University of Sussex
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Sexuality and the asylum process: the perspectives of lesbians seeking asylum in the UK

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posted on 2023-06-08, 19:13 authored by Claire Marie Bennett
The 1951 Refugee Convention aims to provide international legal protection to all asylum seekers. Individuals making asylum claims based on persecution which relates to their sexual orientation however are not explicitly represented in Article 1A (2) of the Convention. As a consequence, cases based on sexual orientation are usually argued under the ‘membership of a particular social group’ category, a classification which has long remained the most contested of the Refugee Convention grounds for granting asylum. This thesis focuses on the experiences of lesbian women as they navigate the UK asylum process. The research explores how sexuality is constructed and performed as women seek asylum as well as how this impacts upon their social and sexual identity. A theoretical framework for the study is principally (though not exclusively) drawn from the works of Judith Butler (1990, 2004, 2006) and Michel Foucault (1978, 1979), as well as Ken Plummer’s (1995) ‘telling sexual stories’. The research draws upon in-depth, repeat interviews with eleven lesbian asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. These women all reported to have experienced physical and sexual violence in their home countries as a consequence of their homosexuality and all had sought international protection in the UK on the basis of their sexuality. The analysis presented in this thesis reveals that the experience of going through the UK asylum process was, for the women in this study, an emotionally challenging and confusing experience. As a consequence of women’s traumatic experiences in their home countries, they were often over familiar with secrecy which added to the difficulties of self-identifying as a lesbian in the UK. The legal requirement to evidence and ‘prove’ one’s sexual orientation was considered problematic and frequently left women feeling compelled to ‘perform’ their sexual identity in order to be believed as a credible lesbian. In addition the analysis presented demonstrates that the requirement to share intimate narratives on demand and in an open and public way had a range of significant implications on women themselves. This included how women felt that their sexuality was persistently judged and the devastating impact of not being believed. This thesis also shows how navigating complex legal procedures impacts upon women’s social and sexual identity. The study demonstrates that living in limbo, without permanency and stability exacerbated women’s experiences of social isolation and rejection and left them occupying a distinct social space, excluded from British, asylum seeking and migrant groups. Despite these struggles however, the data presented in the thesis also reveals women’s ability to recognise, fight and campaign for their legal citizenship and to enjoy the freedom to express their sexual identity and sexual self-esteem. The desire to create a safe space, to understand their sexuality and to re-construct a sense of belonging was paramount as women fought for their sexual entitlements.


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