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LGBTQ Africans struggle to navigate US asylum process

Ricky ‘Rikki’ Nathanson fled Zimbabwe, now lives in Maryland

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Ricky "Rikki" Nathanson (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — It is no secret that many LGBTQ individuals around the world live in fear of the negative implications that result from identifying outside the limits of cisgenderism and heteronormativity. For Africans living in Africa, this panic is even more pronounced as many are abused, jailed, or even murdered for simply existing as queer.

According to Global Citizen, homosexuality is still punishable by death in four countries on the African continent: Somalia, South Sudan, Mauritania, and Nigeria (in states where Sharia law applies). Only 22 out of the 54 countries on the African continent have legalized homosexuality, and South Africa is currently the only country where same-sex marriage is legally recognized by the government.

Although there has been some human rights progress for LGBTQ Africans, most recently with Angola decriminalizing same-sex sexual relationships, ill-sentiment toward queerness still runs rampant across the continent. So, many individuals are forced to leave their home countries and apply for asylum in Western countries like the U.S. and U.K., countries which, despite their queer-phobic cultures, are more accepting and safe to live in.

From Zimbabwe to Maryland

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson is a transgender activist from Zimbabwe who received asylum from the U.S. in February 2019. Before filing for asylum in the U.S., police officers had arrested her in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, after she had used a women’s restroom in a hotel. While in custody, the police officers physically tortured her and forced her to undergo invasive medical and physical examinations.

After her release from police custody, she filed a lawsuit against Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs minister, the commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the assistant commissioner of the Bulawayo Central Police Station and the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League, and later won this lawsuit. However, because of the mounting threats to her life in Bulawayo, she sought safety through the U.S.’s asylum process and relocated to the East Coast.

“When I compare myself to other people and friends who have been in similar situations to mine, my asylum process was extremely quick,” Nathanson mentions when speaking of her journey toward winning asylum. “I think that the most strenuous thing for me was the actual interview; it was nerve-wracking.”

Nathanson applied for asylum in 2018 after she attended OutRight Action International’s annual summit in New York, the organization of which she is a board member. She won her case and received asylum approximately six weeks after — a fairly quick result compared to numerous other cases that can take years before a final decision is reached.

Nathanson’s involvement with OutRight Action International proved to be a tremendous advantage as it provided her with an extensive network of friends in the U.S. who were able to support her asylum-seeking process and alleviate the stresses associated with it. This is usually not the case for many queer Africans who seek asylum in the U.S.

“The people at OutRight Action International were good to me, and they helped me with a bit of financial support. So, I was able to pay for my legal fees,” says Nathanson.

In addition, Nathanson’s lawyer, Elinor Tesfamariam, who is of Ethiopian descent and specializes in asylum cases, “knew what she was doing.” Therefore, her expertise coupled with Nathanson’s compelling story, provided for an airtight case that couldn’t be contested.

In Nathanson’s words, “My story spoke for itself.”

Casa Ruby hired Nathanson shortly after she won her asylum case. She is currently the D.C. group’s director of housing services.

What does applying for asylum involve?

The asylum process is demanding. Not only does one need legal representation, but they need financial resources to pay for said legal representation and also for their upkeep and wellbeing while in the U.S. This poses a challenge as one cannot apply for employment authorization until a year after they have completed the asylum application. So, this alienates many asylum seekers from severely needed employment and leaves them financially insecure as they navigate the torrent of preventing the possibility of having to return to their home country.

For those without strong connections in the U.S., a common way of finding help, whether financial or material, is through word of mouth. Because of their popularity, organizations like AsylumWorks have become safe havens and places of provision, fulfilling many asylum seekers’ basic needs such as buying groceries, paying for rent, and purchasing gender-affirming clothes and cosmetics.

“When applying for asylum, it’s really important to have efficient knowledge of the system; knowing what to do, who to contact, how to contact them, and how the system works,” Nathanson mentions, regarding the legal aspect.

“For the process to work as smoothly as possible, you need assistance,” she adds. “You need to be able to access a lawyer who will be able to file for you because the process is very particular, and any small mistake will result in your documents being returned to you. I have a friend of mine who forgot to sign a page and after he resubmitted his documents, he has been waiting 18 months for a response.”

Because of how inconvenient the process can be, Nathanson’s hope is that the current administration will revise the asylum process, especially the time it takes to win asylum.

How asylum seekers’ needs are met

AsylumWorks is what Executive Director Joan Hodges-Wu calls “a holistic suite of wraparound services and support to help asylum seekers address unmet needs that can interfere with their ability to participate in the immigration legal process.” The organization “empowers asylum-seekers to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose,” and provides much-needed community that helps them to feel seen and heard.

“When people think of asylum, they think of attorneys … but people forget that it is incredibly difficult to work with an immigration attorney and fully participate in the process if there are barriers impeding your ability to connect,” says Hodges-Wu.

Through Prism, an LGBTQ support group, AsylumWorks is able to help queer asylum seekers meet their basic needs so that they can adequately focus their energy into the legal immigration process.

Prism provides community for LGBTQ asylum seekers by giving them the opportunity to meet with other queer asylum seekers and forge friendships that lighten the burden of acclimating to the U.S.

