Ever slept with or had a relationship with a man?
Congratulations, your sexuality is not deemed an “immutable characteristic” by the U.K’s Home Office and thus you can’t claim asylum on grounds of discrimination since you clearly made a choice to be queer. These revelations come with the London High Court appeal raised by Ms. Aderonke Apata against the Home Office refusal of her asylum case. In fact as Mr. Andrew Bird, representing the Home Office, said “You can’t be a heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day. Just as you can’t change your race,” Stunningly the same nation which regularly requires queer women provide video proof of their sex lives to confirm their sexuality also participates in bisexual erasure (it should be noted that Ms. Apata herself, as far as I am aware, does not identify as bisexual, although Orashia Edwards was denied asylum essentially because of his bisexuality last year). The titles of the news articles seem like hyperbole — Home Office tells Nigerian asylum seeker: ‘You can’t be a lesbian, you’ve got children’ — and yet that is exactly what was argued.
Aderonke Apata is a Nigerian campaigner who was voted a Positive Role Model at the National Diversity Awards and featured on the Rainbow List 2014. Part of her campaign work is focused on suspending the deportations of LGBT asylum seekers until there is a review of the official processes for dealing with these claims (which are frequently humiliating and with an overwhelming focus on the sexual) and new training is put in place for staff. At the moment the petition directed at Theresa May, Home Secretary, stands at 240,077 signatures.
Nigeria’s federal law currently has homosexuality criminalised, with some states enacting different interpretations of Shari’a law as well. Ms. Apata states that having been married to a Muslim man in a sham marriage, she was reported to police for living with her girlfriend which led to her imprisonment, some of her family members and her ex-girlfriend later being killed in recrimination. Facing more discrimination she fled to the UK, where she applied twice for asylum, and became an active campaigner for asylum seeker rights.
The United Kingdom has a severe problem with how it deals with asylum seekers in general and it doesn’t help that a large proportion of those claims dealing with sexuality concern people of colour. With the rise of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), immigration is steadily becoming a more prominent topic of discussion in the upcoming election and much of the focus is on reducing the number of people moving into the country. The asylum process is required to make judgement calls on the credibility of each application, and it is here that the cases around sexuality and gender identity become increasingly troubled, as the government is not just making a decision about the strength of a story, but of the “realness” of a person’s identity.
This emphasis on proving the validity of the claim feeds into the idea that sexuality is something that people may unscrupulously fake in order to gain residence – queerness is often seen in wider society as a form of discrimination that can be dodged if the individual in question simply does not show it off. By ignoring the complexities of coming out both those who identify as bisexuals and lesbians with mixed dating histories like Ms. Apata are seen as demonstrating the idea that people can choose their identities with relative ease, and therefore the threat they face is technically self-inflicted.
Even provided an official does not believe that people should hide themselves, tribunal judges have frequently asked offensive or irrelevant questions such as if people have used sex toys or read Oscar Wilde as an attempt to unveil sexuality. One Pakistani Muslim woman was asked “If you are a lesbian you go to clubs – which ones?”, despite not going to any as she did not drink. The assessment relies heavily on each individual official’s notion of what queerness means to them, whether it be a form of dress or particular sex lives, and many people in the system – including Ms. Apata – have felt the need to share videos or photos of private sexual acts to support their claim.
Narratives like these don’t just reinforce harmful notions about “gold star” lesbians, but also tie in with other issues of cultural differences that are seen in the system. One point that has been raised is that though asylum seekers are able to choose the gender of, and have access to translators who are aware of religious and cultural nuances, the translators themselves have no official training in LGBT issues and can sometimes be seen as a detriment, particularly if they are drawn from their home communities (with some people being uncomfortable opening up in these situations, and others fearing abuse or mistranslation). On top of this, asylum seekers who have been denied trial are also frequently isolated in what are effectively detention centres, where there are allegations of a wide variety of abuses, and women in particular are at heightened risk of sexual assault. Ms. Apata met her current partner in the notorious Yarls Wood, an immigration removal centre and the focus of a recent investigation by Channel 4 over the facilities standards (her own experiences can be seen in this interview conducted with Novara Media in April 2014). This physical removal of people from British society is merely a reflection of the current policy where there is a large denial of applications — it was estimated that from 2005-2009 letters rejected 98 to 99% of claims from lesbians and gay men (this was compared to 76.5% of general claims from 2005-2008).
The sexuality of women of colour has often been interpreted by white Western forces, and historically much of the laws against homosexuality in the world were originally imposed by the British during the colonial period, codifying the discrimination that many who seek asylum are running from today. Even with the supposed change in modern UK attitude, and more accepting legislation than at the turn of the century, officials still remain stuck in those days of choosing to assess sexuality against what they deem “correct behaviour” when it comes to dealing with the consequences of the world colonial rule shaped. In their article based on doctoral research published in Forced Migration Review, Claire Bennett and Felicity Thomas state; “… decisions regarding someone’s claim to be a lesbian were frequently based on the extent to which they conformed to Western stereotypes. Failure to meet these preconceived ideas often resulted in asylum claims being refused and women’s individual credibility being questioned.”
There is great danger in allowing decisions which ultimately concern the safety of human lives to be made by people who display such a high level of ignorance on the very topic they are assessing. Focusing on March-June 2014, there was an official report commissioned by the Home Secretary titled ‘An Investigation into the Home Office’s Handling of Asylum Claims Made on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation’ and the first of the recommendations was to improve training so that stereotypical assumptions do not make their way into the interview process. Time will tell if recent events will prompt proper action, but in the meantime the petition remains open to get Theresa May to change course with regard to Aderonke Apata. If those in power don’t feel empathy, at least we have our voices to pressure change — as Ms. Apata’s partner Happiness said, in reference to what might happen next, it would be worth it as “nothing good comes easy.”