We're Queer, We're Here

Lesbian and Gay Immigrants are Changing New York

Joe Kelly found that out when, tired of working off the books, he decided to regularize his status in 1992. He entered the green card lottery and won, but was required to return to Ireland to have a physical, file papers, and await the new document. "The doctor in Ireland told me I had tested positive and said I should go back to the States right away," he recalls. But at the airport in Ireland, the INS questioned Kelly's purchase of a round-trip ticket from New York, and accused him of planning to stay illegally in the U.S. He spent the night in Shannon airport, "shaking with fear," and the next day the INS relented. Back in New York, Kelly decided "I can't live illegally for the rest of my life," and decided to risk deportation by applying for asylum on the grounds of his HIV status. With the help of the Community Health Project and Gay Men's Health Crisis, he won it in 1996.

Since 1994, asylum has also been available to immigrants who can demonstrate that they face state-sanctioned persecution because of their sexual orientation. There are no statistics on how many such claims have been won, but Jen Higgins of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force in New York says the group gets some 40 calls a week inquiring about the process.

But even the most compelling cases can be fraught with uncertainty. Ciprian Cucu, who was sentenced to a year in prison back in Romania because of his homosexuality, was granted asylum nearly three years ago, but is still waiting for the green card the INS promised. "Teng," an ethnic Chinese man from Malaysia, where gays are routinely arrested and beaten, presented his case in April and awaits the ruling; the INS's attorney has already told him that she will appeal the decision if it favors him. And then there are the personal tolls the process takes on an applicant.

Performing to cheers in dozens of languages at the Queens Pride festival
photo: Steve Lipuma
Performing to cheers in dozens of languages at the Queens Pride festival

Saeed Rahman found that winning his asylum claim in 1997 meant demonizing his home. In showing how impossible it is for a gay man to live openly in Pakistan, he felt pressured to paint a picture of it as a primitive place, while "buying into a simple discourse of how wonderful America is. But that didn't factor in that I was nonwhite and an immigrant."

It was SALGA, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, that helped Rahman negotiate these complicated feelings. Soon to celebrate its 10th anniversary, SALGA is one of the oldest of the queer immigrant groups; having long established the social networks new organizations are still struggling to forge, SALGA has also developed a sophisticated critique of mainstream gay culture— whether creating space for what Javid Syed calls a "male queerness that isn't defined by big pecs" or pushing for political actions that don't depend on civil disobedience, which noncitizens cannot participate in for fear of being branded "criminal aliens" and deported.

Similarly, when gay groups called a year and a half ago for a boycott of Caribbean countries that wouldn't allow cruise ships bearing vacationing queers to dock on their shores, Caribbean Pride intervened, thinking of both the tourist economy on which many of their families depend and of how to support organizing within those countries. As immigrant groups continue to hold mainstream gay organizations accountable— and as they begin to organize jointly, largely through the Audre Lorde Project and the Queens Pride House— they stand to change queer politics in New York as surely as immigrants have changed city politics in general. Already, by coming out in ever larger numbers, queer immigrants are offering new ways for folks in situations like Joe Kelly's a decade ago to imagine themselves. The difference nowadays may be the two words that give them hope: Jackson Heights.

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