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Foreign gays seek haven in U.S. but may not find it

Lourdes Sayan feels the rush of freedom with every public kiss, or when she holds her girlfriend's hand in the street.

She wears her hair short above the ears instead of down to her hips as she did in Peru, where peers pressured her to look like everyone else, something she knew she wasn't.

In the United States, she realized what she is: lesbiana.

Now Sayan, 28, might be forced to go back to Peru, a possibility she and her Tampa girlfriend fear could threaten more than her freedom to be gay.

They fear she could disappear into jail, be beaten, be raped.

Sayan has joined the ranks of hundreds of other immigrants who have applied for political asylum the past 10 years based on sexual orientation.

The successful applicants reflect a broadening of federal asylum law: gay men escaping brutal beatings and rape by police; lesbians running from electric shock treatments at government clinics.

Sometimes, like Sayan, foreign visitors dread going back after a self-discovery in the relative tolerance of a U.S. city: They are gay. Going home, Sayan says, is more than a retreat back into the closet.

"I will not be able to go to school or get a job" in Peru, Sayan said. "I don't know how I will survive."

But critics argue these cases abuse the law, invite fraud and draw even more immigrants into an overburdened system.

"It seems quite clear that it is the process of stretching the asylum definition that is encouraging more people to come to this country," said Jack Martin of FAIR, or Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors restricting immigration.

But gay and human rights advocates argue the number is small. One group said it has tracked only 600 cases of asylum granted since 1994, when then-Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that homosexuals qualify as a "social group" facing persecution.

If the United States turns its back on foreign homosexuals, says Kelly McCown, a San Francisco immigration attorney, other countries will step up their mistreatment.

"It is a real global problem," she said.

Awareness of herself grows

Young Sayan dressed like little boys and stole kisses from little girls.

Before puberty, Sayan suffered ribbing from other playmates for being a tomboy.

Sayan grew up in a middle-class home in Lima, the capital of Peru, with her sister and mother, who was divorced from her father. They were raised as Catholics, but not too strictly.

By the time Sayan hit her teens, Peru's conservative social customs dictated that she discard the boyish clothes and start wearing dresses, grow out her hair. Caving in to constant teasing, at 15 she allowed her auburn locks to pass her shoulder blades and dabbed on makeup. But she couldn't stomach the skirts. She wore pants.

"My friends called me a drag queen," she said.

Sayan didn't know what she was. She had crushes on girls but knew she'd be sent to a psychiatrist if she admitted them. She dated boys.

"I didn't know what lesbian was," she said. "If you're not around gay people, you don't know you're gay."

In high school, she became obsessed with an older girl on the volleyball team. The two spent hours on the phone and exchanged long letters. Sayan's mother screamed at her for spending so much time talking with the girl.

When Sayan was 16, her mother took her to the United States, wanting to escape the violence of the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru rebel groups, which had been terrorizing Peru through the 1980s and early 1990s with daily bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and robberies.

Eventually, Sayan and her family settled in Seattle. By age 20, Sayan had moved in with an Ecuadorean boyfriend. Her sexual identity, always muddled, started coming into sharper focus in her adopted city. She stared at women who openly kissed in public.

"When I came to Seattle, I started seeing gay people, lesbians holding hands on the street. I was happy," she said. "I was supposed to be there."

An intimacy unknown with a man

Sayan's mind reeled back, remembering. Everything made sense: the stolen kisses; the girl crushes; the aversion to frilly dresses.

"That's why I've been this way," she thought at the age of 20. She knew for sure as her obsession grew for a spunky little blue-eyed waiter at a cafe.

She told her boyfriend, who blew up at her, called her a "dyke," and moved out.

She wrote her parents, who quit talking to her.

Sayan started dating women. Two years ago, at age 26, she met Aileen Diaz, a Cuban-American woman in Tampa, while visiting a gay Web site.

The two traveled back and forth between Tampa and Seattle. Just like her childhood love, Sayan talked for hours on the phone with Diaz or wrote long letters. Sayan had never felt this intimacy with a man.

Diaz, a systems engineer, wanted to take trips outside the country with Sayan.

Sayan checked her immigration status. She made a startling discovery: She was an illegal immigrant. Her mother had never obtained the proper visas for her to stay.

In fact, she was supposed to be deported.

A record of persecution

Sayan is not claiming she faced persecution in Peru. She doesn't have to.

