Be yourself, dance with PRIDE

Story by Kathryn A. Hackman

Prom, along with baseball and apple pie, create the red, white and blue experience. It’s a dance that nearly every American can look back on or look forward to. It’s a glamorous night of ball gowns and boutonnieres, a rite of passage for many teens across the nation that fits within society’s hetero-normative expectations.

Since the dawn of prom, it’s always been the same. A boy asks a girl to the dance. The boy wears a tuxedo, and the girl wears a dress. And that is that. However, that narrative is an exclusionary one. What about the boy who doesn’t want to ask a girl to the dance? Or the girl who doesn’t want to wear a dress? Or the person who doesn’t see their place in an event so heavily influenced by traditional gender roles?

Historically teens in the LGBTQ+ community have been left out of this quintessential high school experience. It was not uncommon for same-sex couples to be completely barred from attending the event.

“Even if schools allow students to be who they are, that still doesn’t guarantee a safe environment,” said Liesl Archbold, the youth & family program coordinator: ages 14-20 at the Utah Pride Center.

However, out of this isolation came one of Utah’s most vibrant and inclusive events to ever take place within the Salt Lake Valley — Queer Prom. For over a decade, the Utah Pride Center has put on a prom that can shine with the best of them. It’s a party where everyone is invited to be themselves.

This is a dance founded on authenticity and inclusivity. Teens from all over the west travel to Salt Lake City to experience the kind of prom that everyone who is interested in attending, should have. Members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies alike come together for a night of fun times and fond memories.

Gabe Glissmeyer attended two Queer Proms before working the event in 2014. “For allies, it’s a good way to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. It prompts them to think about why the queer community needs their own prom. And second, it’s just so fun!” Glissmeyer said.

In 2019, the dance was held at the Salt Lake City Library. And with over 1,000 people in attendance, the energy was bursting at the seams.

At Prom 2020, attendees can anticipate being whisked away by the theme, Out at Sea. The main floor of the library will be a party on the beach, complete with dancing, snacks, and mocktails. The mocktails are a fan favorite at the prom.

“I get to mix them and make them,” Liesl Archbold said. “In fact, we make the syrups right here in the center! Don’t worry, I have a food handlers license,” she said, laughing.

As attendees leave the aloha sands on the main floor and head downstairs, they should prepare themselves for an under-the-sea twist.

Here they may find the photo booth, ready to capture the evening. Or perhaps attendees will stumble upon the psychics who can offer a glimpse into the future.

“The psychics are a relatively new addition to our prom. A few years ago, we did a carnival-themed Queer Prom, and they were a huge hit! So we’ve had them back every year since,” Archbold said.

Because the party never stops, guests can step away from the lively event for some relaxing fun too. The Chill Space is something that sets Queer Prom apart from the rest. It’s a room away from the noise, dimly lit by fairy lights, and filled with blow-up furniture. Here guests can find coloring pages, sensory glitter jars, and earplugs.

It is no wonder Queer Prom has been such a success. Brianna Burton attended Queer Prom in 2013 and still looks back on it fondly. “I remember thinking how cool it was to put on a prom for kids who don’t feel comfortable getting to go to their own school’s prom.”

The only thing teens should worry about at Queer Prom is whether their favorite song made it onto the playlist, and nothing more. Safety is of high priority to the Utah Pride Center. Every adult in attendance, whether they are staff, the photographer, or the DJ, goes through a background check.

As for when the Queer Prom 2020: Out at Sea will take place? The date has yet to be determined. In response to the global spread of COVID-19 and Gov. Gary Herbert’s recommendation to limit gatherings, the dance has been postponed. As more information is gathered, the Pride Center will post updates on the event on both its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Editor-in-chief in his veins

Story and gallery by Kara D. Rhodes

Utah loves local culture especially in Salt Lake Valley, from the local farmers market and local breweries to our very own local newspapers. One of the most popular independent newspapers in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City Weekly, has a stellar editor-in-chief you may not be aware of. Enrique Limón moved to the city after having lived in Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego.

Limón comes from a long line of “newspapermen,” as he describes it. “My great grandfather, Hernando Limón, a general in the Mexican Army, was editor and publisher of a bilingual weekly in the SD/TJ (San Diego/Tijuana) region generations ago,” Limón says in an email interview. His family is very proud of this achievement, especially his mother.

