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Yemeni Activist Seeks Refuge in Canada After Announcing "I'm Queer" On His Blog

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Tuesday, July 9 2013

Ala'a Jarban (screenshot from YouTube video)

A gay Yemeni blogger is seeking asylum in Canada, saying he fears for his safety if he returns home.

Ala’a Jarban is a 23-year old activist who participated in the 2011 Yemen revolution and created a blog that allowed LGBT Yemenis to post anonymously about their experiences. While in Montreal for a conference on international human-rights training run by human-rights group Equitas, Jarban came out in a post published on his blog, declaring, “I’m Queer."

Jarban is no stranger to activism and controversy. His role in the Arab Spring, both on the ground and online, was prominent, and he was an organizer in protests against then-President Ali Abdullah Selah, who was toppled during the unrest. But his newfound notoriety has caused some backlash.

Ala'a Jarban narrates a video about the political and human rights situation in Yemen

Reaction from the online community was swift - while many applauded Jarban’s decision, others (including former revolutionary allies), were quick to condemn him in the comments section of his blog. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering traditional Yemeni attitudes towards homosexuality.

Yemen’s record on LGBT rights can be charitably described as appalling. Homosexuality is illegal in the country, which still employs the death penalty. The Yemeni government’s official line is that there are no homosexuals in Yemen. While Jarban’s coming-out would seemingly blow that theory to bits, the government was quick to say that his was an isolated case.

Since coming out and seeking refugee status in Canada, Jarban has made changes to his online profile. While he still maintains an active Twitter account (@AJYemen) and curates his blog, his Facebook page has been deactivated. In an interview with CBC news, Jarban said he shut down his Facebook page because of the hateful online comments he received after coming out were, “unbearable.” Jarban did not respond to Twitter and email requests to be interviewed for this piece.

Janet Dench is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Refugees. She says cases like Jarban’s are increasingly common in Canada. “Canada has a strong tradition for a number of years of recognizing claims based on sexual orientation, and there have been many such claims made since it was recognized as being part of a social group since the mid-90s,” she says.

Dench says some refugee claimants face difficulties in gathering proof. “Decision-makers want to be sure that people are not pretending to be gay in order to get refugee status,” Dench says. “If you’re lived in a very homophobic society it may take time to even have the confidence to speak to your lawyer or your contacts about something you have been trying to hide your whole life.” But Dench does not predict this will be a problem in Jarban’s case.

“Sometimes evidence of persecution against gay and lesbian groups can be hard to prove in some countries — although in Yemen that is likely not the case,” says Dench. “Certainly, the Middle East is one of the regions where it’s very difficult for people to live openly as a member of a sexual minority.”

While Jarban waits to learn if his refugee application will be accepted, his supporters are offering him encouragement online. “Good stuff Alaa, best wishes,” wrote one Twitter user, adding, “Breaking the wall of silence & terror for gays in #yemen is an historical accomplishment.”

Elisabeth Fraser is a freelance Canadian journalist. She lives in Montreal.

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