WORCESTER, Massachusetts – For weeks, Nathaniel Cunningham and his boyfriend secretly lived together in rural Jamaica. They showed no affection in public and rarely spoke to neighbors.
Then one morning, Cunningham picked up a local newspaper with a front-page story under the headline, "Homosexual Prostitutes Move into Residential Neighborhood." His address was listed below.
For days afterward, Cunningham said an angry mob gathered on his lawn hurling rocks and bricks and calling them "batty boys" — a Jamaican slang term for gay. Eventually, the pair grabbed what they could and fled on foot. Cunningham said neither he nor his boyfriend were prostitutes — the slur was just another example of the abuse gay men faced in Jamaica.
The story was one of many that Cunningham, now 32 and living in Worcester, recently shared with a federal immigration judge in his successful bid to win asylum in the United States. And it's similar to other stories cited by a small but growing number of other gay, lesbian and transgender asylum seekers who are using U.S. immigration courts to argue that their sexual orientation makes it too dangerous for them to return home.
"I had no choice," said Andre Azevedo, 39, a transgender man from Brazil who recently won asylum and now lives in New York. "Where I'm from, heterosexual men practice hate crimes against us like a sport, and the police do nothing to stop it."
Since 1994, sexual orientation has been grounds for asylum in the United States. That's when former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in a case that persecution based on sexual orientation could be potential grounds for asylum.
Until recently, those grounds have been rarely used and such cases represent only a fraction of all asylum cases.
But now immigrant and gay activists say more asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are citing sexual orientation as reasons for seeking asylum. Activists say the asylum seekers are escaping rape, persecution, violence, and threats of death from places where homosexuality is either outlawed or strongly, socially shunned.
Federal immigration law allows individuals asylum if they can prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Those applying for asylum are already in the United States, legally or illegally.
No one knows for sure just how many have sought asylum on sexual orientation grounds. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't keep data on asylum cases won on that basis.
Still, last year Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit group that helps gay clients with immigration cases, successfully won 55 asylum cases using sexual orientation as grounds, a record for the organization, said the group's legal director Victoria Neilson. That's up from 30 wins in 2007 and 27 in 2006, Neilson said.
And a Worcester, Massachusetts-based nonprofit group, Lutheran Social Services, has recently won five cases and is looking to help others.
"I think more people are finding out that this is an option," said Lisa Laurel Weinberg, an attorney with the group.
However, not all cases for asylum based on sexual orientation have been successful. For example, a gay Brazilian man who was married in Massachusetts and whose American husband remains in the state was recently denied asylum by the Obama administration on humanitarian grounds, despite pleas from Sen. John Kerry. Genesio "Junior" Januario Oliveira had originally requested asylum because he was raped as a teenager, but an immigration judge denied the application, saying Oliveira repeatedly said in the hearing that he "was never physically harmed" by anyone in Brazil.
He was forced to return to Brazil in 2007.
Cunningham said he decided to file for asylum after working for a few years in the United States on a work visa. He conducted research online but couldn't find an immigration group to help him with the case. "One group said my case clashed with their Christian values," Cunningham said.
Many gay rights groups, he said, also had limited services for immigrants.
It wasn't until Cunningham connected with Jozefina Lantz, the director of immigrant services at Lutheran Social Services, that Cunningham gained support.
To win, however, Cunningham had to revisit painful moments of running from mobs in Jamaica. Even the police would point him out for persecution, he said. In successfully arguing Cunningham's case for asylum, Weinberg also said Jamaica's sodomy laws banning sex between men and "dancehall" music — whose lyrics often advocate violence against gays — made life for Cunningham unbearable.
Cunningham won asylum in January 2008.
During his asylum hearing, Azevedo had to recall violent episodes in Brazil when he and a group of transsexuals were attacked in bars. He recalled a transgender woman set on fire. Each time Azevedo said he went to police about an attack or a threat, the officers didn't even bother to file a report.
"I had such a horrific experience," said Azevedo, who was granted asylum in July. "I was always in fear of being raped, maybe even killed."
After winning their cases, both Cunningham and Azevedo have become advocates for other asylum-seekers by giving them counseling and directing them toward legal help.
In Worcester, for example, Cunningham has helped a Lebanese and three others Jamaicans win asylum with the legal help provided by the Lutheran Social Services' "LGBT Human Rights Protection Project." Another case, involving an Ugandan woman, is pending in the courts.
But while those who have been granted asylum are eager to help, Azevedo said many still haven't resolved the pain from the past and can't go back home to visit family — those who haven't disowned them.
Cunningham said he hasn't gotten over the fear that, at any moment, he may be forced to flee.
"I've never really owned furniture," Cunningham said. "You just never know."