lgf.org.uk spoke to Irene - a lesbian asylum seeker from a West African Country - about proving you are gay and other challenges facing LGBT asylum seekers in the UK.
I came to the U.K in July 2008 with a valid two year visa which was issued at the British High Commission in my country.
I lived in London with some family members and was working. In January 2009, I met an Australian woman who was also on study research and worked part time. We got on really well and dated for a while discreetly, for fear that my family might find out.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people face legal challenges in my country; both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. Being gay is against the law, culture and religion, you either suppress yourself or risk your life.
One evening I went with my girlfriend to a club in Soho (London). Unfortunately for me, we met a bouncer at the door who knows me and my family from back home. He was shocked to see me there and his reaction was not good. He told some of my friends and news filtered to my family back home in the Gambia, who ordered my brother to send me home as soon as possible.
I feared going home. I can't imagine going back to face my family's wrath over homosexuality. I can’t imagine the humiliation, the thought of an honour killing, or being reported to the police or brought before an Islamic court that presides over all marriage and family matters for Muslim families in my country. The months that followed weren't easy. I was terrified of returning home.
I claimed asylum in December last year. I was dispersed to Liverpool and then Manchester by the Home Office. The Home Office refused my claim on the basis that they do not accept my sexuality; they suggested that someone from a homophobic country like mine would not be willing to work as a doorman in a gay club in the UK.
The Lesbian Immigration Support Group in Manchester, argued that most bouncers in the clubs in Manchester's gay village are not themselves gay and not British born. The Judge went further to dismiss my appeal despite strong evidence from all who know me.
The Home Office have said that the fact that gay people constitute a particular social group in my country does not mean they are at risk. They also recommended internal relocation and of course future discretion.
I was not able to get a statement from my girlfriend because she had some personal problems, and left the country on very short notice. I was still able to provide photos of us together as well as emails we sent each other.
I have never been in any heterosexual relationship. I've never had any romantic attraction to men all my life. I feared a gay relationship when I was back home due to the society's stand on homosexuality. My family arranged a marriage for me, but thankfully it was never formally followed through.
However, I suffered female genital mutilation at the age of six; the trauma of that experience still haunts me and greatly affects my confidence as the procedure was performed without anaesthesia. I was able to provide a genealogical report to confirm this as well.
Irene, 27, is involved with the Lesbian Community Project, Gay in the UK and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation all in Manchester, but still the judge rejected her claim, despite statements of support from these groups.
July’s Supreme Court judgement ruled that lesbian and gay asylum seekers cannot be made to go back to countries of origin where they will persecuted due to their sexual orientation.
As a result, Irene’s case is being reconsidered this month and will hopefully get a full hearing in the New Year; it also highlights the benefits of joining LGBT groups and accessing support.
Irene says the last year has been “stressful” and like living in “limbo”, constantly not being able to settle for fear that she could be sent home.
As well as the challenges Irene faces in proving that she is gay, she also faces challenges in her day to day life.
“I still fear coming out publicly because I live in Home Office accommodation with 19 other women from Africa and Asia. It's been quite a nightmare these past months.”She highlights that in this accommodation, once again she is not free to be herself, and she must live in hiding, as many of the women hold homophobic views.
Irene says that the suspicion and misunderstanding around asylum seekers being in the UK for benefits, rather than necessity, upsets her. Irene highlights her frustration at wanting to work, but not being allowed to. She attends College and gives back to the UK and her local community by volunteering for a local charity.
Hopefully Irene will receive leave to stay in the UK, but her story highlights the difficulties LGBT asylum seekers face in proving that they are gay. It’s so difficult to prove something that you have had to cover up your whole life because it’s illegal in your homeland, also, can you imagine having to evidence all your relationships – it kind of takes the romance out of things, and what if you’re not in a relationship?
All these questions highlight the nuances of LGBT asylum, it is a difficult area and that is why it is so important that Home Office officials are aware, informed and receive proper training around LGBT asylum and the experiences of LGBT asylum seekers.
Irene’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.