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Are you gay enough for Suella Braverman? How Home Office expects LGBTQ+ migrants to 'prove' themselves

With comments suggesting LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are pretending to be gay, how do you successfully prove your sexuality to the UK Home Office?

Joel Mordi fled Nigeria for the UK after he held a LGBTQ+ Pride march in Nigeria, where same sex relationships are still illegal. Image: Joel Mordi

Pornography, queer gym memberships, intimate photos and knowing the complete works of Oscar Wilde could all be forms of evidence to prove your sexuality to the Home Office. 

In 2022, 2% of asylum claims in the UK (1,334 claims) included sexual orientation as part of the basis for their claim. This has almost doubled from 2021’s figures. 

Home secretary Suella Braverman has suggested “many instances” where asylum seekers lie about their sexual orientation to receive preferential treatment in the asylum system. Preferential treatment doesn’t exist for LGBTQ+ applicants, instead, they have to go through an extra step of the process and prove their sexuality to the Home Office.

People seeking asylum in the UK must provide a credible “fear of persecution” to be granted refugee status. For LGBTQ+ asylum seekers this means proving their sexuality.

An applicant must first provide an oral testimony explaining why they are claiming asylum in the UK. This narrative must show a believable – as far as whichever interviewer they get that day is concerned – level of fear of returning to their home country and detail how their sexual orientation puts them at risk. 

In 2013, transcripts showed interviewers asking inappropriate questions, such as: “Did you put your penis into X’s backside?” and “Did X ejaculate inside you?”. The leak led to further discussions of explicit content deemed acceptable as evidence by the Home Office. 

A ‘culture of disbelief’ existing within the Home Office has resulted in an increase in pornographic videos being submitted as part of an asylum seeker’s claim. Large numbers of rejected asylum applications have led to claimants needing to take “desperate measures”, according to immigration lawyers.

UK Home Office tribunal transcripts detail various types of evidence which have been submitted by LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, in an effort to prove their sexuality to the court.

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Experiencing the system over and over again can have a huge mental effect on asylum seekers, with many being unsure of how to convince the immigration office that their story and sexuality are true. In Cameroon, homosexuality is criminalised and carries a risk of up to five years in prison. One applicant who fled to the UK due to fears of persecution experienced the cycle of rejection in 2017 within the Home Office process. 

After already having their initial application rejected on the basis of providing a “vague explanation” of their ‘coming out’ story, this applicant had no choice but to provide physical evidence to support and verify their sexual identity.  

In this case, the applicant produced further proof, including messaging history between themselves and their same-sex partner in which the endearing terms used with one another such as “dear” and “sweetheart” were scrutinised. Even the types of emojis, from hearts to kissy faces, were analysed by the court. 

A digital Valentine’s Day card sent between the couple was also accepted as evidence to prove the applicant’s sexuality.

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Other forms of evidence which have been previously accepted in an asylum seeker’s application include memberships to queer gyms and photos in queer spaces such as Pride marches or nightclubs. An applicant may also have witness statements from prior sexual partners, screenshots of their dating app profiles and further intimate images of themselves in queer settings. 

Braverman’s recent comments suggesting applicants are pretending to be gay to “game the system” ignore the huge difficulties faced by those who, for most of their lives, have had to pretend to be straight. Entering a space where there are expectations to be vulnerable and open about sexual orientation, ‘coming out’ and sexual relationships can be a totally new concept for many LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in an already stressful and overwhelming situation. 

In fact, for lesbian asylum applicants, there are further challenges in proving they are members of the LGBTQ+ community to the Home Office. Within the legislation criminalising homosexuality in 64 UN member States, women often aren’t included in the written law as only he/him pronouns are used. 

A 2020 court transcript reveals a female applicant being labelled ingenuine as the intimate photos she submitted of herself and her same-sex partner appeared to be “staged”. Her appeal was dismissed on these grounds. 

Attending a Pride protest, having read a novel by Oscar Wilde and talking about the gay bars they have frequented all constituted as proof for lesbian asylum seekers in the UK, according to research from Claire Bennett and Felicity Thomas

Western stereotypes and perceptions of queerness also shape the way lesbian applicants are reviewed and, ultimately, decide the fate of people trying to flee from danger. Failure to conform to cliches such as the ‘butch lesbian’ negatively affected a person’s chances of being granted asylum. 

Media outlets and public figures have attempted to explain how you could prove your sexual orientation to the Home Office. From The Mirror publishing a quiz titled ‘‘Does the Home Office think you’re gay?’ in 2015 and Joe Lycett’s recent letter to Suella Braverman. His letter attacked the notion that people are pretending to be gay, instead offering a satirical alternative to proving sexuality involving choosing between a Lady Gaga CD and an M&S Blue Harbour fleece  It shows that, of course, there is no step-by-step method to proving your sexual orientation to the Home Office. 

Proving your sexuality to the UK Home Office is a vague and difficult process with asylum seekers left with no information on how to verify their identity.

Jess Walmsley (@jess11.walmsley) is a queer migration researcher and a member of The Big Issue Breakthrough programme, designed to help young people begin a career in the media industry

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