Being Latinx is described by Limón as being an “invaluable tool.” This includes his language skills, current event knowledge and pop history knowledge. Limón wakes up every day with the energy to excel in his duties. “Careers in media are notorious for burning people out, so thinking about every day as a new adventure, is my accomplishment,” he says.

Not only is Limón a part of the Latinx community but he is also a member of the LGBTQ community. “I am aware of representation issues within those two communities (and beyond), and I do my best to contribute,” Limón says. He also explains how it shapes his day-to-day routine. Although there are many challenges one faces by being in both communities, Limón says he wouldn’t trade being a part of them for anything.  

Limón, like others, has concerns about the Latinx/LGBTQ community. “Higher risk of homelessness, drug addiction, and other life-altering situations. There is a good number of crimes against people on DACA, for example, that never go reported in this country, because victims think doing so might affect their immigration status. It’s heartbreaking,” Limón says.

Limón suggests several ways that Utah could better serve the Latinx/LGBTQ communities, including creating safe spaces, so that people may be themselves without fear of harm or ridicule. A larger spread of gay-straight alliances is important as well. “Normalization, ensuring kids don’t feel ostracized because of something that’s embedded in who they are, should become second-nature,” Limón says. Multiple organizations in Salt Lake City offer programs, such as Encircle and the Utah Pride Center.

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“Everyone could benefit by being a little kinder — parents, schoolmates, teachers, clergy, etc.,” he says.

Limón concludes by giving praise in an email. “Congrats to The University of Utah. For Voices of Utah, Westminster College for their office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and other educational institutions across the state for highlighting the importance of inclusiveness. Your efforts are positively affecting people, especially young people, in ways you might never know.”

Nick McGregor, a City Weekly employee, has worked with Limón for one year. “Enrique’s background and position at City Weekly help him think outside the box and seek out underrepresented voices to make sure they’re present,” McGregor says in an email interview. Having worked with over 25 editors in his 13 years of journalism, McGregor says he believes that what sets Limón apart from the numerous editors before is his passion for the city as well as his audience.  

Another City Weekly employee, Namoi Clegg, praises Limón, “Enrique is always willing to work with new ideas and people. He also has high expectations, which is a good thing, I think. You damn well better be prepared, because he is not putting up with bullshit from staff or writers. I think his skills really lie in the curation and community-building aspect of the paper,” Clegg says in an email interview.

Clegg says there is no doubt that Limón’s background plays a role in the way he is an editor. “Enrique is a gay, Latinx man. He’s also an excellent editor. It feels reductive to say that Enrique is an excellent editor because of his personal characteristics; at the same time, his background gives him a much-needed perspective that a white, straight man would most likely lack,” Clegg says.

When asked about her thoughts on diversifying the newsroom Clegg had a lot to say. “I really strongly believe that our lived experiences — as women or LGBT folks or people of color — allow us to see angles and stories that are really difficult to pick up on for people who haven’t been marginalized. It’s really, really easy to miss small pieces of the story, pieces that are really essential to the people living the story but pieces that privilege often doesn’t allow us to see, even if we’re doing a lot of work to get outside of our preconceived notions.”

Limón shows that where one comes from is a strength and should be used to one’s best ability. 


Dual oppression living Latinx and LGBTQ+

Story by Kara D. Rhodes

There are communities people join and there are communities people are born into. In some instances, people are born into two communities that do give strength but attached is oppression. Dual minority has a lot of weight to it but there is courage in numbers. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “Data analysis by the Williams Institute reveals there are approximately 1.4 million LGBT Latinx adults currently living in the United States.” This is a mass of people who are living with, as far as we are aware, dual oppression and this can be a difficult road to navigate.

Maren Simmons, 22, has had challenges of her own. Coming from a strict religious background within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she says, “When I’m out in public or on a date I get stared at or even given dirty looks.”

Both of these communities, LGBTQ+ and Latinx, have a history of being shamed publicly for things they cannot control. Simmons advised younger LGBTQ and Latinx folks, “Don’t ever change yourself because someone else thinks it is wrong. I found that opening up to friends and family about how I felt made me feel better.”

