Seventy or so years ago, homosexuals were arrested across Nazi Europe – around 100,000 of whom between 5 and 15 thousand were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them are believed to have been killed. Their place in the Holocaust was not recognised officially for many years – after all, survivors could not tell their stories openly in societies where their sexuality was still criminalised and stigmatised.
Today in Uganda the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apparently withdrawn under intense international pressure, has been reintroduced to parliament. It would broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations by creating two categories: aggravated homosexuality (e.g. acts committed by someone who is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, a repeat offender, commits acts on a minor or using intoxicating substances),which would attract the death penalty, or the offense of homosexuality punishable merely by life imprisonment. This legislation extends to those who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, and includes penalties for supporting gay people or LGBT rights. Uganda is not alone – homosexuality is punishable by death in a number of other countries, and criminalised across much of the globe. In these countries, not only are LGBT people subject to judicial punishments but to unofficial violence, against which they can have no hope of redress or protection.
Despite this, for a long time in UK asylum law, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could be grounds for seeking refugee status was not accepted. As a result, even where people could show that they had faced persecution because of their sexuality, and that their home country criminalised homosexuality, they were told to go home, and be discreet. Two years ago this was overturned by the UK Supreme Court.
‘The Home Office argument paralleled the idea that if Anne Frank could have avoided persecution by hiding forever in the attic, then she wouldn’t have qualified as a refugee. Sir John Dyson calls this argument “absurd and unreal”. The test essentially creates two parallel persecutions – the objective risk from the state or society one comes from, and the living lie required to hide from it. Moreover, the court holds that there is no possible yardstick for measuring when suppressing ones sexuality is “reasonably tolerable”. The question the court of appeal posed regarding what is “reasonably tolerable” is fundamentally unanswerable. As Lord Rodger points out, in the final analysis, “there is no relevant standard since it is something which no one should have to endure”.’ (Bernard Keenan, ‘Milestone victory for gay refugees’, Guardian, 7 July 2o10)
This was obviously a huge step forward. And the refugee organisations who helped to bring about this change also lobbied for improved training for UKBA staff, to enable them to deal with these issues more sensitively, and with a greater cultural understanding (see Stonewall’s report for the background to this). Things may well have improved in this area too, but the number of cases where gay asylum seekers are currently threatened with deportation suggests there is some way to go.
Julia Kristeva argued that the stranger/refugee multiplies masks and false selves. In their homeland the refugee may have had to ‘pass’, as conforming to whatever set of beliefs and behaviours will make them acceptable. In their place of sanctuary, the immediate threat may have been removed, but they still need to keep themselves as inconspicuous as possible, given that the very fact of being a stranger makes them vulnerable. And if the reason for their exile is their sexuality, their claim for refugee status is dependent upon their ability to be open about something that has been a source of shame and fear, something that may still expose them to violence. A new report from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration says that ‘LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm despite being among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world. Moreover, they are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy.’
So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality. If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile. Double jeopardy.
Stonewall, No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People and the Asylum System, 2010
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)