“One of the problems our LGBTQ clients face is that many of them are highly distrustful, naturally, of disclosing intimate parts of their history, and their true gender, or sexual orientation,” Geoffrey Louden, Prism’s facilitator, mentions. “Or even if they’re not sure of that, coming to terms with, going into an immigration attorney and recounting their history.”

Given this, Prism hosts weekly Zoom hangouts where individuals talk about any topics that interest them. Topics can range from introspective conversations about identity to light-hearted anecdotes about love prospects.

Prism offers a safe community for LGBTQ asylum seekers to be themselves, feel affirmed, and relate to others amid queer phobia, which can be prevalent in immigrant communities. So, regardless of how tough resettling in the U.S. may become, LGBTQ asylum seekers are guaranteed some sense of warmth and comfort in this organization.

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Iowa

Iowa State Appeal Board settles lawsuits by anti-LGBTQ religious groups

The Christian groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion

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The University of Iowa during Homecoming (Photo Credit: The University of Iowa)

DES MOINES – The Iowa State Appeal Board, made up of Iowa state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Auditor Rob Sand and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, approved disbursing nearly $2 million in state funds to settle two Federal lawsuits brought against the University of Iowa in 2017 after a religious group denied an openly gay student a leadership role. 

According to the Associated Press in a U.S. News article Monday, lawyers for the student group Business Leaders in Christ were awarded $1.37 million in fees and costs for litigating their case. A second student group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, won their federal court case and will be paid $20,000 in damages and about $513,000 in attorney fees.

The groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The monetary amounts were negotiated between the university and the plaintiffs in both cases and approved by a federal judge. Monday’s approval by the State Appeal Board authorizes the state to make the payments the AP reported.

In March of this past Spring, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ after the University of Iowa had ordered group was dismantled in 2017 after claiming the student group violated its Human Rights Policy.

As reported by The Daily Iowan, Marcus Miller, a UI sophomore at the time, filed a discrimination complaint against the Business Leaders in Christ after the group  revoked a leadership position from Miller upon finding out his sexual orientation.

A new law that requires state universities and community colleges to adopt policies that prohibit them from denying benefits to a student organization based on the viewpoint of the group was implemented in 2019.

“In addition, a public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization’s mission,” the law reads.

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New York

New state charges against man who threatened LGBTQ+ New Yorkers

Fehring is being charged with criminal mischief and grand larceny as a hate crime in the Sayville, Long Island case

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Los Angeles Blade file photo by @strekoza.nyc

RIVERHEAD, Ny. – The man arrested by FBI agents on Monday charged in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for mailing letters threatening to assault, shoot, and bomb LGBTQ+ affiliated individuals, organizations, and businesses, was arrested Tuesday on state charges.

Tri-state news outlet News 12 New York reported that Robert Fehring, 74, a resident of Bayport, New York on Long Island, surrendered to Suffolk County police detectives accused of stealing almost two dozen pride flags back in July from Long Railroad Avenue in Sayville.

Eileen Tyznar has organized the LGBTQ parade for the past three years in Sayville. She saysshe lived in fear and would constantly get threatening letters. She is now relieved Fehring was arrested she told News12.

The stolen pride flags inside his home were discovered while executing the Federal search warrant, Suffolk police said.

On November 18, 2021, members of the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force executed a search warrant at Fehring’s home in Bayport, New York, and recovered photographs from a June 2021 Pride event in East Meadow, New York, two loaded shotguns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two stun guns, and a stamped envelope addressed to an LGBTQ+ affiliated attorney containing the remains of a dead bird. 

Fehring is being charged with criminal mischief and grand larceny as a hate crime in the Sayville case.

Robert Fehring, (right) with his attorney Glenn Obedin Tuesday
(Screenshot via News 12 New York)

In the Federal criminal complaint Fehring is accused of sending, according to the complaint, include one this year threatening to shoot a high-powered rifle at a Long Island Pride event in June; another warning a local Chamber of Commerce member that ambulances would be needed if the group allowed an L.G.B.T.Q. event to proceed; and a third describing a Brooklyn barbershop as a “perfect target for a bombing.”

Since at least 2013, Fehring had been sending individuals associated with the LGBTQ+ community letters in which he threatened violence, including threatening the use of firearms and explosives. 

In the criminal complaint and affidavit for arrest, federal prosecutors allege that one letter threatened that there would “be radio-cont[r]olled devices placed at numerous strategic places” at the 2021 New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk,” referencing the 2016 attack in which 49 persons were killed and dozens wounded at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

If convicted, Fehring, whom media outlets in New York identified as a retired high school teacher, band director and track coach, faces up to five years in prison.

Court records show that he sued the Suffolk County police unsuccessfully after being taken into custody in 2010 after an off-duty officer saw him hide a shotgun under a raincoat and bring it into a Long Island office building, the New York Times reported.

Gay City News editor  Matt Tracy reported that Fehring appeared in court on December 6 before Magistrate Judge Steven I. Locke and was released on $100,000 bond. He is restricted to home detention with location monitoring, according to prosecutors. He is not allowed to have any firearms or “destructive devices,” is barred from contacting any of his alleged victims, and cannot go to the places he is said to have targeted.

