During New York’s Pride Month, several asylum seekers who arrived in New York City after crossing the border finally paraded in a Pride march for the first time in their lives. City Limits spoke with six of them.

Adi Talwar

“To go through a miles-long crowd that was praising and cheering you on, it was a very nice feeling,” Javier, who came to New York City from Venezuela, of participating in his first Pride march last month.

Lea la versión en español aquí.

Steven Uribe and Javier began planning their outfits a month early: white clothing on the upper body, makeup, skirt, heels and thigh-high pantyhose for Uribe, and a skirt and black boots for Javier.

It would be the first time the friends would take part in a Pride parade, and they wanted to look spectacular. Since they were young they had tried on dresses, skirts, lipsticks, and makeup, but always in secret. Now, in New York City, they could wear whatever they wanted and be whoever they wanted to be.

It took Javier—who asked that his full name not be used for fear of jeopardizing his immigration case—40 years to get there. He’d crossed more than 10 countries with the goal of reaching the Big Apple, where he believed he could be Javier, or Javierera, whenever he wanted.

“Since I knew that Javierera’s name existed, I fell in love with it,” Javier, 40, said in Spanish.

Javier knew that there were pride marches in Venezuela, as well as in other Latin American countries, but he never felt safe participating in them: his career would be affected, his family didn’t know about it—and still doesn’t—and violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community was common.

“After small groups of people had made me feel so bad, now to go through a miles-long crowd that was praising and cheering you on, it was a very nice feeling,” Javier said of the experience marching in the June 25 parade, in which an estimated 2 million people celebrated throughout lower Manhattan. “I was very flattered.”

100,000 migrants have come through the city shelters since the spring of 2022, and over 50,000 remain in the city’s care, surpassing the number of longtime unhoused New Yorkers, city officials have said.

Yet It’s not clear how many of those asylum seekers identify as LGBTQIA+ or how many might be seeking refuge in the city because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—one of the leading causes for immigrants leaving their country of origin, advocates say.

New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and New York City Health + Hospitals, two of the main agencies in charge of the city’s asylum seeker response, say they don’t comprehensively track this information.

During the screening process that takes place when an immigrant arrives seeking shelter in the city, people may voluntarily identify themselves as LGBTQIA+.

Still, the lack of specific information on sexual orientation and gender identity about the LGBTQIA+ community repeats historical patterns of lack of data at both the local and federal levels, making disparities, inequities, and differentiated impacts and needs harder to identify, experts say.

“In my home country we would have been bullied”

Outwardly, New York City sells a reputation as one of the most progressive cities for LGBTQIA+ people, but there is a lot of work to be done to address the challenges faced by unhoused members of the community, who experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, advocates say.

“The magic of the [Pride] march is very nice, but downstream are the particularities of the groups and intersectionality,” said Yonatan Matheus, co-founder of America Diversa, a non-profit organization supporting LGBTQIA+ people of Latino origin in the city. 

The DHS system has only one shelter dedicated to LGBTQIA+ adults, Marsha’s House, named after transgender icon Marsha P. Johnson. Nearly all of the other LGBTQIA+ shelters are for people under 25.

The city’s remaining shelters are predominantly organized along the gender binary, explains Stephanie Rudolph, Homeless Rights Project attorney with the Legal Aid Society: single men go to single men’s shelters, single women go to women’s shelters, families with minor children go to non-congregate places suitable for them—following the minimum requirements of the Right to Shelter—and transgender people go to the shelter category they feel most comfortable in.

Nevertheless, the complexity of individual circumstances sometimes requires intervention from advocates to reassign shelter placements. In the last few months, Rudolph has assisted four immigrants to be relocated to shelters with access to single-stall toilets, non-communal showers, and private bathrooms.

“Legal Aid Society is pushing for more screening of LGBTQ people,” Rudolph said.

They are not alone: a bill requiring quarterly reports on the city’s LGBTQIA+ homeless population in both youth and adult shelters was approved by the City Council in June and is waiting for the mayor’s signature.

The bill as it stands does not necessarily include reporting information about shelter residents’ immigration status. When contacted by City Limits, Althea Stevens, the bill’s main proponent, would not say whether she would make modifications to include LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers.

Now that Javier is in a place where he feels safe to explore his identity for the first time, he has begun to think and consider who he wants to be, including the very personal decision of whether to transition. All of this while simultaneously learning a new language, navigating the shelter system, finding a job, and beginning an asylum application.

“It’s not easy here either because of the immigration situation,” Javier said. “You have to pay a lawyer, which is very expensive. There are a series of requirements that make you a little sad.” 

But in other ways, he feels like he finally fits in. America Diversa, of which Javier and Uribe are members, organized a group of LGBTQIA+ immigrants to march at Pride.

“I was able to go out with my group to the march,” Javier said. “If we had done that in my country we would have been bullied.”

