Not Gay Enough: the Struggle of LGBTQI Asylum Seekers in Europe

By Milena Österreicher
He did not act, walk or dress like a gay man. He fought with other people in his accommodation. He didn’t have many friends. These are the reasons why the Austrian authorities didn’t believe that a young Afghan man was homosexual and rejected his claim for asylum last August. The 18-year-old said he fled from being persecuted for his sexual orientation in his home country.

The responsible Austrian official not only wrote in his assessment about  the way the man walked and acted and but when he noted that the man fought with others in his accommodation, he considered that this contradicted his claimed sexual orientation as aggression “wouldn’t be expected from a homosexual”. Moreover, the fact that he didn’t have many friends apparently made him look suspicious: “aren’t homosexuals rather social?” the official asked.

For a 27-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker the opposite was true. The official didn’t believe that the man was homosexual because his behaviour was “too girlish”. Officials believed he was faking it. For them it wasn’t relevant that he had volunteered at an LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) association in Austria, nor that he had translated a “coming-out-brochure” into Arabic, nor that he could list several LGBTQI bars where he used to go out. The self-determination of his sexual orientation and his asylum claim was rejected.

“Officials believed he was faking it.”

This severe form of stereotyping can also be seen in the case of an Iranian asylum seeker whose claim was rejected for, amongst other things, because he couldn’t explain what the six colours of the Pride flag meant.

It isn’t just in Austria that cases are turned down because the authorities don’t believe that applicants are LGBTQI and fled from an existing fear of persecution because of this. In Germany, the claim for asylum of a gay Syrian refugee was rejected because he wasn’t openly homosexual in his home country, and few people knew about his sexuality. In the United Kingdom, a Muslim lesbian was asked if she was aware that homosexuality is forbidden in traditional Islam and doubted how she could practice Islam knowing that homosexuality is not permitted. Another example is a lesbian from Nigeria who was asked in the UK why she had long hair (apparently not fitting into the typical concept of lesbian women) and how can she be homosexual if she was married to a man in Nigeria and had children with him. These cases show a culture of disbelief, insensitivity and stereotyping in dealing with asylum claims from LGBTQI people.

“How can asylum based on sexual orientation be assessed without falling back on clichés?”

So how can authorities assess the claims of someone who seeks asylum on grounds of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation without falling back on clichés? First and foremost all persons involved in the asylum procedure should ensure that the human dignity of the applicant is respected.

The UNHCR Guideline on International Protection No. 9[1] moreover can be used for advice. Under the point “procedural issues” it is stated that LGBTQI individuals need a supportive environment throughout the refugee status determination procedure. It is recommended that family members are not present in order to ensure that the applicants can present their case freely.

Authorities need to be sensitive to the fact that the asylum interview may be the first occasion in which the person has spoken about their sexual orientation, with the added pressure of being in front of an authority. There should be multiple opportunities to demonstrate one’s credibility, for instance, by describing activities in an LGBTQI group or the internal struggle of realising their identity.[2] Furthermore, the UNHCR recommends specialised training on particular aspects of LGBTQI refugee claims for decision makers, interviewers, advocates, legal representatives and interpreters.

The role of the interpreter should not be underestimated here. While terms like “gay”, “lesbian” or “bi” may exist in other cultures they can have other meanings, derogatory connotations or simply not be represented in the respective language at all. People may use unfamiliar words and phrases to describe their sexual identity. The interpreter has to be aware of that and communicate in an appropriate way.

In an era where nationalism is on the rise, anti-immigration policies are appearing in many countries and fewer refugees are being accepted, we need to draw our attention to groups that are particularly vulnerable in the process of finding a safe space in Europe. It is thus now up to civil society, media and NGOs to raise awareness and support LGBTQI refugees. These groups are making up the gaps that are left by the authorities. This can be seen in the case of the Iranian refugee who couldn’t explain the colours of the Pride flag, an Austrian LGBTQI organisation lodged a complaint and he was finally granted asylum.

Illustrative video “Prove You’re Gay”:


[2] In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that homosexual asylum seekers should not undergo “homosexuality tests” like “arousal tests”, where asylum-seekers are shown gay porn to see if it excites them, or psychological tests in order to prove their sexual orientation.

In the last three years Milena has worked as a freelance journalist, a German teacher for refugees and in a human rights NGO in Austria. In 2016, she co-translated the Argentinian book “Desaparecido” (M.Villani/F.Reati) to German. Milena studied her undergraduate degrees in Transcultural Communication and Journalism and Communication Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria with a year abroad in Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, Spain. She is particularly interested in migration issues and freedom of the press.