It is certainly a mark of progress that we live in an age when even Tory prime minister David Cameron can speak out in support of marriage equality. But it is not enough. No one is talking about the forgotten victims of Britain’s homophobia: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who arrive in this country as refugees, fleeing countries where their lives are threatened because of their sexuality or gender identity, and endure inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of the Home Office. With Cameron’s and May’s increasingly hostile immigration policies, this situation is only going to worsen.
I have already written about Jackie Nanyonjo, the Ugandan lesbian asylum-seeker who was locked up in the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and, after the authorities refused to believe that she was a lesbian, deported to Uganda. While on the charter flight, she was beaten by her guards – employees of the private contractor Reliance – so severely that she later died of her injuries.
Her story is not unusual. Many asylum-seekers arriving in this country are held on the Detained Fast Track, held in the Home Office’s hellhole prison camps termed “immigration removal centres” while their claims are processed. Asylum-seekers fleeing homophobic or transphobic persecution face unrealistic demands to “prove” their sexuality or gender identity to Home Office officials. One experienced asylum lawyer, S Chelvan of No5 Chambers, describes the attitude of officials as “an embedded culture of disbelief”. And the stakes are high: those whose asylum claims fail, like Mary Kiwanuka Nakku, face deportation to countries where their lives are threatened.
The Yarl’s Wood Movement for Justice was founded by a group of lesbian women held at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a notoriously harsh detention camp in Bedfordshire run by a private contractor on behalf of the Home Office. Their goals are simple: an end to the inhumanity of immigration detention, an end to charter flights and removals, and freedom to live in this country. We should be listening to them.
When we are talking about LGBT rights, we cannot ignore the intersection of sexuality with other axes of oppression: race and class and immigration status. It’s time we spoke out for justice for LGBT asylum-seekers in this country who face abuse and maltreatment because of their immigration status, who are being held in detention camps by the Home Office, and who are facing deportation to countries where they are at risk of homophobic and transphobic violence.