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Asylum bids cite sexuality

More immigrants who are gay or transgender say that imperils them in their homelands.

WORCESTER, Mass. - For weeks, Nathaniel Cunningham and his boyfriend secretly lived together in rural Jamaica. They showed no affection in public and rarely spoke to neighbors.

Then one morning, Cunningham picked up a local newspaper with a front-page story headlined, "Homosexual Prostitutes Move into Residential Neighborhood." His address was listed below.

For days afterward, Cunningham said, an angry mob gathered on his lawn hurling rocks and bricks and calling them "batty boys" - a Jamaican slang term for gay. Eventually, the pair grabbed what they could and fled on foot. Cunningham said neither he nor his boyfriend was a prostitute - the slur was just another example of the abuse that gay men faced in Jamaica.

The story was one of many that Cunningham, now 32 and living in Worcester, recently shared with a federal immigration judge in his successful bid to win asylum in the United States. It is similar to other stories cited by a small but growing number of other gay, lesbian, and transgender asylum-seekers who are using U.S. immigration courts to argue that their sexual orientation makes it too dangerous for them to return home.

"I had no choice," said Andre Azevedo, 39, a transgender man from Brazil who recently won asylum and now lives in New York. "Where I'm from, heterosexual men practice hate crimes against us like a sport, and the police do nothing to stop it."

In 1994, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in a case that persecution based on sexual orientation could be potential grounds for asylum. Until recently, those grounds have rarely been used.

But now, immigrant and gay activists say, more asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean are citing sexual orientation. Activists say the asylum-seekers are escaping violence and death threats from places where homosexuality is either outlawed or strongly, socially shunned.

Federal immigration law allows people asylum if they can prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Those applying for asylum are already in the United States, legally or illegally.

No one knows for sure just how many have sought asylum on sexual-orientation grounds. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not keep data on asylum cases won on that basis

Still, last year Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit that helps gay clients with immigration cases, won 55 asylum cases using sexual orientation as grounds, a record for the group, said its legal director, Victoria Neilson. That is up from 30 wins in 2007 and 27 in 2006, Neilson said.

Not all asylum bids based on sexual orientation have succeeded. A gay Brazilian man who was married in Massachusetts and whose American husband remains in that state was recently denied asylum by the Obama administration on humanitarian grounds, despite pleas from Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.).