Becoming American

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This week, I become an American citizen, 27 years after coming to the United States.

Like most immigrants, I emigrated to the United States for its promise of opportunity, freedom, and equality. My parents had sacrificed much to send my brother and me to the best private school in the Philippines, but it was not enough to secure financial stability, much less upward mobility. As a young gay man, I was stifled by the cultural and social expectations of the time. I decided that moving to New York City would allow my family to save face and me to live and love openly and with integrity, while pursuing opportunities waiting for me. Like millions of other immigrants, I shared the American Dream of prosperity and happiness.

The seeds of this dream were planted over a century ago, when the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898. The fact is, immigration is an unintended consequence of imperialism. At the turn of the twentieth century, Filipino farm workers were recruited to provide cheap labor in Hawaiian sugar plantations. At the same time, Filipino students were sent to the U.S. mainland to be educated as future administrators of the Philippines. Life for these men was difficult but they persevered and many stayed, building new lives that seemed golden to many back home, including my maternal grandfather.

Lolo Pedong loved everything American. He named his first child, my mother Georgena, after the first president of the United States. He regaled us, his grandchildren, with World War II stories and praised MacArthur for keeping his promise and saving Filipinos from Japanese perdition. He repeatedly told us the story of young George Washington and the poor cherry tree.

It is no surprise then that my uncle settled in rural Mississippi in the 1960s to serve poor whites, blacks, and Choctaws as their general physician. Thanks to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, he was then able to bring my grandparents and unmarried uncle and aunts to the United States in the 1970s. This change in immigration policy also permitted my paternal aunts to stake their fortune in America. But the law had its limits and my family remained in the Philippines.

Nonetheless, my family never stopped gazing at America. How could we not? Life under the Marcos dictatorship was hopeless and good things came from my aunts and uncles in America: U.S. dollars and balikbayan boxes filled with mac and cheese boxes, Spam tins, Hershey’s chocolate, name-brand clothes, and other American delights. We were weaned on Sesame Street and entertained by Hollywood.

On July 7, 1990, armed with my parents’ blessing and $1500, I came to America and never looked back. I put myself through grad school, received my Master’s degree, then my doctoral degree, I’ve had three careers in small business, nonprofits, and now, in academia. I met and married the man of my dreams and we live comfortably in the greatest city in the world.

But until this week, something was missing. A sense of stability and rootedness. A basic confirmation of who I know I’ve been for quite some time now: an American.

Citizenship had been elusive for me, not for lack of desire or want of trying. Immigrants can become citizens through employment or marriage. Employment was never a viable option and marriage was denied to me and my husband until 2010, 12 years after we got together. Our union was not recognized by the federal government until 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision finally paved the way for me.

America has its flaws and my path to becoming American has been long, and at times, challenging. But America is in my heart. This is my home, this is my land, and these are my people.

Originally published on HuffPost.

 

 

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I March

img_9663I march
Not because I’ve lost faith.

I march
Because I believe
No matter our gender
No matter our skin color
No matter our faith
No matter where we’re born
No matter who we love
We are all equal
Each deserving a happy
and meaningful life.

I march
Because I believe
We are responsible for one another
Accountable to each other
Not just to ourselves,
families, tribes
Not to our narrow self-interests
Not to our resentments
Not to our anxieties
and fears.

I march
Because I have faith
Together we can
Change our neighborhood,
city, town, and country
Change our world
Lift each other up
Equals in grace
and abundance.

New York City
January 21, 2017

What About LGBT Refugees in the United States?

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A line in a recent Christian Science Monitor article asks, “Are children fleeing Central American violence refugees who need asylum or illegal gold-diggers who need to go home?”

Politicians, talking heads, policymakers, and those of us interested in immigration have been transfixed by the surge of unaccompanied minors at our southern border. Whether these children are refugees worthy of asylum will eventually be determined by immigration courts, if and when their cases finally get there.

Another group fleeing violence but not getting as much press — if any at all — are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) refugees. In a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the Heartland Alliance estimates that around 3,500 LGBT refugees arrive in the country annually. Another 1,250 are granted asylum every year.