The Human Rights Campaign lists the most important issues these folks face: immigration, language and access barriers, economic insecurity, violence and harassment, and HIV and health inequity. According to the HRC, 72 percent of LGBTQ+ Latinx youth have heard their family say something negative about LGBTQ people.


Eva Lopez creator of Orgullo Utah.

Eva Lopez, a 22-year-old student at the University of Utah, was missing the representation and diversity among the LGBTQ community so she created a space for it. Orgullo Utah is a queer space led and formed by Latinx folk. Lopez has always been proud of her Mexican heritage but she said she also faced challenges because of it. “The identity of being Mexican has its layers of racial challenges from micro-aggression to policy exclusion. Culturally and ethnically, I am Mexican and very proud it!”

Acknowledging and embracing her intersecting identities eventually brought peace to Lopez. “I came out to myself and was able to work through the challenges of acceptance and celebration. Coming from a conservative, Catholic, Latino background, I struggled immensely finding the peace I desperately craved,” Lopez said. After acceptance, she discovered a state of authenticity and happiness.

Her aspirations don’t stop at Orgullo Utah. There are many things she believes the U could to to support Latinx and LGBTQ folks. Lopez suggests, “We need more trained individuals to help navigate healthy conversations around identity. We also need to make sure that faculty and students are not closeting queer students with dress-codes … and enabling healthy dialogue within classrooms.” There is an LGBTQ Resource Center on campus that Lopez is forever grateful for, but she said there is always room for improvement. Asset_Story2


Like Lopez, Cristobal Villegas experiences challenges as a Latinx and LGBTQ person. “My experience as a gay, latinx man is complex and multi-faceted. I grew up LDS (Latter-day Saint) and served a church mission. My family has had a strong tie to machismo and traditional gender roles,” Villegas said.

Villegas’ coming-out story isn’t very positive because of the conservative household he grew up in. “Coming out to a socially conservative household was met with anger and confusion,” he said. Villegas suggests that Utah could better serve their community by recognizing that people like Villegas exist and providing access to better healthcare.   

“It is important to understand oneself as that will lead to more justice for more people. My struggle is connected to everyone else’s, and as such I must be knowledgeable of how I fit in to oppressive systems and institutions and receive oppression from systems and institutions,” says Villegas on advice he’d give to Latinx LGBTQ+ youth. 


Is Latinx the new norm?

Navigating the landscape of inclusive speech in 2019

Story and images by JUSTIN TROMBETTI


Culture is in a constant state of evolution, ebbing and flowing between ideas and advancements that slowly ingrain themselves into what we call the status quo. Language is very much a part of this reality.

Language develops naturally for functional purposes, but perhaps more importantly is how and why it bends to the emotional side of humanity. The term Latinx, first searched on Google in 2004 and seeing a huge trend spike in 2015, is one of the latest examples of this.

Its percolation to the surface of our cultural dialogue has been driven by the ever-loudening voices of ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ individuals, allies, and their opposition alike. If every generation sees its own push for civil rights and inclusivity, this development could well be a leading indicator of the next one, if not a lagging indicator of the last.

A recent poll revealed that over 20 percent of Latinx millennials identify as LGBTQIA+, and as the Latinx population as a whole continues to grow, the relevance of the conversation would seem to be self-evident.

But what do the most direct stakeholders think of the term, or how to approach inclusivity as a whole? How do allies approach the debate delicately, and how does the advent of broader opinions on political correctness influence it all?

Unpacking these paradigm shifts is a challenging undertaking in its own right, but it becomes especially difficult when there is overwhelming consistency in the discomfort of sharing these types of opinions on record.

Some sources interviewed for this story cited our fragile socio-political climate, public opinion of the media, and a rise in intolerance and hate crimes as sources for this discomfort.

A gender-fluid individual who uses the pronoun they and asked not to be identified on record for many of the reasons noted above, said about inclusivity, “Latin is just a generally more appropriate term.

“It’s a completely a gender [sic] term that does not create a notable difference when used in conjunction with words like Latina and Latino.”

They shared a strong sentiment against the use of the term Latinx, however. While many believe its adoption is a step toward more inclusive language, the source describes it as isolating.

“[It’s] as though the x itself identifies you as other,” they said.

Their dissension with other popular opinions of the term elucidates an important reality of these types of discussions. While part of a cohort of non gender-conforming Latinx individuals, that doesn’t mean that everyone feels the same about certain language.

