continue our fight.  

The African Union and Progress Towards Equality

Here at AsylumConnect, we are dedicated towards highlighting progress being made both locally and around the world. In this segment, we focus on the African Union and 2016 as the “African Year of Human Rights.”

The African Union was established in 1999 in order to promote further integration of the African Continent and make meaningful strides towards social, economic, and political reform.

This year places special importance on the idea of “coming together.” The issue of LGBTQ+ rights significantly contributes to this theme. As it currently stands, rights protecting individuals that identify as LGBTQ+ are limited. For example, several countries such as Uganda and Nigeria have out-lawed same-sex relationships and imposed anti-gay laws. It is evident that stronger protections and awareness of LGTBQ+ issues are imperative.

The idea of “coming together” is embodied in the message of human rights. Although the African Union recognized the importance of LGBTQ+ rights, concrete actions towards achieving equality are still necessary. I believe one way forward is for the African Union to release a statement on LGBTQ+ issues and identify clear action steps that must be taken. One of the areas that I believe should have more focus is medical treatment for LGBTQ+ individuals. In Africa, stigma and discrimination are rampant. This leads to a wide variety of health problems that often go untreated.

The LGBTQ+ community in Africa is often forced to go into hiding due to severe threats and legal punishment. Mental health often becomes an even greater issue with this type of treatment.

I believe collaboration and unity need to be more heavily emphasized in order for the African Union to be truly successful in its dedication towards human rights. As of now, many countries are in disagreement over LGBTQ+ issues. For instance, Botswana, Kenya, and Zambia pledged to uphold basic freedoms for marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community in Africa. I believe one way to accomplish this is through strengthening unity among legal systems and institutions in the African Union.

I am excited to see this commitment from the African Union as LGBTQ+ stigma is a major barrier. By keeping this conversation at the forefront, I believe the African Union will be able to succeed in uniting the African Continent and upholding basic rights.

We look forward to keeping up with the progress happening in Africa! Many thanks to Olive Musoni, AsylumConnect volunteer translator and African correspondent, for the pictures.

Be sure to look out for future blog posts highlighting members of the AsylumConnect team and their stories. Thank you for your support! 

Signs of Hope Post-Orlando Attacks

My summer internship began with hearing from the Democratic LGBT Caucus on Capitol Hill. I heard from representatives such as John Lewis (D-GA) and Mark Takano (D-CA). In the wake of the Orlando attacks, our country has been faced with reexamining its core values. Issues such as gun control and equality are at the forefront of political debates. The Orlando shooting serves as a painful reminder of the work that still needs to be done in our country especially in regards to LGBTQ+ issues. However, progress has been made. As of July 2016, California became a leading state in textbook reform. Public school students in the state will now directly learn about LGBTQ history and prominent figures within the movement. Additionally, the United Methodist Church just elected its first openly gay bishop in June 2016. These historical changes remind us that progress can be made.

In the Dominican Republic, calls for better treatment of LGBTQ individuals and communities increased after Orlando. In fact, the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic sparked conversation on this topic given his status as an openly gay man and advocate for the LGBTQ community. His accomplishments include developing the country’s first LGBT Chamber of Commerce and helping activists organize LGBT campaigns.

At AsylumConnect, our mission is to connect LGBTQ asylum seekers with fundamental human needs resources upon their arrival in the United States. We will continue striving towards this mission and ensure we are protecting all asylum seekers. We must stand together as a community and continue to fight for fair treatment.

We created a Visibility Video to raise awareness for LGBTQ equality and justice following the Orlando massacre. Check it out below and thank you for your support!