Civil Liberties

Could You 'Play Gay' if Your Life Depended on it? Asylum Seekers Who Don't 'Act Gay' Enough Being Sent Home to Face Death

With the National Prayer Breakfast upon us, backed by radical homophobes The Family, it's a good time to examine the world's deadly climate for gay people.

In a recent episode of The Simpsons, grouchy tavern owner Moe is entertaining a run for City Council, but as the dark horse candidate he’s in need of a good gimmick. So he enters the race as the first "openly gay" candidate in Springfield, despite the fact that he is, as far as we know, not gay. Despite Moe’s many attempts to camp it up, in the end he is eventually unmasked (or “outed,” if you will), and subsequently abandoned by his base (mostly sassy clients at his recently opened gay bar). This alternate, cartoon version of life, where feigning gay is seen as a good marketing ploy, makes for a good chuckle.

This is probably because it contrasts so sharply with life in the real world for so many LGBT people, as a number of recent events have helped bring into focus. Take the case of Brenda Namigadde, a gay Ugandan asylum seeker in the UK fighting a deportation order. Eight years ago Brenda fled Uganda after she and her partner were beaten, forced in to hiding, and had their house burned to the ground. Last week she was facing deportation, because an immigration judge in the UK didn’t believe that Brenda had offered “sufficient proof” that she is gay. I spoke with Brenda over the phone last week at Yarl’s Wood Detention Center in rural England, where she was being held pending a deportation order for Friday, January 28. She shared with me some of her fears of being deported back to Uganda.

“They’ve put people like me to death there,” Brenda told me. "I'll be tortured, or killed.”

Brenda’s concerns were hardly overstated. Uganda’s own minister of ethics and integrity, a self described devout Christian, recently told the New York Times, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.” Even less abstract was a phone call to San Francisco-based journalist Melanie Nathan from David Bahati, Uganda’s most notoriously anti-gay politician and author of the infamous proposed “Kill the Gays” bill, which he defended in a recent interview with Rachel Maddow. Bahati’s call to Nathan was ominous. He said he had a “message” for Brenda that he wanted Nathan to pass along. He urged Brenda to “repent and be reformed” and to stop embarrassing Uganda. He also said she’d be jailed upon her return if she refused to “abandon her homosexuality.”

Bahati has gained international notoriety in recent years as a top anti-gay jihadist with strong links to an American conservative and political network known rather ominously as “The Family.” Last year President Obama spoke out against Bahati and the bill he was advancing at the Family’s annual show of force—the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. In an embarrassing blow to the Prayer Breakfast organizers, who prize above all their ability as stealth power brokers around the world, Bahati was dis-invited after a barrage of publicity, and a counter-prayer breakfast organized by the Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights groups. This year’s Prayer Breakfast, coming on the heels of the widely publicized murder of beloved Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, is also drawing fire, as activists in Uganda and the U.S. assail the financial and political support given to reactionary political and religious leaders in Uganda by “The Family” and other Evangelical groups in the U.S.—a nexus that many blame for the homophobic hysteria that led up to the murder of David Kato. This Thursday GetEqual and other LGBT groups are organizing a parallel “Breakfast without Bigotry” outside of the Washington Hilton, the venue for this year’s Prayer Breakfast. They also are asking members of Congress not to attend, in solidarity with the beleaguered LGBT community in Uganda.

As for Brenda, her saga ended on a positive note, for now at least, despite (or perhaps thanks to) Bahati’s personal intervention in the case, when she was granted an eleventh-hour temporary reprieve last Friday. Her scheduled deportation to Uganda would have likely continued apace, if not for a whirlwind of events set in motion by David Kato’s tragic murder last week, and an international outcry as Brenda’ story became front page news in the UK and around the world. (Ed note: this writer works withAll Out, an organization that mountedan international campaignon behalf of Brenda.)

While Brenda’s case will be revisited this week in the UK, and many are cautiously optimistic that it will be ruled in her favor this time around, one thing the publicity surrounding case has made clear is that a system designed to protect people fleeing persecution is terribly broken. Seventy-six countries around the world still make it a crime to be gay, bi, or trans, and in ten countries gay people can face death or life imprisonment. Understandably, these are countries that LGBT people may want to leave, given the opportunity. The fact that it took an asylum seeker from a country recently contemplating the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” to make this issue front-page news says a lot about the many thousands of other cases likely slipping through the cracks.

Brenda’s original application for asylum was rejected after an immigration judge refused to believe that she was gay, because amongst other things, Brenda didn’t read “gay magazines.” It turns out that this pretty much any rationale can be (and is being) used to categorically reject asylum claims made by LGBT people in the UK. According to a recent study by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, the British government is refusing up to 99% of claims made by LGBT people. The situation is not much better in the U.S., where according to the Asylum Documentation Program of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, only 62 lesbians and 643 gay men were allowed to stay in the country between 1994 and 2007 (out of 435 and 4,134 inquiries, respectively). A recent story in the New York Times stressed that asylum claims by LGBT people are regularly rejected or called into question when asylum seekers don’t “look” or “act” gay enough.

It’s a bizarre Catch-22, because it’s not a stretch to understand why gay men and women around the world would craft a survival strategy hinged on playing to traditional gender roles or hetero-normative expectations of behavior. In Iraq, for example, men with long hair have been recent targets for killing by self-appointed religious vigilantes, as part of an anti-gay “cleansing” campaign in that country. And in South Africa many gay women, or women perceived to be gay, have been victims of a rising tide of “corrective rapes,” whereby men gang rape women to “cure” them of their lesbianism. There are plenty of other such awful anecdotes, and the dark irony then is that people fleeing such situations are penalized during the asylum interview process if they don’t conform to reverse (and equally arbitrary) expectations about stereotypically “gay” ways of being, talking, or spending their spare time. Which raises an important question, perhaps one that lawmakers and people who make or control asylum law in the West should ask themselves when sitting before a Brenda, or anybody else who has lived in a country that criminalizes their very existence:

Could you gay it up if your life depended on it?

Joseph Huff-Hannon is an award-winning writer, and a campaigner with All Out, a new global LGBT campaign organization.