For years now, a gay man from Liberia named Bill has been living quietly in suburban Maryland, working at various hotels. He never worried seriously about what would happen if his long-term visa expired and he had to return. Until now.

Liberia, caught up in a wave of homophobia that is spurring an anti-gay legal crackdown across Africa, recently passed a law that mandates lengthy prison terms for anyone committing a homosexual act. Bill said a relative of his was caught and beaten by a mob that demanded he “renounce” being a homosexual.

As a result, Bill says he is terrified of going back — so terrified that he has applied for permanent political asylum in the United States.

“Before there was cultural prohibition, but it was not on the books. Now the animosity is growing, and the fear is spreading,” said Bill, 47, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used because he is afraid for his safety. “It’s ironic that I am living in Maryland, a state that allows same-sex marriage, but if I go home, I would be committing a major crime.”

Bill is one of hundreds of gay Africans — some living at home and others in the United States — who have flooded legal-aid groups in the United States with appeals for help after the aggressive legal campaign against homosexuality. Lawyers and rights groups say the demand has intensified in the past two months, since Nigeria and Uganda enacted laws that criminalize homosexual behavior, identity and activism.

Homosexuality has long been banned in many African countries, but a powerful mix of religious fervor, fear of AIDS, anti-Western nationalism and political expediency is ratcheting up anti-gay sentiment to unprecedented levels, rights advocates said.

In response, governments across the continent are passing draconian criminal laws against homosexuals. It is illegal to be gay in 38 African countries and punishable by death in four. Ugandan legislators sought to impose a death sentence, too, but the president changed it to life imprisonment before signing the law Feb. 24.

“As soon as the Ugandan law was announced, we began to hear from Ugandans who wanted to get out,” said Aaron Morris, legal director at Immigration Equality, an advocacy group in New York. “We heard from more than a dozen the first day, then another dozen the second day. Uganda has been dangerous for years, but this is a major change. It has had a critical impact on people’s sense of security.”

Strong criticism

The Obama administration has been highly critical of the African legal crackdown, especially in countries such as Uganda that have had close relations with Washington. Secretary of State John F. Kerry compared Uganda’s new law to South African apartheid and anti-Jewish laws in Nazi Germany, calling it “atrocious” and “morally wrong.”

But it’s unclear how successful gay Africans will be at winning asylum in the United States.

The requirement that an asylum applicant have a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their homeland can be especially difficult to prove in the case of sexually based abuse, advocates say.

But the spate of harsh laws could add new ammunition to such claims, they contend. Morris, whose agency is handling asylum cases for 27 gay Africans, said claims are always stronger in countries where victims have no recourse to government protection.

“Changes in the law create a bright line,” he added, “but the broader atmosphere of homophobia surrounding them are just as important to show it is more dangerous to be gay in a certain country.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that they do not keep track of asylum cases by particular category and that they could not comment on any potential impact of the new African laws.

Thoughts of home

For gay Africans living temporarily in the United States — including students, skilled workers and rights activists — the thought of being deported or even visiting their homelands has now become fraught with images of hostile mobs or abusive police. As a result, legal-aid agencies said they are expecting a surge of new applications for asylum.

“Our clients here are terrified,” said Jocelyn Dyer, a staff attorney with Human Rights First, a nonprofit legal-aid group in Washington that represents immigrants seeking asylum. “These laws are emboldening mobs, and the long prison sentences are making it harder to flee and get protection.”

One of Dyer’s clients, a middle-aged lawyer from Nigeria, took a desperate and high-risk road to asylum. A year ago, while living a comfortable but closeted life there, he was denounced as gay by an ex-boyfriend and promptly arrested. Fearful of being sent to prison for sodomy — and of the terrible stigma his outing would create — he jumped bail and fled the country. When he landed at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, he immediately requested asylum.

Today the man, who asked to be identified by the nickname Barakiri, is living in a shelter in Virginia, waiting for his case to be heard. Because he requested asylum in an airport arrival hall, he could be automatically deported if his claim is rejected by immigration authorities. But his impulse to run also may have saved his life.

Nigeria’s new anti-gay law mandates 14-year prison terms for anyone in a same-sex union and 10 years for anyone deemed to promote homosexuality, even HIV/AIDS workers. Human rights activists said the law is also providing fodder for mob violence, police harassment and blackmail.

In northern Nigeria, where strict Islamic sharia law is enforced and the al-Qaeda-linked militia Boko Haram has spread terror in many areas, religious councils have ordered homosexuals to be flogged in public or stoned to death.

“Nobody can come out now. It makes you both a criminal offender and a target for fanatics,” said Barakiri, who is 50 and once worked in the Muslim north. “There were laws before, but people were silent. Now, if you are 35 and still unmarried, people become suspicious and threaten you and beat you. The taboo is total.”

The growing trend to punish homosexuality across Africa has gained strength at the same time the Western world has become increasingly protective of sexual minorities. The issue has also become a proxy contest between Western liberal and conservative influences on traditional African societies, which have witnessed the simultaneous spread of evangelical Christianity, radical Islam and free-wheeling urban lifestyles.

These contradictions have come into sharp political focus in countries such as Liberia, where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is backing tough new anti-gay laws despite her impoverished and war-ravaged nation’s dependence on Western aid and her own stature as a Nobel Prize winner for championing women’s rights.

In Uganda, Western evangelical Christian groups have depicted homosexuality as Satan’s work and promoted “cures.” President Yoweri Museveni denounced what he called harmful Western influences when signing the new anti-gay law, but at the same time he softened the proposed punishment after strong protests by Western donors.

Painful choices

For gay Africans living in the United States, the tension between Western and African
mores can cause painful legal and personal choices. Often their families back home are unaware or disapproving of their sexual identity or could face persecution if it became public. However, to prove an asylum case and earn permanent protection, applicants need as much family support and documentation as possible.

One Nigerian man, who came to Washington for an AIDS conference several years ago and lives in Chicago, said he decided to seek asylum after being threatened by sharia law groups while he worked as an HIV counselor in a Muslim-controlled region. He said that if he returned home, he risked being burned to death by a mob or stoned by sharia enforcers. But one scenario haunted him even more.

“My greatest fear was that my father would find out,” said the man, 29, who gave his name only as Ojiyoma. “Every week my father was putting pressure on me to find a lady and get married. I didn’t know how I could face him. Finally, I just ran away.”