Millions of gay Indians suddenly became criminals when the Indian Supreme Court restored the country's sodomy law in December. But the ruling actually helped set one couple free.
When the ruling was issued, two men from northwest India had spent more than six months in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso, Texas, waiting for a judge to decide on their petition for asylum. It was a bitter ending to their yearlong journey across more than 10 countries to reach the United States. They had left India after death threats from their family and being targeted for police abuse because of their sexual orientation, though at the time the law criminalizing same-sex relationships was suspended by a lower court ruling. And when they finally reached the country that they expected to protect their rights, they wound up in a facility that felt exactly like prison.
The whole experience had felt cruelly backward to the couple, so it was perhaps fitting that the U.S. released them from detention only when they formally became criminals at home.
A U.S. judge granted the pair asylum on Dec. 20 based on their experience of police abuse and threats from their families to kill them if they returned. But even now they don't feel that much safer than when they left India, which is why they only agreed to speak to BuzzFeed under names they chose for themselves, Manoj and Maninder, rather than their real names.
A cousin in a small city in the midwest paid their airfare to join him, but he kicked them out of his house once they'd worked off the cost of tickets at the restaurant where he works. They were then taken in by the owner of another Indian restaurant, where they now work full days without pay in exchange for shelter. They told the owner they are brothers; if he finds out the truth, they are certain he will kick them out. They could only speak by phone late in the evening, fearing discovery if their boss was around.
They also worried that speaking to the press could lead the U.S. government to retaliate by arresting or deporting them, though their lawyers have assured them this isn't possible. Their abuse in India and harassment while in detention makes it hard for them to believe their ordeal is over. Only Manoj speaks enough English to give a full interview; Maninder was too frightened to give an interview in Hindi.
Manoj and Maninder both group up in Sirsa, a small city about a four-hour drive to the northwest of Delhi. Manoj, who is now 28, is the son of a construction contractor, but as a boy he was drawn to dance and trained to be a choreographer, though his family disapproved. That's how he met Maninder, now 25, who also trained as a dancer.
Manoj knew from a young age that he was gay, but when his parents picked a bride for him at 16, he married her without argument. Two years earlier, he'd watched as his uncle — who was just a couple years older than him — was beaten so seriously that he wound up in the hospital after he tried to run away to escape an arranged marriage.
Manoj still had time to steel himself to consummate the marriage; under local custom, his wife didn't come to live with his family until a few years after they married. But he couldn't follow through when she finally came to live with him after he turned 19. His family said he was shaming them by not producing a child. His wife confided to her sister that they were not having sex; she believed he was instead running around with the girls who passed through his dance classes.
"I don't want to agree [to have sex with her] because I don't have any feeling [for her]," he said in idiosyncratic English. "I'm trying but I can't."
Word spread throughout his community and his family became violent. They "tortured" him, Manoj said, hitting and kicking him, and sometimes neighbors would assault him as well.
Yet in a sense he felt he was getting off easy, he said. Had they known he was gay, he said, "they would kill me at once."
While enduring the trouble at home, Manoj stayed away from Maninder, though they both knew they had feelings for each other. It was simply too dangerous for them to meet somewhere their families could find out.
Then, in 2010, when Manoj was around 25 and Maninder about 22, they found a chance to get away from Sirsa. Their escape came thanks to a reality television show called Dance Premier League, in which teams from across India compete under the tutelage of a celebrity choreographer. Manoj was going to audition in Jaipur, a city a six-hour drive to the south, and he persuaded Maninder to give it a shot as well.
Maninder didn't make the cut, but Manoj did, keeping them in Jaipur for around 10 days. But the prospect of being on television was far less important than the chance to be alone together in a hotel room.
Their time away was so wonderful that the return home was unbearable, Manoj said. "Oh my god, we are feeling … we cannot stay without each other," Manoj said. Back in Sirsa, "we cannot [even] talk openly, we cannot leave [the house], we cannot meet."
So after four months, Manoj came up with a plan to get them out of Sirsa for good. He would rent them an apartment in Chandigarh, a city four hours to the northwest, where they knew no one. To justify the move to their families, they both enrolled in a degree program in animation at a local university.
The freedom they found in Chandigarh was amazing at first; Manoj said they were not apart "even for one minute" while they lived there. They told everyone they were brothers, but their affection for each other was too obvious — their neighbors saw through their cover after a couple of months.
"We both [showed] a lot of love for each other," Manoj said. "People are thinking, Why are they always together like husband and wife?"
