Canada opens doors for queer immigrants

Queer immigrants face many personal and bureaucratic challenges, but Canada is becoming more welcoming.

Whether you're a queer refugee seeking a safe place to be who you are, or a same-sex couple that's happy to finally find a country where you and your partner have some basic civil rights, one thing's for sure: You're going to have to get personal.

For queer refugees, the high level of personal disclosure can be a challenge. When you've been persecuted your whole life because of your sexuality, it can be a monumental, even impossible, task to come face-to-face with a government officer and explain your situation honestly.

'We've had people here to make a refugee claim and the real issue is their sexual orientation, but they've had to suppress this for so long that they try and invent some other reason they feel might be more socially acceptable,' says Lauren Dale of the newly formed and volunteer-run Atlantic Refugee & Immigrant Services Society.

Once a refugee musters the courage for a claim, proving it can also be difficult. 'It depends on the country you're coming from, 'says refugee and immigration lawyer Lori Hill. 'Some countries still have it on the books that it's illegal to be gay, essentially. Other countries, they've maybe taken that law off the books, but you still are dealing with societal norms that have the same effect at the end of the day.' Some districts of Mexico, for example, allow for same-sex civil unions, but at the same time can be extremely dangerous for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people.

'You can't even do research on some countries,' says Dale, 'because they're not going to say whether there's gay bars or not because the whole concept is unthinkable... Take Rwanda as an example. Lesbians do not exist in Rwanda. It just doesn't happen there. So it really complicates making a claim when there's no evidence of persecution because it's unthinkable in the first place. 'Since roughly 1994, Canada Immigration has allowed applications from same-sex families on 'humanitarian and compassionate' grounds with ministerial approval. In 2002, the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act formally recognized common-law or conjugal relationships and specifically mentioned same-sex relationships. And then, with the 2005 federal marriage law, same-sex marriages were also recognized.

Since then, Chester-based immigration lawyer Blair Hodgman has noticed an increase in her immigration practice among couples of two nationalities, usually American and Canadian. In the US, says Hodgman, 'the immigration system won't recognize . Federally there is an absolute hostility to it.' So American-Canadian binational couples wanting to settle down in one country are bound to choose Canada.

'We had one family of two women, one from Canada and one from the US,' says Hodgman. 'They had been travelling back and forth and at one point the Canadian was denied entry to the US. The only place they could live together was here in Canada. They were delighted to learn they could. They cried when I told them, they were so relieved and happy.'But before you tick off the utopia box on Canada's national score card, Baldwin points out there's room for improvement. For instance, Canada is still a monogamous zone.

'If it's a polyamorous relationship and there's more than two partners, that relationship doesn't fit into the immigration system,' says Baldwin. And transgendered folks still need to declare female or male on their paperwork. There's no official acknowledgment of any sort of gender continuum.

But more important to Baldwin is a document she points out on the Citizenship and Immigration website. 'It's just directions on sponsoring your family,' explains Baldwin. 'It tells you who you can sponsor, talks about your common-law partner or conjugal partner. It talks about sponsoring your same-sex partner as a spouse. It's heartening to see this. It really suggests that Canada is advanced in gay and lesbian issues on this front, because that's not the case in countries all over the world.'

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