How do you prove your sexuality? DIVA meets six womxn who have been forced to do just that
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
Imagine for a moment you’re in a courtroom. It’s not the first time you’ve been here. All eyes are on you. “Are you a lesbian?” the judge asks, in a language that is not your mother tongue. “Yes,” you respond. “Prove it.”
Rainbow Sisters is a London-based support group for lesbians and bisexual asylum seekers who have gone through – or are facing – such an experience. Part of the charity Women For Refugee Women, having recently met six of its current members, I can tell you, its existence is crucial.
Each of those women’s stories are thick with fear, violence, exploitation, bravery, resilience… and hope.
But for many of these women, that hope hangs by an ever-thinning thread, as over and over again the UK Home Office rejects their applications for asylum on the basis that they do not believe they are members of the LGBTQI community. How do you “prove” your sexuality? How would you prove yours?
They’re not alone – The Guardian recently reported that the Home Office has refused “at least 3,100 asylum claims from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender nationals from countries where con- sensual same-sex acts are criminalised”.
Here, we meet the women behind the statistics. These women exist, and are waiting for their lives to begin. These are their stories, in their words.
Please be aware, these stories contain references to experiences of sexual violence. Some names* have been changed. Interviews have been edited for clarity.
HANNAH*, 39, PAKISTAN
Aren’t we all human beings? Don’t we have hearts?
“I came to this country from Pakistan in 2010. In the beginning, I was in denial [about my sexuality], but then I fell in love. When I’m with my partner, I’m the happiest person in the world. Just looking at her brings a smile to my face. I belong to the Muslim faith – but you only live once. I have made up my mind.
“My partner is British, but we share the same heritage. Her parents are from Pakistan, so we’ve got similar interests and we like the same food, which is always good. My cousin introduced my partner to me. I moved in with her in 2011 and we’re still together today. We’ve had our ups and downs. My partner has MS. After that, she got breast cancer. She’s still going for radiotherapy but, thank god, she’s feeling better, and doctors are hopeful.
“I came to the UK as a student. I did my bachelor’s degree and then my master’s here in 2015, and then, in 2016, I applied for asylum. That’s the biggest issue with my case – the Home Office ask why I didn’t claim asylum earlier. Why would I when I had my student visa?
“I’m from Pakistan. My parents are religious. They paid money for me to study here. I was married before – a forced marriage. That man used to beat me, but through studying I got out. I’ve been through a lot and when I hear the Home Office say, ‘You are not a lesbian. You can’t be a lesbian’, it’s as if it were a medical condition you should prove to them.
“We can’t work while we’re waiting, we can’t do anything. Every 15 days, I have to report to them, to show that I’m still in the country. I don’t know how to ‘prove myself’ as a lesbian. Is it the same for heterosexual people? Do they have to prove themselves? Aren’t we human beings? Don’t we have hearts? Nobody understands.
“I used to be so upset. I used to think that I was alone – and then I came to Rainbow Sisters. That was the day that I felt I was finally among my people. They are with me. We share our stories and, really, mine is nothing. People suffer so much. These people have suffered so much… I’m not saying I didn’t – at one point when my cousin wouldn’t talk to me, no one was next to me… Now I feel support.
“You have no idea. Before, I used to go out and I would keep my head down because I was so scared. Coming to Rainbow Sisters, I’ve found confidence. I know now that I am not alone. I have people next to me… We are together. I used to be killing myself inside, but now? Now I’m so proud of myself. I am who I am.”
OLIVIA, 30, UGANDA
You cannot dream when you’re living to survive
“Growing up was interesting in my innocence. I was so different. I never played with the other girls. I never gave them a lot of time.
“My mum lived in the UK. She used to send me toy cars. One of the happiest moments I remember from that time was being in elementary – or primary school, I think you call it. I stole my cousin’s underpants and wore them. I was so happy. Nobody could see that I’d put on something for a boy, but it made me so happy. It was just a natural feeling that I had, you know?
“Later in school, there was a girl. Her mother was Italian and her father was from my country. She was beautiful. Oh god. She was my first crush. I used to play cricket with the boys and, whenever they went to the pitch to play, they would say, ‘Ok, which girl do you like?’ And if any of them said her name, we’d fight! They’d ask me, ‘Why do you fight for her?’ But, of course, I didn’t know. It was just a feeling within me.
“There was another girl called Erinah. We were in the same class, she was my close friend. One time, she kissed me. Oh my god, I died. That’s when I really knew that I liked girls. We started hanging out and, one day, there was a power blackout. Whenever that happened at school, we would meet and have time together, but this time it was cut short… She got carried away and kissed me in the dormitory. We didn’t know that someone else was in there. After that, I noticed people were giving us cold looks. Eventually, a teacher asked us, ‘Is it true that you are lesbians?’
