It's San Diego Pride, But This Woman Is Wanted For Being Gay
The legal papers that could help keep Sylvie in America fill a three-inch, three-ring binder. She flipped through the heavy caseload on a recent afternoon to find the document that, if she returns to her home country of Cameroon, could put her in jail. She turned to a warrant for her arrest, translated from French, that accuses her and three others of "engaging in homosexual acts."
"Lesbian in my country, it’s like the devil for them," said Sylvie, who is concealing her last name for privacy and security concerns.
For Sylvie and many other immigrants fleeing homophobia in their home countries, this weekend's San Diego LGBT Pride marks a time to celebrate their sexuality without fear of imprisonment or even worse. Many asylum-seekers come to the U.S. because they may be jailed or killed in their native country for loving a person of the same sex, but there is no government record of how many cases are approved on these specific grounds.
About 70 countries have an anti-gay law on the books. Human Rights Watch reported in 2013 that Sylvie's native Cameroon prosecutes homosexuality "more aggressively than almost any country in the world."
Sylvie, raised Catholic, said at first she dated men and had a boyfriend in school who got her pregnant. She raised his two kids on her own, turning to prostitution to support herself until she was able to return to school. According to court documents, she found female clients paid more money and realized she preferred women as sexual partners. She fell in love with a woman, and did not worry about the relationship’s consequences until a Jehovah’s Witness came to her home.
"They were talking to people that it’s not good, this is not a good thing, if you do that they will kill you," she said.
So she tried to hide it and dated another man.
"I try, I try to succeed with the men again, but I didn’t succeed," said Sylvie, whose native language is French.
She reconnected with a girlfriend, but by that time had become pregnant by her boyfriend. She said he discovered the two of them about a month after she gave birth.
"She tried to run but me, I said, 'I cannot run away because I say my son, my son is there. I have to run to take my baby,'" she recounted in an interview with KPBS. "He took my baby, threw the baby over there, start beating me. As you see."
She gestured to photographs on the table. One shows long, thin welts and gashes on her back. It could have been worse, she said. Her boyfriend had called the neighbors to join in.
"What saved me is because I had the baby. Because I just say, ‘No, he’s lying. How could I be like that and I have the baby?'"
She fled town with her kids and girlfriend, then hopped on a plane by herself to visit a childhood friend in San Diego’s City Heights community. She hoped to return when the situation in Cameroon cooled down. But then the wanted notice came out and she realized she could not go back. That was four years ago and she has not seen her children since.
"It was very difficult," she said as a tear rolled down her face.
She has been fighting to bring her three children, ages 19, 17 and nearly 5, to the U.S., but her asylum case was administratively closed in 2016 because she was considered a "low enforcement priority."
She said her oldest son has not been seen in about a year.
She has since gotten married to a woman, a U.S. citizen who knows about Sylvie's former girlfriend and that she now has three stepchildren in Cameroon.
"My marriage is OK, but I can’t live in this life without my kids," Sylvie said.
Her wife’s citizenship means she can get them green cards, but it is expensive. Sylvie does not have enough money to also pursue a green card for herself, and she is worried her history of sex work in Cameroon could hurt her chances. Instead, she hopes her asylum case can be reopened.