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One spring evening three years ago, Gessildo Silva and two friends were walking down a street in Rio de Janeiro. Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by a gang of young men shouting, "Faggots!" and, "Barbie girls!"
Silva and his boyfriend escaped, but the third friend was beaten on the head with a wooden stick -- beaten so badly that he began hemorrhaging inside his skull. Later, he had to have brain surgery.
Silva and his partner reported the beating to the local police, but they refused to investigate. They told Silva gays should "stay inside" if they wanted to be safe. Gays should "expect" to be assaulted by thugs.
This is why Silva does not want to return to Brazil.
"I was very scared all the time," recalls Silva. The 36-year-old hairstylist is openly gay and HIV-positive -- and in Brazil, that amounts to an invitation for pain and persecution.
That's the essence of the argument Silva is making to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in his petition for political asylum. He is one of thousands of illegal immigrants who were rushing to apply for asylum by today.
Illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for more than one year (like Silva, who arrived in 1992) had one year from April 1, 1997, to apply. Those who have failed to meet today's deadline are not entitled to asylum.
Under the old rules, immigrants were granted asylum if they proved "a well-founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or, in the case of gays and lesbians, membership in a social group.
But those who miss the April 1 deadline can get asylum only if they meet the persecution standard and if so-called "country conditions" have changed significantly, so that they face repercussions if they return to their home countries.
Under the new rules, for example, Silva would need to prove that circumstances in Brazil were not only bad, but that a revolution or some other major event had made them much worse since he left. And since conditions for gays and lesbians have been consistently bad during Silva's time in the U.S., his application for asylum would probably be denied.
For many gays and lesbians, the decision to apply for political asylum has been particularly difficult. Many would rather live in the U.S. illegally than have anything to do with the government, because they have had bad experiences with authorities in their home countries. In many places, police routinely refuse to investigate crimes against gays and lesbians.
In Brazil between 1992 and 1994, for example, 180 gays, lesbians, and transvestites were murdered. Those cases remain unsolved, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Silva and his American partner, John Fazio, took several months to decide if Silva should apply for asylum in the United States. Fear of being sent back to Brazil ultimately motivated Silva to act.
In Brazil, Silva lived quietly in the shadows -- as did most of his gay friends.
When he was 13, Silva was sodomized at gunpoint by a neighbor. "I know you're gay," the man said. "I know someone's going to do this to you. I want to do it first."
When he contracted HIV, fear and ignorance about AIDS made Silva's life in Brazil nearly impossible. His boss fired him from his job as a hairstylist. She said she didn't want him to "contaminate" the customers.
Silva says word soon spread that he was ill, and no other salon would hire him. Friends stayed away too.
"Nobody even talks about AIDS there, because everyone's so scared," he says. "If you're HIV-positive, even gay people don't want to have anything to do with you."
When he was hospitalized for an AIDS-related infection, the hospital staff refused to touch him. Orderlies left clean sheets at the door of his room, and told him to change them himself. Doctors used alcohol to scrub the chair by his bed before sitting down.
AIDS drugs in Brazil are expensive and difficult to get, says Silva. For example, Crixivan, when it's available, costs $550 for a month's supply; in San Francisco, under federal disability insurance, AIDS drugs are fully subsidized and cost nothing. Silva pays $14 for a three-month supply of the three-drug cocktail he takes, because he is covered by his partner's health insurance.
Silva knows he's taking a tremendous risk by applying for asylum. He has effectively "outed" himself. Immigration authorities are now aware he's been living in the U.S. illegally. And they know he is gay, so that frequent INS dodge, marriage, is obviously out of the question.
But Silva says he has decided asylum is worth the risk.
"I just want to live my life, you know?" he says. "I want to clean my life -- living here illegally is just another thing that's dirty."
Silva's attorney, Neil Grungras, is optimistic about his client's chances. He says Silva's case is one of the most compelling he has seen.
"This case shows the incredible resolve of a human being to live in dignity and take these risks and chances because he knows that he'll die if he goes back," says Grungras. "How many people are out there who are too terrified to take this risk?