Others see Latinx as the next step in reaching real, palpable inclusivity. Some went as far as to say they found the development to be unnecessary, or even an outright bastardization of their native tongue.

In trying to make sense of sensitive and complex issues, it’s often best to understand the history behind them. Ed Muñoz, an associate professor of ethnic studies and sociology at the University of Utah, helped to do just that.

To Muñoz, this is the latest iteration of a cyclical occurrence. He’s paid close attention over many decades to the dissection and emergence of terms like Chicano, Latin (and the o/a appendage that was eventually added), Hispanic, and the use of nationality-based language.

The ultimate goal of finding a “pan-ethnic term” for a group sharing a variety of underlying struggles may seem a straightforward idea, but it is often anything but in reality. Muñoz explained that within the Latinx community, issues of class, skin color, gender struggle, and more have fueled these debates.

He recalled that many Latinx feminists who were instrumental in the struggle for gender equality found the degendering of the language exclusive, the development of slang like “Highspanic,” and time periods where certain phrases implied privilege.

The adoption of anti-PC beliefs, though, still have yet to be unpacked. The perceived over-sensitivity of the modern generations, which has grown more and more prevalent in American culture especially, exists within the conversation still. Muñoz believes this to be a systemic issue, a combination of “the internalization of racism and ethnic self-hatred” that has been perpetuated for decades, even centuries.

As he was not unironically sitting in a coffee shop called Mestizo (a term which refers to a man of mixed race), he pondered a question posed to him that the other sources for this story had earlier tried working through: How does a non-ethnic person with no practical horse in this race go about being a decent ally?

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Mestizo Coffeehouse, where Ed Muñoz spoke to Voices of Utah, is nestled within a small apartment complex in a diversity-rich area of downtown Salt Lake City.

“I’m still learning to be a good ally,” he responded with a subtle hint of calm acceptance. He explained that while some may lack ethnic context, he lacks some context too as a cisgendered male. At face value, it seems more convoluting than it does helpful, but as the conversation continued, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s no right answer here.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck made a statement during a Voices of Utah press pool that seemed to further cement this idea. The former journalist and Utah state representative stated that she thought one of the biggest issues facing the Latinx community was the monolithic narrative so many hold about them.

That is, there’s no such thing as a blanket belief, opinion, or characteristic that applies to Hispanics. Further, Chavez-Houck said she believes that all too often the Latinx community is perceived to be defined by deficits and struggle, rather than the many strengths and positive qualities unique to them.

She asserts, “We’re a much more complex community than that.”

So what does it all mean for the future of Latinx and inclusive language? It’s often easy to assume that some kind of objectively correct answer exists out there, whatever it might be. With that mentality, though, we might be asking the wrong question entirely.

No single approach or word choice would have been “most right” to a majority of the individuals who were interviewed. The common denominator among them was not a preference or philosophy, but rather an investment in the dialogue and the impact that it has on them.

Latinx could be here to stay, or it could be in today and out tomorrow, but the conversation will persist regardless. The best thing any of us can do may well be to just listen to it.


LGBT Pacific Islanders in Utah face discrimination

Story and photos by SHAELYN BARBER

It takes a village to raise a child, but what happens if that child does not fit into male or female gender identities? In Pacific Islander culture, it is not an issue.

Across the Pacific Island cultures, these individuals are known by many different names. In Samoa, they are Fa’afafine. In Hawai’i, they are Māhū. In Tonga, they are Fakaleiti. These are the people who are not male or female, but somewhere in the middle: a third gender.

The third gender is an integral part of traditional Pacific Island culture, and individuals who fall into this spectrum are highly respected members of society. People who are part of the third gender category do not adhere strictly to stereotypical characteristics of male or female genders, and often display characteristics of both. The Pacific Island third gender category can include people who act or dress in a way that is not associated with the sex they were assigned at birth or people who are sexually attracted to someone of the same gender.

“It’s important to see the similarities between Māhū and transgender identities here in the U.S., but also it’s not just a direct translation,” says Maile Arvin, a native Hawaiian and assistant professor of gender studies and history at the University of Utah. “I think it’s just a little bit different than transgender in the sense that that was a defined role that was honored in Native Hawaiian society, that has its own history.”

