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Love Without Borders - A Couple's Story of Persecution and Asylum

At Cotopaxi, we’re in business to fight poverty and inequality. 

As Pride Month comes to a close we want to shed light on the millions of LGBTQIA+ people forced into refugee status. Currently, 70 countries criminalize same sex intimacy. In many parts of the world, identifying as LGBTQIA+ can be grounds for expulsion, imprisonment, and worse. Today, we are turning over our microphones to allow two community members to speak up around this topic. 

Kenny Kruse and Yar Zar Min are LGBTQIA+ activists who met in Myanmar, Yar Zar’s home country. They are on a journey to share their story, speak out against political oppression, and support members of the global LGBTQIA+ facing persecution.

Annie: First off, we'd love to know just a little bit about who you are and how you both met.

Yar Zar Min: Yes, my name is Yar Zar Min. I have Myanmar citizenship. We met on a dating application in 2016, New Year's Eve, and now it's been over four years. We married, March '19.

Annie: That's wonderful.

Yar Zar: I moved to the US, February 26, 2021.

Annie: Well, welcome! We're lucky to have you.

Yar Zar: Thank you so much.

Annie: How about you, Kenny?

Kenny: I'm Kenny Kruse. As he said, we met on Grindr in 2016 when I was living in Myanmar.

Annie: Please feel free to steer away from things that might be a risk to you or just uncomfortable to talk about. You’ve faced more challenges in the last few years than many couples do in a lifetime. Can you share a little bit about the journey you've had to take to come to America, what's going on in Myanmar and just, what people in the LGBTQ community experience in certain countries?

Yar Zar: After we met in 2016, New Year's Eve, Kenny had to leave Myanmar to go to Cambodia. We've been in a long-distance relationship since then. Before I moved to the US, we met often, frequently. For Kenny, he moved back to the US and also we've been trying to get my visa for two years. The Immigration process took so long. Also, immigration process is very long and also, I have to wait for the visa interview for a couple of months. After I got the visa, after two years, the military coup happened in Myanmar.

The military coup started February 1st, 2021. I couldn’t leave Myanmar until February 26th. During this time, it was a nightmare because sometimes I couldn't contact Kenny because the military cut out the internet, and also, our communication. It was a nightmare for me and for my country. 

Also, being LGBTQ in Myanmar, honestly, I'm not open about my gay life. Some of my friends know about me now, but my family doesn't know about me yet... until now. Being gay in Myanmar is a little bit challenging, because being gay is still illegal in Myanmar, but now things are changing a bit. People are more educated and developed. 

Annie: Kenny, what's been your process through this? What is like  having a partner who lived through this military coup, and who was probably at additional risk because of his sexuality?

Kenny: I think one thing that made our process more difficult that I think a lot of people may not understand is that we applied for a fiancé visa. At the time, there were no countries in Asia or countries where Yar Zar could easily get a visa, where same sex marriage was legal. We have straight friends who met years after we did who just easily got married in Thailand or Cambodia or wherever.

Because we had to get to a country where same sex marriage was legal, there was this difficult process, and that made just our whole application take longer. Whenever we went to the embassy for these kinds of things, Yar Zar brought thousands of pages of documentation to his interview. There's always the worry that he could get stopped and someone would look through those papers and see all this evidence of our relationship, which is what we have to have for the US government, but which would endanger him in Myanmar.

As he said, it's gotten more open in the last 10 years, but it's still illegal to be gay in Myanmar. People who are LGBTQ are generally okay, but if you are some kind of activist, or if you're involved in politics, or if you're a journalist, the government can use your sexuality to target you, to retaliate in some other way. Getting back to your question, I found out about the coup through the news. It was the middle of the night, and they shut off all communications. I couldn't reach Yar Zar for hours. He works at an international NGO. When these kinds of things happen, there's additional focus on people with international ties, of course. It was terrifying. A lot of my friends in Myanmar found ways to get online before Yar Zar did. It was terrifying. We had lots of friends who worked for LGBTQ organizations or who were involved in politics, or who are activists in other ways. I knew they would be targeted.

We have one friend who's been in prison for maybe three months now and other friends who are in hiding. They released a list of wanted people every day, probably 20 people. We know people who have been on that list or family on that list.

We have a friend who is Muslim and very active politically in the NLD party. He has been in hiding since the beginning of February, changing houses every two days. He's also gay.

Annie: Wow. That's really disheartening to hear. Thank you for informing me and our audience a little bit just about your story and also what's happening in Myanmar. I hope your friends and family find a way to just be okay and get through this situation. While this is all disheartening, you guys have this story that while full of terror and persecution and threats, you guys persevered.

I would love to know, who are those people or organizations that ultimately allowed for that path for asylum, and if you could maybe just talk about this whole experience that the LGBTQIA+ community experiences through asylum, and what are some of the resources you used.

