Friday, July 28, 2017
How to Count the Unrecorded, Unremembered, Unnoticed: Lesbian refugees and the torture of lesbians
This paper is dedicated to the countless – and uncounted – lesbians who continue to be tortured around the world
Lesbians are not the political priority of any well-funded policy-making organization. Not in Australia, nor internationally. In Australia there is the Coalition of Activist Lesbians (COAL), the only formally registered lesbian NGO, but all its work is done on a shoestring and in a voluntary capacity. In addition, lesbians tend to be invisible both in policies of governments and in agendas of social justice organizations. Indeed, the reason I am today is because I noticed that lesbians were not mentioned on the program.
When it comes to campaigns on violence against women, lesbians are either left out or included only in a footnote or in passing in the term sexual orientation or same-sex relationships or sexual minorities. None of these specifies lesbians. In campaigns or documentary research on these groups, lesbians are once again referred to in much less detail, if they are included at all. Because lesbians are “disappeared” in the mainstream terminology and because no one wants to make lesbians the centre of any campaign, lesbians continue to be tortured around the world. The torture of lesbians occurs under every kind of political regime, and the so-called developed world is not immune. But who cares? Is it, as Monique Wittig argued that “lesbians are not women”, or as popular discourse would suggest homosexuals are not lesbians?
Or is there a clue in the following statement from a Peruvian lesbian:
When I speak of my right to my own culture and language as an indigenous woman, everyone agrees to my self-determination. But when I speak of my other identity, my lesbian identity, my right to love, to determine my own sexuality, no one wants to listen (ILIS Newsletter 1994:13).
It is this distancing of political support from others, who may well deem themselves progressive, that is a feature of lesbian existence. Lesbians have supported, fought for, with and alongside a host of other people for political rights, but when on the rare occasions lesbians ask for support we find that “Only other dykes are proud of dykes” (Hanscombe 1992).
In many countries being a lesbian carries an immediate jail sentence; places like Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Oman and Romania. Persecution, however, extends to countries where theoretically, to be a lesbian is not an infringement of the law, but in reality, it remains so. This is the case in Colombia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Brazil. In others, death is the penalty. This is the case in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Chechen Republic, Sudan, northern Nigeria, Taiwan and Yemen (Amnesty International 1997: 77-90). In Iran the methods of execution are cruel and painful “hanging, stoning, being thrown off a cliff or high building, or facing a firing squad” (Reinfelder 1996: 12). Other reports indicate that lesbians “have been beheaded or stoned to death” (ibid: 12). Under fundamentalist regimes the torture of lesbians can even be justified on the basis that the man is doing his sacred duty.
Monika Reinfelder notes that in 1990 the German government granted asylum to an Iranian lesbian “who would have faced the death penalty had she been forced to return to Iran” (1996: 18).
Giti Thadani (1996) in her research on lesbian existence in India, found many examples of lesbians committing suicide. She cites the cases of Malika (20) and Lalita (20) who attempted suicide by drowning together when one failed an examination that would mean separation; also of Jyotsana and Jayashree who jumped in front of a train because they could not bear the separation caused by their respective marriages; of Saijamol and Gita who committed suicide in a joint poisoning; of Gita and Kishori, both 24-year-old nurses who hung themselves from a ceiling fan in the hospital quarters (Thadani 1996: 102-104). Although under Section 377 in India, lesbianism is not named as a crime, in a way reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s England, nevertheless it has been used to harass lesbians and put pressure on lesbians to enter heterosexual marriages (Voices Against Section 377 n.d.: 31-32). When the pressure to heterosexualise lesbians is extreme, lesbians suffer and some, as indicated by the above examples, are driven to suicide and self-annihilation.
Ugandan lesbian, Claire, seeking asylum in the UK, speaks of the difficulty of getting through the system. She notes at the end of her talk that without the help of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group she wouldn’t have survived. She says, “I would now be dead – either at the hands of those I’d been returned to in Uganda, or, more likely, at my own hand because I could no longer keep fighting and I didn’t know how to, could no longer stand the pain and fear or could not bear to be sent back to a slow and cruel death” (Townley 2005). Claire is now fighting to get asylum for her lesbian partner who helped her escape. Her girlfriend arrived a few weeks after Claire, but Claire cannot find her and believes the traffickers whom her girlfriend borrowed money from are either holding her hostage in debt prostitution or she is, perhaps, already dead.
