By Georgia Garvey
John Ademola knows there is no asylum from hatred, no refuge from ignorance.
But after decades of battling his own identity as a gay man in Nigeria, afraid for his life and safety, the former Catholic priest who now lives in the Chicago area knows a new reality.
"If any crazy person decides to kill me simply because I'm gay, here (in the U.S.), the community will still ask, 'Why did you do it?'" he said. In America, "there's not a government after me."
Ademola applied for — and was granted — asylum in the U.S. in 2009 based on his homosexuality and fear of what he might face if he returned to Nigeria. He now holds a green card that puts him on the track to U.S. citizenship.
The Riverdale resident, 50, is one in a seemingly growing but hard-to-track group of Chicago-based immigrants who've successfully applied for asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such asylum applications have been possible for 16 years, after then-Attorney General Janet Reno declared an LGBT asylum case precedent.
Experts say there are likely many more immigrants who could apply for asylum based on their LGBT status. But many don't know they can or fear the repercussions of doing so.
Those who find their way to attorneys or learn about LGBT asylum generally are clued in by word of mouth, experts say, or they are looking into other kinds of asylum or immigration options. Applying for asylum — which can include judges, affidavits and administrative appearances — can be complicated.
Those applying for asylum have one year from their arrival in the U.S. to do so — unless they can prove in court that they've been in extraordinary or changed circumstances. Even then, they have to apply within six months of those circumstances. Many LGBT asylees struggle with coming out of the closet, experts say.
"If you're not openly gay, unfortunately, the system doesn't wait for you to come out," said Uzoamaka Nzelibe, a clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University and staff attorney at Bluhm Legal Clinic who deals with asylum and refugee cases.
One recent asylee, who asked that his name not be used, came to the U.S. five years ago with family members. In his African home nation, he had suffered abuse for being perceived as effeminate — even though he was not out.
RedEye is withholding information about the man because he fears how family members will react should they find out he's gay. He has come out to some friends but remains in the closet to many people. The Chicago resident, now in his 20s, initially met with a staff member from the human rights advocacy group Heartland Alliance to explore his options for immigration. When the staff member mentioned applying based on LGBT status, he said he delayed even though he knew that was the basis he should use.
"I was not sure who I am as a person. I was living with my sister. I was 17. I was scared that she would find out I'm gay," he said. "I assumed they would be sending mail to my house."
Though his assumptions were incorrect — organizations don't have to mail to applicants homes — he encountered some of the common barriers for LGBT people applying for asylum, said Eric Berndt, an attorney at the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center, which provides legal help to low-income immigrants seeking asylum or refuge in the U.S. "I can't tell you how many clients I've had where it's a 19-year-old kid living with a family and he doesn't have his own phone, there's no way to (easily) communicate with him, he can't tell his parents why he's applying for asylum," Berndt said. "A lot of times, it's only once they've become dislocated that they come forward."
There were about 27,000 new applications for asylum last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, but the federal government doesn't track the reason for asylum or the area in which the person applies.
Berndt deals with about 20 cases annually of people seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and he says the numbers of those looking to apply for LGBT asylum seem to be increasing.
Those who work with LGBT asylees and refugees say increasing numbers reflect both changing attitudes in the U.S. and the traumatic persecution that gay and lesbian asylees and refugees have suffered in home countries.
Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, based in San Francisco, said 85 countries criminalize homosexuality, and seven apply the death penalty to those caught having homosexual sex. Those that treat it as a capital crime are Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In Nigeria, the death penalty applies only in portions of the country.
For the fortunate like Ademola, life in the U.S. can be lifesaving. He performs in the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus and carries a combination U.S. and gay pride flag in the annual Chicago parade.
"If God gives you freedom," he said, one should sing about it. Since receiving asylum, he has "been singing my freedom since."