When they were discovered, Manoj said, they were "beaten many times," so "we are trying to change address many times in Chandigarh; first, two, three months in this address, then after three months other address." They also took many trips to other parts of India — Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh — to try to enjoy some time in a place where they were not known, but "everywhere is discrimination," Manoj said.
But they made do moving from place to place until 2011, when they endured an attack so bad that they lost hope.
Manoj said it was too painful to go into much detail about the incident, but he shared the outlines of what happened. A mob turned on them and held them until police came, who took them to a remote part of town where they "did sexual abuse." When it was over, an officer put a gun to their heads and threatened to execute them if they told anyone what happened.
"We thought we have only just one chance: only suicide," Manoj said. Such a step would not be uncommon; for the past several decades, stories have frequently appeared in Indian newspapers of same-sex couples committing double suicide.
But Manoj's best friend gave them another idea. "He told us suicide is not the last option. He gave us suggestion [to go to] the United States … because the United States has very good protection for homosexuals," Manoj said.
The friend, a businessman, even offered to help pay for their escape. He didn't have enough money to get them directly to the United States, but he could get them away from the reach of Indian police and their families, who they also feared could learn of their relationship at any moment.
"You have to leave India," his friend instructed. "If you will stay here, your family [will] know … you're a homosexual. For sure they will kill you, or the community will kill you, [or] the government will kill you. … You have to leave from here."
So they first went to Cyprus, because they could easily obtain student visas by enrolling in a business administration program in the city of Larnaca on the island's southern coast. The eight months or so that bought them would give them time to pull together the funds and work on getting U.S. visas. But they couldn't find any work. By the time their visas ran out, they still hadn't secured permission to come to the U.S.
They thought about returning to India, but when they spoke with their families on the phone, they threatened to kill them if they returned now that it was known they were gay. Without a U.S. visa, they worked out a long-shot plan with their friend's help: They bought a ticket to Ecuador (via connections in Dubai, Brazil, and Colombia) because the country required no visa. Then the friend would make arrangements for them to be smuggled to the United States.
They spent almost a month in the city of Guayaquil, near Ecuador's Pacific coast, a period in which they were almost totally isolated. Back in Cyprus, Manoj had combed Facebook to find gay English speakers in the city who might help them, and he made a friend who helped them secure a hotel room and get there from the airport. But they didn't see him after he dropped them off and they could hardly communicate with anyone they met.
They survived on potato chips for a few days until they found an Indian restaurant, Manoj said, because even the process of ordering a meal was more than they could manage.
They waited there while their friend negotiated with smugglers over the cost of their transport to the U.S., Manoj said. He didn't have enough money to pay for them to get all the way. Eventually, they worked out that the couple could fly to Nicaragua and go over land from there.
A smuggler met them at the Managua airport and deposited them in a house with others waiting for a ride north. They waited a week until word came from the smugglers' associates in Mexico that they could start making the trip. Manoj and Maninder were packed into the back of a truck. It looked just big enough to hold four or five people, but they crammed in about 20.
They were trapped in there for 30 hours, during which they did not eat or drink; the migrants passed around a plastic bottle when they needed to urinate. They thought they were on the verge of suffocating many times before the doors opened in Guatemala.
They were stashed along with three others at a house in Guatemala while they waited for the next stage of the trip. As the days wore on, they didn't know if anyone was even coming for them — the smugglers threatened to kill them when they tried to ask when they were leaving. They couldn't contact their friend because their phone had been stolen, along with the rest of the possessions taken by the smugglers or other migrants: their laptop, their socks — even their underwear.
And to make things worse, they felt they were to blame for their troubles, Manoj said. "We are just feeling guilty: 'Why we are homosexual, why we always have these kind of problems?' We are asking God, 'Why did you make us like that?'"
After 10 or 15 days — Manoj had lost track — a truck finally pulled up and took them to the bus station. They drove 40 hours across Honduras and El Salvador and into Mexico, where they waited two hours before being loaded onto a truck to Mexico City along with three men from El Salvador. They waited there for another 20 days or so, before they were piled onto a bus to Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso.
When they arrived in Juarez, a woman climbed onto the bus and took them to another house, where they waited for five days waiting for instructions on how to cross the border. Then, Manoj said, she told them they would enter the United States by "going through the jungle and river."
But the couple said they didn't want to sneak across the border. They would walk right up to the border agents and ask for asylum.