Arvin says that traditional gender roles in Pacific Island societies are balanced and are not necessarily matriarchal or patriarchal communities. Within them, masculine and feminine roles are distinctive but receive equal amounts of respect. Men are typically the protectors, workers and financial supporters of their families. Women take on the role of caretakers of the family and the home. People who identify in one of these third-gender identities have a role within traditional Pacific Island societies as well: they are usually the leaders and teachers of spirituality and culture.

“Sometimes it’s hard for non-Hawaiian people to understand what Māhū means,” Arvin says. “So, in some contexts it might just be more convenient to identify as transgender instead of going into explanations about what Māhū is.”

People who identify as a third gender in Pacific Islander societies often find it difficult to explain the meaning to others who are not familiar with it. Despite parallels to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) identities, the two are distinct. Someone can identify with both an LGBT identity and an identity in the third-gender spectrum.

“I’m not really picky but I know that I personally identify as feminine pronouns, but then when people see me they’re like, what the heck? I don’t get it,” says Leka Heimuli, who works as a secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus. Heimuli is Fakaleiti, the Tongan term for the third gender, and describes herself as a gay man who prefers female pronouns and typically dresses in a masculine way.


Leka Heimuli, secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus

Heimuli is a first-generation Polynesian Tongan American. Her mother and father both emigrated from Tonga searching for opportunities for work, education and a better life. They met in Utah, got married and had six children, a small family by Pacific Island standards, which Heimuli says typically have between 10 and 15 children.

“I feel like when colonialism came, you know, to our shores that’s when you kind of see that drift of, oh, that’s wrong. That’s bad,” Heimuli says. “I think now we kind of use those terms in a derogatory manner.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has raised controversy because of its doctrine concerning the LGBT community. According to church doctrine sexual and marital relationships should only be between one man and one woman, and sex or marriage between two people of the same sex is forbidden. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the state of Utah has the highest percentage of constituents in the United States.

“We’re here, you know, like, you can’t control it,” Heimuli says. “There are members [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] I feel don’t come out because of like … that stigma that’s maybe placed on them from the church or maybe from the beliefs.”

Heimuli says that while the discrimination against LGBT and third-gender Pacific Islanders within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not extreme, these communities do face negative effects, comments and stigmatization from its members.

“Our belief and our history before Christianity came is that we have three genders. So, that’s a norm,” says Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “For some reason this plane ride, this 10-hour plane ride to America, changed that.”


Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources

No escape from danger: LGBT refugees fled to Kakuma Camp for their lives, only to be greeted with hostility



Homophobia is pervasive in Kenya, and some LGBT refugees at Kakuma Camp say they have faced discrimination from fellow refugees and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) workers that has exacerbated living conditions in the overcrowded facility.

Mbazira Moses, a gay refugee currently living at the Kakuma Camp, said in an email interview, “I have been exposed to persecution and hostility ever since the time I arrived in Kakuma.”

Moses was assaulted and stabbed by a fellow refugee on Oct. 11, 2017. After reporting the incident to the police, Moses said nothing was done.

He claims he has been assaulted several times, but said police have never investigated. Instead of receiving help, Moses was jailed along with 18 other LGBT refugees who had peacefully protested their unfair treatment at UNHCR headquarters in Nairobi.

LGBT refugees peacefully protest at the UNHCR Headquarters in Nairobi.

After speaking with a lawyer, Moses was told to accept whatever charges were filed against him, as this was the only way he could expect assistance from UNHCR.

Established in 1992, Kakuma Camp is located in the northwestern region of Kenya. Ethiopian, Sudanese and Somali refugees fled their war-torn countries and came to Kakuma refugee camp, which is divided into four zones.

With an influx of new arrivals in 2014, Kakuma surpassed its capacity by over 58,000 individuals. The camp has expanded and currently holds 77,092 refugees, according to the UNHCR Kakuma informational pamphlet.

Moses said many of the staff at Kakuma Camp are homophobic and view the LGBT community as cursed. Individuals are not given the same opportunities as other refugees. They are not employable because of their sexual orientation and are not given proper medical treatment. Many medical centers refuse to serve them at all, he said, and if they are treated, they are often refused medication and treatment for HIV.

Moses Mbazira holds the LGBT flag in his tent at Kakuma Camp.

