Rolston Ryan is a gay man. That’s not in dispute.
Back in St Kitts and Nevis, where gay sex is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, he was subject to constant harassment. Walking home from work, men would use homophobic slurs calling him “anti man” and “batty man.” They would punch him in the gut or in the face if they felt he was walking too close to them. Sometimes they would throw stones at him in the streets.
St Kitts, the island where Ryan lived, is small, with a population of only 40,000 people. So even though Ryan wasn’t completely out of the closet, everyone knew he was gay. He isn’t sure if it was because of how he walks or how he talks. At a young age, he would only play with girls. His uncle certainly knew he was gay — he would beat him regularly, while yelling those same slurs.
Ryan is an accomplished dancer. He travelled around the Caribbean performing and won cash prizes in dancing competitions. But being a dancer in St Kitts gave the homophobes even more ammunition to target him with.
Ryan was stabbed for being a gay man in St Kitts. Not once, but twice. The first time he had been out with friends and was walking through an alley to get back to his house. A group of men stopped him, demanding money and calling him homophobic names. He tried to run away, but they beat him badly. He was stabbed multiple times and was hospitalized. He still has the scars.
A few years later, he was attacked, stabbed and robbed again. The last straw for Ryan came when a man pulled a gun on him. “Don’t walk on this street batty man,” he was threatened. Ryan was scared for his life. An online friend in Canada was able to link him up with Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based organization that gets LGBT people out of situations like his. They bought him a plane ticket and a month later he was in Canada.
Rolston Ryan is a gay man. He was subjected to vicious attacks and abuse because of that. He comes from a country that criminalizes his very existence. None of that is in dispute.
But what the Canadian government does dispute is that he’s a person in need of protection. And that’s why they’re sending him back.
• • •
At a time when the new Canadian Liberal government is carving out exceptions for gay, bisexual and transgender men in its policy toward Syrian refugees, it is still deporting people like Ryan.
Ryan is a handsome man in his early 30s. His hair is buzzed down to a short fade and he has a toothy smile that only occasionally surfaces. His accent is distinctly Caribbean, but it can be hard to place, because he speaks so softly.
While talking with Daily Xtra, Ryan was visibly nervous.
“I’m just really a private person,” he says. “I like to keep everything to myself.”
But what was apparent was his relief at being in a place where he wasn’t afraid for his safety.
“I’ve been here for going on three years and I never experienced no form of homophobia,” he says. “Nobody ever mention anything to me to make me feel bad or anything like that. I’m just going to work comfortable, dancing comfortable, walking on the street.”
Ryan is happy with the life he’s built since coming to Canada. He’s been working in a temporary job at a bakery in Toronto’s West End, which involves multiple-hour commutes to and from his home in Scarborough. He works odd hours, which means he’s had to quit the dance company he had been involved with. But if he gets more regular hours, he’ll get back to it.
“It’s my passion, I really love it,” he says of dancing.
When he arrived in Toronto in 2013, he had no idea what to expect.
“At first I was nervous because it’s a place I’ve never been to. And it’s a big place, a big country,” he says.
He arrived at night and was taken to the home of Joel Dick and Dara Douma, a couple who live in The Beaches neighbourhood. Rainbow Railroad had asked them to host Ryan. Their home would end up being his home for the next five months. Ryan started attending refugee support meetings at The 519, Toronto’s LGBT community centre. He volunteered with the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention. He started dancing again.
He had many of the same experiences that a lot of queer asylum seekers have when they arrive in Canada. He still remembers the shock of seeing two men walking hand-in-hand down Church Street for the first time.
“Back in St Kitts, if two guys are sitting in a restaurant, just having dinner, you could be friends but they’ll think you’re two gay guys,” he says. “They’ll start looking at you and talking about you. Coming here was very different."
He got comfortable, went to gay bars and sometimes partied too hard. He went to WorldPride. He had his first real romantic relationships.
But while he was trying to adapt to life in a new country, he was also busy meeting with his lawyer preparing his refugee case. Ryan and his lawyer both thought the hearing went well. But in September, a month after he appeared in front of the Refugee Protection Division, he received an answer in the mail. He had been rejected.
“It was really emotional, it was hard to take in,” Ryan says. He couldn’t bring himself to read through the whole decision — his lawyer had to read much of it to him.
