LGBT refugee leader steps down

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday March 27, 2019
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Outgoing ORAM founder and executive director Neil Grungras. Photo: Courtesy Neil Grungras
Outgoing ORAM founder and executive director Neil Grungras. Photo: Courtesy Neil Grungras

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration's founder and leader announced he would be stepping down from the LGBT-focused organization after a decade of advocating for queers fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands.

Neil Grungras, who founded the organization and served as its executive director, announced his departure in an email to the ORAM community March 22.

The American Refugee Committee, ORAM's parent organization since 2017, and its board are already searching for a new leader, Grungras wrote.

ARC didn't respond to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment.

ORAM was founded in San Francisco in 2008 and operated in both the city and Tel Aviv, Israel.

Its new headquarters is in Minneapolis, with a field office in Berlin, wrote Grungras.

The organization was Grungras' vision. It was a pioneer in the field, aiding refugees and asylum seekers to escape hostile home and host countries and get settled in a new location to call home. Many times that was in the Bay Area. The organization also published first-of-its-kind research and offered LGBT-cultural training tools for professionals working with refugees and asylees that accompanied its trainings in 15 countries around the world.

ORAM claimed it has helped more than a million refugees and asylum seekers since its founding.

In the email, Grungras praised ORAM supporters who helped the organization see its mission through.

"ORAM has transformed the refugee world, breathing new life and hope into tens of thousands of persecuted LGBT individuals and refugees worldwide," he wrote in the message.

He praised San Francisco and Tel Aviv for being the "optimum breeding grounds" for ORAM with their mix of highly educated populations, he wrote in an email interview with the B.A.R. from Tel Aviv. He called them possibly the "two most LGBT-positive places on Earth" where "LGBT people are integrated fully into just about every facet of private and public life."

"No other community can compete with what San Francisco has to offer LGBT asylum seekers and refugees," wrote Grungras. People from these communities steered ORAM's vision, sitting on its board of directors, volunteering their homes, and helping queer refugees learn how to navigate their new city.

LGBT refugees and asylees living in San Francisco often told their own stories about the persecution and struggles they experienced, both in their home countries and in their temporary countries, he wrote.

"I am forever grateful to every refugee I've had the privilege of assisting over these 10 years. You have deepened my understanding of human nature and filled my heart with hope," Grungras wrote in his message.

LGBT human rights advocates praised Grungras for his contributions to helping queer refugees.

"Neil has been a pivotal force in the refugee world, ensuring that those who are fleeing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or those who happen to be LGBTI and fleeing their homes for other reasons, are better understood and cared for in the vast refugee system across our globe," Julie Dorf, senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality, wrote in an email statement to the B.A.R.

She added that his work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also helped many people.

LGBT human rights activist Scott Long recalled a journey he took with Grungras more than a decade ago when he worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

"Neil came along with me to Turkey to interview LGBT Iranian refugees living in backwater towns," he wrote in a Facebook message to the B.A.R. "He's continued to be an important voice demanding attention to queer refugees' lives and needs.

"In the midst of a global refugee crisis, voices like his are more vital than ever. I hope he'll continue to speak out," Long added.

Grungras is currently working on four books and plans to resume his work as a consultant and trainer, building the capacity of governments and refugee agencies worldwide.

One SF gay activist honored by Cuba, another barred from entering the country

Two San Francisco global LGBT rights activists have received two completely different reactions from Cuban officials.

On March 13, the B.A.R. reported that longtime LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones would be honored by the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, also known as CENESEX, with a humanitarian award for his work.

Jones is traveling to Cuba with the Rainbow World Fund, an LGBT-focused humanitarian organization based in San Francisco that regularly goes to the country.

Just days after the article appeared, longtime HIV/AIDS activist Michael Petrelis phoned to say that he was recently denied entry to Cuba while in Mexico awaiting a connecting flight.

Petrelis, 60, learned that he wasn't allowed to return to the Caribbean island country while at the Interjet counter in Cancun March 20.

"The Cuban immigration authorities do not allow this person to enter the country; no reason is given," Petrelis said the message from the Cuban immigration authorities stated on the airline's computer screen.

Petrelis is perplexed by the turn of events and wants to know why he's been denied entry into the country. He is currently appealing the ban.

"It's quite a challenge now trying to find out why this ban against me is in place and I am still trying to figure out who in the Cuban government I should write to," said Petrelis.

He requested assistance from Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) because she is a member of Congress' Cuba Working Group. That was declined March 25, he said. Lee's office did not respond to a request for comment.

He's also reached out to Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of former Cuban president Raul Castro who's director of CENESEX. Petrelis posed for photos with Castro Espin when he was there for last year's Jornada, which honors revolution volunteers.

The Cuban Consulate in Washington, D.C. didn't respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment.

The trip would have been Petrelis' fourth to Cuba within the year. Petrelis fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to Cuba a year ago this month, he told the B.A.R. in an unpublished 2018 interview. Since then he's traveled to the Communist-led country with suitcases filled with rainbow bracelets, flags, and other items to hand out to people.

However, during his trip in January, he experienced some trouble getting into the country. Once in Cuba, he was summoned to the Cuban Ministry of Interior and questioned by multiple authorities about his plethora of rainbow items, he said. Petrelis explained to the authorities the meaning of the rainbow flag and that he was freely giving out the items to people. He was ultimately informed he had to give the items to CENESEX.