"We already broke a lot of rules [to get to the border]," Manoj recalled. "Now we don't want to break rules, we go by bridge… Because we're going to stay in the United States, we do not want to do anything illegal."
As they walked across the bridge on June 8, 2013, a year after they had left India, they thought their ordeal was almost over. All the promises they'd heard about the United States' protections for LGBT people led them to believe they would be quickly ushered to safety.
Instead, it was just the beginning of another ordeal, which recalled their bad memories of dealings with the Indian police. When they told border agents they were seeking asylum because of their relationship, they said they were publicly mocked and outed to other detainees.
"They are using bad comment with each other," Manoj said, remarks like, "You are homosexuals — who's the husband and who's the wife?"
"We didn't expect that. We were thinking, [the U.S. will be] amazing," Manoj said. "But when we got in, oh my god … they [had] this fucking response."
They were separated for their asylum interviews and then taken to a detention center. Though Manoj said they had initially been promised they would be quickly reunited, several days passed before he knew whether Maninder was even in the same facility. For all Manoj knew, Maninder could have been sent back to India.
Finally, a sympathetic guard told him that Maninder was in another unit in the same facility, but said he couldn't be transferred so they could be together. Eleven days passed before they could arrange a meeting — they were allowed worship hours on Sunday, and a guard agreed to pass on the message that Maninder should meet Manoj at the chapel.
They began crying when they finally saw each other— but they didn't dare embrace. They were housed with other Indians, who they feared would attack them if it became known that they were a couple.
"We cannot hug each other because they will have very bad thinking," Manoj said. "I [was] saying to everybody, 'He's my brother.'"
They kept up this pretense as best they could; at first, just a handful of guards knew the truth of their relationship. But word eventually spread through the guards, Manoj said, and some started outing them to other detainees as a form of harassment.
In one incident, Manoj and Maninder were preparing documentation for their asylum case in the facility's library when the guard on duty told other prisoners they were a couple and instructed them to follow the pair to ensure they didn't have sex. For the next two months, Manoj said, he was followed so obsessively that one of the men stood behind him when he went to the urinal.
LGBT detainees frequently report harassment, say immigrant-rights advocates. And several have alleged far more brutal treatment than Manoj and Maninder. In 2011, the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed a mass civil rights complaint on behalf of 13 LGBT detainees whose experience, the organization said, demonstrated that the Department of Homeland Security "is incapable of ensuring safe and non-punitive conditions for sexual minorities." These included allegations of sexual assault by guards and extended punitive periods in the equivalent of solitary confinement under the guise of protecting LGBT detainees from violence.
Manoj and Maninder were never assaulted, though Manoj described at least one three-day period in isolation, locked in "a small room like hell." He firmly believes homophobia motivated their being kept detention in the first place — "This is sure," he said. They were denied parole even after lawyers with Immigration Equality — a group that provides legal assistance to LGBT immigrants — appealed to Washington for their release. (The attorney working on the case, Clement Lee, declined to speculate on the reasons parole was denied, but said that they met all the requirements for parole yet were turned down on four separate occasions.)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said she could not comment on Manoj and Maninder's experience without knowing their real names. However, she said, much of the treatment they described would be "contrary to ICE policy … [and] counterproductive to the good order and discipline of operating an ICE detention facility." Allegations of harassment and abuse are investigated, and "appropriate action" is taken when corroborated, she said, adding that the agency has had an initiative to improve oversight of detention conditions since August 2009.
Maninder's case came before an immigration judge on Dec. 20, 2013, nine days after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the country's sodomy law. The judgment reversed a sweeping ruling defending LGBT rights by a lower court, shocking LGBT advocates in India and provoking outrage worldwide. They may have had a shot at asylum even without the ruling, but it certainly bolstered their case. They had to demonstrate they could not have found safety in another part of India — cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, or Delhi, hubs of LGBT organizing — to escape persecution.
At the hearing, the judge combined Manoj's case with Maninder's and granted them asylum. They were released the same day and boarded a plane to Wisconsin.
Now, after their 18-month ordeal, their life isn't so much different than it was in India — enmeshed in a small Indian community in the Midwest, the two men are still pretending to be brothers, fearing they will end up homeless or worse if their community finds out the truth.
"We are feeling like homosexuality is a crime everywhere," he told me. "Why [did] we come into the United States? There is not any protection here."
Though he sees the U.S. as a small step up from India, he now doubts there is anywhere in the world they would feel truly safe.
"We have wish to stay in the sky, not here. Not on Earth," he said.