How Do You Prove Your Gayness To Canada?

Back in 2007, Nigerian Francis Ojo Ogunrinde came to Canada seeking residency status as a refugee claimant. The 40-year-old man sought refuge in Canada on the grounds that, as a gay man, he would be persecuted if he returned to his native country. The Canadian Immigration and Refugee board rejected his claim in 2010, deeming that Ogunrinde lacked credibility as a homosexual . Ogunrinde fought this rejection, applying to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for an assessment of the risks he would face if he returned to Nigeria. Those who are in danger of facing death, torture, or other means of persecution in their own countries are legally supposed to be able to stay in Canada. Homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria and is punishable by stoning. The difficulty for Ogunrinde lay in convincing the government that he was, in fact, gay.

This was no easy task. He provided the board with a letter from a man with whom he had been in a long-term relationship as well as photographs of the two of them together. Additionally, he provided a letter from the Toronto Community Centre where he had been attending “Coming Out, Being Out” meetings. To demonstrate the reality of the persecution that awaited him in Nigeria, he even included in his application a letter from a Nigerian friend who explained that police had been looking for Ogunrinde because of his “homosexual activities.”

Apparently a boyfriend, a gay community, and insistence on being wanted by police for homosexuality was not enough to convince a senior immigration officer that Ogunrinde was gay. The letter from Ogunrinde’s boyfriend had not given explicit details of the romantic and sexual aspects of their relationship; and the officer just didn’t think Ogunrinde really behaved like a gay person should.

In short, Ogunrinde would have probably been a more convincing claimant had he included a sex tape in his application and then taken the immigration officer out for a makeover and a shopping trip, followed by an evening spent re-decorating the officer’s living room while listening to Cher.

Don’t listen to me? What kind of a homosexual man are you?

Canada is not the only country in which gay applicants have a difficult time seeking refuge.

Pause and Prove

Recently, Iranian Ghorbani Danesh was rejected asylum in Germany. because a German judge thought it feasible that she pretend to be straight upon return to Iran, and consequently avoid all danger. Danesh has only one month left in Germany before she will be deported.

Ogunrinde’s story has a more hopeful ending. Last month James Russel, a federal judge, decided that Ogunrinde’s case be reopened. Russel wrote that “it is inappropriate for officers to rely on stereotypes when evaluating whether or not a person has established any ground of risk, including sexual orientation” and that “the acts and behaviours which establish a claimant’s homosexuality are inherently private.”

Unfortunately a claimant’s privacy will continue to be disrespected as long as he or she has to, in some way or another, prove homosexuality. Privacy issues notwithstanding, sexual orientation is not something that can be proven. Even if Ogunrinde had never had a boyfriend or participated in “Coming Out, Being Out” meetings, he would still be gay. Though Ogunrinde’s luck seems to be looking up, it does not change the fact that it has taken no less than five years for a judge to essentially say, ” Maybe you are in fact gay and we shouldn’t demand a play-by-play of your sex life.”

What would have happened if Russel had not stepped in? Ogunrinde is safe for now, but only by a stroke of luck.

Both Ogunrinde’s and Danesh’s stories highlight the prevalence of false assumptions about sexuality in our society. Danesh’s sexuality is seen as essentially disposable. To the German judge, lesbianism does not seem to be a relevant sexuality. Instead, it is little more than a minor inconvenience that can just be hidden away in favour of a normal, heterosexual lifestyle. In the case of Ogunrinde, a gay man’s sexuality is diminished to being just about sex and stereotypes. Thinking lesbians don’t have to be, you know, actual lesbians, and viewing gay men as home-decorating porn stars has repercussions that reach all the way to federal immigration boards across the globe.

Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. Gah, we were just talking about that at the Ottawa brunch. I work for the Immigration and Refugee Board and have read similar reasons for decisions and it’s just shocking. Sometimes I wish I was part of the decision process… I’m probably not allowed to disclose the rest of my opinion online. Bah.

  2. i’ve been following Ogunrinde’s story, just another example of how refugees and undocumented immigrant’s are treated around the world, especially places we think would be better at it (like canada, who’s immigration and refugee policies are growing more and more draconion.)
    also this reminds me of that scene in Before Night Falls where Reinaldo Arena has to prove he’s gay to leave Cuba for the U.S. He dresses up in tight pants, a floral see-through shirt and the immigration official makes him walk (b/c we can tell who’s gay and who isn’t by their walk?) and interrogates him on his favorite sex positions. true story.

    • I definitely believe your true stories. Even if immigration and refugee status remains a bureaucratic process, the decision-maker is still a person with opinions and feelings and sometimes, they may or may not get in the way.

