Credibly gay: How far would you go to prove your sexuality?
Refugees escaping persecution on the basis of their sexuality are subjected to out-dated, intrinsically homophobic and even offensive interrogation by the UK Border Agency.
With only 0.27% of the UK population comprising of refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons, the treatment of these people by our own government is too easily overlooked and under-scrutinised. Limited research on the effect of the asylum claiming process has already shown that it is stressful to a point where it has contributed to deterioration in applicant’s mental health and morale, especially in cases where sexuality is the basis for an asylum claim.
The majority of asylum seekers in the UK do not have the right to work and are therefore forced to rely on state support, with housing provided usually being ‘hard to let’ properties that other council tenants do not want, and the cash support provided normally amounting to £5.23 a day for food, hygiene and clothing.
More than this, asylum claims made on the basis of sexuality are subject to especial inspections; in some cases claimants are asked graphic and personal questions about their sex lives which in the past have included whether or not they are erect when penetrated and whether partners had ejaculated inside of them. This crude attempt to determine their sexuality is unnecessary and intimidating to people from cultures and countries that enshrine homophobia, making them more secretive and fearful of revealing details about their own same-sex physical acts of intimacy.
In one instance a Ugandan woman, claiming asylum on the grounds of her sexuality, was asked by Home Office staff how she could know she was a lesbian if she has never had sex with a man, and even asked how, as a Christian, could she justify her sexuality with God. There are countless more examples including a claimant asked in a judicial review why they have not attended a gay pride march if they were really gay, as well as a belittling claim by an interviewer that a woman must be heterosexual because she didn’t ‘look like a lesbian’.
Before 2010 officials rejected 98% of asylum claims based on sexuality under the belief that they could return to their countries of origin and hide their sexuality to save themselves from persecution. However in 2010 a court ruling established that hiding ones sexuality was a violation of their human rights, which has led the Home Office to now standardly disbelieve asylum seekers who claim refuge on the basis of their sexuality. The pressures faced by asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality has lead to some producing images and videos of themselves engaging in sexual acts in an attempt to further assert this, ultimately being forced to weigh their privacy against the risk of imminent deportation.
This intrinsically homophobic and essentially offensive ‘method’ of attaining a persons sexuality is iconic of the way in which the UK Border Agency is fixated on the physical acts of sex and its practice rather than actual sexual identity and the threats which people face because of this. This has meant Western stereotypes of what makes a person homosexual being brashly portrayed onto people who this simplistic perception does not fit, adding significant distress to an asylum process which is already more difficult than it needs to be.
ReachOUT is a support and advocacy charity based in Leeds that works specifically with those that have had to flee their home countries on the basis of their sexuality. The charity was formed in response to an asylum system that is incredibly disempowering, and continues to lead many going through the process to suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Meeting every two weeks in central Leeds, the group creates a safe space for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers to come and make friends, develop a sense of community and boost confidence by learning new skills through capacity building activities and workshops.
Jess MacIntyre, the founder and director of ReachOUT, identified the need for the charity and its support services when working with refugees as a caseworker, when she noticed that several service users identified as LGBT but were living in silence because they were not ‘out’ amongst their community here within the UK, meaning that often only their lawyer and the UK Border Agency knew that the real reason they were claiming asylum was on the grounds of persecution experienced as a result of being LGBT.
Set up in August 2012, ReachOUT now has a group of around 12 service users and is constantly expanding; receiving referrals from both LGBT and refugee services in Leeds and now facilitating LGBT asylum training to law firms and refugee charities. Individuals around the country who have heard about ReachOUT and want to speak to someone over the phone are also increasingly doing so, making the scope of ReachOUT stretch beyond those of just a local service.
Whilst ReachOUT continues to provide essential services to marginalised and isolated LGBT people the asylum process in the UK continues to be intrinsically flawed in the way in which it attempts to attain refugees sexual identities. One proposed alternative method is the DSSH model, focusing on Difference, Stigma, Shame and Harm to examine asylum claims on the basis of sexual or gender identity. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees endorsed this method in 2012, and promote its basis of exploring concepts relating to sexual identity rather than exhaustive lists of proscribed questions on the physical dimensions of same-sex intimacy. The lack of conformity to a heterosexual narrative usually precedes any sexual conduct and can be much more useful in the establishing of a homosexual identity.
The instances of LGBT asylum claims have not increased since the 2010 court ruling but during the same period there has been a 22% increase in the asylum cases that were doubted or disbelieved and therefore refused due to an inability to properly identify applicants as homosexual. This suggests that whilst the process for successfully claiming asylum here is intrusive and distressing there is also the very real possibility that people are being sent back to countries in which they risk severe persecution and in some cases the death penalty because of their sexuality.
The UK Home Office should note the DSSH model has already been implemented by both Sweden and New Zealand and they should immediately recognise their past and current failures to properly understand sexuality and sexual identities as something that exists beyond the bedroom.
For more information or for support form ReachOUT please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at reachoutleeds.org