“We denied it, of course. We were scared. Luckily, they didn’t expel us from school because we were almost at the end of our final exams. But, instead, this teacher called an assembly with teachers and students and paraded us in front of all of them. ‘Ok, so who is the man among you? Who is the man and who is the wife?’ The whole school was screaming names. I was so embarrassed and belittled. We were beaten.
“It didn’t matter to me by that time, but what did matter in that moment is feeling what Erinah was going through, because I loved her and it pained me to see her going through that humiliation. The worst part was, after that, she didn’t want anything to do with me. I didn’t know how to say sorry to her… At school, I was treated as if I had leprosy. I was always alone. I didn’t have friends. It’s not that I didn’t try to fight it. I went to church and I prayed. I begged. I was not so religious, but I knew that if it was a sin as people were saying, then if I prayed God would do something about it. I went to Google because I wanted to know if I was the only one, the only lesbian on this planet.
“That’s when I found Elton John. He was like sunshine to me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, but he gave me something to hold on to. I didn’t believe what people were saying about gay and lesbian people: that they caused famine, that you could be influenced by them. I was born gay and non-binary.
“After school, I met a girl called Maggie. On her birthday, I bought her some sandals and she liked them. We got into a relationship, but it was short-lived… When they caught us and called our parents, we were both beaten. When I came home to my auntie, my guardian, she told me she couldn’t deal with me, that she didn’t know how to be around a gay person, and that I had to ‘find somewhere to go’. I had nowhere.
“Eventually, a friend, a Sudanese girl I taught English to, took me in. She had an older brother. He was usually in Nairobi, but every once in a while, he would come to Uganda. One day, while my friend was at school, he raped me. He raped me and I got pregnant. That was the first time I had sex with a man.
“When I got pregnant, he had to tell his family. Not that he raped me, but that I was pregnant and he wanted to marry me. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was scared. I accepted the marriage for my own safety. After we were wed, I was taken to Sudan, where I gave birth to a baby girl.
“Life in Sudan was very hard. I didn’t love this man and he knew it, so he was harsh to me. I couldn’t leave. I was a slave. Whenever I did something wrong he would threaten me with a gun. He had an AK-47, which he kept behind the wardrobe. That is how I lived my life in Sudan. Eventually, I managed to leave, but I had to leave my daughter behind. That was the condition I was given. Because I preferred to live, I left her. I haven’t seen her since that day.
“After I came back to Uganda, I saved some money and I went to university. I started work at one of the most prestigious hotels in the country. While I was there, an LGBT group came to stay. When everyone noticed they were gay, my colleagues didn’t want to serve them. It was the first time that I ever saw a group of people like me. I was so happy that I would tell anyone who didn’t want to work that I would do their shift, because I wanted to be close to them. I wanted to know them. But I didn’t get a chance to tell them I was a part of them… People at work noticed. Rumours started going around that I was gay, and so I started a relationship with friend of mine, a man.
“Over time, I had two children with him, but eventually I met another woman. We started dating, but one day her boyfriend found our pictures on her laptop. After that, he started blackmailing me. He said that I had taught his girlfriend homosexuality. When I failed to give him money, he asked me to meet with him and he raped me – that is how my son, Zeus, came into existence.
“I told a friend who said, ‘You cannot live your life like this. He’s not going to stop at blackmailing you and now he has raped you – the next time he will kill you’. That friend helped me escape to the UK and that is how I came to be here. I know, quite a story…
“In this country, now that I’m not scared and I’m not on the run, I have visions. I dream. You cannot dream when you’re living to survive. Before I would live one day at a time, but now, even if I am waiting for the Home Office’s decision, at least I dream.
“I can see the future. I have found love with a woman named Ivy. I am able to be happy in my mind knowing that my son will accept me the way I am. I don’t have to hide myself from him.”
AUGUSTA, 28, NIGERIA
I feel like my life hasn’t started
“I left Nigeria when I was 17. My dad brought me and my younger brother to the UK. He told us we were coming to visit – and then he left us. He left us with his girlfriend at the time. After a month or two, she left us, too. My story? Yeah, it’s not exactly all rainbows.
“I was a victim of rape. I was working so that I could fend for myself and my nine-year-old brother. The guy that helped me get the job, he asked me out and I said no. Then, one time I was cleaning his house and he… he did his thing and I got pregnant. When I told him, he hit me. He hit me and said I was lying.
“Later, he took me to a clinic and I got an abortion. Since then, I’ve not been myself. Normally I’m a very jovial person, but now I’m withdrawn. It takes effort just to be myself. When I’m home alone, I’m solemn and depressed. At the time, I thought it was my fault. After therapy, I realised it wasn’t. This is my story – it’s not cute.
