Female asylum seekers on the bizarre burden of proving their queerness
We speak to a cross-section of lesbian and bisexual women claiming asylum in the UK on the basis of their sexual orientation.
When Alex* was a teenager at an all-girls boarding school she dreamt of wearing boxers and routinely became flustered in the communal showers. And she fell hard for Elton John. She’d google him in the library and listen to “Candle in the Wind” on repeat.
“Oh God! I stalked him!” she laughs. “I really wanted to know who he was, where he lived, what food he ate. He gave me hope. He was like me and he was good.”
Sexual awakenings are never straightforward. But some are much more complicated than others. Alex is from Uganda, where homosexuality carries a seven-year sentence and anti-gay laws continue to get more extreme. Her morning TV was populated with pastors whose sole agenda was to stamp out sodomy; at school, her religion teacher blamed gays for drought and famine. When she arrived in the UK aged 29 she was eight months pregnant by a blackmailer threatening to expose her sexuality. She’d survived rape, forced marriage, modern slavery, disownment and police beatings, all as a direct consequence of her sexual orientation.
But when she attends a Home Office interview later this month she’ll be expected to bang the drum as loudly as possible for her sexuality; to detail in no uncertain terms the ins and outs of her body’s identity. To save herself from being sent back home to a country where violence against homosexuals is state-sanctioned and deeply institutionalised, Alex must fight the instincts of a life – cloaking her sexuality for her own protection – and be performatively gay. Click to read Alex’s story.
”Growing up I always knew that I was different. I hated playing girly games, I hated wearing dresses. I would feel so strange. When I was like eight or nine years old I got my first crush. Oof! She was beautiful! She always had me on my toes. But I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I remember when I was in primary I always wrote Alex as my name. Everyone would ask me why I called myself Alex, I would say, ‘this is my father’s name’. But no, I liked being called Alex.
I went through primary with this weird me inside of me, wondering what was wrong with me.
Then in senior five I met this girl called Erinah. I liked her, she liked me. The person in charge of the dorms caught us together. My Auntie was so so mad. She beat the living hell out of me and told me I couldn’t be in her house because I was going to spread my vice to the other children. I was 17. I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. I slept in the toilet outside for two nights. I thought that if I stayed in the compound she would have mercy and take me back.
I went to my friend and she said that I could stay and take care of her father. I didn’t tell anybody that I was gay. She had a brother called Patrick who raped me. That was the first time I’d ever had sex with a man and I got pregnant. I was 18 when I gave birth. His family paid a dowry and I married my rapist. Patrick noticed our love wasn’t authentic because I didn’t want him to touch me. His family would beat me and he was violent. He said he was going to kill me. Then they moved me to Sudan and I was there for about two and a half years. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know how to be a mother because I never wanted to be a girl. I was their slave.
My husband had an elder sister. One day she came and beat me up for failing to give the right crockery to her driver. I just got my child and ran. I thought I could run all the way back to Uganda, but somebody found me. My husband came. He had a gun and he shot up into the air. I just fell down — I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. I was very very scared. He told me that he would let me go but I had to leave my child. I paid for my freedom with my child.
I called my auntie. She said ‘you can come home, but you have to be with a man.’ She knew someone who was willing to take me on – this man who had other wives. I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted to go to school and get a degree and he agreed to that. This husband of mine, he would tell me that he was sleeping with me to correct me.
After school I got a job and I could take care of myself. I worked as an auditor at a hotel. A girl who I’d known from school came out to me. We were together for about a year and a half, until her boyfriend found out that we were dating. He beat her and started blackmailing us. My life was in prison, my soul was in prison.
Around Jan 2018 I told him I couldn’t pay anymore. He said ‘come over and we’ll talk abut it’. When I went over he made me pay the debt with sex and I got pregnant again. My life was crushing. I was worried about my safety and my childrens’ safety. A friend helped me to get a visa to the UK. At first it was not easy. I had to give birth. I had to go through social services.
I know we live on borrowed time. We don’t know when we’re doing to die. I just don’t want to lose that happiness again. I cannot say that everything is well here, but at least I’m happy. That inner peace. I can date someone. I have a girlfriend actually! It’s really nice. I can spend time with someone who I really love.
A child is safer with his mother. And me being like this, I want to be given a chance to be a mother if I’m allowed. Now my children have the chance to see the true me.”
