Colgate Alumnus Discusses Asylum for LGBT Refugees

Recent headlines have centered around Uganda’s anti-gay bill and its impact on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Uganda and other areas. Colgate students were given a unique look into the process of gaining refugee status in the United States as a result of claiming LGBT status.

On March 9, Colgate alumnus LeRoy Potts ’85 spoke on the issues surrounding the process to a group of around 20 students and professors. The lecture, “From Persecution to Protection: An Overview of LGBT Asylum and Refugee Issues,” offered some historical background on LGBT refugees seeking asylum in the US.

Potts, in addition to working for the United States Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has also served as managing editor of the Human Rights Report and has worked for the Department of Homeland Security for more than 20 years.

Junior Casey Schmidt attended the lecture and said Potts’s illustrious career in this field shows the value of a Colgate education and at the same time is inspiring.

“Often, the graduates who go into finance or some other high-profile job are thought of as being the most important,” Schmidt said. “[Potts] showed the importance of pursuing something you are passionate about and how the Colgate education can play into that; it was really an inspiration.”

Although Schmidt said the lecture was not as “high-energy” as she was expecting, she said the content and venue provided for a unique opportunity.

“It was a slow style of presenting,” she said. “But, whereas most speakers give their entire lecture then answer questions at the conclusion, he would stop and answer questions as they came up, which made the lecture much more meaningful.”

A major focus of Potts’s lecture centered on the legal basis for granting asylum to those seeking it and the complexities of the case-by-case process.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Nisha Thapliyal, who introduced Potts, said the basis for granting asylum and the laws surrounding such issues are “complex to say the least.”

“LeRoy answered a wide range of questions about legal definitions and procedures as well as those regarding his own activism through the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission,” Thapliyal said.

A significant portion of gaining refugee status, according to Potts, is proving that a particular social group (PSG) of which the asylum-seeker is a member is being persecuted. The PSG extends beyond sexual orientation and includes many other personal identifying characteristics which makes the job of deciding who receives asylum even more complex.

“He has a really hard job,” Schmidt said, noting the complex nature of granting asylum. “I think it is especially hard with LGBT refugees. It is difficult to prove your identity when many countries prevent their citizens from ‘being out.'”

Once PSG is established, proof of persecution must be demonstrated.

Persecution, Potts stressed, need not be limited to physical violence, despite the frequent headlines that appear.

“Can persecution be mental?” Potts asked. “Persecution constitutes more than physical harm or threats,” he said, recounting a recent story of intimidation in Honduras by a vigilante-type group.

Thapliyal said she hoped the students and professors attending Potts’s lecture took away a sense that the Department of Homeland Security and the US government have a great deal of impact on people beyond the nation’s borders as well as “the imperative of being informed and engaged citizens.”