Kenny: Yar Zar ultimately came on the fiancée visa [not asylum], but we can speak to asylum. I mentioned our friend who has been in hiding who's Muslim and very politically involved. We actually applied for an advance parole humanitarian visa for him, which is something that the US government will grant in exceptional circumstances. We just got the rejection letter for that this week. Basically, it sounds like they want more evidence. I think I can speak to this generally. Hearing lots of LGBTQ people's cases, there's a general mistrust that people who are LGBTQ who are applying for asylum are not actually LGBTQ.

I've heard of people having to prove that they're LGBTQ in various humiliating ways. Our friend had to write a letter explaining why he was applying for asylum. It would have been very dangerous for him to write in that letter that he was gay because he's been in hiding since the beginning of February. If he had written that he was gay and he were found with a letter saying that he's gay, that would create added danger and charges for him in Myanmar.

With Yar Zar, he already had a visa, and I'm an American citizen. We had congressional offices advocating for us. We had people in the state department and journalists. So many people just came together to support us, which was amazing. It was really incredible. I think for a lot of people who helped us and definitely for us, after so much isolation from COVID, it was so amazing to feel that community even though it was a difficult situation.

For our friend, he's not a US citizen. He doesn't have family ties. I've called many, many organizations asking for help, but unfortunately, many of them, they're-- a lot of LGBTQ asylum organizations that can help people once they're already in the US, but as you know, even from events this week, there are more and more obstacles for people trying to get to the US to apply for asylum to even come here. If we could get our friend here, right now, there's temporary protected status for people from Myanmar. He would have that for a couple of years, but I think he would also qualify for asylum.

The humanitarian parole visa we applied for just has an extremely high bar for evidence, but how is someone going to get evidence of their persecution for being gay, Muslim, and in the political opposition at a time when they're in hiding, there's very little internet and phone connectivity. All of his bank accounts have been frozen for four months at this point. There's this really high bar [it seems] to me, to prove that you qualify for asylum.

But it sounds easy sitting in the US like, "Oh, I'll print off these documents. I'll go to my bank and get money out, do all these different things, but how is someone who's been in hiding for four months with no resources at their disposal going to do that, whether they're LGBTQ or not? Just that, I think, in this case, being LGBTQ just adds an extra layer of stress, uncertainty, and danger to the whole situation.

Annie: That sounds super challenging. I'm really sorry to hear about your friend. Maybe we can think through what we can do about that or help. I'd love to know a little bit about your experience with one organization you did mention that provided help and help to couples like you, which is Rainbow Railroad. Can you maybe speak about their mission and just kind of how they helped you, how important you think it is for organizations like that to receive support?

Kenny: Rainbow Railroad, they help LGBTQ people flee countries where they are persecuted and get to the US and Canada and apply for asylum. Obviously, that wasn't our situation, but they have referred us to other organizations that could help for our friend's situation also.

A lot of LGBTQ people around the world are disproportionately impoverished, disproportionately at risk for harm from the police and military of their respective countries. A lot of LGBTQ people are isolated from their families or their birth families. A lot of LGBTQ people do not have a lot of resources, freedom of movement. It's really important for all people in countries like the US and Canada to have organizations like Rainbow Railroad supporting LGBTQ people around the world. 

Annie: Well, thank you for sharing a little bit about your story. I think you've given me so much to consider just as a citizen and as a person. I'd love to know from both of you if you could leave our audience or send a message of, first of all, of hope to others who are from the same community and are seeking asylum. Then also, what would your message be to just ordinary Americans and other people? What message would you like to leave them with?

Kenny: I think the way that we talk in the US about identity now, generally about race, gender, sexuality, is we're all the same, and maybe we have a different skin color or maybe we have a different sexual orientation or whatever it is. Of course, that's true. At the same time, these parts of our identities really shape our experiences in the world. It's very different for someone who is LGBTQ to apply for asylum, to apply for a visa in any country. I think I would hope people would have more awareness of the specific challenges different people will face for something that seems so innocuous.

I guess one of our friends who's actually straight, she messaged me after all these articles came out about us and she's like, "Why aren't any of these journalists pointing out the fact that you guys are gay, the fact that you're LGBTQ really made this process so much longer?" It wasn't just COVID, it wasn't just the Trump administration, it wasn't the Muslim ban. If you were a straight couple from the same countries that you're from in these same circumstances, Yar Zar would have been here way before that. I think that that's something that people can do more to understand.

Annie: Thank you. I love that. Maybe Yar Zar, do you have a message of hope for your people or for other members who might be gay in Myanmar and around the world?

Yar Zar: Being gay is not a crime and also everyone can support their country in accepting different sexualities in a way which they can afford. Also, I just want to let my friends and family in Myanmar know, that we are trying to support and fight back from here in the US. So please stay strong, our revolution will win, hopefully so.