There are 70 countries where homosexuality is illegal. It is punishable by death in six. Accordingly, queer women, trans and non-binary people of colour across the globe look to the UK as a potential safe space where they can live the truest version of themselves. The reality is very different. Refugees have a right to protection from what the law describes as “well-founded fear of persecution”. But Home Office policy has vacillated over the years, currently lying somewhere on a spectrum between “go home and tone it down” and “we don’t believe you’re gay”.
To make an asylum claim in the UK, there’s an initial screening by an immigration officer, an in-depth questionnaire and then the dreaded Substantive Interview – a rigorous dissection of every aspect of your life and claims. According to Home Office statistics, around 2,000 people seek asylum each year on the basis of their sexual orientation. Less than a quarter of them will be successful. The decision is made largely on the outcomes of this interview.
Sarah Cope is founder of Rainbow Sisters, a London-based support group for lesbian and bisexual asylum seekers that forms part of the Women For Refugee Women charity. She explains: “Sometimes these interviews can last up to nine hours. The women go through the most traumatic things that they’ve ever experienced. And all with a stranger who’s combative and asks them the same question in various ways in an attempt to catch them out.”
Last year the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) published a report identifying a Home Office obsession with what they describe as ‘narratives of self-realisation’. They’d discovered a tendency amongst interviewers to expect cliched emotional journeys of sexual discovery and coming out tales. But, as the report puts it, “A market trader from Kampala is most unlikely to give an account of their sexual identity (be it heterosexual or any other) which could be in any way comparable to an account given by a Shoreditch blogger.”
And so Home Official officials dig for stories they can recognise. Back in 2013, judges were berated for asking lesbians if they’d read any Oscar Wilde or enjoyed using sex toys. Home Office guidelines have improved since then, but are not always reflected in practice. In our interviews, each woman we spoke to had been pressed on how many Pride marches they’d attended or which gay clubs they liked.
Diana* has been in the life-on-hold stagnancy of the asylum system for 15 years – and her lifestyle reflects this. Even if she wanted to live out the most textbook version of lesbian life in the UK, she simply couldn’t. She’s not permitted to work, survives on £37 a week in vouchers and lives in substandard, temporary asylum-seeker accommodation.
“I showed one of my friends my refusal letter and he was laughing,” she says, ”They wanted proof that I’d been to a lesbian club! Not everybody can afford to go to a club!” Diana’s letter went on to state that her relationship with her then-girlfriend wasn’t sufficiently convincing as they didn’t live together. But her home is a small single bedroom and she’s not allowed guests. “What sort of evidence do they want? Do they want me to sleep with a woman in front of them?” she cries.
And herein lies the toughest part of this process. It’s common amongst female asylum seekers to have dealt with sexual violence, imprisonment or torture at the hands of official figures in their country of origin. So the notion that they’d talk openly about sex to a government body as a means of protection is not just bizarre but completely terrifying. Click to read Diana’s story.
”Because of my sexuality I was forced into marriage when I was 16. My family are very religious and they didn’t want a stigma on the family. He was 40 years older than me and he treated me like a slave. I was a virgin and he wanted to de-virgin me at a young age.
I had a pregnancy that he aborted. Then, when I was 18 I managed to run away. Somebody helped me to get out of Africa. I didn’t know that she was bringing me to the UK for prostitution. She said that she was helping me to have a better life. So I was so excited, knowing that I was coming out from what to me was a prison. I don’t know that I was coming to another prison. Coming here I had no voice, nobody to empower me.
Immigration caught me when I was working. I never knew about claims about sexuality. I thought that this was something private. My body’s my privacy. So I was quiet about it. Where I come from we don’t talk about things like that. I was ashamed. I can’t just stand up in the Cameroon and say that I’m a lesbian.
Then they took me to detention. I was there for three months and it was the worst part of my life. It tortured me so badly. I was on suicide watch. It brought back a lot of the trauma.
I’ve been in the asylum system for 15 years now. I was refused in 2010 and I went through all of the appeals. My judicial review was granted by an immigration judge. The Home Office waited for one year to come back on this decision and then they refused. They said that I could relocate to another part of Cameroon. We fought and fought and fought on appeals.
They make things so difficult – they make things go round and round. How can I have more than ten refusal letters from the Home Office for one case? I’m so tired.
To know yourself for me is not a curse. And I will never ever refuse who I am to anybody. If I’m a lesbian, I’m a lesbian. You will never ever change me. I can’t change just because you said no.”
