In America, Carine can hold Gertrude’s hand and not be beaten. It’s amazing to them both.
On Market Street in San Francisco, they can push their baby in a stroller and not be spit upon for being witches or demons of sin – as lesbians are back in their home villages in Cameroon.
In that West African country, being convicted of homosexuality brings years of prison, just as it does in Uganda, Afghanistan and 74 other nations. That’s why Carine and Gertrude have fled to America, as have an increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people each year from countries including this month’s Winter Olympics host, Russia.
They are the lucky ones who got away, but their freedom is not sealed. Not yet.
Gertrude, 34, made it out of Cameroon in July and was granted asylum in the United States in December. Carine, 30, managed to escape to San Francisco in November with their 1-year-old daughter, Eldine – but although Carine won asylum Tuesday, the baby’s future is uncertain.
If she doesn’t gain asylum status from immigration officials, she could be forced to go back to their homeland, where her future would be murky at best and tragic at worst.
Rapes and beatings
Cameroon is where Gertrude was raped and pounded into a coma several years ago by a band of men who guessed she was a lesbian. It’s where a relative who was furious upon discovering the couple’s homosexuality threatened to put Eldine up for adoption, and while pummeling Carine dropped the baby on her head, causing damage that doctors are still assessing.
“None of us can go back, for so many reasons,” said Carine, who like Gertrude did not want her last name used out of fear that government officials or antigay activists in Cameroon will target their families. “But I do not believe that will happen. I believe in God, I know we are not demons for our homosexuality, and I know we are lucky.”
Gertrude is lucky because she survived the attack that left her unconscious for five days. One of her friends was raped so savagely in the same assault that she died. A third friend beaten with them was left paralyzed.
Carine is lucky because she also survived beatings, and because their baby – borne by Gertrude, through donated sperm – is alive and has a chance at health with the American medical system.
“This baby, our baby, is the reason I am alive today,” Carine said, patting Eldine’s head. “When things were their hardest, I told myself, ‘I can’t fail. I must find a way over to America, for her sake.’ “
She was walking along Market Street as she talked, pushing the baby’s stroller and holding hands with Gertrude. They chatted easily in French or English with thick French accents.
But even though nobody stared, Carine was still nervous.
“Kiss me,” Gertrude said, grabbing Carine around the waist. “Nobody is looking. This is America!”
Carine grinned and turned away. “You have to get used to what the new things are,” she said. “These ways are good, but they are new.” Gertrude laughed and nuzzled her cheek.
An exchange like that could draw death at the hands of a mob in Cameroon, said their lawyer, Diana Kruze of Morrison and Foerster in San Francisco. She is handling the asylum case pro bono for the couple, who have no savings and no income, and are living in a homeless shelter. They fled with only the clothing they wore.
Life or death
“You can be arrested in Cameroon, and in so many countries like it, just on suspicion of being gay,” Kruze said. “Their choice really is: stay here and live, or go home and face death.”
Kruze applied for asylum status in December for Eldine with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services office in San Francisco. Officials there rejected her request for an expedited decision Jan. 18, which means the family may now have to wait months for a determination – which is typical for such requests.
The couple’s argument is the same others have been making since 1990 in the United States, when the Justice Department removed homosexuality as a reason for denying immigration: Living in a homeland hostile to LGBT rights is untenable because of persecution and threats. Once the government grants asylum, a recipient can stay and work in the U.S. indefinitely.
The probability of persecution and threats back home appears to be in little doubt for Gertrude, Carine and their daughter.
Gertrude was an activist for the rights of women and people with AIDS – and as secretly as possible, for LGBT people, too – and made it out when she came to Los Angeles to promote a documentary about LGBT oppression in Cameroon, called “Born This Way.” Carine, a human resources manager for the government, went into hiding with the baby as the movie started getting Internet buzz in Cameroon.
