Social Work and LGBT Immigrant Communities
Unique Challenges of Invisibility, Disparity and Sexual Orientation
Andres Hoyos, MS, LMSW, Director of Center CARE Recovery, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center
In New York City, 35. 9% of people were born in a foreign country. Even though we know about the existence of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) immigrants, there is not a clear census of the size of the population. Institutionalized homophobia erases sexual orientation and gender identity minorities from most surveys, and fear of facing problems with the legal system pushes undocumented immigrants to avoid being identified as such. As a result, we have a population of LGBT immigrants that is partially invisible and unaccounted for by studies and census. Therefore, I am drawing from clinical observations from the individual, group and community work I have done in the past seven years in NYC.
The LGBT immigrant population shares all the characteristics and challenges faced by the general immigrant population such as issues related to acculturation process, language, and literacy, but in addition, they face unique challenges related to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and the overlap of the LGBT and immigrant identities. It is important to be aware of these issues when providing social services to LGBT clients.
When working with immigrant clients, it is always useful to identify the conditions in which they lived in their home country. This information is even more relevant for LGBT immigrants because it can elucidate the disparity between the former and current environments regarding sexual orientation and how difficult the challenge is to adjust. For those LGBT immigrants coming from places where discrimination and oppression of LGBT people is more pervasive; and since immigrants are often unaware of public health issues which can put them at greater risk for domestic violence, HIV, STDs and substance abuse, it is important for the provider to be aware of his or her role as an educator.
It is also important to have clarity about the motive behind migration. Some of these reasons are shared with the general immigrant population such as improving financial conditions, standards of living, professional and/or academic development. However, LGBT immigrants often share other reasons such as running away from violence, persecution and/or a homophobic environment, the hope to get hormonal treatment, access to HIV medications. In most cases migration happens as a result of a combination of these factors.
Regardless of the motive behind migration, this community belongs to a racial/ethnic minority in the U.S. Even for those immigrants who were living under severe poverty, violence or persecution, immigration triggers the feeling of loss and isolation. Belonging to a minority group, racial discrimination, feelings of isolation and loss, and financial hardship - common to recent immigrants - can become precursors of mental health morbidity magnified by the negative impact of homophobia.
We then have a cohort of people that are affected by at least four socially oppressive forces: homophobia, poverty, racial discrimination, and isolation. Those factors impose a greater challenge for LGBT immigrants regarding their opportunity for a full and fair participation in family life and community, limiting their educational and professional opportunities.
Another aspect unique to LGBT immigrants relates to obtaining legal immigrant status. Members of same sex couples face institutionalized homophobia since their relationships are not given the same legal status as heterosexual couples. Unlike the latter, same-sex partners can not sponsor their partner for legal immigrant status, which poses another difficulty in same-sex bi-national relationships.
Work with LGBT immigrants poses many challenges for the provider as well as for the client, but it is also the resiliency of those immigrants that enrich and expand our LGBT communities.