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Originally published Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 8:53 PM

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Immigrant-rights group endorses same-sex marriage

Recognizing that some cultures and religions oppose homosexuality, an immigrant-rights advocacy group that endorsed the state's same-sex marriage law is working with its constituents to show the connections between immigrant rights and gay rights.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The request before OneAmerica was simple enough: Would the organization, whose mission is to advocate for immigrants, endorse and support the statewide campaign to legalize marriage for gays?

A diverse group of lawyers and social-justice activists, the 10-member board of OneAmerica weighed the proposal: Could the group justify such a partnership, given OneAmerica's focus on immigration? Did it risk alienating constituents from cultures and religions where homosexuality is not only unaccepted, but the very idea of gay marriage is unheard-of?

And if they did endorse same-sex marriage, could they, in turn, count on gays for future support on tough immigration issues?

Two groups whose struggles for recognition are often independently cast as the civil-rights issue of the day, gays and immigrants seldom share a political stage.

In the end, the board's vote was unanimous. But the issues it raised and debated in considering that endorsement illustrate the sometimes tenuous nature of political alliances — particularly those built around divisive social issues.

OneAmerica assigned staff to talk to immigrants across the state about the similarities between their own experiences and those of gays and lesbians — with particular focus on more-conservative Eastern Washington, where the issue of gay marriage has traditionally been a tough sell.

Voters in November will decide whether to approve or reject a law passed earlier this year legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington.

Luis Fraga, a political-science professor at the University of Washington who chairs OneAmerica's board, said immigrants have the potential for being among the most tolerant people when it comes to things like gay rights because their own differences can so often leave them victims of discrimination and marginalization.

"We recognized our (endorsement) might not be accepted by all members of a number of immigrant communities — just as it's not accepted by some members of many different communities across the country," Fraga said.

"But we were convinced that in aligning our support for marriage equality within our historical commitment to social justice for all, that those who might oppose marriage equality would, in time, fully accept what motivated us to join this effort."

Religious leader

That said, there are some who likely never will.

Abdullah Polovina, imam of the Islamic Center in Shoreline, encouraged other Puget Sound-area Imams this spring to circulate in their mosque petitions for Referendum 74, the ballot measure that will decide the fate of gay marriage in the state.

Members of his year-old mosque — 300 to 500 strong — are mostly Bosnian Muslims, who fled genocide during and after the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.

Polovina said OneAmerica's position doesn't reflect his own. In his home country, he said, homosexuality wasn't "part of our tradition or rules" and be believes gays there were more emboldened to come out when issues of homosexuality were constantly in the media.

Polovina sees it as his duty as a religious leader to point out when someone is taking a wrong path and he believes it's important that other leaders of faith not sit on the sidelines.

"Marriage is about reproduction between man and woman; it's the natural order of things," he said.

And he said he feels no particular constraint because he's an immigrant. "I feel strongly that as citizens we have the right to raise our voice, give our opinion," he said.

"If you don't deal with politics, politics will deal with you."

Connections

Americans are as divided over aspects of the nation's immigration policies as they are over legalization of same-sex marriage.

Two liberal constituencies, gays and immigrants have each looked to the current administration to deliver for them what past administrations have not.

And while gays have seen gains — the end of Don't ask Don't tell, for example, and a powerful endorsement of same-sex marriage by President Obama — immigrant advocates have grumbled that they've seen little of what candidate Obama promised. What's more, they contend, his administration carries the mantle for deporting more immigrants than any president before him.

Yet, as seemingly different as their agendas appear, there are points where gay rights and immigration politics intersect — connections that OneAmerica intends to emphasize among constituents who don't approve of same-sex marriage.

Immigration laws allow a married U.S. citizen or legal resident to petition for a foreign spouse to obtain legal status, but there's no such benefit for gays — even among those who are legally married — because the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex unions.

Furthermore, within some immigrant communities, gays and lesbians feel forced to live a double life, afraid to reveal their sexual orientation to their families and friends for fear of being ostracized — or worse.

Solomon Berhe is an activist in Seattle who has been trying to raise the issue of gay rights among fellow Ethiopians and other East Africans. Many of them are people who he knows are gay but who refuse to acknowledge it.

He fully supports the alliance between OneAmerica and the same-sex-marriage campaign, believing it could be a bridge that helps some immigrant communities move beyond deep denials around homosexuality.

A Christian, Berhe himself is not gay, but he is HIV positive, having contracted the disease from a woman he was dating 15 years ago, about a decade after he arrived in the United States. He finds it a natural platform from which to attempt to broach this taboo subject among fellow Africans.

"Knowing what I went through for HIV," Berhe said, "I cannot imagine being a gay African."

Berhe believes it will take straight people like him to lay the groundwork for change. He's working to start a support group for Ethiopians and other African gays that he hopes eventually will spread via the Internet.

"Being gay is a reality in all nationalities around the world."

Standing together

While OneAmerica's decision to join the Washington United for Marriage campaign didn't come with a formal agreement that gays would stand alongside immigrants in lobbying for change, such support was understood — part of a long-term goal to strengthen an alliance that, on the local level, had already begun to take hold.

"It's certainly an expectation that I hope will be realized," Fraga said of gays working with immigrants. In the past, gay-rights groups like Equal Rights Washington, have quietly partnered with OneAmerica on various immigration issues, including a boycott of the state of Arizona after that state passed a tough immigration law.

State Sen. Ed Murray, the primary sponsor of the gay-marriage legislation that Washingtonians will vote on in November, has long supported issues important to immigrants, said Ricardo Sanchez, a longtime Latino advocate who heads an organization called Latino/an Educational Achievement Project, which works to help immigrant young Latinos pursue an education.

He said Murray is prepared to sponsor legislation next year to allow undocumented immigrant students to qualify for state financial aid. "He's not reluctant to take this on publicly," Sanchez said.

Toby Guevin, OneAmerica's senior policy and civic engagement manager, said he will be working with smaller groups to organize events around marriage equality. He plans to have conversations on the radio, including some in Spanish, in people's living rooms and in community gathering places.

Immigrants will be invited to share their personal stories.

"Really, it is starting where people are, opening those lines of communications and helping people understand the connections between these two issues," he said.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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