“I didn’t apply for asylum until around two years ago. It’s still in process. Thing is, a few years back, I had an incident and I was convicted of fraud. A friend, unknowingly to me, had a fraudulent package delivered to my address. I was the one that signed for it, and so I was the one who was convicted. When I applied for asylum, they said that because I have a fraud conviction, they don’t believe that I’m LGBT. So now, I’m going to court again in October. This is, I think, the third one that I’m going to. It is what it is.
“It’s been 12 years since I came to the UK. That’s a long time to be waiting. I don’t want to tell this story. I don’t want to have to feel. I wasn’t even sure if I was a lesbian or bisexual in the beginning, because I’ve had intimacies with both men and women in the past. I was just doing me. I’m not big into labels – all I knew was that I loved who I loved and that was it. It doesn’t matter to me. I love women as much as I love men, but women are the people I fall in love with. But… according to the judge, I’m lying. Fine, whatever. Maybe I have to have sex in front of them?
“I’m 28 now, soon I’ll be 29. I feel like my life hasn’t started. At least if I get my status, then I’ll be able to work and to put my life in perspective. I want a job just to be able to get myself set up, and then maybe I can put myself out there. I could be a professional make-up artist, I’m good at it. Magazines will be calling me up! I want to do stuff, I want to have kids. I just want to feel like I’m moving forward with my life.”
LUCY*, 42, CAMEROON
You can beat me, you can kill me, but you can’t stop it. I am who I am
“At the age of 16 ,I was married to a man in his 40s. I was treated like a slave. I became pregnant with twins, but had an abortion – something which pains me a lot when I think about it. Because of my sexuality, many things happened to me in my youth. I ended up in another part of Africa, where I became a prostitute. I had no choice. It was to survive and to get out of the marriage that I’d found myself in.
“I was trafficked to the UK. A woman told me, ‘I’ll bring you to the country for a better life’. When I came to England, I knew nothing. She told me then, ‘If you open your mouth, you’re going to go back to Cameroon’. Going back to Cameroon would be hell and so I was forced into prostitution – but I had no pay, nothing. She was the one getting everything. There was nobody to empower me to be ok.
“I claimed asylum, but soon after I was sent to prison for using a false ID that I was using to survive. After what I’d gone through, I wanted to survive. I was sent to prison for six months. I served three. After I was out, in July 2010, the Home Office took away my support. I had nothing. I knew nobody. I slept by the roadside. I was knocking from one door to another. Eventually, I made it to London and to the Notre Dame Refugee Centre. They helped me and gave me somewhere to live.
“For years, I never spoke about my sexuality. Then, in 2013, I opened up to a friend at Women For Refugee Women and that’s how I found the Rainbow Sisters, which has been so, so beneficial. In 2017, I told the Home Office about my sexuality and started a new application. I went to church, I had a girlfriend, but still the Home Office turned me down. I ‘didn’t have enough evidence’ of being a lesbian. I would come to Rainbow Sisters and I would cry.
“Since then, I’ve been back and forth to court. I have a new court case on 6 November. It’s a very difficult situation and time is passing by… I’m 42 now. I’m tired. I’ve been waiting for 16 years.
“You don’t feel you’re moving on. Maybe you want to go to college or have a career. It pains me. This day, 6 November, it would mean everything to me if they said yes. It would let me have peace. Let me have peace.
“All of this stress is so heavy on my head. And then the Home Office tell you they don’t believe that you’re a lesbian? I could take a picture with all the lesbians in the world, I could go to a lesbian club and kiss all of the girls in there, then I’ll say to you, ‘I’m a lesbian!’ If you can’t believe that I’m a lesbian, nobody can.
“You can beat me, you can kill me, but you can’t stop it. The fact is that you just have to accept me. I am who I am and nobody can change that.”
FOLA, 33, NIGERIA AND MILLY, 35, SLOVAKIA
We met in Yarl’s Wood detention centre
FOLA: My name is Fola. I live in Wakefield and I’m part of Rainbow Family. This is my girlfriend. Emilia is her name, but she likes to be called Milly. We met in 2017 in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. When I met Milly, I was properly down. I didn’t have anybody, but she really helped me. It wasn’t easy to be in a relationship in detention. There’s a lot of bullying. The other Black women, everybody would know me like, “Ah, this is the lesbian Nigerian girl”, “She’s a lesbian, have you seen her?”
MILLY: I’m from the Roma community [in Slovakia]. After Yarl’s Wood, I was moved to Scotland to another detention centre. Fola was released. When I was released after some months, I moved to a safe house in Bristol, but we were living far away from each other and so, after a year, I moved to Wakefield so that we could live together. I spent 13 or 14 months in detention.
FOLA: We saw each other often in detention. We were in the same wing there. Sometimes we slept in the same room.
