Difference, stigma, shame, harm: the call for a new approach to gay asylum seekers

Google's Winter Olympics Doodle captioned with a quote from the Olympic Charter.

Google’s Winter Olympics Doodle captioned with a quote from the Olympic Charter.

Few Britons would have watched on in support of the vigilante groups filmed in the Channel 4 documentary, Hunted, on Wednesday. Seeing the baiting, beating and the humiliation of gay people and gay right supporters, it’s no wonder thousands around the world seek asylum in more accepting countries. Yet such prejudice and disrespect isn’t isolated to overtly homophobic nations, it even exists in the very places refugees seek help.

Over the weekend, the Observer revealed the “shockingly degrading” interrogation on those seeking asylum in the UK based on their sexuality. One individual, Sharon from Uganda, who was questioned by the Home Office, stated, “I was asked by a male interviewer how I, as a Christian, could justify my sexuality with God. He asked me how could I know I was a lesbian if I had never slept with a man.” Other such intense falsification techniques are apparently common and some in desperation have photographed or filmed themselves having sex as further evidence.

Due to a recent leak disclosing questions asked of gay asylum seekers, some are now calling for a more humane solution. S Chelvan, a barrister involved in the rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) refugees, has produced the DSSH (difference, stigma, shame, harm) model which he believes is “a more accurate way to confirm a person’s true sexuality”. In October 2013, the UN chose to replace the UNHCR Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2008) with Guidelines on International Protection No. 9 (2013) which had within it Chelvan’s model.1 Paragraph 62 states,

Ascertaining the applicant’s LGBTI background is essentially an issue of credibility. The assessment of
credibility in such cases needs to be undertaken in an individualized and sensitive way. Exploring elements
around the applicant’s personal perceptions, feelings and experiences of difference, stigma and shame are
usually more likely to help the decision maker ascertain the applicant’s sexual orientation or gender
identity, rather than a focus on sexual practices.2

Chelvan’s address, ‘From silence to safety: Protecting the gay refugee?’, given at the Eleventh Annual Stonewall Lecture detailed the struggle gay asylum seekers experience upon entry into the UK. Under the last Labour government, thousands were refused entry because, it was argued, they should go back home and act more discreetly rather than “flaunting” their sexuality.

Instead of humiliating needy individuals, Chelvan argued for a better system of testing, considering how they felt different growing up, how this produced stigma and shame and how it ultimately led to a fear of harm. “What I say the new test should be: Get rid of discretion and have a two-stage test. Is the appellant gay or perceived to be gay? and are openly gay or lesbian people at real risk of persecution?”


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When gender and sexually diverse individuals face imprisonment or even the death penalty there is a need to tackle the “systematic homophobia” that exists in the UK’s asylum system. It remains to be seen whether Guideline of International Protection No. 9.62 will be effective, but if such degrading and frivolous questioning continues today, then we should be slow to judge the state-sanctioned homophobia that is driving gay refugees to our borders. Indeed, such decisions that have the power to preserve life should not be made on whether or not someone has joined a Gay Pride march or, as in one case, “looks like a lesbian”.


1 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guidelines on International Protection No. 9: Claims to Refugee Status based on Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity within the context of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, 23 October 2012, HCR/GIP/12/01, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50348afc2.html [accessed 9 February 2014]
2 Ibid. p. 15.