More than 1,500 people claim asylum in the UK each year, claiming that they are persecuted for being gay. But it’s not an easy thing to prove.
Angel fled Zimbabwe in fear of her life after police found her in bed with another woman five years ago. It’s taken most of the time since then for her to convince the Home Office that she is gay and will be persecuted if she returns. But how do you prove something you spent your life trying to hide?
In 2015, Angel found herself in an interview room in the north of England with a Home Office official whose job was to work out whether she was lying.
“How do I know I am a lesbian? How old was I when I knew? Who did I tell?” Angel recalls being asked.
“It is as if the Home Office expect a date and time.”
For seven hours, the interviewer picked at the threads of her life story.
The secret relationship with a girl at high-school and the betrayal of a family member she confided in about it.
Her forced marriage to an abusive husband in her 20s and the young daughter she had left behind in Zimbabwe.
Being raped by two men in her 30s who intended to “straighten her up”. And then, a few years later, the brutality from police when they discovered her in bed with a woman at a house-party.
All of it questioned and discussed as starkly as it is typed here.
The interviewer asked about her religion too. What does the Bible teach about being a lesbian? Did being a lesbian conflict with being a Christian? It seemed to Angel that her religion was being used against her.
The annotations in Angel’s interview notes make clear that she was distressed.
**Applicant is crying**
**Applicant is still crying**
**Applicant still crying**
Overwhelmed as she was, Angel’s testimony lacked colourful brush strokes. She gave short and literal answers to the interviewer’s questions.
Then the interviewer moved on to her relationships with women. She’d had very few in Zimbabwe, but there it had been impossible to be openly gay. But since arriving in the UK there had been nothing to stop her – why hadn’t she taken the opportunity to have relationships with women here, the interviewer asked?
She explained that she was still scared to open up to people and that she still carried the stigma of being a lesbian heavy in her heart.
The interviewer didn’t seem satisfied and tried again. Just a handful of encounters with women, no long-term relationships, no attempts at meeting women in the UK. Why then did Angel identify as a lesbian?
She struggled to find the words. “It is because of the feelings that I feel,” she said. “I have not been given a free platform to practise my sexuality.”
More than 1,500 people seek asylum in the UK on sexuality grounds every year.
The Home Office’s decision on whether to grant or refuse it depends on whether the interviewer finds the asylum-seeker’s account authentic and believable – but each interviewer may have his or her own assumptions about what an authentic and believable account should look like.
In the past interviewers had a tendency to ask intrusive questions about sexual behaviour, says Zofia Duszynska, a solicitor with Duncan Lewis, the UK’s biggest provider of legal aid.
“Now rather than physical descriptions, decision-makers require an emotional journey, for applicants to describe how they discovered they were gay and the emotional impact on them,” she says.
Karen Smith, a volunteer at the Lesbian Immigration Support Group (LISG), agrees. She says the Home Office has a “fixation” with the idea that the asylum-seeker should take the interviewer “on a journey” when answering questions about how or when they realised they were a lesbian.
But as Angel experienced herself, pinpointing the start of this journey may not be easy. Often a woman “may not ‘know’ she is a lesbian until years after she first ‘felt different’ and instinctively knew that she had to hide that difference,” Smith says.
She says she knows of many cases in which a lesbian woman has been penalised for giving short answers, as Angel did, and failing to tell a colourful and moving story – sometimes as a result of traumatic experiences.
“The Home Office needs to have a better awareness of the effects of trauma on memory and on how someone will relate to someone who is questioning them on that trauma,” she says.
Interviewers can respond in different ways to accounts of previous lesbian activity, Smith adds.
“Sometimes someone is given a refusal because they have not shown enough evidence of being involved in LGBT activities here in the UK, but when they do they are usually told that they are only involved for the purposes of seeking asylum.
“They are often disbelieved if they haven’t had relationships with women in their home countries, but also disbelieved if they have because how could they possibly have taken that risk?”
Smith says she has even seen refusal documents that suggest an asylum-seeker is not a lesbian because they “don’t look like one”.
The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud record of providing protection for asylum seekers fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation.
“Each case is considered on its individual merits, with all available evidence carefully and sensitively considered in light of published country information.
