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Persecuted Gays Seek Refuge in U.S.

Gramoz Prestreshi, left, was accepted as a legal refugee in the United States, and Korab Zuka awaits an asylum hearing. Both were abused in Kosovo for being gay.
Gramoz Prestreshi, left, was accepted as a legal refugee in the United States, and Korab Zuka awaits an asylum hearing. Both were abused in Kosovo for being gay. (By Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

One night in 2003, on the wintry streets of Kosovo, a group of thugs stalked and beat Gramoz Prestreshi almost to death. Police in the war-scarred Balkan province laughed and called him names. The emergency room workers made him mop up his own blood. It was a sordid but hardly unusual episode in the hostile environment homosexuals encounter in societies of all kinds.

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Unlike many such victims, though, Prestreshi kept his wits about him. He had photographs taken of his injuries. He complained to the press and clipped every article. When his family disowned him, he joined a gay rights organization and slept in its office. This spring, his determination bore unexpected fruit, and Prestreshi was accepted as a legal refugee in the United States. He now lives in the District.

"I am happy because I don't have to live like a prisoner anymore in a society where no one is allowed to be different," said Prestreshi, a slight, nervous man of 22, who won his asylum case with help from Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District. "But I can never forget what happened. It hurt when the police called us 'faggots.' It hurt when my parents screamed and beat me after they found out. It still hurts."

Harassment and abuse of gay men and lesbians is becoming increasingly accepted as grounds for legal asylum in the United States, even at a time of conservative judicial activism, fear about HIV/AIDS transmission and increased scrutiny of asylum seekers. The government does not disclose a breakdown of reasons for granting asylum petitions, but legal advocacy groups in several major U.S. cities said they have won dozens of cases.

Homosexuality, once a de facto condition for barring foreigners from entering the country, is now officially recognized by the U.S. government as a category that might subject individuals to persecution in their homeland, just as if they were political dissidents in a dictatorship or religious minority members in a theocracy.

But although petitioning for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation has become far easier since 1994, when then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that a groundbreaking case involving a gay Cuban refugee be viewed as a legal precedent, such asylum cases are still extremely difficult to win, according to lawyers in Washington and elsewhere.

One reason is that applicants face multiple burdens of proof. They must demonstrate that they were abused or harassed by authorities, not merely by angry relatives or drunken hooligans, or that the authorities failed to protect them. They must also prove that they were abused because they are homosexual -- and thus prove that they are, in fact, gay.

Raul Calderon, 40, the ex-soldier from Colombia, said he was raped as a recruit of 15 but commanded by officers who constantly exhorted the troops "not to act like women." In an atmosphere of civil war militarism, he said, he felt equally threatened by the guerrillas, the armed forces and members of the right-wing squads who called themselves social cleansing committees. "To them, people like me were filth," he said.

Often, Pilcher and others said, foreigners living in the United States who have possible grounds for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation are afraid to come forward or unaware that there is a one-year deadline to apply.

Even in societies with freewheeling, tolerant urban cultures, homosexuals can be harassed to the point of seeking refuge abroad. Brazil, for example, has a huge population of gays and transvestites, and last month's annual gay pride festival in Sao Paolo drew 3 million people, according to Gay Life, a Baltimore newspaper.

Yet J.C., a District man from Rio de Janeiro who spoke on condition he not be further identified, won his asylum petition in 2001 after proving that he had been repeatedly beaten and abused by powerful, armed street gangs in his hillside slum, known as a favela, and that the local police force had failed to protect him.

Fear of AIDS is another frequent factor in public and private harassment of homosexuals abroad. A doctor from Venezuela, who treated people with HIV and AIDS there and championed their cause within his profession, was granted asylum this year after being kidnapped, beaten and sexually humiliated by a police squad.


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