Though not everything went as planned the day of the event: Javier and Uribe arrived late and could not find the America Diversa crew that was marching, many of them immigrants also taking part for the first time.

Among them was Erika and Jeni, a couple from Colombia. They created a poster that on one side said “Because I was a lesbian I had to leave my country” and on the other side, “Colombia homophobic country” in Spanish.

Alex Krales/NYC Council Media Unit

A scene from the 2023 NYC Pride March in Manhattan.

They, too, were running late for the march on the big day. Frustrated, they looked for a place to watch when they arrived, with the good fortune to see the America Diversa squad passing by minutes later. So they entered the crowd.

“I felt like J Lo,” said Erika, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of jeopardizing her immigration case while it was pending. “People asked me for photos, TV cameras interviewed me and I used the moment to say ‘I love Jeni’ on camera. That was nice.”

In New York outside, in Latin America inside

Venezuela remains on a list of countries in South America that does not allow same-sex marriage. When Venezuelan couple Daniela and Nikol arrived in the city in April of last year, they felt the process was not so easy for couples like them who had no way to get married before emigrating.

“I didn’t think it was such a strong requirement,” said Daniela, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of jeopardizing her immigration case.

When the pair first arrived at the city’s Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) shelter system intake center, they were asked to present their marriage certificate, they said.

“Nikol started to cry. We had no money, we had no telephone,” Daniela said in Spanish.

One of the requirements for the couples to be placed as such in the shelter system is that they show a marriage certificate or a domestic partnership, which in turn requires identification—something often confiscated from people while crossing the border.

Kate Barnhart, who runs New Alternatives, an organization that provides case management, life skills training and meals for homeless LGBTQIA+ young people, said this is one of the most frequent problems reported by queer couples of all ages.

But DHS, recognizing that recently arrived asylum seekers may not possess documentation of their marriage or domestic partnership, is conditionally placing immigrants based on their self-identified family status, allowing them time to obtain relevant documentation affirming their relationship. Daniela and Nikol were accepted and given a period to present their documentation.

The city’s Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers, or HERRCs, have no requirements to prove partnership, so LGBTQIA+ couples can be placed in a room in a HERRC together as long as capacity is available, according to Health + Hospitals, which helps operate the emergency shelter sites.

Nikol proposed to Daniela two years ago, and she accepted. But it wasn’t until August of last year that they managed to get married in New York City, days before the deadline for submitting the documents.

“On the road, we said we were cousins, out of fear,” Daniela said, remembering the long trek from Latin America. “Although [our son] called us both ‘Mama,’ and people stared at us. It was tough to hide it because in most Latin countries they don’t accept us.”

Even on U.S. soil and while in New York City, that acceptance isn’t guaranteed, something Uribe, a Colombian immigrant, learned the hard way. 

While at the Atlantic Armory, a men’s shelter where there have been altercations between immigrants and homeless services officers, Uribe and a group of immigrants he met crossing the border in Piedras Negras, Mexico, used to go out in the mornings to look for work.

Uribe describes how living in places where he couldn’t be openly gay created multiple versions of his personality.

Adi Talwar

“I am a person who adapts to space, so I am a different person for each environment,” said Steven Uribe, an asylum seeker from Colombia.

“I am a person who adapts to space, so I am a different person for each environment,” Uribe said in Spanish, “and I didn’t say I was gay [at the shelter].”

At the time, Uribe had only one pair of Pride-flagged shorts, which he used to sleep in. One morning he woke up tired and forgot to change when he went to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“I felt rumors, stares as I passed by the tables in the cafeteria,” he said, noticing a few steps later that he had forgotten to change his shorts.

When he picked up his food and turned around, he saw that the group he used to go out with in the mornings was sitting in the back, so he headed towards them, but when he got close, they stood up and left.

“I [had] arrived in the world’s gay city but I still live as if I were in Colombia,” Uribe said. “The ‘friendship’ ended there, and I had even lent one of them $40 dollars, but he disappeared.”

Uribe has been working as a cleaner for months and was transferred to an emergency shelter hotel where he shares a room with one other person. His roommate doesn’t know he is gay, and no one at work does.

Javier took a different approach, wearing makeup and different outfits to work, where most of the restaurant cleaning staff is Venezuelan. Under the city’s Human Rights Law, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“They can’t maltreat me because they know there are consequences,” Javier said, feeling that he no longer has to hide to protect himself.

Like Uribe, Javier also said nothing about his gender identity to his peers while he was in a shelter in Brooklyn. Five months ago, Javier rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment where he felt comfortable enough to start putting on makeup without fear.

On the day of the march, the friends were so happy to be able to express themselves in so many ways from head to toe for the first time, that taking four hours to put on makeup and arriving late to the parade did not deflate them in the least. 

“I’ve never been to a [Pride] march before,” said Javier, still in awe. “On the street, we were expressing ourselves and on the sides the admiring public. It’s different.”