“Decisions on claims based on sexual orientation are reviewed by a second experienced caseworker as an additional safeguard.”
Duncan Lewis Solicitors provided the following examples from refusal letters they have received on behalf of clients. The decision to refuse asylum was overturned in all these cases:
- “It is considered you failed to provide any emotive language or feelings and thoughts that led to a realisation of your sexuality.”
- “It is noted that despite your claim that you realised you were gay at the age of 19 [the applicant was 38] you failed to provide a detailed account of your emotional journey.”
- “You were vague and evasive in describing your emotional journey and unable to state what made you realise you were gay.”
- “All your responses concentrate on physical feelings and lack emotional detail.”
By asking questions like “How did you feel about yourself when you realised you were gay?” the implication is that an applicant should feel shame and panic at coming to terms with their sexuality, Zofia Duszynska says. “None of this approach reflects the published Home Office policy, which although due for an update, recognises the need for sensitivity in dealing with difficulties in disclosure.”
Angel tried to explain to the interviewer that she had known from an early age that she liked girls, but had tried to suppress the feeling.
She had largely got by like this until 2015, when she went to a house-party and met Kim.
The two women, both in their 30s, instantly hit it off.
“With us it’s difficult to tell if a person is a lesbian or straight because it isn’t something to be expressed openly,” says Angel. After talking for a while she carefully tested the waters.
“I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t intend to have one,” she told Kim.
“Same here,” Kim replied.
They danced and got tipsy. Such a rare encounter made Angel feel happy and heady and her inhibitions began to slip away from her. Eventually they went to one of the bedrooms together.
Angel would later be questioned about this at her asylum interview. If she knew what she was doing was dangerous, why did she do it?
“We both knew it was dangerous, but when you meet someone who knows how you feel and it is something you’ve been longing for…” She pauses.
“I had controlled how I felt for a long time and I just couldn’t any more. It gets to a point where it overwhelms you and you let it happen. Neither of us thought things would end as they did.”
In the early hours there was a fight downstairs and the police were called. Angel still doesn’t know the details of what happened, but once they arrived the police went room to room and found Angel and Kim in bed together. They were both naked, the situation was obvious.
“There was no way I could deny that I was a lesbian when they found us naked,” she says.
The first police to arrive yanked back the bedsheets and prevented the two women from getting dressed. They called for others down the hall to come and have a look.
Sex between two men is a criminal act in Zimbabwe but technically being a lesbian is not an arrestable offence. Instead, the police will mete out “instant justice”, says Angel.
“We have witnessed what happens to lesbians. We knew what would happen to us,” she says.
She remembers seeing a student at her high school being beaten for being a suspected ngochani – a derogatory word for a lesbian. When passers-by learned why she was being attacked they stopped to throw a punch at her bloodied body themselves.
The police stood idly by and did nothing. In fact Angel says they were scrutinising how people reacted and felt she had no choice but to walk past stony-faced, screaming on the inside.
Amnesty International says that LGBT stigma and discrimination continues to be widespread in Zimbabwe. It is dangerous to live openly as a gay person.
As Angel and Kim struggled to get dressed, the police kicked the women with their heavy boots and beat them with their batons.
Kim was the most vocal and shielded Angel from the brunt of the violence that came at them in a frenzy.
“So you think you are the man? We will show you,” the police said.
Kim was knocked unconscious, which caused the officers to panic, Angel says.
“Go and get your husband some water,” they shouted at her.
That’s when she ran out into the night. She doesn’t know what became of Kim.
She ran home and threw some things into a rucksack. Terrified that the police could be right behind her she didn’t dare stop to say goodbye to her sleeping daughter and mother.
Angel knocked on the door of a local pastor and family friend, asking for refuge just for the night. But he didn’t want to help her.
“We don’t have a place for that in society, you can’t sleep here” he said, thrusting $50 into her hand and closing the door.
A minibus took her across the border to South Africa but with xenophobic attacks against migrants on the rise she was advised to leave.
Angel put herself in the hands of an underground network of people getting asylum-seekers to safe countries. A charity covered the cost of false documents and arranged her passage to the UK via a flight to France and eventually a lorry from Calais to Dover.
