Helping LGBTQ asylum-seekers and immigrants destined for Seattle

Jacque Larrainzar is LGBTQ refugee immigrant outreach specialist for Seattle Counseling Service, was granted political asylum in the U.S. based on her sexual orientation. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Jacque Larrainzar is LGBTQ refugee immigrant outreach specialist for Seattle Counseling Service, was granted political asylum in the U.S. based on her sexual orientation. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Seattle is a destination city. Some people are lured here by natural beauty. Others are pulled by our startup culture. And for years our city’s thriving LGBTQ scene has been a draw for transplants from less gay-friendly parts of the country.

Local service providers say the LGBTQ population is even growing from outside U.S. borders, though data and resources have yet to catch up.

“SCS [Seattle Counseling Service] decided this year that they wanted to know more about immigrant, refugee and undocumented LGBTQ people,” says Jacque Larrainzar, who is designing and conducting a survey for the LGBTQ service provider to find out needs and service gaps in the community. “There’s nothing that tells us their needs around behavioral health or what kind of issues they’re dealing with.”

Larrainzar knows first hand the consequences of not having the right resources as a newcomer to the United States. In 1997, Larrainzar became the first lesbian from Mexico to win political asylum based on sexual orientation. But those first years here were tough. Larrainzar says therapists and lawyers often didn’t understand Mexico’s political climate or LGBTQ issues.

“When I talked to attorneys, they didn’t know anything about LGBT people,” says Larrainzar, who experienced death threats and torture in Mexico as a result of organizing for LGBTQ rights. “They didn’t know anything that was happening in Mexico regarding human-rights abuses.”

That gap between international LGBTQ communities and resources, such as culturally competent legal aid, is the reason Larrainzar has helped launch the “Immigrant, Refugee and Undocumented Outreach Project.” In addition to surveying communities, the project will provide training on LGBTQ needs to organizations that work with the international community. The project also has teamed up with AsylumConnect, a national database linking LGBTQ asylum-seekers with important resources.

The database is currently being piloted here in Seattle, chosen for our city’s large international and gay communities. AsylumConnect hopes to help LGBTQ asylum-seekers, people escaping persecution in their own countries, with resources like LGBTQ-friendly homeless shelters, soup kitchens, legal aid and medical care.

AsylumConnect co-founder Sayid Abdullaev, who often shortens his name to Sy Abdull, says asylum-seekers are particularly vulnerable. Unlike refugees, who receive legal status before they enter the United States and are eligible for services when they arrive, asylum-seekers often spend years in the U.S. in status limbo waiting for their cases to be decided.

During this time, they don’t qualify for many services, and without the database, they could easily end up seeking help in places that are untrained in LGBTQ needs or that are unsafe for LGBTQ people.

Abdull, who himself was granted asylum this year after his life was threatened in his home country of Kyrgyzstan, says AsylumConnect is as much about creating awareness as it is about building a resource hub.

“LGBTQ asylum-seekers is such a new concept,” says Abdull, who adds that it’s only been a little over two decades since the U.S. first recognized sexual orientation as a basis for asylum. “Not a lot of people are aware it’s important to have cultural competency when working with LGBTQ communities.”

It may be a new phenomenon, but it’s likely to grow. The Williams Institute, a national think tank, estimates that there are at least 267,000 LGBTQ-identified undocumented adults living in the United States. And Abdull says that number, which could include asylum-seekers or potential asylum-seekers, is expanding.

“With the rise of LGBT rights in the U.S., there is a decline of those same rights in developing countries,” says Abdull, who added that an anti-gay law is currently working its way through the Kyrgyzstan’s parliament. “Being gay is illegal in 77 countries.”

And Larrainzar believes many LGBTQ people escaping persecution in those countries are dreaming of Seattle, making it the perfect city for the SCS initiative and the database pilot.

“So if you Google ‘LGBT friendly cities,’ Seattle is going to pop up,” says Larrainzar. “So a lot of people know if they come here they can have a better life.”

And that’s something our city should be proud of.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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