All the available evidence suggests that the German government rejects lesbian asylum cases at a higher rate than those of gays after the first interview, and perhaps as many as 95% of asylum applications filed by lesbians racialized as Black. We cannot know for sure because the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) does not maintain a separate register for LGBTQI+ asylum cases. In contrast, the Germany-wide rejection rate for LGBTQI+ individuals seeking asylum is 50% and for heterosexual women 30%.
This enormous difference suggests that lesbians face specific challenges when seeking refugee protection in Germany. This particularly applies to one of the most vulnerable cohorts within the German asylum system – lesbian women racialised as Black.
Lesbians should not be finding this as difficult as they do. In line with EU Directive 2011/95/EU, Germany recognises human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for seeking asylum. Germany also recognised that gender-based violence could meet the legal definition of persecution as understood by the 1951 Refugee Convention when it ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2011. This has been a boon primarily for heterosexual women asylum seekers. BAMF statistics show that while over 50% of women seeking asylum have successfully gained refugee status as victims of gender-specific persecution (i.e. forced marriage, FGM, honor killing, rape, domestic violence, or sex trafficking), lesbians still struggle to validate violence experienced on the basis of their sexuality as a reason for refugee protection.
Hope’s search for asylum
I met Hope, a lesbian from Uganda, at a networking event for non-binary, gender queer asylum seekers and refugees in Germany in 2018. She told me her story.
Hope was 15 years old when she had her first sexual encounter with a woman. Two years later her father married her off to a friend, an elderly man with multiple wives, to ‘correct’ her sexual orientation. He was an abusive man. According to Hope, the violence he meted out caused her to lose two pregnancies within the first year. Unable to tolerate the situation, Hope convinced her father to let her study at the university in Kampala and she left her husband behind.
At university she met and fell in love with someone who would stay her partner for the next ten years. Their relationship took place at a time of rapidly increasing anti-LGBT politics and violence in Uganda, culminating in the Anti-Homosexual Bill of 2014. For this reason, the couple was very cautious to keep their relationship secret.
Hope’s homosexuality was not explicit enough for her to receive asylum.
Their apartment was raided by a mob in 2017 and her partner was heavily injured. The partner was ultimately brought to the hospital, however Hope ended up in police custody for almost a week. She refused to speak about her time in jail, but after the incident she fled from Uganda.
With the support of her mother, Hope arranged air travel to Italy through a local ‘travel agent’. The agent deceived her, Hope said, and after arriving in Italy she was forced into prostitution. After serving about five ‘clients’ a day over the course of a month, one of her regulars helped her make the journey to Germany where she registered as an asylum seeker in February 2018. Hope currently lives as a closeted lesbian in a refugee camp in a small Bavarian town together with other asylum seekers from mostly Sub-Saharan countries – the same people she fled from in the first place.
In August 2018, BAMF rejected her claim on the grounds that her account of her homosexuality, harm, and pain was not credible. The decision states that Hope does not fall under the protection of the 1951 Refugee Convention because “she has not successfully established a substantiated fear of being persecuted”. Hope’s assertion that she is a survivor of forced marriage, marital rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking – violations directly connected to her sexual orientation – was entirely erased in the decision. These severe human rights violations were deemed either not directly related to her LGBT asylum claim or not credible.
The interviewer also questioned Hope’s identity homosexuality in general. Hope’s homosexuality was not explicit enough for her to receive asylum. The interviewer did not believe that Hope could be a lesbian if she did not sleep with women between high school and university, as the verbatim transcript of the asylum interview protocol shows. They doubted that Hope could secretly lead a relationship with a woman in Uganda for almost a decade. And they found it suspicious that Hope had not yet engaged in sexual relationships with women in Germany, now that she is free to do so. On these grounds, Hope’s application was denied.
Why did this happen? How could BAMF categorically reject both Hope’s identity as a homosexual and the link between that sexuality and the violence she has endured – violence that is grounds for asylum according to the Istanbul Convention of 2011?
“Lesbian asylum seekers face a double discrimination within Germany’s asylum system because they are women and lesbians”, said a counsellor at a lesbian counselling centre in Bavaria. According to centre, lesbian asylum seekers in Germany are primarily rejected for three reasons: first, they are reluctant to immediately out themselves during the hearing (for many women to even utter the words “I am a lesbian” is extremely difficult); second, evidence of a non-stereotypical gay lifestyle, including previous or existing marriages and children; and third, their inability to offer a narrative of pain and suffering that is rich in details due to trauma.
In short, if a lesbian asylum seeker fails to depict her sexual orientation as “fateful and irreversible” (so the wording of the German LGBT asylum law), if she fails to conform to stereotypes held by the interviewer or the judge about homosexual life, and if she fails to narrate episodes of violence with great accuracy – including exact dates and places – she risks her status as a protection-worthy subject as stipulated under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Sometimes even that is not enough. As the counsellor noted, some judges and asylum interviewers simply don’t believe a Black lesbian could exist in the first place.
Black lesbians seeking asylum in Germany grapple with a system that privileges heterosexual women who embody heteronormative norms of motherhood and female vulnerability, on the one hand, and LGBTQI+ individuals whose queer asylum story of pain and suffering neatly fits Western expectations of visible intimacy and love, on the other. Since the sexual asylum stories of lesbians from sub-Saharan Africa tend to fit neither of these victimhood tropes, they risk being excluded from the humanitarian framework of refugee protection within the European Common Asylum System.
To better protect Hope we have given her a pseudonym and altered her location in Germany.