Inscribed with courage and self-knowledge, the narrative of the asylum seeker serves as an example for the process of building psychological resilience in adversity.
Psychotherapists writing about asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants describe a natural process of assimilation with the present and a nostalgia for a now far-removed identity – satisfying this urge to return may take the simple form of cooking a family recipe, or more complicatedly recreating the environment and culture that you have left behind.
Although this can be problematic, not only because that recreation may never reach an idealised authenticity – becoming but a plaster fantasy mimicking the real – but also because memory, especially for asylum seekers, contains the perverse form of nostalgia – in trauma. This situation may also be even more pronounced for LGBT+ asylum seekers who in the need to remember who they are and were, include a reminiscence of a culture and identity which may deny and threaten them.
Therefore, coping with that nostalgia, and longing to reconnect with an identity that is so ingrained into your being, also entails reconnecting with one that perversely damns you. And additionally, once you achieved refuge, there may be a further destabilisation and erasure of any newly established identity through racism, homophobia, perceived otherness, and Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
So ultimately, what is left for LGBT+ asylum seekers? Are they not now ontologically adrift? Like an aimless dingy in the English Channel. And provocatively, could they be described through Theresa May’s only notable quote as “citizens of nowhere”?
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Bittersweet memories and Kafkaesque trials
Dane Buckley, the support services manager at the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group, described the relationship that many LGBT+ asylum seekers have with the past as “bittersweet”. Because while their memories, like everyone else, includes the good, the bad, and the ugly – their positive memories often become intertwined with experiences of rejection from their family, and more expansively their culture.
He explained: “[Nostalgia] it's such a double-edged sword because, for some of our service users, home is the memories, [of] their loved ones. But home is also the loved ones who have shunned them and made them leave or have tried to hurt them in some cases. And so, it's a real bittersweet memory; it's almost as if you can't remember the good without the bad.”
“And there's no real comfort for that kind of nostalgic pain… I had someone in this women's support group, crying her eyes out for a song her mother taught her when she was young. But now her mother does not speak to her, and she's in another country, and you can't clean up that memory to make it better in any which way.”
Repairing or alleviating that emotional baggage is no easy feat, and Dane’s organisation seeks to support LGBT+ asylum seekers both legally and emotionally. But while an LGBT+ asylum seeker may have a complicated and routinely traumatic relationship with their past identity, when they finally arrive in a place of sanctuary, they are further told by authorities that they are not who they say they are – and the erasure of their identity continues as well as their journey to prove themselves.
As Dane commented: “The Home Office takes the stance that people aren’t telling the truth. So, you have to give evidence to prove that you are gay. They come here and are told they are not real.”
The Home Office has purposely created a culture that starves candidate asylum seekers of money and the means to make a home; they have to live off the crumb of £36 per week approx. And therefore, are forced to live in substandard shared accommodation which means they are often sharing a room with another asylum seeker, who may be culturally homophobic and consequentially will put them back in the closet or in some circumstances be violent towards them.
Additionally, this meagre income also puts already very vulnerable people at risk of sexual exploitation and criminal activity. As Dane commented: “You're living on about £36 a week and you have to travel, buy clothes, medication, and someone messages you saying, ‘I'll give you this much for this sexual act, or I'll give you this much if you to carry this for me’. And so, unfortunately, many asylum seekers are manipulated by other people including asylum seekers with more experience.”
Proving who you are is obviously understandable, but this process is frequently arbitrary and performative, a sort of capricious and pointless trial by ordeal. For example, two years ago, the Guardian reported that a Judge rejected a gay asylum seeker because he didn’t have the proper homosexual ‘demeanour’, and a woman was questioned a few years ago by a Home Office official through a trope that usually comes out slurred, that ‘how do you know if you are a lesbian if you haven’t slept with a man?’.
But even those horrible stories are an improvement. As under a decade ago, some felt compelled by their caseworkers to put their bodies out on the slab, to be eyed up, and digested – by providing photographic evidence of their sexuality (also known as pornography), something which is no longer allowed.
Nevertheless, currently, it still can get worse than the limbo that has been created by the Home Office and successive governments, as at any moment asylum seekers can be arbitrarily detained by the state for £30,000 per year, so apparently, money is not an object in publishment and only in care.
Where does this toxic relationship between the past and the present leave LGBT+ asylum seekers? Doesn’t both places deny them a secure identity? It seems, however, from hearing Dane’s experience that the opposite is true, they may be dehumanised and treated as ‘citizens of nowhere’ by a bureaucratic system created as it were in paper mâché from the pages of the Daily Mail. But being true to themselves has allowed them to continually move forwards and successively reinforce their ego with purpose, pride, and comfort in the self-affirmation of their identity.
“Your family may have disowned you, threatened to hurt you, put up money to hurt you, you haven't been able to have an open relationship, you've had to live in shame and shadows and lies… [I think] how do you build up such resilience?”
“And then you come to a place where the Home Office is challenging you; taking the stance that you’re lying, [and] you need to prove it to us, or ‘we might put you in a little prison for a while’. So, with all of that, I think I take my hat off to my service users, because how do they even find a shred of hope and resilience, with all they've gone through?”, Dane said.
From Dane’s experience of the people, he helps and many other LGBT+ people, resilience comes from knowing who you are and not compromising on that identity. That is why many make the journey and leave everything behind to start anew and be true to themselves.
Self-knowledge and reaffirmation of your identity is the cornerstone of psychological resilience in the face of adversity, and to use a messy metaphor that journey is similar to the crossing of a doorway into the unknown in the knowledge that no matter what you have left behind and what you will face, you are secure in who you are.
The traditional story goes that above the ancient entrance to the Oracle in Delphi there was inscribed the maxim 'know thyself'. It served as a warning to any prospective seekers of wisdom that you cannot understand the mysterious trance-like garbles of the oracle without introspection. And much like entering that temple, the journey of the asylum seeker is a brave crossing of the threshold into the unknowable; living with their complicated past and present challenges, through the successful prefixing of the Delphic maxim with, ‘I do know myself’.