Immigrants can base their asylum claim on past persecution or fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, federal law says.

In 1994, Reno ruled that homosexuals qualify as a "social group" facing persecution, signaling a green light for asylum.

Among those who have succeeded: a gay Salvadoran man repeatedly raped, beaten and threatened with death; a gay Mexican man raped by soldiers; a gay Brazilian man raped at gunpoint by police, who then encouraged criminals in jail to gang-rape the man; and a Russian lesbian who was repeatedly fired from jobs, arrested, expelled from school and threatened with psychiatric institutionalization, according to published reports.

Sayan's claim is similar to a successful case out of San Francisco, where an immigration judge ruled in October 2001 that a lesbian from Peru should be granted asylum.

Like Sayan, the woman initially arrived legally in the United States, came out as a lesbian while here and fell in love with a legal resident, a woman. They feared living as a couple in Peru.

The judge believed her and was moved by evidence of persecution of homosexuals in Peru.

"The official reports in the record show that there is a strong level of social opprobrium against homosexuals in Peru, as well as a certain level of violence," the judge wrote.

Gay people are forbidden to take certain jobs and are fired from others, the judge noted. Then-President Alberto Fujimori relieved 117 diplomats of their positions, calling them "homosexuals," and in the late 1990s called homosexuality a "subversion" that the state needed to abolish, court documents showed.

Gay people in Peru are forbidden to join the police force or the army and could be punished with up to 20 years in prison for doing so, the court documents stated.

The Roman Catholic Church, named in the Peruvian Constitution "an important element in the historical, cultural and moral development" of the country, openly impugns homosexuality, the judge wrote.

Police routinely raid lesbian bars, detaining and beating homosexuals, the court wrote, citing human right's reports. A gang called "the Fagkillers" has been allowed to remain at large in Lima.

And lesbians are even more vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse than prostitutes, whose activity is regarded as "normal," court documents stated.

Hiding her sexuality in Peru, the judge wrote, was not an option for the woman.

Members of a social group with "innate characteristics" that are "fundamental to the identities" of its members "cannot or should not be required to change," the judge wrote, quoting a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

Still, tolerance for homosexuals in the United States is not a guarantee, activists say.

It varies by region, says Andrew Reding, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of the Project for Global Democracy and Human Rights. There are no national antidiscrimination laws regarding sexual orientation, he noted.

Nevertheless, while the United States has areas of strong prejudice and hatred toward gays and lesbians, it offers more safety to Sayan than Peru, Reding said.

"In Peru there really isn't a gay ghetto," he said.

Objections to granting asylum

Congress wasn't thinking of gay men and lesbians when it created asylum laws, contends FAIR's Martin.

FAIR opposes granting asylum "where the issue is not persecution under the classical terms of political belief or religion or race," he said.

Along with cases concerning domestic violence, coerced family planning and genital mutilation in home countries, sexual orientation threatens to expand and warp asylum policy, he said.

"To carry their argument to its extreme," he added, "the United States would become an open door to persons who have nontraditional sexual orientation throughout the world, which I do not think would be supported by the majority of the U.S. public or Congress."

While the numbers of approved claims so far seems small compared to the larger immigration picture, more homosexual and cross-gendered foreigners are encouraged to apply, living in this country while they wait, he said. Also, asylum claims in general are subjective, so opening them to sexual orientation invites more chances of fraud, Martin said.

"With personal statements regarding treatment, usually there is little or no documentary evidence, and the information on country practices is often very anecdotal," he said.

Activists would be better off, he said, working with foreign homosexuals to change laws and attitudes in those other countries.

A hearing and another life

Last year, Sayan's Tampa attorney, John Ovink, persuaded a Miami immigration judge to open an asylum case for her based on sexual orientation. The judge set a hearing for September.

Last March, Diaz, 32, and Sayan moved to Seattle, where Diaz took a contract job with Microsoft as a systems engineer. Sayan is studying computer engineering on a private scholarship. They're returning to the Tampa area this month.

The two rarely encounter problems in the Seattle neighborhood where they live, which is filled with other homosexuals, they said. But sometimes other Hispanics make crude comments in Spanish about Sayan's masculine appearance behind her back, not realizing from her features that she is Hispanic, too, and can understand what they're saying.

That is, until she tells them off in Spanish.

But the comments are nothing compared with what she thinks she and her lover would face in Peru.

"I would have to live within four walls," she said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.