Coming to the United States and coming out of the closet sometimes go hand in hand.
As more and more debates on the issue of immigration seem to be shaping America’s political and media landscape in recent years, a recurring theme in the discussions is the idea that immigrants come to America to seek a better a life.
For some immigrants in the U.S. such as Nigerian refugee, Edafe Okporo, the decision to migrate was not just about seeking a better life. It was about keeping a life. It was about survival.
Okporo is part of an often overlooked group within America’s immigrant community, LGBTQ+ people. Many individuals come to America when their sexuality or gender identity puts them at risk of violence and even death in their home country.
“To be able to survive the harsh climate of homophobia, where I live and breathe and eat each day in homophobia, to an environment where I am loved and people don’t think about my sexuality as a basis for judgement, gives me a chilling effect when I think about it,” Okporo said. “What if I was still in Nigeria. I could have been dead right now.”
Edafe Okporo speaking about his experience with homophobia in Nigeria during an event at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ on Feb. 24, 2019
Okporo was an out gay man and advocate for better treatment of H.I.V. patients in his home country, where homosexuality is punishable by up to fourteen years in prison.
This is a severe punishment, but it is not an anomaly. According to Human Dignity Trust, an organization which helps provide global legal support for LGBTQ+ rights, 73 countries criminalize homosexuality, 13 of those countries carry a death penalty for homsexuality and 15 countries criminalize gender identity of transgender individuals. Even still, there are countries that do not criminalize the act of homosexuality, but find ways to discourage it. One of these countries is Russia, in which positive portrayal of homosexuality in media is illegal.
Due to the anti-LGBTQ+ attitude which exist in many countries throughout the world, a portion of immigrants in the United States have found that coming here has made it easier for them to be open about their identities. One person who feels this way is Mexican immigrant, Kevin Sedano-Vazquez.
When Sedano-Vazquez immigrated to America, it was with his family at a young age. Years later, he realized he was gay and came out to his family who were accepting of his identity.
Though he did not have to worry about the extreme homophobia Okporo and many others have faced, he says that Mexican culture has an emphasis on men needing to act macho. This attitude often makes it harder for LGBTQ+ individuals in Mexico since they do not conform to the culture’s typical ideas of gender.
Sedano-Vazquez has continued to visit Mexico throughout his life, and while he enjoys it, it has shown him that he feels freer to express his sexuality in the U.S.
“I was able to fully understand myself, fully explore myself as a gay man,” Sedano-Vazquez said. “In the sense that here in this country we’re able to be more open and more free about it than that in Mexico”
Ramon Croce has a story similar to that of Sedano-Vazquez. Croce moved with his mother from Venezuela to the United States when he was eight years old. He later came out as gay.
Like Sedano-Vazquez, Croce felt that living in America from a young age made it easier for him to be open about his sexuality than if he had stayed in his home country, but for a different reason.
According to him, Venezuela was never less accepting of LGBTQ+ people than the U.S. is. However, immigrating at an early age, not knowing many people and facing a language barrier forced him to learn about himself and his sexuality.
For Croce, the experience of being an immigrant and the experience of being gay are closely tied to one another and his personality as a whole.
“I think being gay and Venezuelan both contribute to who I am as a person and also how I view the world around me,” Croce said. “They impact decisions that I make every day such as who I talk to and things I like.”
These three individuals are part of a larger group within the immigrant community. Research conducted in 2013 by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States and 367,000 documented immigrants living here are part of the LGBTQ+ community. These numbers only accounted for 2.7 percent of undocumented immigrants and 2.4 documented immigrants at the time the poll was taken.
Since LGBTQ+ individuals only account for a small portion of the immigrant population, their stories tend to not be considered in coverage of immigration or discussions surrounding it. But it is not a rarity for people to have multifaceted identities, and these types of stories can add important nuance to often generalized conversations. It can also mean a lot to these people to see their stories told.
Being represented in media isn’t an everyday thing I get to see, so I’m obviously fond of when it does happen.Ramon Croce
Sam Carliner is an aspiring journalist revolutionary hoping to save the fourth estate from its current for-profit model. He hopes to create a world where journalism is run like a public service instead of being run like an industry. To see more of his work follow him on Twitter @saminthecan and Instagram @sam_inthecan. For my immigrant stories follow #FocusImmigration #montclairscm and #montclairmultimedia.