If there is one true stereotype about gay people it is that we have a special talent for fixing up dilapidated neighborhoods and turning them into coveted destinations. One city that is in desperate need of revitalization is Detroit – and, in turn, the Motor City could save the lives of desperate gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who are trapped in anti-gay nations that persecute them.
Amnesty International reports that homosexuality is against the law in 38 out of 54 countries in Africa. The punishment for homosexual acts is death in northern Nigeria, Sudan, Mauritania, and Somalia. There is also widespread harassment in Russia, which recently passed its “gay propaganda” law that punishes people or groups that offer positive portrayals of homosexuality.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled a plan to attract 50,000 immigrants to the city over five years. He should increase this number and create a historic amnesty program to attract LGBT refugees who are literally running for their lives. Such a move would send a strong signal to what author Richard Florida has dubbed “The Creative Class,” that Detroit is serious about becoming a cultural and entrepreneurial hub.
LGBT people worldwide would likely invest in the success of a sanctuary city. Longtime advocates, such as myself, are in a state of despair witnessing our brothers and sisters beaten and arrested by authoritarian regimes. We have helplessly watched online videos where Russian neo-Nazis entrap gay people and humiliate them. We’ve read stories about witch-hunts in northern Nigeria, where LGBT people are rounded up and receive painful lashes on their backs.
There would be no greater moral victory than empowering a city with gay immigrants to rise from the ashes to be rebuilt into a world cultural center and economic powerhouse. LGBT donors from across the world could help ease the transition and create an infrastructure for success. The less affluent could sponsor an immigrant with a few dollars per day to pay for essentials.
In terms of housing, The New York Times reports that Detroit has 78,000 to 90,000 vacant buildings. Demolishing these structures could cost as much as $1 billion. Wouldn’t it be wiser and more cost effective to use these homes to shelter grateful LGBT refugees? While most Americans wouldn’t be enthusiastic about moving into an abandoned Detroit house, a gay immigrant from Mogadishu or St. Petersburg might be ecstatic.
One of Detroit’s greatest assets is its rich cultural, sexual, and religious diversity. This would bode well for an immigrant population coming from all corners of the map. It would add to the most dynamic aspects of Detroit, while expanding the number of private sector investors with an interest in resuscitating the city.
President Barack Obama is a strong ally of the LGBT community and has condemned anti-gay legislation in places such as Uganda and Russia. Through regulation he could likely circumvent anti-gay members of Congress to bring LGBT people to Detroit – or even his hometown of Chicago.
In my own lifetime, I saw the LGBT community play a key role in revitalizing Miami Beach, the Logan Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC, and parts of Brooklyn. There is no doubt that an LGBT Diaspora converging on Detroit is what is needed to turn that city’s long nightmare into a destination for dreamers.
The Statue of Liberty offers a promise of hope: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
If Detroit becomes that golden door for gay refugees, the worldwide LGBT community will respond by doing everything in its power to once more lift Detroit’s flickering lamp to prominence.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”