Welcome, asylum seeker, to the society of the queer spectacle

In the United Kingdom, gay asylum seekers increasingly feel pressured to prove they are gay. In the last three years, the United Kingdom Border Agency rules, and application of rules, for those seeking asylum based on persecution of sexual minorities in their home countries have changed.

Previously, the policy was one of `discretion’, in which gay asylum seekers’ applications were rejected because, it was felt, the asylum seeker merely needed to act with greater discretion. If she or he was tortured, it was her/his fault. If she or he was killed, again, her/his fault. If she or he was kicked out of family and community and left to suffer the ravages of the streets, she or he should have known better. It was a policy of shut up, go away.

In 2010, a Supreme Court decision changed that. In the case of HJ(Iran) and HT (Cameroon) vs. Secretary of State for the Home Department, an Iranian gay man feared imprisonment and lashing, while a Cameroonian gay man was terrorized by his neighbors. The Court rejected discretion: “An interpretation … which denies refugee status to gay men who can only avoid persecution in their home country by behaving discreetly (and who say that on return this is what they will do) would frustrate the humanitarian objective of the Convention and deny them the enjoyment of their fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination. The right to dignity underpins the protections afforded by the Refugee Convention.”

Since then, with mounting austerity-led, privatization-pushed campaigns by the State to close the non-existent asylum pipeline so as to protect the country from the non-existent tsunami of asylum seeking detritus, that compassionate “opening” has been translated into a cross between a peep show for the State.

Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? From a dangerous, toxic place, which could be your household, could be your neighborhood or `community’, could be your country, because you’re gay or lesbian? Prove it. Hunted down by the State and/or Civil Society because of your sexual minority status? Prove it. If you don’t have the scars to prove it, well … show us some skin.

It’s the society of the spectacle, in which gay and lesbian asylum seekers, who have not only suffered so much but have had to work strenuously to finally make it to “safe haven” are told they must labor some more … now to prove their sexual identity. In 1967, Guy Debord described a new society of the spectacle, in which labor and capital were shifted from production of goods to production of spectacle. He began writing and thinking of an “integrated spectacle (that) has transformed the world economically … using police methods to transform perception”. In 1992, Debord wrote: “The same formidable question that has been haunting the world for two centuries is about to be posed again everywhere: How can the poor be made to work once their illusions have been shattered, and once force has been defeated?”

How? Make them work to prove their claims to identity. Make them work to prove their claims to existence. This is where the spectacle of queer asylum seekers makes economic sense.

A lesbian woman from Uganda fled for her life to the UK. Upon arrival, “the UKBA officials wanted me to prove that I was lesbian but they wouldn’t tell me how I could.” Her application was denied. She spent months in Yarl’s Wood. She brought copies of Ugandan newspapers that called for her murder if she should be seen in Kampala. These were disregarded. Finally, she was given asylum. But first she had to do all the work. The State said no, sat back, and watched.

There all sorts of legal debates about the implications of the Supreme Court decision, touching on `queer cases’ and the law, the legal meaning of discretion, where lines should and shouldn’t be drawn, assessment protocols for LGBTQ asylum seekers, good sense and common sense, the centrality of LGBTQ rights on the map of human rights, the rights of gay men and lesbians to live freely, openly and on equal terms. The list goes on.

But there’s something else, something not of the courthouse but rather of the everyday world of work. Major investments are made in prisons and their outlying service networks for asylum seekers. It costs money to house a Ugandan lesbian asylum seeker for months. It costs money to threaten her with deportation, day in and day out. Major profits emerge from those investments. At the same time, there’s a newer form of extraction, that of making the asylum seeker work to prove identity claims. So … welcome gay man, lesbian woman. You have traveled so far and struggled so much. Welcome to your new workhouse, your new poorhouse … your body, your self, the new, and not so new, queer spectacle.

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.