It has been a little over a year since I first came out as gay to my friends and family.
It has been several months since I first published an article divulging this intimate detail of my life, and compromising my anonymity with a quick Google search.
As I gripped the podium in front of me, adrenaline coursed throughout my body. Thoughts rolled through my head like a freight train out of control, and I wondered if I made the wrong choice.
Maybe they were right; maybe I shouldn’t be so public about this aspect of my life. Maybe I was making a mistake by standing up here.
Here, there was no laptop case to close, no opportunity to hit the “back” button. Here, I was exposed.
“As a member of the LGBT community myself...”
These words, a mere slice of my own personal narrative, still rendered so difficult for me to say aloud. This phrase articulated a secret I kept for over a decade -- a secret I had, for the better part of my life, swallowed and kept from everyone I knew.
As I prepared to speak, peering out from behind the safety of the podium, I braced myself for what had been unthinkable only a year ago.
Memories shot into my consciousness, colliding until they settled on a singular thought that caused me to plunge into my new self:
“Now you decide: Am I a machine? Am I a human? Am I a war hero? Or am I a criminal?”
This question, posed by Alan Turing to the detective charging him with “gross indecency” (Homosexuality was illegal at the time in Britain.) in "The Imitation Game," silenced everything else in my head.
This was the question I was effectively asking my audience. This is the question so many countries around the world are still answering incorrectly.
In that moment, I boiled down my task into one short objective: to persuade everyone in that conference room of my humanity.
As the winner of the Millennium Campus Conference’s Millennium Peace Prize, I was given the chance to promote global LGBTQ rights.
Supported by the Millennium Campus Network and The MCJ/Amelior Foundation, the Peace Prize presented me with the rare opportunity to break down prejudices.
It allowed me to launch the “#AsylumConnect: In Pursuit of Happiness, Freedom and Safety” global campaign at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
It introduced me to a panel of global development expert mentors, and over 450 student leaders from more than 50 countries around the world. It let me present my case, an argument for respecting the humanity of all people, to delegates who live in the countries where it is still illegal to be gay.
It is unsettling to think Alan Turing’s reality persists to this day for some of the people sitting in that room. The sobering truth is 2.79 billion people still live in countries where being gay can lead to imprisonment or death.
And so I decided to speak with a purpose, to attempt to highlight the absurdity of making it illegal for someone to simply be who they are. I wanted to encourage everyone in that conference room, regardless of nationality, to challenge this irrationality.
In July 2014, I cofounded AsylumConnect with my friend at the University of Pennsylvania, Sayid Abdullaev.
Our aim is to help LGBTQ people immigrating to the US from those 77 countries where it is still illegal for them to be themselves. We believe everyone deserves the right to live authentically.
We are a non-profit initiative on a mission to build life-saving online informational resources for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the US.
We are creating the first ever online centralized catalog of LGBTQ-friendly resources (organized by location) for asylum seekers. Our catalog includes social, medical, legal, counseling and other services (such as public libraries, computer labs and free mailing services).
The AsylumConnect catalog will help persecuted LGBTQ people find life-saving resources to meet their basic human needs upon their arrival in the US.
We hope AsylumConnect will lead our generation to question existing prejudice and hate. This is not an LGBTQ issue; this is a human issue.
If you believe in freedom and safety for all people, or if you believe in peace, join the AsylumConnect campaign. Join us in our fight to give fellow human beings the dignity and basic human right to live authentically, and the agency to empower them to be their own heroes.
Ultimately, you must decide: Am I a human?
For specific action steps you can take to meaningfully contribute to connecting LGBTQ asylum seekers in the US with lifesaving resources please see our latest blog post, “AsylumConnect at the United Nations."