We're Queer, We're Here

Lesbian and Gay Immigrants are Changing New York

There weren't any gay organizations in Dublin when Joe Kelly began to suspect that he was gay. There weren't even any bars. And there wasn't anyone to talk to, either. He tried speaking to his parish priest, who turned a sobbing Kelly away. "It was a rough couple of years," he says of that time in the mid '80s when "I realized I couldn't deny my feelings." yet there were two words that gave Kelly some hope: Greenwich Village. "I don't know how I had heard of it," he says in a lingering Irish lilt. "But I knew it was a place where gay life happened."

In 1987, at age 24, Kelly decided to come to New York to make his gay life happen. It's a common queer narrative: From India or Idaho, Arab emirates or American exurbs, gay men and lesbians flock to homo havens like New York for safety— and community. Refugees from the 'burbs may experience the same giddy amazement that Kelly felt as he roamed the streets of the Village, peering into bar windows trying to figure out which were gay. And like him, they may well remember the exhilaration of being cruised for the first time. "A guy passing me on Seventh Avenue gave me a look," Kelly recalls, "and I thought to myself, 'This must be it!' "

But those who come from abroad trace another trajectory, too, one involving the vagaries of visas and the pangs of lost patria. Some exit the gay closet of their homelands only to enter a new underground, since they must work and even live beneath the radar of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some, like "Pedro," who was a lawyer in Bogotá but now hands out towels in a Manhattan men's club, buy their sexual freedom with downward mobility. Others, like Javid Syed, who came here 10 years ago to attend college and was "never not out" in his native Bombay, stay for reasons that have more to do with economic access than sexual expression. And still others, like Jamaican-born Mary Stewart, who move to the U.S. as children and come of age here, often find that coming out means being regarded as "cultural traitors" in the neighborhoods where they grew up.

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

No one has any idea how many gay immigrants there are in New York, but no doubt they parallel immigrants in general, so it's plausible to assume that a third of queer New York is foreign born and that a large majority is male. For seven years now, many of them have been most visible in the annual Queens Pride parade, marching through the country's most diverse county to cheers in dozens of languages. "People watching started screaming 'Viva Colombia!' when they saw our group go by," says Daniel Castellanos, a founder of the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association (Colega) and one of the grand marshals at this year's parade, which drew 40,000 revelers on June 6. "Seeing the flag was more important to them than their homophobia."

Colega is one of a spate of gay groups formed within the last several years— some just within the last few months— around members' national identities. Others bring together Ecuadorians, Koreans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Arabs, Filipinas, Caribbeans. They support each other through the same sorts of informal networks that immigrant groups have always built, whether throwing their own Caribbean fetes or gathering together to watch Hindi movies, or, nowadays, by keeping an e-mail list, a primary tool of Kilawin Kolektibo, the Filipina group. Using the Web, this group organized a camping trip to the Finger Lakes last summer, which drew 50 women, many with woks in tow.

The formation of such groups was an inevitable response to the draconian 1996 changes in immigration law. Meanwhile, those communities were expanding as home countries were ravaged by globalization and economic restructuring. Gay Mexicans, for example, tend to come north for the same reasons as Mexicans in general, says a founder of the year-old Colectivo Mexicano de Gays y Lesbianas Viviendo en Nueva York, who asked not to be identified (though those from small villages are also impelled by the impossibility of gay life there). But once in New York, they often stay closeted as they rely on Mexican connections for leads on housing and jobs. Colectivo members typically work 12-hour shifts in kitchens that leave them little time to study English, much less learn the cultural codes of a new gay scene.

Indeed, notes Castellanos, taking the E train from Jackson Heights to Chelsea can be as big a psychic journey as crossing the ocean. Though a scene of its own has blossomed in Queens, most men from the nabe hang out on both sides of the bridge. Women, whose bar culture is far less developed, tend to find each other in more underground settings. Mary Stewart recalls the first time she was invited to a lesbian house party in Bushwick in 1992: "I was astonished. Like, where did you all come from?"

Saeed Rahman remembers being "mystified by how the bar scene worked" when he arrived from Pakistan in 1991. "And dating," he says, "is still a mystery to me." Back home, "you become friends with someone and move on from there. Here you experience sexual tension as a prelude to getting into bed together." Leaping into the bars can also have devastating effects for those not familiar with HIV prevention, and much organizing among gay immigrants began when HIV educators started to develop culturally specific safer-sex materials for communities that feared the INS as much as the virus itself. While the INS won't act against people with HIV who are already here legally, the U.S. refuses entry to those who are positive, and denies permanent residency to them.

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.

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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