International Women’s Day: Lesbian asylum seekers focus of new book

An author has highlighted the plight of lesbian asylum seekers in a new book. 

Released to coincide with international women’s day, Free to Be Me, is a collection of accounts of lesbian and bisexual women who have or are seeking asylum in the UK.

Compiled by oral historian and former teacher, Jane Traies, a percentage of the profits will be donated to the Lesbian Immigration Support Group in Manchester. 

The book is a collection of interviews between Jane and women from the group.

Jane said: “It wasn’t easy work for any of us.

“There are two or three things that we wanted to do with this project. One was to educate other people.

“It’s just incredibly powerful and important to say to somebody in this situation ‘I believe you. I hear you, I hear your voice, I hear your story.”

Lesbian and bisexual women often seek refuge in this country when their home is unsafe for them because of their sexuality. 

As part of the asylum process, applicants are asked to prove their sexuality. 

“How do you do that – gay or straight?” Jane said. 

“It’s extraordinarily difficult and it does seem the evidence is based on something that most women, especially women from conservative backgrounds couldn’t do.”

Applicants can chose to prove their sexuality through means such as providing pictures of them in a gay bar or with a same sex partner. 

Jane added: “If you’re a 71 year-old African grandmother like the first friend I made in the group, no-one in the Home Office is going to think you’re a lesbian because that’s not the picture they’ve got in their head.

“Several of the women [in the book] said to me ‘ they simply didn’t believe me, they simply said no you’re just saying this to get asylum in this country’.”

Sexuality is a reason for over a thousand people applying for asylum each year. 

“I can’t speak for individual people in the Home Office but how it’s perceived is that there are all sorts of unquestioned assumptions and cultural biases which are at work there.

“My first reaction was that somebody should educate these people they just don’t understand but I’m afraid they do understand.”

A Home Office spokesperson said “The Home Office recognises that discussing persecution may often be distressing, which is why our caseworkers receive extensive training. They also work closely with a range of organisations specialising in asylum and human rights protection which can provide support for LGBT+ asylum seekers during the asylum process.

“However, the Home Office rightly expects individuals to be able to satisfy us that they are at a genuine risk of persecution in order to be granted asylum, which has to be obtained through oral testimony at interview.”

The book followed after Jane was contacted by a volunteer from the Lesbian Immigration Support Group in Manchester asking if any of her previous oral history work could help one of their members who had been refused asylum. 

Jane said: “During that time I got to know lots of other women in the group and the wonderful volunteers there as well and I just decided that it was obviously my next project”

“I’m a great admirer of a queer activist and filmmaker, Campbell X, and he said quite recently that every time a white person tells a black persons story it is an act of colonolism and I carry that with me and I have to work with that but he also said in another speech that the only thing you can do with privilege once you identity it is to use it as constructively as you can.

“I can do this work to first of all bring these situations to life but as somebody, it’s all too easy to sit back and go ‘oh isn’t it terrible’ but there has to be a stage beyond that, a stage in which we begin to change those situations, so this is only the beginning possibly.”

While the book is an emotive account of experiences of the women featured it is also one of  immense courage, determination and strength and many of them are stories with good endings.

Free to Be Me is available to buy online here for £11.99.

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