Arriving in small numbers, they tend to fly under the public’s radar. Some also choose to remain in the shadows, due in part to the conservatism of their own ethnic communities. LGBT refugees might enjoy more freedoms here, but they often live among fellow immigrants, who tend to be more socially and religiously conservative than native-born Americans.

Queer women and men flee their homelands because of the oppression they suffer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They are routinely subject to human rights abuses, including sexual assault and corrective rape, physical violence, torture, imprisonment, and murder. In Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, people can be put to death for same-sex conduct. In an additional 76 countries, LGBTs can be imprisoned for living openly. While gay and transgender people are still subject to discrimination in some parts of the United States, their rights are generally and increasingly protected.

In a post for Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog, I discussed the crucial role immigrant organizations play in the lives of immigrants. These community-based nonprofits are community centers, social service providers, advocates, and network builders. They prop up the immigrant safety net. However, there are not enough to serve the needs of immigrant communities.

There are far fewer organizations for refugees. In 2012, over 58,179 refugees were admitted into the country and 29,484 individuals were granted asylum. A quick search on the National Center for Charitable Statistics database reveals a mere 128 community-based organizations dedicated to refugee relief.

Aside from limited capacities, these organizations are rarely equipped to deal with the housing, employment, medical, mental health, safety, and legal needs of LGBT refugees. While gay and transgender refugees avail of the same services as other refugees, they benefit from a sensitivity resulting from an awareness of queer concerns and realities. In 2011, ORR Director Eskinder Negash expressed concern for the lack of resource materials tailored for LGBT refugees, which are critical to their successful resettlement and integration: “The current resettlement network has limited understanding of the LGBT community.”

A lot of work is left to be done, from advancing international and domestic policies protecting queer refugees to increasing the number and capacities of refugee relief and resettlement organizations. But it all begins with education and storytelling. A trickle of LGBT refugees, however, simply isn’t as compelling as a tsunami of undocumented child migrants.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog and the Huffington Post.

Marriage Equality on Hold in Utah But Progress is Inevitable

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January 6, 2014; Washington Post

On December 20, lesbian and gay Utahans got a surprise holiday gift from U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby, who ruled that the state’s ban on same-gender unions was unconstitutional. Hundreds of couples rushed to get marriage licenses, resulting in what Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker called a “thrilling pandemonium.” Within a week, close to 1,000 marriage licenses were issued to gay couples, easily shattering records and providing counties with thousands of dollars in revenue.

The ruling caught conservative Utah by surprise, and state lawyers scrambled to halt marriages, asking both Shelby and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency stay as Shelby’s decision was being appealed. The requests were not granted, prompting the state’s Attorney General’s office to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court took away the gift of legal unions from same-sex couples who were about to get licenses and left those who got married during the past two weeks in legal limbo. The justices gave no indication which argument convinced them to halt marriage equality in Utah or who among them dissented.

Opponents of the freedom to marry may count this as a victory, but the tide has long turned. Not counting Utah, 17 states and the District of Columbia have sanctioned unions for couples who happen to be of the same gender. A majority of Americans view marriage equality favorably. Moreover, in states all across the union, lesbian and gay couples are fighting in the courts for their right to marry. However the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Utah, there are many cases in the pipeline. It can only get messier. In time, though, all couples will be recognized, not by their biology but by their love and commitment.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly.

Just Say No to Red Kettles?

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December 14, 2013; Christian Post

It’s once again the time of year when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community points an accusatory finger at the Salvation Army and wags another at anyone who drops a dollar into a red kettle. Activists argue that the Salvation Army is prejudiced against LGBT people and encourage everyone to donate their money elsewhere. The religious organization counters that they do not discriminate and that they serve all those in need, including homosexuals.

Through a public relations firm, the Salvation Army told the Christian Post that their “mission is clear: to provide services to those in need without discrimination. The Salvation Army treats everyone with equal love, dignity and respect regardless of who they are. We are especially proud of our service to thousands of LGBT community members each and every day.”

As a matter of fact, the nonprofit has taken steps to appease the queer community. Last month, the Salvation Army dropped links to two ex-gay ministries, which it had listed as sexual addiction resources, from its website. This garnered the applause and gratitude of Truth Wins Out, a “non-profit organization that works to demolish the very foundation of anti-gay prejudice.”

