LGBT Immigrants: Pride and Prejudice
They're here, they're queer - and neither their gay or immigrant communities
are waiting with open arms.
By Ronald Pineda
Nicki Koethner still remembers the first time she rode a bus in the U.S.:
she was shocked and dismayed that public transit still enforced racial
The sign overhead, Koethner recalls vividly, read: Step Behind White.
"I thought, is [racism] still that bad here? And then I saw the safety line
on the floor."
Koethner now laughs at her gaffe. But the incident stands out in her mind as
an example of the disorientation she felt as a newly-arrived immigrant from
Germany--nineteen, bisexual, a work visa from her au pair program in hand.
That was seventeen years ago.
"My struggles have shifted throughout the years," says Koethner, who
eventually became a permanent resident, launched a career as a family
therapist, and settled in the East Bay with a woman. Along the way she's
faced some of the issues that come up at some point for all immigrants:
feeling torn between countries, losing the close support of her family, and
feeling a lack of cultural validation. Plus, being bi in a straight world
made her feel even more alien. Koethner says, "Being part of the LGBT
community is similar to being an immigrant...You grow up with certain values
that orient you on how things might be like when you are older. But then
[both as a LGBT and an immigrant] you find yourself in a foreign country
where there is a different language and other customs."
Koethner is quick to point out, though, that her experience as an immigrant
is somewhat unique. "My struggle is different from immigrants who have come
here for economic reasons, or those who came for political reasons. I'm here
on my own volition and I have never been persecuted in my home country."
Home Is Where the Heart Is
Marta Donayre, however, has been. When she emigrated from Brazil in 1995 on
a student visa, Donayre was twenty-six years old and married to a man.
Shortly after they arrived here, however, they separated. After exploring
her sexuality, she came out as lesbian--and realized that she couldn't go
back to Brazil.
"Brazil can be very homophobic," Donayre says. "Things are changing, but
it's still very dangerous for LGBT people." Donayre tells the story, for
example, of the funeral in Sao Paolo of one of her relatives. Due to
international coverage given at the time to San Francisco's same-sex
marriages--one of which was Donayre's to her partner, Leslie Bulbuck--many
of her family members had seen her photograph reprinted in one of Brazil's
"Somebody said to my mom, 'There were two tragedies in the family this
week,'" Donayre says. "One tragedy was the relative dying, and the other
tragedy was me getting married in San Francisco."
Donayre's status in her adopted country was tenuous as well. A Silicon
Valley dot-com had hired Donayre after graduation and converted her student
visa to a working visa so she could remain here legally. It was also during
this period when Donayre met Bulbuk, an American citizen.
When Donayre's company laid her off in 2001, she learned Bulbuk could not
sponsor her, even though straight couples can easily do so. Faced with few
choices--moving to Canada being one of them--Donayre and Bulbuk decided to
stay put in the Bay Area and seek help.
The Bay Area has long been known as a popular destination for both LGBTs and
immigrants, so Donayre assumed she would easily find the help she needed.
According to a recent report by UCLA's Williams Institute, San Francisco
ranks first in the nation for residents who identify as LGBT. California
also ranks first in the nation in its number of foreign-born residents,
outnumbering second-ranked New York by a margin of over two to one. Donayre
didn't know that she was in for a shock.
"We contacted all of the large LGBT groups in the country and said, 'We want
to talk about this. We want to be your poster children,'" she says. "The
answer we got was 'Thank you, but no thank you.' I'm not shy to say we get
more support from immigrant rights organizations than from LGBT
The Crack Between Two Phobias
Diana Pei Wu, policy director for Oakland-based National Network for
Immigrant and Refugee Rights, cautions that many immigrant rights
organizations still shy away from focusing on LGBT immigrant issues; it's
just that hers is not one of them. During last month's pro-immigration
rallies, the NNIRR demanded an end to "LGBT people whose families are kept
apart and harassed and oppressed because of their sexual orientation and
Wu says it's unfortunate when immigrant rights organizations choose not to
incorporate LGBT issues into the larger immigration debate, because those
that do often get positive, if not transformative results. She adds that a
growing number of LGBT organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and Queers
for Economic Justice, both based in New York City, now focus on LGBT
One of the NNIRR's top concerns is that little has been done to improve
state and federal policy. Of the hundreds of bills inspired by the recent
push for immigration reform, Wu says, "almost none of them address anything
about the reunification of queer families." (At press time, however, a bill
called the Uniting American Families Act was introduced in Congress. If
passed, it would allow Americans in same-sex, bi-national relationships to
sponsor their partners for legal residency in the United States.)