      Still, it doesn’t excuse poor judgement, lack of respect and humiliation of claimants. I just can’t imagine…

      • Thanks for the input. It’s always great to listen to the opinions of people working “from the inside,” haha, that makes it sound like your job is really scary, which I’m sure it insn’t. I am so happy I don’t have a government job, so I’m free to criticize all I want. I have friends and family who work for the government, and a lot of them are really frustrated. They want to speak out about policies, join protests, etc. but are afraid of losing their jobs. It really sucks.

  3. Great article, Malaika. Reminds me of the high-drama and high-profile Brenda Namigadde case from early last year. Namigadde was seeking asylum in Britain after fleeing persecution in Uganda – British authorities were going to deport her because there “wasn’t sufficient evidence” that she was a lesbian. At the last second, they decided to think about it a little more, and pulled her off her transcontinental flight back to the country that had basically promised to imprison her straight from the airport. Close one.

    It also reminds me that I haven’t heard what happened to her. I’m assuming no news is good news, but does anyone know if her appeal went through or not?

  4. Cases like these aren’t the exception, they’re the rule–especially under the Conservative majority government. We need to start calling this stuff what it is: anti-immigrant, racist-ass policies designed to exploit the labour of undocumented/non-status people ( migrant workers and live-in caregivers, for example) while extending none of the rights or benefits of citizenship. This is a feminist, queer and anti-oppressive issue. Get involved!

    http://www.nooneisillegal.org/

    • Yes! Absolutely! Under Harper and Bill C-38 it feels like migrant workers and immigration applicants are losing rights by the second. I actually thought long and hard about including something about the Conservative government’s increasingly “anti-immigrant, racist-ass policies” but wanted to keep the story focused on Ogunrinde and then briefly compare it to Danesh’s situation. However, I am interested in writing articles with a specific focus oh the Canadian government and Bill C-38 because you are right, Canada’s current oppressive policies need to be looked at from a feminist and queer perspective. Canada is stereotyped as being this nice, happy place with lush forests, beautiful animals, and happily-married same-sex couples prancing happily about, but these stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. For anything to change in Canada, everyone needs to realise that cases such as the Ogunrinde one, are, as you say, not the exception but the rule. And the longer Harper stays in power the worse things are going to get.

      • everywhere can get better, no doubt. and i don’t want to come across as too patriotic, but i’ve got a couple of points. canada is among the most progressive countries in the world. also, the conservatives can do whatever they want; but as soon as their fucked up policies are challenged in court, judges will strike them down (and there have been many recent examples) – ultimately, you cannot subvert the charter of rights and freedoms. and finally, the bias of a few (or many) immigration officials can probably not be attributed to the current conservative government – i highly doubt these people are new to their positions.

        and don’t get me wrong. i fucking hate stephen harper with a passion. aside from his party’s fucked up agenda, that fucking hair. i want to smack his head off his shoulders just because of that fucking hair. just thinking about it makes me feel physically ill (and clearly elicits profanity).

        • We do have a great charter of rights and freedoms, that’s true.
          And yes, bias is not directly caused by the current government. Good point! I guess I’m just worried about the results of bias coupled with increasingly rigid immigration policies caused by Bill C-38. I thought this article about the situation was really interesting:
          http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/line+Potential+immigrants+have+lost+their+place+queue+tell+their/6937506/story.html

          Unfortunately a judge can’t really do anything about these people’s super long waits to get into the country. And so far the rest of the gov’t’s actions haven’t been challenged in court either: firing of scientists,the threatening letter to Parks Canada telling them not to speak out about cuts,etc. I do hope you’re right and eventually the government is held accountable for the things it’s doing.

          But sorry, I’m getting off topic.

          Canada is a progressive country and I want it to stay that way.

          And that hair AND his facial expressions – fuck – definitely worthy of profanity.

          Thanks for the comment! I love reading everyone’s comments cause Autostraddle readers are so smart and insightful and make good points.

          • first of all, here’s a pick me up. the ndp are the official opposition (absolutely massive gains for our most progressive nation-wide party), and the conservatives are all but ignoring that. the majority of canadians did not vote conservative, and i’d guess there is a sizable contingent of margin conservatives who are pissed off with their current policies. we’ll have to suffer them for 3 more years, but they won’t win another election. straight up, don’t worry about that.

            and for specific examples of judges striking down unjust laws/decisions…mandatory minimum sentencing. it’s a big thing for those fuckwits right now. anyway…a case in ontario:

            http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/editorials/gun-case-shows-danger-of-mandatory-minimum-sentencing/article546032/

            i’m pretty baked right now, because i live in vancouver and we do those things (regularly). but i know there are other examples…if they come to mind, i’ll try to (remember to) share them.