Hiding in the back of the lorry, Angel felt terrified and her resolve began to falter. She knew nobody in the UK and nothing about the place. She repeated in her mind the reassurance the smugglers had given her.
“In the UK they help LGBT people, they will be compassionate.”
But when Angel’s Home Office interview was over she began to doubt this. She trudged back to the train station and cried in a toilet cubicle.
Three months later she found out she had been refused asylum.
Home Office statistics point to worsening prospects for asylum seekers making a bid for UK protection on the basis of sexual orientation.
Between 2015 and 2018, the refusal rate for sexuality-based asylum claims increased from 61% to 71%.
But at the same time, the number of successful appeals went up. Judges overturned 38% of refusal decisions in 2018 compared to 32% in 2015.
“It suggests that more and more initial decisions are flawed or recognised as flawed,” says a research fellow with the University of Sussex, Moira Dustin. The university is carrying out a research project into sexual orientation and gender identity-based claims of asylum across Europe (SOGICA) and she is focusing on UK experiences.
“There are specific reasons why LGB asylum claims are often initially refused and claimants have to go to appeal, including the difficulty that people fleeing homophobia will have in opening up to officials immediately upon arrival, and the problems that they inevitably experience mustering the kind of concrete evidence the Home Office requires,” she says.
If someone is refused asylum they have 14 days to appeal against the decision. Angel’s appeal was heard at a court tribunal in 2016. She remembers feeling embarrassed and invisible as the men in the room spoke across her, weighing up whether or not she deserved asylum.
The judge decided that yes, she was a lesbian and yes, she had been raped. But he was not convinced that the rape was carried out because she was a lesbian – “corrective rape”.
Therefore, it would not be “unduly harsh” for her to relocate to another part of Zimbabwe, said the judge.
Since coming to the UK, Angel had been having counselling for PTSD and was making good progress but the judge’s decision renewed her sense of despair. It also meant she lost her housing and the asylum support of £37.75 per week.
On her first night with nowhere to sleep it felt safest to board a night-bus and ride it back and forth until daylight. In her mind she replayed her Home Office interview over and over and thought about what she could have said to make them believe her.
“I felt guilty and angry with myself, I wish I had explained more about my rape. I felt like I had let my daughter down.”
Guilt and grief about leaving her daughter behind plagues Angel day and night – she feels it in her stomach. Not to have said goodbye. To have missed her first day at school. To see WhatsApp photos of her looking skinny and dishevelled.
“I can imagine how my daughter feels about me now, and I can’t blame her,” she says.
Angel worries their mother-daughter bond will fray beyond repair.
After losing her housing Angel spent the next 18 months relying on people from her church for a place to sleep at night. Often she would look after their children or do domestic work in exchange.
“Some people would give me £10, some would give me nothing. They knew I was vulnerable and had nowhere to sleep.”
It was a precarious way of life and sometimes she would end up sleeping rough.
There were moments when Angel wondered whether she was right to escape from Zimbabwe. At her lowest she contemplated suicide.
But witnessing her first Manchester Pride festival in 2018 helped restore her morale.
“When I saw Pride, I saw why I’m fighting and what we are missing in Africa.
“There were moments where I just stood and watched in wonder. To see people who weren’t even gay come to support. There was just too much love.”
Seeing Manchester bathed in rainbows and celebrating people like her made Angel fall in love with the city.
With charity support, Angel revived her asylum claim, slowly gathering as much evidence as she could that Zimbabwe wasn’t a safe place for her to return to.
After much painstaking work and an agonising wait, she was eventually granted asylum in autumn 2019.
After such a long road, receiving the news from her solicitor on the phone felt surreal and it was only when her official residence permit arrived a month later that reality began to sink in.
“Looking at it, I cried just thinking of what I have gone through,” she says.
She is now working hard to improve her English while helping other lesbian asylum seekers. Her greatest ambition is to bring her daughter over to the UK so they can be together again.
“I will have to learn to be a mother again, to get to know her, bond with her and be a parent.”
Illustrations by Tom Humberstone
Angel is a pseudonym
Follow Kirstie Brewer on Twitter@kirstiejbrewer