A panel discussion on forced migration due to oppression based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) was organized on February 13, 2018 at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. This program was organized to bring awareness amongst the general public concerning LGBTQ refugee issues, especially those asylum seekers in the United States, to promote solidarity and support for their well-being.
The main purpose for Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU – UNO) to organize this event, in collaboration with the Peace and Justice Task Force of All Souls Church, was to expand awareness of both what is at stake in LGBTQ rights, and the role that we all must play to leave no one behind i.e. to raise a relentless voice for LGBTQ asylum seekers because they always face hardships in detention centers. The UU – UNO believes that organizing this kind of panel discussion will help to create more awareness on this LGBTQ refugee crisis in the country and also help to draw more public attention.
The program introduced the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have been forced to flee their respective countries due to oppression based on their real or perceived sexual orientation/gender identity. This program featured two brave young LGBTQ asylees in the United States who have succeeded in fleeing oppression.
Both of them shared why they had to leave lands and cultures they lived in, in fear for their lives, only to come to the United States to face racist and torturous immigration detention and harsh obstacles to building new and safer lives in America. Debrown Iddrisu was a soccer player in Ghana and she was only 19 years old when she was thrown out from the team for being a lesbian and then later from the country. Therefore, she came to the United States via an extremely difficult journey from Ghana, to Venezuela, and from there overland to California to seek asylum. Upon arrival in California immigration, she was put in a detention center for seven months. She is now 21 years old and lives in a shelter home in New York City after the intervention by UU members who helped her leave detention and come to NYC. The other speaker was Edafe Okporo, a gay man from Nigeria. He is also an asylee in the country and currently a Columbia University fellow working on “Beyond the Bars.” In addition, Edafe was also nominated as a youth representative to the UN-DPI/NGO Executive Committee (United Nations Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organizations).
The two representatives from Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) who were on the panel extended their hands of support to LGBTQ asylum seekers for their well-being in the country. Their main task is to assist LGBTQ individuals coming out of immigration detention to secure their health/wellness, education, legal and emotional support, and services. QDEP is committed to assisting LGBTQ individuals in building lives outside of detention, to breaking down the barriers that prevent them from building fulfilling and productive lives, and to keep queer families intact by demanding an end to deportations, detention, and policing. QDEP is a partner organization of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC).
Among the participants was Marc Sophos, Executive Director of the New York community radio WDFH 90.3 FM, who covered the event for his radio program OutCasting. WDFH 90.3 FM is the only public radio station in the lower Hudson River Valley and OutCasting is their particular program which gives voice to LGBTQ youth issues.
The program was attended by academics, UU church members, as well as social activists who are currently involved in LGBTQ movements. Bruce Knotts, Director of the UU-UNO, opened the microphone to the audience for Q&A session. The audience promised that they will extend their support in their best possible ways for the well-being of LGBTQ asylum seekers, especially those who are in detention centers. This program provided a great opportunity for all the participants to hear the live testimony from two LGBTQ asylum seekers in the country. Also, it was an important opportunity to interact with these two brave young LGBTQ people and other LGBTQ experts who were on the panel. To conclude the event, Bruce Knotts shared about his experience at the United Nations, including the challenges of working for international LGBTQ rights, and expressed gratitude to all panelists and attendees.
To further move forward the LGBTQ issues at the United Nations, the UU-UNO’s long-term goal is to reach out to the UN Member States “on the fence” who might be encouraged to work on policies that do no harm to LGBTQ people. Also, the UU-UNO hopes to elicit commitments from those Member States aimed at promoting positive policies, with these commitments ranging from small steps (e.g., do no harm) to larger steps (e.g., advocate for new national policies using multilateral resources of human rights and religious actors).