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.

ALEX, UGAN­DA

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.”

“[It’s] cur­rent­ly lying some­where on a spec­trum between go home and tone it down” and we don’t believe you’re gay”.

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.”

Rainbow Sisters at Pride 2018.

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.

They want­ed proof that I’d been to a les­bian club! Not every­body can afford to go to a club!”

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.

DIANA, CAMEROON

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.

CEE, KENYA

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.”

If you take four pho­tos they say it’s not enough – but if you take a lot they say it’s fake.”

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.

FIONA, Ugan­da

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”.

In tak­ing own­er­ship of their bod­ies and their sex­u­al­i­ty these women are car­ry­ing out a tru­ly rad­i­cal act”

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


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