‘Cannot go back’
While she was hiding, their friend Eric Lembembe was murdered in his village for being an LGBT activist, according to Cameroonian press reports. Carine and Eldine finally managed to sneak out with the help of refugee advocates and Kruze and her asylum legal colleagues. The airline flights that brought them and Gertrude to San Francisco were arranged by the same circle of supporters.
“This baby cannot go back to Cameroon,” Kruze said. “The death threats that Gertrude and Carine were getting also targeted her, some of them calling her the seed of the devil. It would be incredibly cruel to send her back there.”
The couple are putting one foot in front of the other, and trying hard not dwell on the possibility of disaster after coming so far.
“It’s been a long road and a hard road,” Gertrude said. “But we have a family now. People don’t call me a devil here and threaten to kill me.
“I miss my job there. I felt I was doing something important. But maybe I can help people here, too.”
More wanting to flee
She and Carine are among a rising tide of LGBT immigrants fleeing oppression for life in the U.S. Advocates say the number has grown from a couple of hundred cases a year two decades ago to nearly 3,000.
Their plight is gaining more attention with the approaching Winter Olympics in Russia, which outlawed gay pride events in June and banned speaking out in defense of gay causes. Since then, the number of requests from LGBT people in Russia for U.S. asylum or refugee status has gone from dozens to hundreds, advocates say.
Russia is not the only country taking stringent measures against gays.
In January, Nigeria made it illegal for LGBT people to hold meetings or create clubs, punishable by 14 years in prison. Uganda’s parliament passed a law mandating life behind bars for homosexuality.
Iran and Yemen are among seven countries that have the death penalty for homosexuality, and gay rights advocates predict Uganda could join their ranks in coming years.
“These things against homosexuality are a matter of country, tradition and religion,” said Luzau Balowa, who was tortured, stabbed and jailed for his LGBT and AIDS activism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was born. “Can it ever change for gay people in countries like Congo, or at least any time soon? No – they don’t have a chance there.”
Balowa fled to the U.S. in 2008, settled in Las Vegas and soon started the African Rights Activists Group, which connects African refugees in this country for mutual support.
“It is good to be away from the oppression, but once you get here it is hard being in a new city, a new country, with no job or money,” Balowa said. “Over in Africa, I was working for a magazine and making a living, and speaking out. Here you have to start from scratch. It is a lot to learn.”
There are several other organizations like Balowa’s that advocate for exiled LGBT people, but the only one that devotes itself only to unsnarling the thicket of laws on behalf of LGBT refugees is the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, located in San Francisco. In its five years of existence, the number of people the group has helped escape has gone from a trickle to about 20 every year.
“When LGBT people leave oppression overseas, they often want to come here to San Francisco, of course, but it is not always easy,” said Deputy Director Tiela Chalmers. “This is one of the most expensive cities in America, and your typical refugee has very few resources. So we often have to help people find places to live outside of the city.
“You also can’t automatically put refugees with others from their home country,” Chalmers added. “Take a country like, say, Senegal, where being gay is criminalized – you might find the same attitude here among immigrants from Senegal that you would find back home.”
So far, Gertrude and Carine have encountered mainly welcoming arms in the Bay Area. Homeless agencies hooked them up with shelter, medical treatment, diapers and other aid, and the pro bono lawyers and new friends hosted them for holidays. Kruze and her colleagues organize play dates with Eldine and their children.
Gertrude has already bet on a future in America, completing training this month to become a security guard. Friends she made here helped her with the training fees, and continue to assist the couple with clothing, a little cash for spending and other small things they need to get by.
The other day the family was headed through the Tenderloin to a pharmacy for medicine for the baby. They passed dozens of homeless people sprawled on the sidewalk, two loudly contested crack deals, and one mentally ill man who screamed obscenities at everyone.
“These things, they do not happen in our home country,” Carine said, shaking her head. “How can you sell these drugs on the road like this? We will find ourselves a good life that does not have these things around us.”
Gertrude wrapped an arm around her.
“Anywhere with you, I will be OK,” she murmured close to Carine’s ear. “We will be OK.”
Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected]
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