"Just like the immigrant rights community can be homophobic," adds Donayre,
"the LGBT community can be very xenophobic."
In the meantime, because Donayre and Bulbuk felt they weren't well-received
by LGBT organizations, they created the LGBT immigrant rights group called
Love Sees No Borders. While the organization has raised up their issue's
profile a notch, it ultimately didn't provide Donayre her green card;
requesting and being awarded political asylum did. Now she's a permanent
exile; due to Homeland Security laws pertaining to her green card, she is
forbidden from ever returning to Brazil without prior government approval.
Liberty and the Pursuit of a Real Estate License
Like others in his immediate family, Nguru Karugu came to the U.S. to
complete his education and then return home to Kenya. More than twenty-five
years later, most of them spent here, he is finally applying for American
citizenship. "I travel quite a bit," says the activist and public health
consultant, "and I encounter a bit of a hassle at the airport" each time he
returns. Currently, in fact, Karugu is back in his native country working
with state and non-governmental organizations that serve sex workers, men
who have sex with men, and substance abusers.
Aside from the convenience an American passport would provide him, Karugu
has come to respect American civil liberties, which too often are taken for
granted. "I believe the freedom that this country provides for one to
self-actualize cannot be overstated," he says. "I have started to work in
Kenya for a year where there is the beginning of an LGBT movement. After
being in the U.S. for over twenty years, and being part of various social
justice movements, the lack of space for my Kenyan brothers and sisters to
organize and be together is very glaring."
Nonetheless, in his new home, being LGBT and an immigrant continues to be a
challenge for Karugu. "I could go to gay spaces, but my immigrant reality
was not present," Karugu says. "In my African immigrant communities, my gay
reality was not recognized or accepted." Nor were the two movements he was
drawn to--gay and immigrant--responsive to each other's issues. Like
Donayre, he cites the "lack of recognition of the issues that impact LGBT
immigrants within the larger LGBT communities."
Frustrated by his lack of options, Karugu co-founded Uhuru Wazobia in 1994.
The name translates to "Come Freedom" and is culled from a number of African
languages. Karugu says the group provides a social network for people from
continental Africa who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender
or straight. "The group has allowed us all to explore even further the
reality of being African immigrants who are also sexual minorities," Karugu
says. "It has been a life-saving process...It's allowed me to be all of me
all of the time."
If Karugu was drawn to the U.S. for its liberal ideals, Horacio Hernandez's
family came here for something more practical: the promise of a living wage.
Hernandez was only three, too young to remember many details of his mother's
flight from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Francisco, his sister and him in tow.
What he does remember is learning years later that the passports they used
For years, Hernandez lived in the Bay Area illegally. His mother kept their
status a secret as she searched for better economic opportunities in their
new home. Fortunately, the family qualified to take advantage of the
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which enabled them to legalize
their status. Hernandez, who'd realized by then he was gay, became a citizen
when he was in college.
Although he supports LGBT and immigrant rights, Hernandez isn't particularly
involved in politics. It's not important, he says, for him to seek out
spaces where he can be LGBT and immigrant at the same time. As he puts it,
"I don't think I've let it become an issue for me...I've never had those two
collide, where me being gay and me being an immigrant is making life
unbearable for me."
Perhaps that's because Hernandez didn't immigrate voluntarily, as an adult,
for the sake of preference. Instead, he was literally smuggled over the
border by a mother fleeing poverty. Self-fulfillment as a gay Mexican
American just wasn't--couldn't be--his priority. So it's no surprise that
when Hernandez talks about being an immigrant, the conversation veers toward
money and family. He's getting his broker's license and says he's likely
move to San Diego sometime in the near future to be closer to his mother,
who decided to move back to Mexico to care for a close relative.
"My life is hard enough because I'm a realtor who's thirty-one, who's gay,
who didn't know anyone when I came here as an immigrant," Hernandez says. "I
have to work so much...[Being LGBT and an immigrant] takes a back seat to my
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