Imagine escaping from the place you grew up in, where you have your community, your friends, your life, because you are LGBTQI+ or someone finds out that you are, and suddenly that place is no longer safe for you.

Many LGBTQI+ people across the world find themselves in that situation, and some come to the UK to rebuild their lives in safety here.

Rainbow Migration service user holding a bisexual flag in London Pride 2023

However, the UK asylum system can be very challenging to navigate, particularly for LGBTQI+ people.

LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum are required to “prove” their sexual orientation or gender identity and provide evidence of it, which is a very difficult thing to do.

First of all, when you’re fleeing for your life, the last thing you think about is collecting evidence of your sexual orientation or gender identity – like a letter from an ex.

And then once they’re here, not all LGBTQI+ people want to go to LGBTQI+ clubs, groups, events or be on dating apps, which could provide some sort of evidence; everyone lives their queerness in different ways.

Many people don’t even know that they have the right to claim asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity when they get here, so wouldn’t think of collecting evidence.

Once they claim asylum, many LGBTQI+ people only have their own account of their sexual orientation or gender identity to provide as evidence. And this account doesn’t always meet the Western-centric expectations of an “emotional journey” or that sexual orientation is a fixed identity. In fact, many LGBTQI+ people have been refused asylum in the UK because of these expectations by the Home Office.

Service users march during Pride London with a sign that reads 'Hallelujah'

Research shows that this expected narrative of self-realisation is particularly difficult to meet for people from different cultural backgrounds. As mentioned in our report Still Falling Short, “Where a person is not imbued in the Western context of self-focus (as opposed to focus on family or communal duty as core founding features of identity), expectations of emotional journeys will often be culturally inappropriate”.

To make things worse, the Nationality and Borders Act passed by this government in 2022 introduced an even higher standard of proof, which means that LGBTQI+ people now have to provide even more evidence to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity. And that means that more LGBTQI+ people could be returned to countries where their lives are at risk.

Some people have argued that the imposition of these narrowly predefined categories and expectations when it comes to people seeking asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity closely resemble those rigid categories imposed during the British colonial era and could therefore be seen as a legacy of colonialism.

In that sense, Alex Powell argues that Western countries like the UK are recreating colonial dynamics or enforcing conformity to “westernised” social scripts, and that “certain pro-LGBT+ policies do not take account of intersectional or culturally specific manifestation of sexual difference”.

During the 1800s, the British empire imposed strict laws that criminalised same-sex relations or declared trans people to be “unnatural” on colonised countries in Africa and Asia, often dismantling decades or centuries of complex local cultural attitudes towards sexuality and gender.

As the UN’s Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE SOGI) report on colonialism and sexual orientation and gender identity states, “The colonising nations established a cultural, political and legal system based on the reproduction-oriented cisheteronormative family, with no room for any gender or sexuality outside of these norms. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia were ideas introduced by missionaries and colonial administrators and later copied by post-colonial leaders. In fact, sexual diversity was – for the first time in these territories – criminalised by the imposition of discriminatory laws during colonial rule. These legislations were maintained once colonial rule ended and many of them persist to date.”

Just recently, Kenyan transgender activist and feminist Arya Jeipea Karijo wrote about those queer pasts that existed in countries where many LGBTQI+ people flee from today. She stressed how “in African pasts what is now known as queer was crucial and in some cases “life saving” for our ancestors”. In present-day Uganda, trans people were referred to as Mudoko Dauku. In Ethiopia, the word wändarwäräd (loosely translated to male female) was a word for acceptance and inclusion. And in Kenya and Tanzania, some women who married other women were known as mokamööna.

Arya Jeipea Karijo, author of 'Queer pasts and global futures'

The experiences of LGBTQI+ people seeking safety in the UK today are a stark reminder of the need for a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach to asylum claims based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It is essential to recognise and respect the diverse ways in which individuals live or express their queerness and to ensure that the asylum system does not recreate colonial structures, perpetuate discrimination or put lives at risk.

As we reflect on the historical and current challenges faced by LGBTQI+ people, it is clear that there is an urgent need to create a kinder and more compassionate asylum system. It starts by lowering the standard of proof so that the government is not asking for unreasonably high levels of evidence for something that is already inherently impossible to prove. And it continues by recognising this country’s colonial past and our responsibility to offer safety to those fleeing from the repercussions of our past actions. The disbanding of the Windrush team is a sign that this government is turning a blind eye to the impact of its colonial legacy and refusing to learn lessons.