Cee* is from Kenya. She knows that if, back home, she suffers a homophobic public lynching, when the police arrive it’s her they’ll arrest. A fear of authority is etched deep into her psyche. “I’ve been detained in Kenya,” she explains. “I hate being somewhere where I feel trapped.” Little wonder the Substantive Interview process was a trauma she will never forget. “I had him asking: ‘Are you sure you’re gay? If you’re gay, when was the last time you had sex and where?’”
Nonetheless, for all these stories of challenges, trauma and despair, each woman I speak to is at an exciting place on their journey of self-acceptance. They’ve found a surrogate family in the form of groups: Rainbow Sisters, Out and Proud and Metropolitan Community Church, the latter a progressive Christian group in Camden, north London that welcomes queer communities.
But given the Conservative government’s hostile, anti-immigrant stance, it’s virtually impossible to subside as an asylum seeker in the UK without relying on the kindness of strangers. For many, on first arriving in the UK, the obvious place to find this is with their expat church and community. And so the negativity of pastors and so-called friends rings in their ears. And the need to hide continues. Click to read Cee’s story.
”My troubles began when my parents forced me to marry a man because they found out that I’m a lesbian. He found me making love to my girlfriend from high school. He beat me so badly and I had to flee from the rural area to Nairobi, where I met my partner. One day we were going to a movie and we were attacked. We were taken into custody, where we were both raped. As we were on our way to court I managed to jump out of the police car when it stopped at the traffic lights.
I ran away and went to Mombasa. That’s where I met my third partner. One day we were coming home from the ferry and we bumped into my cousin’s brother in law who knew me from back home. He said to me, “so this is your hiding place”. He said it so sarcastically. That led to people finding out about us – we were attacked and my partner was killed. So I had to run again.
When I came here in 2007 I was so afraid to come out, because of the experiences that I’d gone through in Kenya. I met a Nigerian person who said that he would process my papers. Little did I know he did not. He kept saying “we are waiting, we are waiting”, until he disappeared with my passport. I don’t have my passport even today. He made me work for nothing until I got sick. I was just living on what he was giving me. I was at his mercy.
I got breast cancer. I think it was from all of the stress. I went to see a lawyer and he asked me why I waited so long to apply for asylum. I told him my story, he wrote it down and we sent it to the Home Office. They said that they denied me because I did not provide the passport. But I didn’t have it.
The screening interview was very scary. Even today I can’t go to my community and say that I’m a lesbian, because they wont accept me.
I’m a happy person. I try to be. At last I know who I am and I know that I can live freely here. The church is so lovely. I love going to MCC. And Rainbow Sisters also. We went to Pride last year. We danced. We made our own song. And the crowd gave us high fives, it was so nice. I was so happy. I was happy to celebrate myself.”
“These women might be battling the rest of their lives to be completely at home in their bodies,” notes Cope. It’s a recognition of the reality that renders Home Office expectations of neat and tidy stories, coming out clichés and instant declarations somewhat ridiculous. Fiona* arrived in the UK from Uganda in 2004, but it took her over ten years to live openly as a lesbian. “There was no way I could open up when I first got here,” she explains. ”I did it when I was ready.”
As she can attest, when Home Office decision letters arrive, they’re often riddled with inconsistencies and a burden of proof that’s way too high. “I had letters from the church. I had letters from the groups that I visit. But the Home Office said that everybody was writing to help me out and that it was self-serving. If you take four photos they say it’s not enough – but if you take a lot they say it’s fake.” Similarly, evidence of straight marriages or children can work against the applicant. But marriages are often forced or a necessary means of survival; and children the inevitable product of this. It exposes a wanton disregard of a country of origin’s cultural nuances on the part of a civil servant decision-maker with targets to meet. Click to read Fiona’s story.
”When I was 16 I was raped by my neighbour and I fell pregnant. I went to stay with my auntie until I gave birth to my daughter. My parents had always been suspicious of my relationship with my best friend, so they decided that I should marry the man who raped me. Back home you can’t say anything. I tried to insist that I wasn’t ready, that I still wanted to study. But I got married.
It wasn’t an easy situation but because of the support of my best friend (I won’t say her name) I could cope. One day he came home and found us. He started beating us, then the community came to beat us and then the police came too. They took us to the police station and my husband followed. He was shouting about having found us and me being a lesbian. That’s when the police beat us.
My best friend’s brother begged them to take us to hospital while we were still breathing. After two weeks we went back to the police cells and he bribed the police to release us. He’d arranged for me to go to a bed and breakfast. I never saw my best friend again.
