We live in a world where marginalised groups are constantly having to validate their existence and prove their identities. This ‘culture of proof’ phenomenon is saturated throughout social, cultural and systemic institutions and is hugely problematic for the LGBTQ+ community, where in this heteronormative and cisnormative world one is assumed straight or cis until they “come out” as otherwise.
And this culture of proof could not be more evident than with the way LGBTQ+ refugees are treated when seeking asylum. To be legally recognised as a refugee, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are required to prove their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. This practice is accepted by governments across the globe, including Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States.
People who qualify as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention include persons forced to leave their country due to persecution, race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Can you guess which category LGBTQ+ people fall under?
This ambiguous categorisation is clearly problematic as it implies that their plight is a choice, with terms like “membership” and “social group”. This categorisation informs the painful process LGBTQ+ refugees have to go through in order to ‘prove’ that they need asylum.
After fleeing to the UK in 2014, Zimbabwean refugee Skhumbuzo Khumalo, who identifies as gay, was required to share intimate photos of herself with a sexual partner and answer a series of personal and invasive questions in order to ‘prove’ her sexuality. Following this, she was asked if she could just hide her sexuality and return to Zimbabwe (where homosexuality is illegal and considered taboo).
In Australia in 2016, Iranian refugees Nima and Ashkan, who both identify as gay, were placed in a detention camp in Nauru after seeking asylum in Australia. Despite being granted refugee status, they are still unable to come to Australia and instead have to remain in Nauru (where they have experienced violent homophobic attacks), move to Cambodia (where there are no anti-discrimination laws in place for LGBTQ+ people) or return to Iran (where homosexuality is illegal).
In 2014, Colombian refugee Eliana Rubashkyn, who identifies as a trans woman, sought asylum in several European countries, but faced rejection due to the fact that she did not have gender-confirming surgery. She was eventually accepted in New Zealand, one of the few countries that does not require gender-confirming surgery in order to be recognised as your identified gender.
These few case studies reflect the persistent presence of ignorance that LGBTQ+ refugees face. The ambiguity of categorisation and the system of needing ‘proof’ is problematic, and it raises far too many questions. How do you prove your sexuality if you don’t have the materials needed (like photos) to validate it? What if you aren’t open in your sexuality and/or gender identity because you live in a country where it is illegal and/or intolerant to the point where your life is at risk? How would you ‘prove’ yourself then? Considering the laws are constructed within heteronormative and cisnormative foundations, what if your sexuality and/or gender expression isn’t even identifiable because it is not recognised by law? For example, people who are Intersex were only recognised by the UNHCR in late 2011.
The categorisation that LGBTQ+ refugees are placed under and the process they must go through to ‘prove’ their sexuality and/or gender is simply unacceptable. It is a reflection of the broader heteronormative and cisnormative structures that pervade society and need to change.