No Red Kettles, an online community, is not as forgiving. A blog post explains that the issue is not about who is being served or not. “Our objections to the Salvation Army lie in their continued promotion of a bigoted ideology, and how they have used their clients as bargaining chips while discriminating against their LGBT employees,” Sarah writes. She gives a couple of examples from the group’s history of Salvation Army discrimination, including turning down government contracts, which resulted in closure of homeless and elderly programs, so as not to provide spousal benefits to same-gender couples.

Another No Red Kettles blogger, Lauren, dismisses any olive branch the Salvation Army offers because “the church has yet to repudiate any of its explicitly anti-gay beliefs.”

The Salvation Army will not declare gay is okay any time soon. It is a Christian organization, and an evangelical one at that. Like the pope, it is softening its image, but the core dogma remains intact. So, as you walk by the cheerful bell ringers and contemplate tossing money into the red kettle, stop and ask yourself, “Do I want to keep the Salvation Army and its ideology going, or would I rather donate to another organization?”

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly.

Moving Beyond Marriage Equality

A couple of days ago, my husband and I were interviewed by an immigration adjudicator. The gentleman deemed our relationship legit, approved us on the spot, and told us to expect a green card in the mail. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling upending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he treated our marriage just like any other. My spouse and I are very fortunate.

Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants are as fortunate, however. The Williams Institute estimates that about 7,000 gay couples are both non-citizens, and that approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants identify as LGBT. These individuals do not benefit from the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform. A path to legalization will free them from the shadows to become more productive, engaged, and committed members of our society.

On Thursday, the president once again called for passage of immigration reform. He rightfully argues that fixing our immigration system is good for our economy and our national security, and, ultimately, for all of us.

“It doesn’t make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any incentive or any way for them to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, meet their responsibilities and permit their families then to move ahead,” President Obama said. “It’s not smart. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

As we celebrate breathtaking progress on the marriage equality front, we need to be mindful that other pressing issues beset our community. We can be fired in 29 states for being ourselves. Our transgender sisters and brothers are not welcome in the military. We suffer poverty more than straight people, especially those of us who are of color. And too many in our community are further marginalized by their immigration status. Just as we rallied behind the freedom to marry, let us rally behind the freedom to live, love, and work in this country of immigrants.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

Syria, Sochi & Gay Rights at the G20 Summit

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Leaders of the world’s top economies meet in St. Petersburg this week for the G20 Summit and global economic recovery is on top of the agenda. The crisis in Syria, however, overshadows the gathering, with Obama and Putin circling each other and Hollande and Xi on their respective corners.

Gay rights advocates were hoping President Obama would put the spotlight on Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Human Rights First (HRF), an advocacy organization that “challenges America to live up to its ideals,” released a report last week, which documents the violent crackdown on the LGBT community in Russia, traces the evolution of the country’s homophobic laws, and explains the broader context that spurred Putin’s escalating repression of dissent and personal freedoms. The report also recommends actions Mr. Obama can take while in St. Petersburg.

“It is moments like this that test U.S. leadership and commitment to human rights,” argues Innokenty Grekov, author of the HRF report. “President Obama has pledged leadership on LGBT rights and that leadership is needed now.”

Indeed, Mr. Obama, along with former and current Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have advanced the cause of human rights for gay and transgender people worldwide. It is highly unlikely, however, that LGBT rights, much less the 2014 winter games, will be at the forefront in St. Petersburg. The use of chemical weapons in the murder of more than 1,400 innocent civilians, including hundreds of children, is more urgent. President Obama and his team will understandably focus on Syria and the economic concerns behind the summit.

Buzzfeed does report that Mr. Obama has invited representatives of LGBT groups to join a scheduled meeting with other Russian civil society activists. While the human rights advocates’ presence would no doubt annoy and embarrass Mr. Putin, the issue of the Winter Olympics will be one of many other concerns NGOs will put before President Obama.

It can be argued that it is strategic not to beleaguer the point on Sochi for now and avoid backlash when LGBT rights advocates are perceived or portrayed as insensitive to the horrific carnage in Damascus.