When I was in the marriage my best friend and I used to go to a women’s group that was actually secretly for lesbians and gay people. I contacted one of the women from there who helped me to get out of the country.
In the UK I found a church and I met a lady also from Africa. She introduced me to a man who said he had a spare room. Everything was alright but time came and it was reminding me of back home of the forced marriage that I was in. He also raped me. As I was stuck it was hard for me to get away. During that whole time I had no way to tell anybody that I was a lesbian because I was in the same community as back home. And I had nothing with me so I relied on people for accommodation.
From 2007 to 2011 I was with the guy. And without telling me he tried to make an application for me. I didn’t find out until the Home Office wrote back. It was based on the fact that my husband was a rebel fighter. I got upset, because I’d never had the opportunity to do it myself. He took me to his lawyer and paid for another application. The lawyer made a big mistake and said that I’d been in the country ten years already, which was wrong.
In 2014 I was working as a chambermaid. I finally had my own money and I decided that I wanted to make an asylum application based on the fact that I’m gay. The man said no, that one doesn’t work. In 2015 I was caught by immigration. They told me to go to the High Commission to get an emergency travel document. So I started looking for advice. Everybody was telling me that I was in big trouble. My mind was telling me ‘you’re a lesbian, where are you going?’ That’s when I thought that I had to wake up and be who I am. I joined organisations and got legal aid.
My case – because I stayed here for long and because of the previous applications, they don’t believe that it’s not me who did the previous application. I’ve told the truth and I feel like they’re pushing me to say lies. Sometimes I just want to give up. But at this stage I can’t give up.”
Ultimately, however, there’s perhaps little point in analysing Home Office practice or hunting for ways to appease their expectations. As recent scandals — most notably Windrush – have proven, the institution as a whole is in complete disarray. Fiona’s refusal letter serves as a perfect example of their cut-and-paste culture: “They got my age wrong, and they told me to go back to Nigeria. I’m not from Nigeria. Then they told me to go back to Iran.”
Since 2010 the law has stated that it’s no longer acceptable to expect somebody to return to their home country and “be discreet”. Despite that official line, now the Home Office are wont to recommend that somebody relocate to a different part of their home country. But as Cope points out: “They’re still going to be who they are wherever they are. And it’s not like there’s going to be some kind of LBGT safe haven.”
Cee submitted extra evidence in February this year and was told that the Home Office finally believed that she’s a lesbian. But she was also told that Kenya is now safe for her to return home to because of the potential decriminalising of homosexuality – in fact, the Kenyan High Court refused to scrap the colonial-era law that punishes ‘carnal knowledge’ with up to 14 years imprisonment on 24th May. Plus, to Cee, Kenya will always be the country where she watched her girlfriend murdered; where the President told CNN last year that gay rights were an issue “of no importance to the people”; and where she sincerely believes that “the community and church is not going to allow me to live my life”.
For those still caught up in the system in the UK, life stands still. Cee, Fiona and Diana have all seen relationships end as their partners buckle under the stress of the asylum process. And so, for now, Diana’s ruled out dating: “If I’m with someone it will be like they’re helping me. I can’t afford to look after myself, so how can I look after somebody else?”
Yet there’s always hope. For a lot of these women, contentment is closer than ever before. Since Rainbow Sisters was founded last year, seven of its members have been granted five years Leave to Remain, and there’ve been no deportations or detentions of any of its members. These encouraging signs speak to the importance of solidarity and perseverance, and of giving a voice to one of the most vulnerable groups in UK society.
“It’s so important for these people to surround themselves with support,” says Sarah Cope. “It sends a very strong message to the Home Office that too many people care. They can’t just be sent home.” Ultimately, she feels this is a question of intersectionality. “We’ve got gay marriage, but it’s not job done. The rights that we have are for a very limited number of people. It’s time that we see this is an LGBT community-wide issue”.
In taking ownership of their bodies and their sexuality these women are carrying out a truly radical act. One that, in our privileged position as Westerners, we will never fully appreciate. It’s now our nation’s duty – not least as creators of draconian colonial-era laws that still exist in faraway lands – to welcome them as trailblazers and heroes.
“The first time I saw openly gay people, you cannot imagine the excitement,” Alex beams, with a look of pure joy that might just match her first peep of Elton. “I almost wanted to touch them. I was like: ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ I was so happy. You just don’t know how it feels to be free. Taking me back to my country could mean my murder. But either way, it would definitely kill me.”
*Names have been changed