Madison Miszewski is Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s LGBTQ+ officer.
Does the average person remember the last time their partner visited the dentist? The first time they experienced sexual attraction? Where they’ve misplaced old receipts of even the names of people met on dating apps? For LGBTQ+ refugees, their answers to these questions can quite literally mean life or death. By the numbers, 72 member states of the United Nations have laws criminalizing same-gender attraction and same-sex sexual activity (Vice, 2017). It’s easy to look at that number and see just that, a number. But those 72 countries are home to 2.7 billion people, meaning that one in every three people live in a country where it is illegal to be LGBTQ+. Millions of queer individuals live in countries where their gender or sexual orientation is punishable by death, and with pro-LGBTQ+ movements in some nations gaining traction there has been a recent and understandable spike in queer individuals seeking asylum worldwide.
This spike in LGBTQ+ refugees seeking asylum in countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States has not been handled with grace. With an increase in LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, it would be assumed a larger focus would be placed on these people in terms of immigration policy. Unfortunately, that has not been the case (most of these examples are from the Home Office of the UK as most studies have been conducted there.). Queer refugees bear the burden of proving their sexual orientation and gender identity to immigration officers over the course of their 3-4 hour interview, and the proof often required by the Home Office is irrational and invasive at best. Refugees are often required to remember experiences in irrationally explicit detail, one Pakistani man ‘was told that because he mixed up where he hugged a man (inside his room or outside in the corridor) this affected his overall credibility’ (Cohen and McClellen, 2017). When refugees have their memories picked bare, when a small mistake that anyone recounting a memory could make affects their credibility, we are reducing the danger this asylum seeker would face if forced to return to their country of origin to the space between a room and a corridor. While relaying his story to Stonewall UK, a Nigerian man named Achebe remembered ‘When my boyfriend was killed, I didn’t know what to do. The only thing I had on my mind was how to get out of this country… The only thing I heard was him screaming for help. I still regret that I couldn’t help. I just had to run. I jumped from the window and I just ran. I was trying to get out of that environment. I just kept running just to find somewhere to hide’ (Bachmann, 2016).
The reality of the situations of many queer refugees aren’t only forgotten in the particularities of their memories, but also in the intrusivity of the inquiries made by those conducting interviews. Oftentimes refugees are compelled to share incredibly personal information, and until recently in the UK were often compelled to share sexually explicit information in order to ‘prove’ their queerness. This was usually comprised of lengthy and explicit online chat conversations with members of the same gender, and even after this clear invasion of privacy often was not considered ‘hard evidence’. With recent strides in policy, sexually explicit questioning is no longer a part of the interview process. What is still a part of this process however, is questioning based upon queer stereotypes. These poor practices in questioning are described in great detail in the Vine Report (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inspection-report-on-asylum-claims-on-the-grounds-of-sexual-orientation-october-2014), a report written by the Independant Chief Investigator John Vine to raise grave concerns about the interview process for LGBTQ+ refugees. This report details the incredibly personal requests made by interviewers including the coerced divulgation of years of text histories with significant others. In short, queer refugees are forced to bare their souls, to prove the trauma they have experienced, and to lay their greatest loves out to a complete stranger in order to be treated as human.
The humanity of this vulnerable population is so often forgotten in the process of interviewing and applying for asylum. These interviews must be conducted with compassion, and with an understanding of the issues these refugees face in their countries of origin. A new interview model titled the Difference, Shame, Stigma, and Harm (DSSH) model has become the new international standard for interviewing queer refugees. The DSSH model instructs interviewers that sexual orientation and gender identity are multi-dimensional issues, and that those coming from the 72 countries in which their identities are criminalized often times experience these facets of their identities in a more gradual sense than their counterparts in countries where it isn’t.
We can understand the statistics, see these people as the numbers that represent them in our studies and our pleas for change. But we cannot understand the urgency with which these changes must come to fruition. This is not an issue of numbers, this is an issue imbued with, and inseparable from, the human experience.
If we look back on history with hindsight we tend to hold similar sets of regrets in instances of mass persecution. The United States government regrets denying Anne Frank a visa during the second World War and the British government has pardoned Alan Turing though it is responsible for his death. We do not look back with hindsight and wish we had not helped a group facing mass persecution. So why do we refuse to learn from our mistakes? In the same way we are able to look back and understand persecution as a human issue, we must allow ourselves to look forward to understand how we can best assist those facing persecution. Queer refugees are not numbers, they are not their sexual experiences, and they are not sob stories. They are people, they are running, and they deserve to be greeted with open arms.
Bachmann, C. (2016). No Safe Refuge: Experiences of LGBT asylum seekers in detention. [ebook] Stonewall UK. Available at: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/no_safe_refuge.pdf [Accessed 11 Feb. 2018].
Cohen, D. and McClellen, M. (2017). Why Gay Asylum Seekers Aren’t Believed | http://www.ein.org.uk. [online] Ein.org.uk. Available at: https://www.ein.org.uk/blog/why-gay-asylum-seekers-arent-believed [Accessed 11 Feb. 2018].
Vice. (2017). Resettlement Is Twice as Complicated for LGBTQ Refugees. [online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j55wqd/resettlement-is-twice-as-complicated-for-lgbtq-refugees [Accessed 11 Feb. 2018]. :
Vine, J. (2014). An Investigation into the Home Office’s Handling of Asylum Claims Made on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation. [online] gov.uk. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/547330/Investigation-into-the-Handling-of-Asylum-Claims_Oct_2014.pdf [Accessed 11 Feb. 2018].