MILLY: Officers were coming and telling her like, “Fola, what are you doing here? Go to your room”. [Laughs] What was difficult was when they sent me to Scotland, to Dungavel detention centre.
FOLA: When Milly was taken to detention, we tried to communicate through letter, text and fax, but they wouldn’t allow me to receive the faxes from her. I stayed in Yarl’s Wood for four months and three weeks. When I was released, I was moved to Wakefield because I’ve got no family here. I was put in housing, and later they gave me a shared house, which had four people using the same toilet. Sometimes you had to queue. It was a hard life. Now, I think it’s better. I’m in a different building now, but I stay mainly with Milly. Any time I go to my house she calls, because she’s scared something could happen. Now we’re living better, I’m applying for asylum.
MILLY: I stayed in the safe house in Bristol for one year. Then I was in court and was granted asylum. After some months, I moved to Wakefield because, on £35 a week, I’d tried travelling back and forth to see Fola, but we couldn’t afford it.
FOLA: If we get through this, then we can start our life. You can’t work, you can’t do anything. I’m just waiting. I don’t have a court case at the moment. It’s a long time to wait, it’s always long… I don’t know what else they can tell me, because I’ve given them evidence. We attend church together – the reverend gave me a letter, which is good. I have friends who’ve written letters of support as well. I don’t know what they will tell me now. I’ve sent everything. I have no idea how long it will take.
MILLY: If we do get through this, we’re going to open a restaurant. An African restaurant!
FOLA: No, no, no! In my area, there aren’t a lot of African people, so we need to get a chef that can cook mixed food, so that you bring in lots of different people. And breakfast for the English people – English breakfast!
MILLY: She is good at this, I don’t know! It’s not easy. If Fola could work, too, it’ll be easier. I have two kids as well – two girls. They’re living with my ex-husband in Derby. But now it’s months that I [haven’t had] any contact with them. I want it, but I have problems with my ex. I don’t mind that I’m helping Fola, because I want to help her, but it’s better if two people work. We have a one-bedroom flat and it’s very small. Maybe we can move to a bigger house. But we can’t right now.
NJERI*, 48, KENYA
My partner was killed. I carry that with me
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any sisters or brothers, but I had a big extended family. It was a village of cousins. I knew I was different from the others, but I did not know what made me different until I was older.
“In high school I had a relationship with an older woman. She was very protective of me. I grew to love her. Still, I continued with my studies and we lost contact. Later, my mum realised that I’d had a relationship in school and she wasn’t happy. I was beaten up and forced into marriage.
“After some time, I met that lady again. We met to chat… and one thing led to [another]. My ex-husband found us making love to each other. He beat me until I had a broken tooth. We ended up in police custody, but because of the way the government dealt with those situations in Kenya, my ex-husband was the one that was released, not me. Later, as I was being taken to court inside the police car, we got stuck at some traffic lights and I made an attempt to run away – I made it.
“I spent my time between Nairobi and Mombasa. I met another lady there and we stayed together for three years. One day I asked her to meet me to go to the cinema, but people saw us together. They beat us and I ended up in police custody again. ‘How can two women be making love to each other?’ they asked. We were raped by some of those policeman.
“Once I was out, I went to Mombasa. I used to hide myself in Muslim clothes because I didn’t want people to know my identity – I had cousins who were selling potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages in the city. One day, I was seen. ‘She’s the one, she’s the one, she’s the one!’ I was with my new partner. I escaped. She was beaten. They killed her. I carry that with me in my mind.
“It was a friend from school who helped me to get out of Kenya. That’s how I came to this country. When I arrived, I had £50. I thought it was a lot of money but, of course, it was nothing. I met an African man outside the airport and I asked him, ‘How do you survive in this country?’
“Since then, years have passed. I’ve managed to make a few friends. I’m going through treatment for breast cancer and I go from one person to the other. I don’t want anyone to feel tired. Even now, that’s the way I live.
“I don’t have a partner at the moment. I’m taking it slowly. Next week, I have my hearing. I want to finish my hearing and settle down with God’s grace, if he grants it to me, and then I can look for a relationship that will last.
“Rainbow Sisters is the place where I feel happy. I feel at home when I’m there. I call them my family. They call me, the sisters, and they ask how me I’m feeling.”
Rainbow Sisters is part of the charity Women For Refugee Women, which supports women seeking asylum. The group was formed in 2018 and meets weekly. If you need support or would like to volunteer your time, please visit refugeewomen.co.uk.
Words Danielle Mustarde @wordsbydanielle.
Images Elainea Emmott Photography.
Hair and make up Cee-Cee MUA, on a voluntary basis
This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of DIVA. If you enjoyed it, please consider buying the latest issue. Your support will allow us to tell more stories like this for many years to come.