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:
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.