“I cried,” he says. “I cried, I cried, I cried, I cried.”
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Unlike some refugee cases, Ryan’s identity as a gay man was never in question by the Refugee Protection Division. The panel (which was made up of a single person, Brenda Lloyd) even went so far as to state unequivocally that Ryan would “face a serious possibility of persecution if he were to return to St Kitts.”
But Lloyd questioned Ryan’s credibility on a number of points. Ryan had stated that his aunt had often harassed and mistreated him because of his perceived sexual orientation. Lloyd found that though “there was an air of truth” to this, his allegations were undermined by the fact that he had continued to live with her.
While domestic violence survivors might look askance at such logic, Lloyd concluded that this undermined Ryan’s testimony.
Ryan dithered on whether the most serious assault, where he had been stabbed and hospitalized, had happened in 2004 or 2005. Lloyd wrote that “the panel does not find it credible that the claimant would not remember when the incident occurred.”
But the main reason Ryan was found to not be worthy of receiving refugee status was because Lloyd believed the state of St Kitts and Nevis would be able to protect him against his attackers. Refugee law has a built-in presumption that all governments are able to protect their citizens. It’s up to the refugee to prove that they can’t do this.
Lloyd did note in her decision that “homosexual acts remain criminalized in Saint Kitts.” But she referred to a single case in which the police claimed to be investigating the shooting of an LGBT youth as evidence that “the Government of Saint Kitts and Nevis provides adequate protection to its citizens.”
In other words, even if Ryan would be a target of violence because of his sexual orientation, Canada believes that it’s up to the St Kitts police to deal with it.
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“They’re the same as everybody,” says Ryan about the police in St Kitts. “Anything related to gay, they don’t come and try. They’re probably going to laugh at you and say, ‘Okay we’re coming,’ and then they never show up.”
The government of St Kitts and Nevis claims to not regularly receive reports of violence against LGBT people, but unofficial reports indicate violence remains a problem, according to a US State Department human rights report.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that LGBT persons are reluctant to report incidents of violence or abuse out of fear of retribution or reprisal due to their sexual orientation.”
Ryan says that he went to the police after both of his attacks. When he contacted them from Canada for any records relating to these incidents, they claimed that they didn’t have any. No one was ever arrested or charged for attacking him and the police never contacted him regarding any investigation.
He knows of other gay men who have gone to the police after assaults and had the police do nothing. And Ryan says he was scared that if they knew he was gay, he would be arrested himself.
• • •
Since his first refugee hearing in 2013, Ryan has made two appearances before the Refugee Appeal Division — he was rejected both times. The first decision was overturned by a Federal Court judge, but the second is likely to stick. He’s applied for judicial review, but is unlikely to succeed and will likely be issued a deportation order soon.
If he’s sent back to St Kitts, Ryan will have no family support.
“Where would I go? That’s the main question I’ve been asking myself if I have to go back.”
His mother gave him up to his aunt and grandmother when he was born, so he has no relationship with his parents. His grandmother is dead and his aunt has made it clear that he’s not wanted. She’s thrown out all of Ryan’s belongings and has told him that she knows he came to Canada because he’s gay.
“After coming here, rumours start spreading because every gay guy that come here basically come through the refugee, and that’s being spread that I’m here doing that,” he says.
“St Kitts is really, really small, so no matter where I go, it’s going to be the same way.”
Even finding a job would be difficult. Ryan says that there’s an assumption in the Caribbean that anyone who has been deported is a criminal, making it difficult to get hired.
Ryan is worried that even though many people in St Kitts already assumed he was gay, speaking with and having his name and photo published in Daily Xtra will mean his life will be even more in danger than it had been before he left.
But he says he’s willing to take that risk if it gives him even a small chance to stay in Canada.
Joel Dick and Dara Douma have been reaching out to media and to politicians on behalf of Ryan in the hopes that the new government will reconsider deporting him back to St Kitts. But so far they’ve had no luck in getting the attention of John McCallum, the newly installed minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.
If by some miracle, Ryan does get to stay in Canada, he’d like to go back to school and maybe study business. But above all, he’d like to share his true passion with other Canadians.
“I would really like to start teaching dance,” he says.