This is not to say that LGBT lives are of lesser value. They are of equal worth to any other, deserving of the same dignity and fundamental rights. In a way, gay and transgender people in Russia and so many other countries that oppress sexual minorities die a slower death, decimated one at a time through savage murder, disease, and suicide. The magnitude of this massacre is not readily apparent and does not elicit outrage.

The Syrian people, the Russian LGBT community, and sexual minorities worldwide do share one horrible thing in common. They are mere objects to many of their leaders and governments, disposable in the quest for power and control.

So while Sochi might take a back seat in St. Petersburg this week, LGBT rights are human rights and the fight for human rights will continue.

Reposted on the Huffington Post.

Why a Gay Asian Immigrant Marches

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Image: AFP Getty

I was born years after the March on Washington in 1963 and came to the United States 27 years after hundreds of thousands demonstrated for jobs and civil rights. Nonetheless, I felt the need to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and so many other nameless women and men who marched and fought for the American promise of equality and opportunity. So am I compelled to be part of the ongoing march for social and economic justice.

Fifty years ago, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and LGBT communities were not even visible in the civil rights movement. However, Asian and gay Americans took part in the struggle, having experienced discrimination and marginalization themselves.

During the anti-Chinese movement of the 1800s, Chinese immigrants were lynched and murdered. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended immigration from China and prevented Chinese immigrants and their native-born children from becoming U.S. citizens. In 1929, anti-Filipino riots erupted in California, after Filipino men displaced white farm hands and socialized with white women. In 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which revoked the rights of Japanese Americans and sent over 100,000 women, men, and children to internment camps scattered throughout the United States. Five years later, President Truman signed the Rescission Act of 1946 which took away veterans benefits pledged to 250,000 Filipino service members who courageously fought for America in World War II.

Until the 1960s, most lesbians and gay men remained closeted, fearful of being identified as homosexuals and deviants. Thousands of service women and men had been dishonorably discharged during the Second World War. Homosexuals, along with Communists, had been deemed threats to national security and hunted down during the McCarthy era. Women and men who were suspected of being homosexual lost their jobs and were ostracized. Gay bars and establishments were regularly raided. Gay men were routinely entrapped by undercover police officers.

Today, the AAPI and LGBT communities are visible, marching alongside African American and Latino communities, in the continued struggle for equality and opportunity.

Although the model minority myth persists, nearly two million AAPIs live in poverty. The community suffers the highest rate of long-term unemployment of any group in the United States. A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Urban Institute reports AAPIs face significant housing discrimination. At the polls, lack of language assistance and voter ID laws hinder Asian Americans from exercising their right to vote. Since 911, South Asian and Muslim Americans have been racially profiled by law enforcement agencies.

The myth of gay affluence also belies the fact that poverty rates for LGBT adults are higher than for heterosexual adults. Nearly a quarter of bisexual and gay women are poor and LGBT people of color are more likely to live in poverty than their straight counterparts. Transgender people are four times as likely to survive on less than $10,000 a year and twice as likely to be unemployed as the typical American. A HUD report found lesbian and gay couples experienced unfavorable treatment in the rental housing market. Even though queer people are more visible and have won major legislative and legal victories, they continue to be victims of hate crimes. Transgender women of color in particular are regularly brutalized and murdered for being true to themselves.

As a queer immigrant of color, as a member of the AAPI, LGBT, and immigrant communities, as one who abides by the American dream, I march. Our nation’s future does not belong to one community, it belongs to all of us. But as President Obama exhorts us, we should not turn from or on each other but towards one another.

“The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate.  But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”

And so we march on together, with the dream that 50 years from now we will have a more perfect Union.

Also on the Huffington Post.

Immigration: At the Intersection of Race and Sexual Orientation

Last month, I had to stop working because immigration authorities told me so. This week, I am cutting my vacation short because they want to “capture” my biometrics. But it’s all good. After 23 years dealing with our immigration system, it looks like I finally have a clear path to citizenship. Granted, an additional six years at least, but an end is nonetheless in sight. Now that my marriage is recognized by the federal government, my American husband has sponsored me for a green card. My immigration status changed, so I had to resign from my job. Our application is apparently moving along, so the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) wants to record my biometrics. The work permit, provisional green card, permanent green card, and finally, citizenship, should follow in good order within the next few years, barring any surprises.

