For Shrouk al-Attar, being gay meant being a sinner. As a third-grader in her native Egypt, Attar had learned about the story of Gomorrah, the biblical town God destroyed because the residents were homosexual. It was her first insight into what homosexuality was, and how she would be seen in Egyptian society.
“My first insight of who I am was that I am a sin, inside and out, and that I’m better dead than alive,” she told The Daily Beast, less than one month after she was granted sexual asylum in the United Kingdom.
Attar’s journey to asylum in Britain begins six years ago, when she and her parents moved to England. While her family was applying for permanent residency—they had been living in the U.K. temporarily—it became a drawn-out process and one that threatened their ability to remain in the country if turned down.
Then Attar was advised to claim asylum in her own right and launched a case separate from her family. Her family was deported unexpectedly last year, but she was given the right to remain in the U.K. while her case was being heard.
“My mother had an ongoing asylum claim based on domestic violence. I did not understand the system then and just assumed that the U.K. [Border Agency] is fair and would let us stay here. So I came out to my friends, not [my] family, without considering any dangers of doing so if [I] returned to Egypt,” Attar admitted. From the safety of Britain, Attar says she started an online LGBT activism community and joined secret online Egyptian groups as well as public ones demanding greater LGBT rights in the Middle East, “or just a place for people to find likeminded others.” She was then approached by an Egyptian atheist blogger who goes by the name BenBaz about writing on her situation and LGBT rights in the Arab world.
“We worked together on that and predictably the online abuse and death threats increased. I did not realize how big that article would become, but within hours my sister, who was blocked from all my social-networking accounts, found out about it and showed my mother. Needless to say, the house was on fire that day and I was forced to leave,” she said about her family’s discovery of her homosexuality.
Thanks to her individual case, Attar was allowed to remain in the U.K. until she was finally granted asylum in May. But for many gay immigrants, seeking sexual asylum in the U.K. is not an easy task. While only 10 years ago the process was fairly straightforward and the vast majority of cases were granted asylum, today that has changed dramatically. Immigration authorities have found themselves in the middle of controversies over asking "sexually explicit" questions to men and women applying for asylum based on sexual identity. And researchers have begun to reveal what many LGBT activists have described as “horrors” within the asylum process. Gay men have had to make sex tapes to prove they are gay, while women have been asked by immigration judges whether or not they use sex toys.
One of the leading researchers on the topic, Claire Bennett from the University of Southampton, who has conducted interviews with 12 lesbians from socially conservative countries including Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, and Uganda, understands this process well. She described what she uncovered as “inappropriate and insensitive” probing by judges in their assessment of whether an asylum claim was genuine or if they were at risk of persecution in their home country. Among the questions she said were asked included “Have you ever read Oscar Wilde?,” “Do you use sex toys?,” and “Why have you not attended a Pride March?”
Judges have even argued that a claimant “doesn’t look lesbian,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has seen its own influx of Muslim immigrants seeking sexual asylum—but while the British system is more concerned with “proving” that an applicant is part of the LGBT community, the U.S. system is more focused on “identity.”
In 2011, the U.S. saw 74,000 cases for asylum—up from 49,000 in 2008. While specific cases for sexual asylum are not noted in the official statistics, the same year, President Barack Obama ordered overseas federal agencies to provide asylum to LGBT individuals in places where they face discrimination and violence.
Still, many U.S. states still have laws on the books against homosexual behavior and acts, including sodomy, making an asylum case based on acts much more difficult. The first sexual-asylum case in the United States occurred in 1994, and in the nearly 20 years since, more and more immigrants have sought safety and freedom in America from homosexual persecution in their home countries. These cases are obviously difficult to file, argue, and even win. But the number of applicants has slowly been on the rise.
Another Egyptian, Assem el-Tawdi, faced massive discrimination in Egypt. He was on the Queen Boat during the infamous raid on a gay gathering in Cairo on May 11, 2001, when over 50 people were arrested. During the crackdown, 23 people were charged with defamation of Islam and were reportedly tortured and raped while being detained by police. Some were handed five years in prison, with hard labor.
Fearing for his life, Tawdi fled Egypt and sought asylum in the United States. He applied, and after proving his homosexual identity, was given asylum in the U.S. and now lives in San Francisco. “Right now, the majority of people in the Arab world are not willing to tolerate our existence, and that has to change. That is what I am trying to do,” he said recently.
To prove homosexual identity, one must prove to immigration courts that they have claims “founded on persecution based on sexual identity,” according to Migrationinformation.org. Essentially, this means that someone, like Tawdi, had to prove that his or her identity was the cause of persecution in his or her home country as opposed to homosexual acts, which are criminalized in some American states.
Tawdi is the founder of Arabs4tolerance, a website that seeks to advance understanding and tolerance of all walks of life in the Arab world. While he knows it is a difficult effort, battling for his freedom and his LGBT community is close to his heart.
“There is definitely a ‘silent' revolution going on. LGBT Arabs across the Arab world and beyond are connecting with each other,” he said.