As a playwright and an actress, I have always enjoyed working with verbatim theatre processes, where the script is created solely from interview extracts by people addressing a particular subject or theme, often of a political or social nature. My latest play, Rights of Passage, is based on interviews with LGBT1 asylum seekers in the UK, and also interviews with those who work in that area.
Homosexuality is still illegal in 72 countries around the world, and in 37 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries, and many of the laws criminalising same-sex relations originate from British colonial times. Colonial representations of non-white sexuality as extraordinary, immoral, and untamed have historically worked to mirror back images of respectable and civilized sexuality in Europe. Colonial laws, and also institutions such as schools and churches, participated in disciplining sexuality in former colonies to fit standards of religious respectability and heterosexuality, molded onto European culture.2
Such legacies are still prevalent to this day, influencing mentalities and policies in former colonies where homophobia is now often understood as an intrinsic part of national cultures, thereby silencing the voices of those born there who are not heterosexual or cis-gendered. My play includes an exploration of such narratives, and shares the experience of those who come to the UK from such countries, living sometimes undocumented and often penniless existences, in many cases for years, before they finally have the courage, or even the knowledge, of how to apply to the Home Office for asylum based on their sexual orientation.
In order to claim asylum in the UK, the LGBT Rights Charity, Stonewall states that LGBT people: ‘Must fear a real risk of serious harm (eg. torture, rape etc) on the basis of their sexual identity without effective protection from their home country’.3 Yet, a recent report from the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group contends that the Home Office is currently setting the bar far too high for migrants seeking asylum to flee homophobic persecution.4
Many asylum seekers have minimal contact with those whom they left behind and limited, if any, access to personal documentation that may support their claim, but for LGBT people, the difficulty in proving one’s identity is exacerbated by the fact that they will usually have kept their personal lives secret from state authorities, from religious organisations, and even from close family members for fear of retribution. Unlike those who apply for asylum on grounds of religious or political persecution, and who can call upon fellow community members who have successfully gained refugee status as witnesses, LGBT people frequently have no witnesses to back up their asylum claims.
Erin Power, who worked for the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group and who was a contributor to Rights of Passage, states that:
‘If you leave your country, you leave behind everybody who knows you. No-one even knew you were homosexual in your home country. Then you come here, you have to prove it. Often you don’t leave until the one or two people that were your witnesses are dead’.5
In systems which look for reasons to refuse, rather than to grant, asylum applications, the inability to produce witnesses puts LGBT asylum seekers at an immediate disadvantage, compared to some other claimants. Without witnesses, the emphasis of enquiry into a claim will usually move from a requirement for documented evidence and letters of support to the applicant having to prove in some other way that they are lesbian or gay.
During an asylum claim, an interviewer might therefore base their decision on whether they think the claimant ‘looks’ gay or lesbian. The emphasis on a visible identity for being LGB or T is troubling, mainly because it relies upon perceived stereotypes of LGBT people often by heterosexual immigration officials.
In order to stand any chance of achieving a place of safety, LGBTQI applicants are forced to talk openly and in great detail about matters which they have often kept secret for years, and for which they may not even have the vocabulary. Furthermore, they will be judged on criteria such as whether they have been previously married, and whether they have children, with an affirmative response to these questions potentially putting their very lives at risk.
One further concern is the fact that LGBT people held in detention centres in the UK are particularly vulnerable since they can experience bullying, abuse and harassment by other detainees and from members of staff because of their sexual orientation. According to reports, this occurs because many people in the centres are as strongly homophobic as those in the countries of origin that the LGBT asylum seekers were fleeing.6
It seems clear that the current inadequacy in the lines of questioning conducted by the Home Office when assessing LGBTQI asylum cases must be addressed and reformed if the UK is to honour its commitment to the United Nations Convention.
Clare Summerskill is a writer and performer. She is in her final year of study for a PhD in verbatim theatre, at Royal Holloway University of London.
1 LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. The letters QI, which sometimes follow this acronym stand for Queer and Intersex.
2 ‘Not (Any)Body can be a citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas’ Jacqui Alexander (1994), ‘The Empire Prays Back’ Nikita Dhawan (2013), ‘Race and the Education of Desire’ Anne-Laura Stoler (1995)
3 Miles, Nathanael. No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People in the Asylum System. London: Stonewall, 2009.
4 ‘Still Falling Short’ report from UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, 12th July 2018.
5 Summerskill, Clare. Rights of Passage. London: Tollington Press, 2016.
6 ‘[w]e are seriously concerned about the increased detention of LGBTI people and the bullying, abuse and harassment experienced by LGBTI people in immigration detention centres in the UK.’ UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group. Written submission to the independent review into the welfare in Detention of vulnerable persons. Accessed 29 May 2015.