He calls Worcester County home now. For him, it is a place of safety and opportunity.
But the 27-year-old Jamaican man remembers being threatened and harassed nearly every day in his home country. Four times he was beaten by angry crowds.
Visiting a friend in Montego Bay in 2005, he watched in horror from an apartment window as a group of men descended on his friend. They kicked him, punched him, and beat him to the ground. When police officers arrived, they stood and watched as the beating continued.
“I thought, ‘Is this the time I’m going to be killed?’ ” he remembered. “When the police came, it didn’t make any difference. Luckily, I was able to get out of there. My friend ended up in the hospital.”
Jamaica is one of 80 countries in which homosexuality is illegal, and one of 72 countries where the crime is punishable with prison time. If a gay man or lesbian is attacked, there is little recourse in the courts or to the police. (Homosexuality was illegal in some parts of the United States until 2003, when a Texas anti-sodomy law was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court).
Another gay man had built a prosperous life for himself in his native Uganda. A banker and a businessman, he also owned a small bar.
One day, he was dragged off by a pair of armed men and tortured for two days. They wanted him to give up the names of his bar’s gay customers. The government later demolished the bar.
“The government is anti-gay. It’s in the constitution,” he said with a shrug. “So many people die. So many people.”
A third gay man fled his native Lebanon after he was attacked several times. One beating sent him to the hospital with a broken neck and other serious injuries.
Being gay is doubly problematic for him, because, as a Muslim, both his country and his religion forbid it.
“You can’t report things to the police, because I was afraid if they found out I was gay, they’d put me in jail,” he said. “I felt like nobody can protect me in my own country. The attitude is that people like me shouldn’t be alive.”
All three have found safety in Worcester County, drawn by friends or relatives already here, or by referrals to free legal aid from Lutheran Social Services of Worcester to help them apply for asylum, which is protection offered by the United States government.
Once they arrive, they discover there is an existing support network for gay immigrants created by Hadwen Park Congregational Church in Worcester.
Before agreeing to tell their stories, all three men asked that their identities be shielded, fearing that they might become targets of violence or discrimination in their new home.
The Jamaican and Lebanese immigrants have received asylum and are here legally; the Ugandan’s case is pending, and he has been given permission to stay while he waits for his trial.
“In some countries, being gay is illegal, and in others there is such hate from people that they aren’t protected,” said Lisa Laurel Weinberg, a Lutheran Social Services lawyer who has applied for asylum for seven gay immigrants, including a lesbian from Uganda who was raped repeatedly by police in an attempt to “correct” her back to heterosexuality. “In most of those cases, it creates a climate of lawlessness against gay people.”
As recently as 1990, U.S. immigration authorities could deny permanent residency to an immigrant who was discovered to be gay under a category called “sexually deviant.” Asylum on the basis of sexual orientation became available in the U.S. in 1994.
There are no national figures available on how many gay men and women receive asylum in the U.S. each year. Immigration Equality, a national gay-rights group based in New York, recently estimated that each year fewer than 1,000 immigrants receive asylum based on their sexual orientation.
Gay immigrants view Massachusetts as a gay-friendly state, and its federal courts have a reputation for being much more likely to grant asylum for sexual orientation.
For the past year, Hadwen Park Congregational Church has provided gay immigrants with food and money for clothes and rent, as well as spiritual and emotional support. Lutheran Social Services, which helps many immigrants apply for asylum, established a program to help gay immigrants apply for asylum.
The program is supported by a $22,000 grant from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation.
The church’s program is unique in the United States, church members believe; the Lutheran Social Services asylum program for gay immigrants is one of only a handful nationwide.
As gay immigrants apply for asylum — a process that often takes several months — they cannot work. In some cases, they are in the country illegally; in others, they are given a temporary visa during the application process.
Because they are gay, the asylum seekers often cannot ask for help from their countrymen, sometimes even their family members, who live in the United States. As a result, Ms. Weinberg said, the immigrants needed help with everything, from basic essentials such as food and shelter, to transportation, to connecting with new friends, to spiritual assistance.
The Rev. Judith Hanlon is the pastor of Hadwen Park Congregational Church. Her church, which has a mix of gay and straight parishioners, was among the leaders locally in the fight for gay marriage. When she started hearing the stories of the gay immigrants, she said she knew her church would help.
“There’s literally no place for these people to go,” she said. “They’re alienated from everyone, even their own families in many cases.”
The church started by feeding the gay immigrants with its food pantry, then paying their rent and cell phone bills. Parishioners took immigrants on shopping trips for clothes and other essentials. Two parishioners offered to host two immigrants in their home. The immigrants started coming to the church, telling their stories, and connecting with people who don’t judge them.
The church set up the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Asylum Support Task Force, which will eventually be incorporated as a nonprofit organization separate from the church.
“We hope that this can become a national model,” Rev. Hanlon said. “We could say, ‘Here’s our plan, here’s what works, here’s what doesn’t work.’ ”
The Jamaican immigrant, who originally lived in Florida but moved to Worcester when he was referred to Ms. Weinberg, said he is “eternally grateful” for all the help he has received from the church and Lutheran Social Services. After receiving asylum in November 2008, he got a job at a local restaurant. He has since been laid off and is receiving unemployment benefits. He now is a full-time student, studying to become a medical assistant. To help pay for school, he has received a grant and has taken out a loan.
He said that other than perhaps seeing his aunt before she dies, he has no desire to return to Jamaica, and that makes him sad.
“I do cry, and I do bleed, and I was contributing to the development of the country, but I was forced to flee,” he said.
For the most part, he said, he has found Americans to be welcoming. At first, he said, the biggest shock was seeing people who were openly gay. In Worcester, he said, he has chosen to tell only a select few people — close friends, church members, and his brother.
“I’ve never felt unsafe. I’ve never felt stigma or discrimination,” he said. “I would never impose my sexual preference on anyone. It’s pretty much ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ for me. Do I go around telling everyone I’m gay? No.”