The center employees knew they were meeting an American and were to accept the suitcase of items, but they didn't know who the person was or what was in the bag, Petrelis said.

"When they saw that the American was me and that I had more rainbow items there were a lot of hugs and laughs," he said.

His friends at the center told him that they would distribute the rainbow items during May's Jornada.

In January, the ministry also banned him from attending any public demonstrations or actions, such as the creation of a human rainbow flag that was happening during his visit.

Petrelis said he never received anything in writing from the government as to the reasons for the inquiry, having to turn over his rainbow items, or being banned from public events.

He knew that the Cuban government was following him on Facebook because it had printouts of his posts, he said.

Not everyone on Facebook was sympathetic to Petrelis' situation.

Joel Rodriguez Riveron called Petrelis an "embarrassment to the gay community," asking him, "You do not feel sorry to implore the daughter of a dictator who gives you permission to enter a slave island?" in a response to his post about being denied entry.

Petrelis acknowledged Cuba's brutal past with the LGBT community, but he also acknowledged the changes, such as government-sponsored sex reassignment surgery for transgender people, that have happened.

"In any country there are good and bad things that governments have done to gay people," said Petrelis. "We in America are certainly aware of how our government has mistreated us and we need to discuss that and always discuss ways to rectify past problems."

He was aware, after speaking with Cubans, about the work camps and other ways the Cuban government harmed its LGBT citizens during the revolution, but to him it made sense to engage Cubans.

"That is one reason why it's important to dialogue with the gay Cubans about what happened in the past and how to move forward," he said.

He also was focused on the friendly and supportive responses from his Cuban friends and others to his post about not being allowed back into the country.

Cuban LGBT activists critical of Castro Espin and CENESEX criticized the Cuban government's decision to deny Petrelis' entry into the country, reported the Washington Blade. The Blade's Cuban media partner, Tremenda Nota, is seeking answers from Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parilla.

Upon his departure earlier this year, the ministry representative, who Petrelis only knew by his first name, Carlos, was assigned to travel with him and observe him. Petrelis said that he told him that he was welcome to return to Cuba, but with fewer rainbow items.

Petrelis would like to return for this year's Jornada.

"I am very disappointed because I love the Cuban people," said Petrelis. "I felt privileged to engage with the LGBTQI Cuban community and I would like to build on the solidarity I started through sharing rainbows."

Canadian political ad has SF ties

Canada's New Democratic Party released a political ad like no other last week, targeting Alberta's anti-gay United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney.

Kenney is running for premier of Alberta, which is equivalent of being governor of a state.

The 10-minute documentary-style political ad titled, "Jason Kenney's Real Record," ( was released March 21 and has direct ties to San Francisco during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The ad has put Kenney's anti-gay record on the line and is dividing Albertans leading up to the April 16 election.

Viewers hear Kenney boasting about his time in San Francisco when he was a college student in the 1980s and his campaigning to overturn a 1989 San Francisco law that would have extended domestic partnerships to same-sex couples.

The recording of his speech that surfaced in December has touched off a firestorm, putting LGBT rights in the forefront of the elections and inspiring the ad.

Nearly three decades later, Gary, who is only identified by his first name in the ad, still gets tears in his eyes talking about his late partner James' death. The aftermath was just as painful as when James' family came in and took over, even taking the piano the two men played together, Gary said in the video.

Kenney said that he's changed and regrets his past statements and actions, but the NDP is saying not so fast.

"It's nice of him to say when he's in the midst of an election that he's changed a little bit but his voting record shows that for 30 years he's been standing up and fighting against rights for LGBTQ people," said Alberta's deputy premier Sarah Hoffman, a 38-year-old ally, who is running for re-election.

Hoffman is also the health minister in Alberta Premier's Rachel Notley's cabinet.

Kenney often points out that he supported domestic partnerships in Canada to show that he's changed.

The only reason why Kenney was supporting domestic partnerships was because Canada was moving toward marriage equality, said Hoffman.

"He did that as a counter to equal marriage," she said.

Hoffman ticked off LGBT issues that Kenney has voted against. Examples include removing a section about LGBT rights in Canada in the new citizenship guide, voting against transgender rights, and not supporting legislation to protect student's privacy to join gay-straight alliances without their parent's consent, so as not to out them if they aren't ready to come out.

"Anyone who is going to brag and boast about the harm that they caused to dying AIDS patients, I think is unfit to be premier," said Hoffman.

Gay Tanzanian to speak at Stonewall Dem Club Thursday

Gay Tanzanian activist and asylum seeker Geofrey Mashal will speak about his experiences living openly as an LGBT activist in the African country in the East Bay Thursday (March 28).

Mashal, who also goes by Geoff Furaha Mashal, will speak at the Stonewall Democratic Club of Solano County's general membership meeting, which takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. at 600 Marin Street in Vallejo.

Last year, the B.A.R reported on the revived crackdown on LGBT Tanzanians in the country's capital city Dar es Salaam and the surrounding region ( and Mashal speaking out against it in an interview ( The paper also reported on Vallejo's sister city commission and association's meeting to take action regarding a pending trip to Tanzania (

To RSVP, visit

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or [email protected].

Updated, 3/28/19: The item on Cuba and activist Michael Petrelis was corrected to explain that Jornada is a day to honor revolution volunteers. A reference to a satirical publication was removed because it quoted the Cuban foreign minister commenting on Petrelis' case, which did not happen.