8 Dec 2011- Uganda- Danny Dyson is an incredibly upbeat guy. From behind the front desk at the gay rights nonprofit Out & Equal, where he is an intern, the 32-year-old laughs and chats with co-workers as they leave for the day.
Later, at a downtown San Francisco café, the Ugandan immigrant grins as he describes his neighborhood in the Castro, his plans for going back to school when his internship ends, and how excited he is about his future.
Less than two years ago, Dyson struggled to get to sleep every night. He was afraid for his life. It had been that way for more than a decade.
Raised in a middle-class family in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Dyson was one of countless gay men and women who live under threat of abuse, imprisonment or murder in countries where homosexuality is against the law. Unlike so many others, Dyson got out.
With the help of a network of Bay Area refugee aid services — including Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay and the S.F.-based national nonprofit ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration) — Dyson relocated to Oakland in March and moved to San Francisco two months later.
Some days, Dyson still can’t believe his good fortune.
“To come from a place where I was always coming and going, running for my life, my family hated me, I was beaten and tortured just for being black and gay … To live here and see two gay men kissing, lesbian women holding hands, in the same place as straight people walking around with their children?” he says, his heavily accented voice rising in disbelief. “It feels amazing.”
Dyson is the first person to benefit from JFCS’ new resources for LGBT clients — the result of a $70,000 grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, to develop a model for helping LGBT refugees.
“This isn’t a new issue. Clearly there have always been LGBT refugees,” says Avi Rose, executive director of the JFCS. “But the extent of this incredibly virulent persecution in many places is becoming more commonly recognized. This issue is coming out of the closet in the international refugee-serving community.”
Neil Grungras, the founder of ORAM, echoed Rose’s assessment in a phone interview from Geneva, where he was attending U.N. meetings for International Human Rights Day, observed this year on Dec. 10. A few days earlier he heard Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterate the Obama administration’s Dec. 6 announcement that the U.S. would direct foreign aid to promote gay rights abroad.
“We have a government right now that’s actually willing and able and open to acknowledging this, which is wonderful,” says Grungras. “The point is to make [the LGBT refugee issue] a mainstream discussion.”
In October, the Ugandan parliament announced that it would reopen debate on an anti-homosexuality bill that could expand criminal punishment to include the death penalty. The controversial bill was shelved earlier this year when international rights groups condemned it. (Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda and most African countries.)
When Dyson was just 17, he was called to a family meeting at home. His father had gathered the extended family to announce that Danny was a homosexual and a prostitute. The elder Dyson had opened his son’s mail and found supposedly incriminating letters and pictures.
“I stood up and said, ‘It’s not true, I don’t sell myself. I’m just a person who has feelings for the same sex,’ ” recalls Dyson. “And they started yelling that I was a disgrace and a curse. They got sticks and started beating me … They tied me to a tree and were kicking me, telling me they were going to drive the demons out of me.”
After untying him, his relatives asked whether he was cured, or if he was going to continue being gay. When he answered that it was just who he was, his father went for a knife. “That’s when I ran,” Dyson recalls. “I ran away from home and I never went back.”
Dyson secured housing with the help of a local priest, a confidante whom he met through music circles; for some time the teenager had been recognized as a talented gospel singer. Over the next few years, he became a regionally known recording artist, singing to pay his rent.
He also began working as an activist, despite the dangers.
In 2006, he was picked up and beaten by the police after speaking on a radio talk-show panel. He says they accused him of being anti-government.
In 2009, when a group of anti-gay evangelists came from the United States to organize in the area, local newspapers published pictures and addresses of prominent Ugandans known to be gay. Dyson appeared on another government-owned radio debate in protest, countering one of the evangelists.
Afterward, he was kidnapped at gunpoint by three men in army uniforms, driven to a secret location and beaten, tortured and held for three days without food. By the time one guard took pity on him and drove him outside of the compound and left him on the side of the road, Dyson was bleeding, unconscious and had contracted malaria. A motorcyclist picked him up and took him to a clinic, where Dyson’s priest friend came to visit. After two weeks the priest helped him escape to Kenya, where Dyson was contacted by Keisha Adams, a program manager from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society who was visiting the nonprofit’s outpost there.
“She said, I can help you,” Dyson recalls.
HIAS went to work on his behalf, petitioning the United Nations to get Dyson refugee status and connecting him with representatives from ORAM — which advocates for refugees fleeing sexual or gender-based violence — and JFCS of the East Bay, which helped find Dyson a host family, a gay couple with two adopted children in Oakland. The U.N. approved Dyson’s status in four months.
When Dyson got off the plane in San Francisco in March, Rose was there to welcome him. He and other JFCS staff and volunteers helped Dyson get settled in his new home, set him up with medical appointments, a bus pass, food and other necessities.
That level of support is important for all immigrants, but LGBT refugees often have more intensive needs, according to those working in refugee services.
“The resettlement system that’s in place in the U.S. is based on the assumption that a person is going to be coming with a family, or to rejoin a family,” says Grungras. “One person can head to the Social Security Administration, another person can deal with the DMV. It became apparent very early on that LGBT clients need community above and beyond many other refugees.”
That was true for Dyson, whose mother died in 2004 and who has minimal contact with a few siblings. A friend of his host family helped him to secure his internship at Out & Equal; word-of-mouth also led him to his apartment in the Castro.
With a new surrogate family and a new community, Dyson has been introduced to new cultures, as well. He spent his first-ever Passover seder at Rose’s home.
“When I hear of something Jewish now, because of the organizations that have helped me, I feel like, these are people who are practicing their religion very well,” says Dyson. “It feels so good that there are people who don’t care if you’re gay or not, who don’t discriminate based on color or race or religion, they just take people in.”
The seder, just weeks after Dyson had arrived in the United States, was meaningful for Rose, too.
“I think he saw, in a very real, immediate way, the connection of our experience of Egypt, being persecuted, and the whole mandate of Passover, which is to extend ourselves to strangers,” says Rose.
“Danny was trying to make sense out of it — ‘Why are all these Jewish agencies helping me?’ And we could say, ‘It’s because of this story that we recount every year, that we’ve internalized to a point that it compels us to act, to help others.’ It was extremely powerful.”
Dyson has big plans for the coming year, including restarting his music career and going back to school. But for now, he’s still taking time to reflect on all that’s happened and marvel at how far he’s come.
“When I visited Washington, D.C., a journalist asked me what I thought I’d achieved since coming here, and I said ‘freedom,’ ” says Dyson. “You can’t understand if you were born here, with this freedom. … But when I walk around here and see the rainbow flag flying high next to the American flag, I just think wow, what a world. I can sleep at night.”
By Emma Sivers