Immigration: A Beacon for Gay Refugees

By Geoff MacDonald and Helen Rykens

Foreword: A word you may have heard (or certainly will hear) many times since coming to Canada is diversity. One of the main reasons Canada is so attractive to new immigrants is because of our acceptance of diversity – but this not only means that Canada as a society is open to people of all races and religions – but it also speaks of our acceptance of people with different sexual orientations. This can lead to a bit of culture shock if you are from a society where homosexuality is not accepted and is completely hidden from view. Major cities like Toronto and Vancouver (and San Francisco in the US) have Gay Pride celebrations and parades. And you may well run into people in your workplace and your day-to-day life who are openly gay. Even if you personally disagree with concepts like “gay marriage” – some sort of acceptance of gay lifestyles will be a necessary part of your adjustment to life in Canada.

With the publication of its new manual, The 519 Community Centre has brought attention to the growing population of refugees in Toronto who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).

For years, The 519 has provided meeting space for LEGIT Toronto, a volunteer group which assists LGBT people immigrating to Canada in the family class to join a same-sex partner. “The majority of people who come to us for help are from the United States, and they are joining a partner who is already a Canadian citizen,” says Peter Bernier, the co-ordinator for LEGIT Toronto. “Sometimes a couple spans two countries, say an American is involved with a student from Taiwan. They can’t be accepted as a couple in either country, so they come to Canada. If they want to immigrate to Canada, they must declare that they are a common law couple right away. This is a problem for people living in homophobic societies… it doesn’t occur to them that the Canadian government requires disclosure of the family relationship.”

The number one thing that LEGIT assists people with is simply letting them know that same-sex partner immigration to Canada is possible. “We also help them how to prove their same-sex relationship,” says Bernier, “in much the same way common law straight couples have to prove their relationship.”

For refugees, the homophobia experienced in the home country is violent and sometimes deadly.

“Canada has given me the quality of being free as a gay, to be able to grow as a person,” says Mexican-born Javier. An active volunteer at The 519 and in the community, he fled his home country for a number of reasons.

“I always had to be in the closet to my family, friends, classmates, co-workers, anyways to everybody. I had a few sexual partners and one boyfriend, but we never could be happy and enjoy our love. We went out once, and we were persecuted, abused and robbed.”
Which is not to say that Canada is without its challenges.

“It’s not easy when you have university degree and you have to work as a cleaner or dishwasher,” he notes. Picking up and coming to a strange country, however friendly, is not easy. And recent reports of refugees being targeted by government officials here in Canada do not help.

The 519 is a downtown multi-service centre. Their manual speaks to the need for coordinated and sensitive services for refugees who have been targeted based on their sexual orientation.

“For many years, Canada has been a refuge for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people fleeing violence and repression in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America,” says 519 Executive Director Alison Kemper. “This is our next big community, our new source of vitality and commitment for The 519 as we continue to evolve.”
Chris, another convention refugee, who volunteers to assist others who are still in the claim process, concurs.

“There are a lot of issues we still have, right?” he says. “Even though same sex marriage is recognized now, there are still problems we have to deal with, like HIV, as well as the psychological problems people might have because of being bullied or discriminated against.”
The manual, called Among Friends: A Resource for LGBT Refugees, speaks to issues of how to navigate the complex refugee claimant process, how to access services and community programming and, finally, a guide on how to survive.

Javier believes the challenges for refugees can be faced.

“I've had a lot of good experiences in Canada,” he says. He concludes by saying that he purchased a house last year and is doing well. His success is largely do to the supportive network around him. He is active with a Latin American LGBT group called, Hola!, which meets at The 519. “Now my friends, my new family and The 519 are my second home.”

While Javier’s experience is somewhat extraordinary, a read through Among Friends demonstrates that there are ways to find support and help in Toronto, even in very difficult and challenging times.

CNM