The Home Office’s mistreatment of lesbian asylum seekers is arguably the most urgent issue facing our community in modern day Britain. Women flee persecution from their homelands, where lesbian relationships are either outlawed or carry an overwhelming risk of violence – often both. They arrive in Britain looking for a place of safety. Instead, these women find a system designed to disadvantage them in every possible way.
It’s shameful. Yet this issue is almost invisible, overlooked by many in favour of celebrity coming out stories and corporate-sponsored Pride parades. But Jane Traies has written a book that centres the experiences of lesbians seeking asylum – Free to Be Me: Refugee Stories From the Lesbian Immigration Support Group.
Traies is best known for her work documenting the lives of older lesbians. And Free to Be Me is informed by that same love of lesbian community, a desire to tell stories that are disregarded or even denied by mainstream society. Thirteen women from the Lesbian Immigration Support Group, both members and volunteers, share accounts of their lives. The interviews follow a three-act structure: what led women to seek asylum; the struggles of trying to start anew in Britain; the vital support and sense of community they found through LISG.
Based in Manchester, LISG is the only organisation in the UK run specifically by and for lesbians seeking asylum. Sophie, the youngest contributor, gives LISG a glowing recommendation: “these people have golden hearts.” LISG not only saves lives, but helps women rebuild them in the aftermath of extreme trauma. Yet – as interviews with their team make clear – the organisation is run on a shoestring. Co-founder Karen S says that “we did try and go down the charity route a few years ago, but it took up so much time, and we’re always firefighting; for instance, if someone gets detained.” All profits from Free to Be Me go where they’re most needed: straight to LISG.
Prossy, a proud femme, had her claim denied because the court didn’t believe a woman who loves make-up and high heels could be lesbian. Grace, a woman in her seventies, was denied on the basis that a grandmother could not be a lesbian.
The women of LISG have no choice but to build their lives from scratch away from family, friends, and familiar places. Lives that are intentionally made unbearable by a series of Conservative governments who aim to make the asylum process so difficult that applicants “voluntarily leave” the UK. But the women of LISG can’t return to their countries of origin. They have faced or been threatened with forced marriage, corrective rape, imprisonment, police brutality, having scotch bonnet paste and chilli peppers forced into their vagina, female genital mutilation, being beaten to death or burned alive.
In spite of these widespread human rights violations, the culture of disbelief at the Home Office runs deep. Prossy, a proud femme, had her claim denied because the court didn’t believe a woman who loves make-up and high heels could be lesbian. Grace, a woman in her seventies, was denied on the basis that a grandmother could not be a lesbian. Reflecting on her interview with the Home Office, she asks “Why do they like to believe we tell lies? If it really was safe for me to go back, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay here!”
Hostile environment policies have a devastating cost, which is made painfully clear through women’s accounts. Aphrodite-Luna and Prossy both attempted to take their own lives while the Home Office deliberated over their right to remain in the UK. Azanat became suicidal. Jerry’s wellbeing declined to the point that she was hospitalised for months under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act. While every woman’s story is unique, it quickly becomes clear there is a shared and systemic suffering caused by the British government.
Free to Be Me is a difficult book to read. But it’s also an uplifting one. These stories capture the particular magic that is falling for another woman. There is a lyricism in each description of lesbian love, from Azanat passing a note to her first girlfriend saying “I am passionate about you” to Aphrodite-Luna having an encounter that “was all like fireworks. Everything was beautiful.” Free to Be Me also brings to life the joy of lesbian community. Grace’s delight at finding herself in a room full of older lesbians is infectious, an image that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned.
Free to Be Me is testimony to the power of lesbian organising. It’s also a damning indictment of an asylum system that’s arbitrary as it is cruel. Malorie Blackman, author and former Children’s Laureate, argues that “Books allow you to see the world through the eyes of others. Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” If that is so, then every single person responsible for judging an asylum claim should be required to read this book.
You can order your copy of Free to Be Me: Refugee Stories From the Lesbian Immigration Support Group by Jane Traies here.