By Chitra Ramaswamy
Max Moses was 22 when the cargo ship in which he was hidden docked in Aberdeen. His long, terrifying journey had begun far away in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his home country: a land rich in resources and blighted by war. Moses had spent most of his life in the port city of Boma, 300km from the capital, Kinshasa.
Now he was arriving in a port city on the other side of the equator, in the north-east of Scotland. It was the middle of the night. Moses was so traumatised, so disoriented, that he thought he was in South Africa.
"I didn't know where I was," he says, his voice thickly accented with his first languages, Lingala and French. "The first thing I did was go to a police station. I remembered what my mum used to tell me: stay strong, don't expect to get what you want. My English wasn't so good but I told them I was looking for safety. They were nice. I had a shower there. To be honest, I was smelly …" He looks embarrassed.
The following day the police telephoned the Home Office. "I told them my story," Moses continues, "and they said they didn't believe me. I didn't care. I felt like I had died."
We meet in the Scottish Refugee Council offices in Glasgow. Moses (not his real name) has been consulting on a play, Hearts Unspoken, which finished yesterday at the Tron. It's the first piece of theatre in Scotland to explore the experiences of gay asylum seekers. Written and directed by Sam Rowe and produced by arts organisation conFAB, it is based on transcripts from interviews Rowe did in London and Glasgow with gay asylum seekers.
Moses wasn't one of them but he has lived their experiences. "I didn't need to read the transcripts to know their stories," he says. "I am part of the story myself."
"Being gay isn't a criminal way to live," he continues. "If you have to suppress it, you lose who you are. When you cherish it, you feel more like yourself. More free. You can walk around saying, 'Hey, this is me.' That's what I want to do."Moses is a shy, stocky man with a sweet, round face who seems much younger than his 26 years. He speaks quietly, and when he's talking about something particularly painful his voice quivers and he begins to stutter. He is fastidious, dressed in sky-blue deck shoes, jeans and a grey cardigan neatly buttoned over a checked shirt.
"When it came to clothes I always made a real effort," he says of his childhood growing up in military barracks in Boma. His father, a lieutenant in the DRC armed forces, was away most of the time in Goma, on the other side of the country. Moses, an only child, was very close to his mother.
"My mum knew I was different. I didn't like manly films like Scarface. I liked French books about love. My mum never asked me why I was reading these books. We would just talk about them together."But, when he was 15, she died suddenly. "Her death was very suspicious," he tells me. "I had a few people around after her death but I didn't get close to them. I didn't trust anyone." What happened to her? "She died of poisoning," he says after a pause, his voice trembling. "It's too vivid in my mind. I don't want to talk about it."
Moses came out to his father when he was 19. Though homosexuality isn't illegal in DRC, there is a move towards criminalisation, and it is not acknowledged.
"I finally gave him the bad news," he says with a dry laugh. He opens his mouth and shows me a scar on his tongue. "He gave me the slap of my life."
Moses moved to Kinshasa to continue his studies (he originally wanted to be an international lawyer). As war began to rage in the capital, his father sent for him.
"The city was shaking," he says. "War was everywhere. I got very scared." He was worried about his father too, working on a military base in rebel territory positioned to protect a nearby village. "There was a rumour there was going to be a coup d'état," Moses says. "Even though my dad gave me that slap, he still took care of me."
Weeks after arriving, he heard gunshots. "I saw tanks," he says. "The rebels don't use tanks. They have jeeps. I found out later there was a belief that they (the officers on the base] had made a deal with the rebels …"
"There were shots, fires, everywhere," he continues. "I went to my dad's office but by the time I got there it was destroyed. I went home and everything was scattered. I didn't see how my dad could be alive. Many people were dying. You're running and seeing blood and explosions. You're lucky to be alive."Moses wandered into the surrounding forest bordering Rwanda. He was in deep shock. He had nothing with him. He didn't know where he was or what he was doing. Eventually he met someone, "a white gentleman – I'm sure he was dealing something: minerals or drugs", who offered to help him and a few other people who had got away.
Moses was passed from person to person, jeep to jeep. Throughout the long journey, he was repeatedly abused by whoever was hiding or transporting him.
"They said to me, because I'm kind of womanly, that it would solve the problem of payment," he says slowly.
"That was the way I had to pay them. And this carried on. It carried on for quite some time. Honestly, I can't tell you how long it was, where we were, nothing. I saw Rwandan and Angolan flags but I didn't know if I was north or south. I lost time, space, everything. I lost my mind, actually."This was how Moses fetched up in Aberdeen in 2007. Then the next leg of the journey began. For three years he fought for leave to remain in Scotland. Each time he had to tell his story. Each time his appeal was rejected. He had to switch solicitor three times. He was held in detention centres ("I call them prisons," he says pointedly,) and repeatedly told he would have to go back. What if he had been deported to the DRC?
"I wouldn't have gone," he says quietly. "I would have hanged myself."Then the law changed and with it Moses' fortunes. Prior to July 2010, virtually all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers were refused leave to remain. An April 2010 report by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group revealed 98-99 per cent of LGBT asylum seekers were refused leave to stay, compared to an overall rate of 73 per cent. This was mainly due to the "discretion test" that stated gay and lesbian asylum seekers' claims could be turned down on the basis that they could go back and hide their sexuality by "being discreet".
"My first appeal went to the High Court in Edinburgh," Moses says. "It was turned down. They told me I had 'homosexual tendencies' and could go and live discreetly. I couldn't believe it."Meanwhile, the campaign to change the ruling continued. In May last year a report by gay rights organisation Stonewall found institutional homophobia at the UK Border Agency meant "nearly all" LGBT asylum seekers were refused asylum. On the other hand, judges warned of cases where asylum seekers pretend to be gay in order to claim asylum. Others pointed to the problem of trying to "prove" someone's sexuality in the first place.
Two months later, in July 2010, a landmark Supreme Court ruling stated that asking someone to suppress their sexuality is a breach of fundamental human rights. The law was overturned with immediate effect. However, to date no statistics on LGBT asylum seekers are kept by the Home Office, which makes the impact of the change impossible to detect.
High-profile cases in Scotland have included a gay Syrian asylum seeker who in January won his three-year battle to stay following a sustained campaign by Scotland on Sunday. Two months after the ruling, Moses won his leave to remain. He shows me the sheet of paper, neatly folded inside a book, stating that until 2015 he can live here, after which he can apply for citizenship.
"I asked, 'Why me?' I was told it was because of the Supreme Court ruling. It's like there is a basket, names go into it, and mine was one of them."What did he do when he found out? "I wasn't jumping for joy," he replies. "I went straight to college and didn't tell anyone. I was kind of shell-shocked. I kept thinking what if my name hadn't been in the basket? What about all the names that weren't?"
Moses has two HNDs and is about to begin studying business technology at the University of the West of Scotland. The Congolese community has not accepted him – "I explained to them what LGBT means and they went silent. They turned their backs on me." But the gay community "opened their arms".
Moses volunteers with LGBT Youth Scotland, sits on the council, and leads workshops about coming out.
He still can't quite believe how things have worked out.
"So many people signed my petition," he says. "So many politicians supported me. The LGBT community looks after me."He says that after his first appeal was rejected, the Home Office got in touch. "They told me there was no point in making a fresh appeal," he recalls. "A man said to me, 'This is the end.'" And what did he say?
"I said, 'Our life begins to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,'" Moses replies, quoting Martin Luther King. "He didn't understand what I was talking about. But never say never. I continued my fight."