I am one of the luckier ones. Many of “my people” – queer folks and Asians – are not as fortunate.

Most Americans think of immigration as a Latino issue. Many are beginning to learn, however, that it is also an Asian issue. About 9 percent of undocumented immigrants are from Asia. Family reunification stymied by backlogs is a major concern for Asian Americans.

Some Americans might think that immigration is no longer a gay issue since Americans and U.S. permanent residents can now sponsor their same-gender spouses. But immigration remains an LGBT issue. At least 267,000 undocumented LGBT adult immigrants live in the United States. A mere fraction are married to citizens or permanent residents. Individuals persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity flee their home countries to seek refuge in our country.

The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) recently released Uncovering Our Stories: The Voices of LGBT AAPI Immigrants, a campaign to help the public understand that immigration intersects ethnicity and sexual orientation. Linda Khoy, daughter of Cambodian refugees, relates how her family painfully learned the difference between being permanent residents and U.S. citizens when her sister was put into deportation proceedings. Urooj Arshad, a Pakistani immigrant, talks about the unique challenges faced by queer Muslims of color. Alex Ong, an Indonesian asylee, explains why he is unable to reunite with his parents who had been denied refuge in the U.S. I also tell my story and share why I care about immigration reform, even though I now have a way out of the deep immigration tunnel so many immigrants find themselves in.

Immigration is not one racial group’s issue. Neither is it a straight or queer issue. Immigration impacts all of us and it is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

Also on the Huffington Post.

Uncovering Our Stories: Erwin de Leon from Mia Nakano & Visibility Project on Vimeo.

DOMA and the States: What are the Next Strategic Steps for LGBT Groups?

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June 26, 2013; ABC News

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations are celebrating Wednesday’s Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, major victories in the fight for civil rights. The Court overturned DOMA’s Article 3, which prohibited the U.S. government from recognizing legal marriages of gay women and men and denied gay married couples over 1,100 benefits enjoyed by their straight counterparts. The Supreme Court justices also let stand a lower court ruling that struck down Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that defined marriage as between one woman and one man.

Because of DOMA, gay U.S. citizens were not able to petition for green cards for their foreign-born spouses. Rachel B. Tiven, Executive Director of Immigration Equality, said, “Many of our families have waited years, and in some cases decades, for the green card they need to keep their families together. Couples forced into exile will be coming home soon. Americans separated from their spouses are now able to prepare for their reunion. Today’s ruling is literally a life-changing one for those who have suffered under DOMA and our discriminatory immigration laws.”

“Antiquated laws like Proposition 8 and DOMA disproportionately harm LGBT people of color, and ultimately our nation,” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, in a statement released after the rulings were announced. “Today is a victorious day for our community, our families, and our love.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also applauded the development, but pointed out “there’s much work ahead of us to ensure that every couple can fully enjoy the recognition Justice Kennedy so eloquently wrote about in the majority opinion in Windsor.”

Although gay married couples are now entitled to federal benefits, access can be an issue in states that do not have marriage equality. As NPR’s Liz Halloran explains, “Some federal agencies adhere to what is known as a ‘place of celebration’ standard. That means no matter where a couple is legally married anywhere in the world, the union is recognized for the purpose of federal benefits. But other agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, hew to a ‘place of residence’ standard. Marriage has to be recognized in the place the couple is living for them to be eligible for those federal spousal benefits.”

“We have an obligation to ensure every same-sex couple—whether they live in Arkansas or New York, Kansas or California, can share in today’s emotional and deserved victory,” said Griffin. “We have momentum on our side, and it’s only a matter of time until the remaining parts of DOMA are entirely repealed.”

LGBT groups are already looking ahead at what remains to be done. Aside from fully getting rid of DOMA and establishing marriage equality in all states, advocacy groups are also working at addressing the many other issues faced by the LGBT community, such as workplace discrimination, violence, and the marginalization of queer people of color.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly