Two years ago, Seattle Counseling Service, the nation’s oldest LGBT-focused mental-health agency, wanted to provide more services to immigrants and refugees in the LGBT community. However, there was a problem: Virtually no research had ever been done on the subject. It was unknown how many LGBT immigrants and refugees lived in the United States, much less Seattle, nor what their needs were.
So to get better data, SCS hooked up with Jacque Larrainzar, who in addition to being an accomplished activist and guitar player, is also the first lesbian from Mexico to ever get U.S. asylum based on sexuality. “Seattle was as far from Mexico City as I could get with the money I had, and I’ve been here ever since,” Larrainzar says of her adopted hometown.
Before Larrainzar started her survey, only one other such study on gay immigrants in America had been conducted—by Dr. Karma Chavez of the University of Wisconsin—and it surveyed only nine people, all Latino. Larrainzar wanted to survey 100. She still remembers Chavez’s reaction when she told her her goal: “She said I was crazy!” There was no way even a dozen immigrants, refugees, or asylum-seekers would ever openly admit to being gay, Chavez warned. Since most of them already have to deal with racism, they don’t want to add another topping of discrimination that could ostracize them from everybody who speaks their language. According to Larrainzar, there are also practical reasons immigrants can’t come out: Many are supported by religious organizations that look poorly on LGBT issues. “For many immigrants, churches are the most important things in their lives,” she says.
Despite these challenges, when the survey ended in early 2016, Larrainzar had interviewed 52 people, collecting information including what services they needed (housing, health care, counseling) and what problems they deal with (religious discrimination, different cultural ideas about sexuality). Although Larrainzar surveyed nowhere near as many people as she’d wanted, it’s still the most comprehensive survey on the needs of gay immigrants ever conducted.
She met a trans woman from Vietnam who could talk about her gender only in English because Vietnamese was too restrictive. She met a man from Africa who gladly talked about enjoying “loving sexual relationships with men” but refused to identify as “gay” because in his country it had connotations of witchcraft and being un-African. There was an Iraqi lesbian who desperately wanted to know how to find a Muslim date in Seattle. There are undoubtedly countless others with the same concerns. And while Larrainzar didn’t meet her goal, she’s sure she did better last year than she could have now, with the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance toward immigrants. “If people were afraid then, now is terrifying,” she says.
Still, “There are very few places in the world where you can be yourself,” Larrainzar says; Seattle is one, and is becoming more so. One program for which her data has been helpful is Asylum Connect, the first online directory of services specifically for LGBT asylum-seekers, refugees, and undocumented immigrants, and it has chosen Seattle as its pilot city. It tells you where to find everything, from places to shower to where to watch gay-friendly foreign films. Above all, it provides a list of mental-health-care providers who specialize in helping LGBT people of color.
But it’s one thing for people to know where to seek help, another for them actually to seek it. Ricardo Gonzalez, program coordinator for Seattle Counseling Service, says that ever since Trump’s travel ban was announced, fear of deportation has spiked, and it will probably make many people reluctant to seek help. SCS commissioned Larrainzar’s survey, and is now implementing an Immigrant, Refugee, and Undocumented Outreach Program based on Larrainzar’s data.
Gonzalez is also picking up on data collection where Larrainzar left off, since under Trump the entire landscape has changed. A big question for Gonzalez is what conditions undocumented trans people are dealing with in immigrant detention centers. A couple of people inside are giving him data, but again the collection process is difficult.
“People are scared right now, but whatever you write, I don’t want people thinking there’s no hope,” he says. “Seattle Counseling Service exists to help people, and find new ways to help more people. If anybody is worried they can call us.”
That number: 206-323-1768.