          • and let’s not forget gay marriage. canadians didn’t have the battle americans are having, and that’s not to say there wasn’t a fight. it’s just that it was more a series of court decisions (there certainly were never any votes a la prop 8). but we need to remember that gaining acceptance when you’re outside the “norm” is always going to be tough. people should be better, but we’re not.

            anyway, judges making the right decisions…this timeline gets juicy in the 1990s:

            http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/01/12/f-same-sex-rights.html

          • I absolutely love InSite, so thanks for bringing them up here. The Conservative government in many cases has used the legal system that you’re citing as a protector of our rights against us. They’ve challenged rulings and lost, in many cases, but those tactics hold things up for yeeeaaars and subjects pretty much anyone cops don’t like to raids/harassment. Or they just raid anyway (ex. Pussy Palace/Women’s bathhouse raid that happened 10-ish years ago.) They’ve also challenged the ruling on sex work in Ontario, which is holding up decriminalization for escorts and non-street sex workers–which is awful. And! And! street/visible sex workers are still going unprotected, which is some bullshit.

            Even our provincial and municipal governments aren’t much to write home about. The provinces have been cutting social services since what feels like the beginning of time. Many municipalities barely tolerate methadone clinics, let alone safe injection sites (like InSite! Our beloved InSite!)–which, by the way, have been recommended for Ottawa and Toronto, but have come up against massive opposition.

            As for gay marriage? Truths: the idea of not having it available really scares me. HOWEVER. Queer and trans folk (RIP Kyle Scanlon) are still killing themselves and/or getting kicked out of their homes, pushed out of school and disproportionately prone to addiction, depression and suicide. So, while marriage offers some legal protection to the folks who actually make it to marriageable age, there’s a lot of social ills it doesn’t resolve.

            And the NDP–god love us–just ain’t what it used to be. We went from a party whose platform specifically promised to ban terminator seeds, to electioneering on keeping corporate tax rates competitive with those of the US (to give folks a reference point, corporate tax rates in Ontario have been lower than those in US for a number of years. Yeesh).

            So, at any rate, hay grrrl. I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here (TO-Van love! What’s up, skyrocketing housing prices?), but shit could get better in a hurry on this section of Turtle Island.

    • When you come right down to it, the whole concept of borders and exclusive immigration policies is fundamentally racist/xenophobic. But then I think people should be free to go wherever they want, which I guess makes me a radical anarchist lefty or something.

  5. i agree that prejudice is a factor in this case, but in fairness, canada is a pretty easy place to get into if you’re a refugee. compared to several developed nations (usa, australia, japan come to mind), we actually do an excellent job of providing refuge. unfortunately, there are individuals who try to take advantage of the system (who should probably also be allowed to stay), and that has negative consequences for the honest asylum seekers.

    but whatever happens, i’m going to go out on a limb and predict that ogunrinde will be granted refuge in canada. any time crazy shit happens here, a judge at some level or other will set it straight.

  6. Isn’t it awful that even though I’m not allowed to marry in my own country (Ireland), or that my friend can legally be fired from his teaching job because of his sexuality, I’m actually grateful that it’s not legal to stone me? Sometimes I get mad at myself for being appreciative of things that shouldn’t be in the first place >_<

  7. Canadian legal scholars have done a lot of good work challenging the way that the law forces people to caricature themselves under a neoliberal/rights framework. You should check out “Categorical Denials: Equality Rights and the Shaping of Social Identity” by Nikita Iyer, Assistant Professor of Law at UBC. I think you’d like it. There is more work that specifically deals with with immigration law and refugee claimants but I can’t find it. Look around though!

  8. I was feeling depressed and frustrated but then I got to the graphic and I just couldn’t feel bad anymore. I want to form a house and have it as my coat of arms I like it so much.

    Ok, I do still feel bad. Just less bad. And strongly wishing for a world where no one needs to seek refuge from their government. Until that world happens I will continue to meditate on the unicorn/battle dolphin graphic and feel both strong, amused, and zen.

  9. There is a movie relevant to this. Fremde Haut, a German movie about an iranian lesbian who sought refugee status after she was found out having a relationship with a married women. Things got complicated as at first she claimed she is persecuted by political reasons and then when they discover her lying they refused to believe the reason of being a lesbian. Then she pretended to be a male friend who just died to stay longer in Iran because his application was more successful… very interesting movie. Try searching for it in Tudou.com with English subs (though not the full movie is there)

  10. I believe that our conservative government will continue to keep making these kinds of policies for immigration. I don’t know how the decision makers can apply these vague rules about rating someone’s sexuality. I think this story is the tip of the iceberg and that many more of these kinds of stories are out there, the people are just not being heard. Who would ever want to try to prove how gay or straight they are? WTF. You would think that this would be Charter challenge based on discriminatory grounds. But I guess you need to be a Canadian before you can make this a human rights issue in Canada anyway.

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