Secured asylum for persecuted lesbian
Julie Firestone and Dan Supalla were so disgusted by the threatened harassments of gays and lesbians at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, they set out to do something to help. Avid pro bono attorneys, the Briggs and Morgan partners sought to help Russians in need of asylum in the United States. That didn’t pan out, but they did land cases for two African women whose lives were endangered for being lesbians.
One case is still pending, but Supalla and Firestone secured asylum this fall for one of the women from Cameroon, in central Africa. They built a rock-solid case for Emelda, who was severely beaten, repeatedly raped, twice arrested, and jailed. Minutes before they were to argue their case before a U.S. immigration judge, the government lawyer told Firestone and Supalla that the United States wouldn’t contest Emelda’s application for asylum thanks to the “very strong case” they built for her.
Emelda’s story was especially compelling. She once was jailed for being in a relationship with a woman. She escaped from jail after three weeks of constant beatings and walked for two days to the Nigerian border. Emelda lived there for many years. But when her sister died, she returned to Cameroon to attend the funeral, believing that all would be forgotten.
It wasn’t. She was jailed immediately, and she endured severe beatings and being permanently disfigured from an unknown liquid. When Emelda overheard guards talking about their plans to kill her, she knew she had to flee again. She used a wooden spoon to dig a hole big enough for her to escape, and again she made it to Nigeria. After the murder of a gay rights activist in Cameroon, Emelda knew she would never be safe in Africa, and she traveled to Mexico before seeking asylum in the United States.
“The biggest points we argued were about the corrective rapes she suffered, being beaten and imprisoned for the time she was, and that conditions in Cameroon have been so bad for gays and lesbians,” says Supalla. “The Cameroonian government enforces its anti-homosexuality laws way beyond the letter of the law.”
Both attorneys are committed and long-time pro bono lawyers, believing that it’s their duty as lawyers to help people who lack the means to help themselves. Supalla and Firestone have taken a variety of cases over the years and each earned their firm’s pro bono attorney of the year award. But these asylum cases have special meaning for the lawyers, both of whom are gay.
“I have a personal affinity for people who are suffering, and I’m a lesbian who is married in Minnesota,” says Firestone. “It’s so different from people’s lives who are in danger for being gay, and it’s a moral imperative to help people where I can. That’s why this case was so important to me.”
Supalla, who also works with federal public defenders seeking to overturn cases on appeal, gets enormous satisfaction from ensuring that the justice system treats everyone fairly. And as more gay and lesbian people in the United States secured the right to marry, Supalla was motivated to help others around the world.
“Before places can even get to that point, there is so much work that needs to be done,” he says. “This is a small way to be a part of that and help someone get to a place where they are safe and can walk around without worrying if the police are coming after them for being who they are.”