It’s unusual for lesbian couples to be accepted as refugees. An exception is the case of two lesbians from Mexico accepted as refugees by Canada in 2001. They were admitted on grounds of belonging to a particular social group: lesbian partners who are victims of domestic violence. One woman testified that two men attacked them in 1998 while visiting a relative. The husband, after learning about their lesbian relationship took away her child. In 1999, they were “beaten, confined and sexually assaulted by Mexican police, hired by the ex-husband.” (Godfrey 2001) <http://www.gaylawnet.com/news/2001/im010712.htm#gay_men>
Equating lesbian existence with psychiatric disorders is not new. It is a particular way in which families deal with unruly young women. Alla Pitcherskaia, a lesbian from Russia, was charged with the crime of “hooliganism” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 20). Long-term forced institutionalisation can be the ultimate result for many young women, and as in Alla Pitcherskaia’s case, her girlfriend was also “forcibly held in a psychiatric institution” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 20). Alla Pitcherskaia’s crime consisted of continuing to work with a lesbian youth organisation. Alla Pitcherskaia fled to the USA after threats to her liberty because of her alleged “hooliganism” and her activism, lodged an application for asylum. Initially it was rejected because “they claimed the motive for the forced institutionalization was the desire to ‘treat” or ‘cure’ and not to punish and therefore was not ‘persecution’ (Crimes of Hate 2001: 19).
Another case of a lesbian seeking asylum is contained in the Crimes of Hate Report: “Irina, a Russian lesbian, claimed asylum in the USA on the grounds that she had been tortured or ill-treated by a range of people, including police, private investigators and her own family members. Irina described how in 1995 her sisters demanded she give up custody of her son and get psychiatric treatment to “cure” her of her homosexuality. Her mother threatened to disclose her sexual orientation to the authorities unless she gave up her son. Irina's parents hired two investigators to probe into her lifestyle. The investigators claimed to have a video tape of Irina having sex with her partner and threatened to report her to the police unless she paid a large sum of money. Irina and her lover went to the police to report this attempt to blackmail them; the officer responded by sexually harassing them. One day, the investigators abducted her at knife point and took her to an apartment. Together with another man, they raped Irina to “teach her a lesson” and “reorientate” her sexual identity. Irina decided not to report the rape to the police because of her past experience at their hands” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 22).
Peruvian human rights worker, Rebecca Sevilla notes that “Prostitutes get a very rough time in jail. But the treatment of lesbians is even worse” (Amnesty International 1997: 24). She comments that this is because “however degrading prostitution can be, it is still regarded as normal behaviour, whereas lesbianism is seen as too threatening to the status quo” (Amnesty International 1997: 24).
Christine, a Ugandan lesbian activist was arrested along with her friend Norah. Christine was taken to a detention centre, beaten and threatened with rape by the soldiers. She was later raped by three male detainees. As she remembers:
Coming midnight, they said 'we want to show you something'. They took my clothes off and raped me. I remember being raped by two of them, then I passed out (Crimes of Hate 2001: 4).
There is a double jeopardy for lesbians who are arrested. Not only are they at risk of torture from the guards but, as Christine’s story indicates, also at the hands of other prisoners.
Imprisonment is on the increase worldwide. And prison populations include lesbians. Violations of lesbians occur in countries where there are not legal sanctions against living as a lesbian, but in countries where there are no specific protections for lesbians the violations intensify and some lesbians are subjected to torture and abuse.
Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe considers gays and lesbians “less than human” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 6; also see Tiripano. 2000). Tina Machida is a Zimbabwean lesbian who lives in Harare. She writes:
They locked me in a room and brought him everyday to rape me so I would fall pregnant and be forced to marry him. They did this to me until I was pregnant… (Machida 1996: 123).
Her rape took place at the hands of her parents in the mid-1980s, in an effort to “cure” her of her lesbian existence.
Ugandan lesbian, Claire, came from a very high status family. She was banished from her village and her father’s Will was overturned. She became politically active in the opposition party as a polling observer, was arrested, tortured and raped. (Townley 2005). She then escaped from Uganda and applied for asylum in the UK. Her persecution in Uganda is intensified by her lesbian identity. As both her party political activities and her status as a lesbian work to amplify her chances of arrest and torture. And, as in the case of Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes in Chile, rape of lesbians under such circumstances takes on a particularly strong element of punishment.
Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes was politically active in Chile in the 1970s. She was arrested and tortured. As a political prisoner, she was marked because she was a lesbian and the torture meted out to her was directed at her sexuality. So again, a double jeopardy, arrested for resistance against the government, punished as a lesbian.
As the story of Alla Pitcherskaia suggests, political activism in a youth organization can also attract incarceration in mental hospitals. Lesbian activists are particularly vulnerable as two stories from the last year indicate.
In Sierra Leone, on 29 September 2004 FannyAnn Eddy was found dead after being repeatedly raped. She had been working in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association (Human Rights Watch 4 October 2004, Morgan and Wieringa 2005: 20). The media would have us believe that lesbians no longer suffer the pain, humiliation and shame of systematic discrimination and torture, let alone murder.
Less than a year before her murder she had given testimony at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. At that time she said:
Silence creates vulnerability. You, members of the Commission on Human Rights, can break the silence. You can acknowledge that we exist, throughout Africa and on every continent, and that human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity are committed every day. You can help us combat those violations and achieve our full rights and freedoms, in every society, including my beloved Sierra Leone (Eddy 2004).