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District of Columbia

D.C. Trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years in a plea deal

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter is a miscarriage of justice”

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Deeniquia ‘Dee Dee’ Dodds was killed on July 4, 2016. (Photo via Facebook)

WASHINGTON – A D.C. LGBTQ anti-violence group will be submitting a community impact statement for a D.C. Superior Court judge scheduled to sentence two men on Dec. 10 for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in a case D.C. police listed as a hate crime.

Stephania Mahdi, chair of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project, told the Washington Blade the project has been in contact with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., which is prosecuting the case against the two defendants set to be sentenced this week, to arrange for the submission of a statement on the impact the murder of Dodds has had on the community.

The impact statement would also apply to the sentencing of two other men charged in the Dodds murder case who are scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20.

The Dec. 10 sentencing for Jolonta Little, 30, and Monte T. Johnson, 25, was set to take place a little over two months after Little and Johnson pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to a single count of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

In exchange for the guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge of first-degree murder while armed originally brought against the two men. The plea agreement also called for dropping additional charges against them in connection with the Dodds murder, including robbery while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

In addition, the plea agreement includes a promise by prosecutors to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee, who is presiding over the case, to issue a sentence of eight years in prison for both men. Under the D.C. criminal code, a conviction on a voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Johnson has been held without bond for five years and three months since his arrest in the Dodds case in September 2016. Little has been held without bond since his arrest for the Dodds murder in February 2017. Courthouse observers say that judges almost always give defendants credit for time served prior to their sentencing, a development that would likely result in the two men being released in about three years.

The plea deal for the two men came two and a half years after a D.C. Superior Court jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charges against Johnson and Little following a month-long trial, prompting Judge Lee to declare a mistrial on March 6, 2019.

The two other men charged in Dodds’ murder, Shareem Hall, 27, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 25, accepted a separate plea bargain offer by prosecutors shortly before the start of the 2019 trial in which they pled guilty to second-degree murder. Both testified at Johnson and Little’s the trial as government witnesses.

In dramatic testimony, Cyheme Hall told the jury that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after he said she grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s handgun as Johnson and Hall attempted to rob her on Division Ave., N.E., near where she lived. Hall testified that the plan among the four men to rob Dodds did not include the intent to kill her.

In his testimony, Hall said that on the day of Dodd’s murder, he and the other three men made plans to commit armed robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, some of whom were sex workers, congregated. He testified that the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.

D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office initially designated the murder charge against Little and Johnson as an anti-trans hate crime offense based on findings by homicide detectives that the men were targeting trans women for armed robberies. But during Johnson and Little’s trial, Judge Lee dismissed the hate crime designation at the request of defense attorneys on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support a hate crime designation.

At the request of prosecutors, Judge Lee scheduled a second trial for Johnson and Little on the murder charge for Feb. 25, 2020. But court records show the trial date was postponed to June 22, 2020, and postponed several more times – to Jan 11, 2021, and later to Feb. 17, 2022, due to COVID-related restrictions before the plea bargain offer was agreed to in September of this year.  The public court records do not show why the trial was postponed the first few times prior to the start of COVID restrictions on court proceedings.

Legal observers have said long delays in trials, especially murder trials, often make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction because memories of key witnesses sometimes become faulty several years after a crime was committed.

“The D.C. Anti-Violence Project is disappointed to hear about the unfortunate proceedings in the case to bring justice for Dee Dee Dodds,” Mahdi, the Anti-Violence Project’s chair, told the Blade in a statement.

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter as well as a reduction of years in sentencing from 30 to 8 communicates not only a miscarriage of justice, but a message of penalization for victims who attempt to protect themselves during a violent assault,” Mahdi said. “The continual impact of reducing the culpability of perpetrators who target members of specifically identified communities sends a malicious message to criminals that certain groups of people are easier targets with lenient consequences,” she said.

“As a result of this pattern, the D.C. community has failed to defend the life and civil rights of Dee Dee Dodds and leaves criminally targeted LGBTQ+ community and other cultural identity communities critically undervalued by stewards of justice in the nation’s capital,” Mahdi concluded.  

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has declined to disclose the reason why prosecutors decided to offer Johnson and Little the plea bargain deal rather than petition the court for a second trial for the two men on the first-degree murder charge.

Attorneys familiar with cases like this, where a jury becomes deadlocked, have said prosecutors sometimes decide to offer a plea deal rather than go to trial again out of concern that another jury could find a defendant not guilty on all charges.

During the trial, defense attorneys told the jury that the Hall brothers were habitual liars and there were inconsistencies in their testimony. They argued that the Halls’ motives were aimed strictly at saying what prosecutors wanted them to say so they could get off with a lighter sentence.

The two prosecutors participating in the trial disputed those claims, arguing that government witnesses provided strong evidence that Johnson and Little should be found guilty of first-degree murder and other related charges.

Before the jury announced it was irreconcilably deadlocked on the murder charges, the jury announced it found Little not guilty of seven separate counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and found Johnson not guilty of five counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

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