SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A sign featuring a rainbow lifebuoy hangs proudly in the heart of San Francisco's Castro District - one of the nation's first gay neighborhoods and persistent emblem of LGBTQ+ pride. This metaphorical life preserver comes to life for its clients inside - asylum seekers in search of a new life free of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or HIV status.
According to the organization, 73 countries still criminalize homosexuality and/or homosexual conduct. The LGBT Asylum Project's clients were met with societal and government oppression with a lack of formal support. The nonprofit's dedicated staff includes Director of Operations Kenan Arun, who is from Turkey.
"Hate crimes and hate murders from trans people are really high in Turkey and they are not protected by law by any means," said Arun.
Bianca Alvanez-Martinez shared a similar experience. Living in El Salvador, Alvanez-Martinez faced atrocities not only from their governments and fellow citizens but their own families and friends.
"My sister's ex-husband attacked me and tried to kill me on three different occasions. But I survived the last beating," Alvanez-Martinez said. "At that moment, I decided to escape to the United States."
The LGBT Asylum Project serves asylum seekers in the San Francisco Asylum Office jurisdiction -- extending from Bakersfield, CA to Seattle, WA -- who were not able to afford decent representation in their cases. Quality legal representation may cost between $6,000 to $15,000 if paid privately, yet asylum applicants are unauthorized to work in the United States, according to the organization's website.
Long-time immigrant rights activist and the organization's staff attorney Gervy Jhon Tesoro's first case was Alvanez-Martinez's.
Tesoro said since Alvanez-Martinez was "exhibiting female mannerisms, they forced her to take testosterone to combat." Tesoro emphasized the importance of continued vigilance in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and more progress is needed.
The LGBT Asylum Project's Co-Founder and Legal Director Brooke Westling shares this expression of emotion, "cry(ing) every time (they) win a case," she said.
"Just the thought of how different that person's life was going to be after that day, really makes me emotional and is a huge part of why I keep doing it," Westling said.
In gaining their asylum, Alvanez-Martinez "found more than love and acceptance in San Francisco, I found a family which has made me feel very comfortable," they said.
For more information, visit The LGBT Asylum Project's website.
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