According to Moses and many other LGBT refugees living at Kakuma Camp, they face eviction due to homophobic neighbors, leaving them homeless in the camp. UNHCR has placed the LGBT community in a housing section next to the river, where they face flooding and mosquitoes. Many of the refugees have malaria and are not given the treatment they need. The homes themselves are just tents, not properly covered to protect from the rain.

Thirteen UNHCR employees stationed at Kakuma Camp were contacted about Moses’ allegations of mistreatment toward LGBT refugees in the camp. Only four responded, and they said they could not comment.

“Agony has brought action,” Moses said. “Many of the LGBT members who have been granted asylum and refugee status under UNHCR within Kenya, receive consistent persecutions and grief by the host community and other members living within the camp. We (LGBT Community) have articulated our concerns to UNHCR but have been overlooked. This has caused a need to call on UNHCR to permit us a convention letter that will grant us a fair free movement to seek asylum in a country where we reserve the same rights as other refugees regardless of our sexual orientation.”

Barnabas Wobilaya, 36, is a gay Ugandan refugee and HIV/AIDS activist who was resettled in Salt Lake City. He fled Uganda and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2015. Wobilaya became an HIV/AIDS activist in Uganda because he had two siblings who lost their lives to HIV. Because of his activism, he was exposed as a gay man in the newspapers, lost his job, and had to move around a lot for his own safety.

“When you get to Kakuma, there is no housing. You arrive at the camp, and they give you land. You build your own house. They give you poles and a tent to put up yourself, some people use iron sheets for their roof,” Wobilaya said.

“The LGBT people are always the last people to get the services they need, always,” he said.

“Their cases are not being worked on. They have been there for years. Three years, five years. Cases of LGBT refugees are supposed to be fast because their need is so immediate. We suffer. I know people that have been in Kakuma since I arrived in Kenya that have still never seen their files. They don’t know what’s going on. Nothing happens.”

The resettlement process is in the hands of the Government of Kenya. Because Kenya still maintains largely homophobic outlooks  and policies, many LGBT folk are treated as criminals rather than asylum seekers and refugees.

“When I was in Kenya, I could not find a job,” Wobilaya said. “Kenyans know that many refugees from Uganda are gay. They are very homophobic. You go to the store to buy something, and they say ‘Uganda?’ and then they kick you out. You cannot buy things, if you can’t speak Swahili they will not give you service. They then say ‘these are gays’ in Swahili and you know to leave or else you will be beaten.”

LGBT refugees attempt to drain the water from the river that flooded their tent in Kakuma Camp.

Wobilaya was evicted from homes three times because his landlords discovered his sexual orientation. Many LGBT people are forced to live in Kakuma because landlords refuse to rent to them in Nairobi.

The UNHCR used to give refugees a stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings, which is about $60 U.S. per month. With that, they were supposed to pay their rent, medical bills, transportation cost and phone bill.

“Today they give them $45, but you have to pass an assessment that your living conditions are horrible, many people have to live in one room, a lot end up on the streets as sex workers so they can afford to live,” Wobilaya said.

“Now that I am in the States it is difficult to find ways to help. They tell me ‘we are dying’ and I can’t do much. After I pay my rent and bills I send my leftover money to my LGBT friends in Kenya. So I ask, let us help these people. Let’s fundraise. Help them to buy food,” Wobilaya said.

At Kakuma camp, World Food Program ( WFP) in partnership with UNHCR provides food distribution (maize, peas, flour, cooking oil, soap, salt, porridge) and some essential items like soap and toothpaste to every refugee within the camp.

However, the food supply has been continually decreasing, Wobilaya said, leaving LGBT refugees at a disadvantage since they are unable to find work and buy their own food. UNHCR has not created a system to notify LGBT members about their case progress levels, and they feel they cannot turn anywhere for support.

Wobilaya encourages the  LGBTQ community in Utah to help. “We in the LGBT community are one big family, so advocate for your brothers and sisters; that’s the only thing I ask.”

You can contact Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, the UNHCR head of sub-office in Kakuma, at and you can donate to the LGBT Kakuma refugee community through a fundraiser established by a Salt Lake City LGBT activist.






No safe space; how one Salt Lake City resident has welcomed LGBT refugees

Connell O’Donovan at the annual Salt Lake City Utah Pride festival. Photo taken by David Newkirk.


