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Originally published Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 6:01 AM

Ugandan escapes anti-gay persecution in U.S.

A Ugandan singer, who arrived in the Bay Area this spring, is among the first refugees the United States has invited to live in California specifically because of anti-gay persecution abroad.

Contra Costa Times

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Being gay in Uganda was never easy for gospel singer Daniel Dyson, but the anti-gay hysteria that erupted in the African nation two years ago forced him to flee.

Prominent Christian pastors had launched a political movement to eliminate homosexuality in the country. They employed professed ex-gays to reveal the names, whereabouts and other identifying details of gay residents in Kampala, the capital city. Dyson was on the list.

"This is a killer dossier," the tabloid Red Pepper newspaper wrote in an April 2009 article outing Dyson and dozens of others. "A heat-pounding (sic) and sensational masterpiece that largely exposes Uganda's shameless men and unabashed women that have deliberately exported the Western evils to our dear and sacred society."

Dyson, who arrived in the Bay Area this spring, is among the first refugees the United States has invited to live in California specifically because of anti-gay persecution abroad.

The nonprofit groups that helped him move here — Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay and the San Francisco-based Organization for Refuge Asylum and Migration — are among the first in the country to take sexual orientation into account in the way they integrate refugees into a new community, aware that the ethnic communities and extended families most refugees rely on for support won't necessarily accommodate them.

The State Department and the organizations that team with it usually rely on existing immigrant communities to help refugees find a job and become self-sufficient, but local organizations instead are using the gay community as a safety net, said Barbara Nelson of Jewish Family and Children's Services, which also is working with a few gay refugees from Iran.

Dyson lived for a few months with a host family in Oakland before finding his own place in one of the world's best-known gay neighborhoods: San Francisco's Castro district. Volunteers helped him find an office job at a gay-advocacy organization. The gregarious 30-something, who speaks near-perfect English, needed little help finding friends and outlets for his gospel singing.

"I am living really freely as a gay man. I'm what I am," he said. "I have freedom. I'm not afraid for my life anymore. I can sleep peacefully."

Dyson realized after arriving that "even in the U.S., gay people are fighting for their rights, their marriage rights," but after attending a celebratory LGBT advocacy function, he also knew that his challenges here would be a world away from the problems in Uganda.

"I said, 'Oh my God, these people are getting awards.' Back home, we were running for our life," he said.

Terrified by a growing movement tinged with violent rhetoric, many in the Ugandan gay community went further underground. Dyson did the opposite, defending his community on radio talk shows and trying to fight common misconceptions.

"They were saying that we were destroying African culture, so I went to the media houses, trying to educate people that gay people, we are African people, we are here," he said.

He had been involved in low-profile lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activism for more than five years, but the barrage of venom grew in 2009. On his way back from a radio station that spring, armed men kidnapped and brutally assaulted Dyson, he said, inflicting injuries from which he is still recovering. He fled across the Kenyan border several days later.

About 76 countries prohibit homosexuality. In seven, it can be punishable by death.

Uganda is debating whether to imprison gays and execute those convicted of "aggravated homosexuality" offenses. The lawmaker who proposed the bill and other Ugandan anti-gay activists have close ties to U.S.-based evangelical movements, though many American pastors have since distanced themselves from the bill and its proponents.

As more countries threaten to penalize homosexuality with jail or death, the United States and United Nations are breaking down some of the institutional barriers that prevent many gays, lesbians and transgender people from seeking refuge. Most of those awarded refugee status belong to a political, ethnic or religious groups and are in danger in their homeland and have no place to live safely. LGBT status also can be considered a social class in countries where gays and lesbians have a well-founded fear of persecution.

"It hasn't been a legal obstacle in a long time, but there have been enormous systemic obstacles," said Neil Grungras, director of the nonprofit Organization for Refuge Asylum and Migration. "Few people, extremely few people, said this is the reason I'm being persecuted. We're trying to make the system more open, less blocked."

Kenya was not a safe place for Dyson, especially the cramped refugee camp where he found himself surrounded by refugees from nations with strict social views.

Dyson, who has changed his last name, in part because his family disowned him, befriended an American social worker from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society while he was living in Kenya. She connected him with Grungras, who encouraged him to move to California.

"They said, 'Danny would fit here in the Bay Area.' I love it here," Dyson said.

For any refugee adjusting to a new country, getting acquainted with American life so quickly is remarkable, Grungras said. For someone without any family or cultural ties here, he added, it is extraordinary.

"I don't know what it's like for him every day. He carries a lot of pain around. Those scars just never really go away," Grungras said.

"But in terms of how he's doing, the way we measure resettlement success, he has a stable and good housing situation he likes, he has a job that's completely stable and he likes. He's completely self-reliant after just four months in the U.S. He's got community. He's got friends."

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