Apollo Kann, a gay Ugandan refugee and HIV/AIDS education activist, landed in Salt Lake City after spending two years in Nairobi, Kenya, waiting to be resettled into the U.S. The first local contact he made was Connell O’Donovan, a genealogist and well known activist for LGBT rights.

The next day Barnabas Wobilaya, Kann’s friend and fellow HIV/AIDS education activist, arrived in Salt Lake City from Nairobi. “I’m professional friends with them,” O’Donovan said with a laugh. “It started out totally informally. Apollo sent me a friend request on Facebook and for whatever reason, I accepted his request!”

After offering his help, O’Donovan arrived at the apartment that Kann, Wobilaya and two other Ugandan refugees had been placed in by the International Rescue Committee. O’Donovan immediately noticed that their apartment was sparsely furnished.

“The IRC had provided very minimal furniture, a table, two chairs, two beds, linens, basic soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. They showed up with a literal knapsack each, that was it,” O’Donovan said.

O’Donovan reached out to his social circle and explained the situation, saying, “They need everything, what can you give?” Within 24 hours a truck was filled with everything they could possibly need, including a La-Z-Boy chair and new TV.

“I’ve just been a contact point with my circle of friends and the LGBT Community at large, anything that they need, they contact me. And I reach out and try to find it for them,” O’Donovan said.

He brought Kann and Wobilaya to the Utah Pride Center, where they were introduced to the Executive Director Carol Gnade.

The Utah Pride Center had begun to establish a refugee subcommittee called The Heart and Home Project in November 2016, but plans were changed when Donald Trump became president.

“We had been told by IRC that there would be 25 other LGBT refugees that would be coming from Uganda in June,” Gnade said in a phone interview. “We started scrambling to get a program together for all of these people, but they never came.”

The Heart and Home Project proposed to distribute a pamphlet to resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. These pamphlets would help teach refugees about the LGBT culture and resources in Salt Lake City. The project has been put on hold until more LGBT refugees are resettled into Utah.

The Pride Center currently offers free counseling for LGBT folk and happily welcomes refugees who identify as LGBT. Several refugee resettlement agencies also offer counseling for refugees experiencing PTSD. But LGBT refugees are often hesitant to use the services in fear of being exposed and mistreated.

Aden Batar, the immigration and refugee resettlement director for Catholic Community Services and the first Somalian refugee to step foot in Utah, stressed the importance of befriending refugees. “They (refugees) are leaving their homes, friends and families behind. It is very easy to become isolated. The connections and friendships that are made through our volunteer programs can completely change their lives.”

O’Donovan grew emotional when he began explaining that Uganda is one of the worst countries to live in for the LGBT community.

“You would not believe the circumstances these (LGBT) refugees are coming from,” he said.

In 2014, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, in which being gay was punishable by death. It has since been updated and the penalty is now a lifetime prison sentence. It is not uncommon for the death penalty to be carried out in more rural areas.

Even if an LGBT Ugandan is placed in a refugee camp, conditions are not much better.

A United Nations Refugee Camp in Kakuma, Kenya, has been known to treat its LGBT enclave especially inhumanely. “There are about 250 (LGBT) refugees that are placed next to the shores of the river. When there is rain, they get flooded out, they’re constantly surrounded by mosquitos. Several of them have malaria, but they’re not getting medicine because they are not a priority. They are given ridiculous charges and sent to jail. The camp security will come by and beat the hell out of them,” said O’Donovan, who has been in contact with LGBT refugees staying at the camp.

Only five gay refugee men are known to be living in Salt Lake City, but two have not publicly come out in fear of being isolated from their own families and friends. Many LGBT refugees live their lives in hiding and secrecy. Even outing themselves in order to be granted asylum can be too dangerous. As openly gay men and HIV/AIDS education activists, Kann and Wobilaya have said they faced discrimination from fellow refugees here in Salt Lake City.

Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee have typically resettled approximately 1,200 refugees in Utah each year. Globally, 53 percent of all refugees are from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, all of which outlaw (some punishable by death) being an active LGBT citizen. Organizations like these are essential in helping refugees resettle into Salt Lake City, but Connell O’Donovan said that it is our responsibility as citizens to help our refugee neighbors feel welcome, especially those who may feel isolated in their own homes.