Just four months ago, on 20 July 2005, Ugandan lesbian activist Victor Julie Mukossa’s house was raided in an attempt by the police to arrest her. Victor Julie Mukossa is the chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). She went into hiding. Another lesbian activist from Kenya was “arbitrarily arrested and detained” and “subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment”. Amnesty International email@example.com 2 August 2005.
At the 6th International Interdisciplinary World Women’s Conference in Kampala in 2002, I was speaking about lesbian issues in a session towards the end of the conference. A woman approached me and said that there were big problems for lesbians in Uganda, and that gaining recognition as refugees was particularly difficult for lesbians.
The above stories show that there is no shortage of stories which indicate a need for lesbians to flee their home countries. And this is only the tip of the iceberg as many lesbians do not make their sexuality visible for fear of further harm – by the state, the community, officers or members of their own family.
Two authors have suggested that there is no documentary evidence on lesbians (McGhee 2003; Magardie 2003). Both these authors had read most of the same material as I have including the case of Norah and Christine mentioned earlier. The records state that so fearful were Norah and Christine of their safety, they fled to a neighbouring country. There too, lesbian existence was criminalized and so they were unable to claim asylum. They “were forced to spend several months in hiding while they tried to find a way to get protection as refugees” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 5).
It seems, therefore, that even when the evidence is in front of the researchers’ eyes, it is not seen.
This is a significant problem faced by lesbian refugees: invisibility. The cases do exist and must be made visible. Reinfelder comments that:
The hatred of lesbians in most countries, has prevented many persecuted lesbians from applying for refugee status on the basis of their sexual orientation” (Reinfelder 1996: 18).
Many lesbians therefore apply for asylum on the basis of political persecution. But this can result in a failure to prove their status as refugees since the worst abuses have occurred to them because they are lesbians. If this cannot be revealed, the case is weakened.
If those whose cases are recorded go unnoticed, how much more invisible are those lesbians who have not identified themselves. Lesbians do marry men as a way of protecting themselves. Sometimes this is a mutually agreed arrangement, sometimes not.
Within heterosexual discourse the lesbian epitomises the body untrammelled. The lesbian body is a body out of control in a heteropatriarchal sense, that is, it is ungoverned by heteropatriarchal rules. For the torturer, the prisoner’s body has also become a body out of control and such lack of control is shown each time pain is inflicted.
… all wave after wave of electricity, no control … I am losing control of my/self … I can’t stop the shit, the piss, the tears, the jerks, the yells (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 655; italics and ellipses in original).
Elaine Scarry writes of the prisoner’s lack of control, and way that responsibility for it is deflected back to the prisoner so that the confession “will be understood by others, is an act of self-betrayal” (1985: 47).
There is an element here of just why it is that sexual orientation has been considered outside the ambit of UN Human Rights rules and why lesbian refugees struggle so hard to be recognised, heard and acknowledged as “genuine” refugees. It is about the self-betrayal of the body. If lesbian existence is a choice, so the argument goes, then the lesbian can just as easily choose not to be a lesbian. The problem is that her body betrays her. Her speech as a lesbian is taken to be a self-betrayal. It is read this way, rather than as a problem of patriarchy and oppressors. It is an instance of what Mary Daly names as “reversal”. The victim is the one at fault, not the perpetrator.
… what they will never understand is that I love you precisely because you are not a man (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 656; italics and ellipses in original).
The torturer through this process, dispenses all culpability, all responsibility for the pain inflicted on the tortured person. His conscience is clear. It is all her fault. If only she would do what is best for her. In fact, he will help her by raping her, by showing her just what a real man can do for her, just how what she needs is “a good fuck, from real men” (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 656).
The prisoner of torture is considered out of control; the lesbian is considered out of control. The tortured lesbian is therefore doubly out of control (and in a society where lesbians are defined as mentally ill, triply out of control). Since she is so clearly out of control, anything that happens to her is her fault because if she chose to behave differently, she would not be tortured. The torturer is therefore able to abandon all sense of responsibility for his actions and for his beliefs about lesbians. It is in her interest that he torture her, rape her, show her just how good he is. Or, as Elaine Scarry writes, “Every weapon has two ends. In converting the other person’s pain into his own power, the torturer experiences the entire occurrence exclusively from the nonvulnerable end of the weapon” (1985: 59).
One of the arguments raised against lesbians (and against all LGBTI peoples) is that if one just chose to behave differently then you wouldn’t be persecuted. This is a red herring and a very poor legal precedent has been set in the 1998 case of a gay man from Sri Lanka who was told that he should “function as a normal member of society” (Millbank 2003). If he acted more discreetly there would be no infringement of his fundamental human rights. This is the basis of the idea that for the lesbian “anything that happens to her is her fault”. Including ostracism, emotional violence, rape, torture and murder.
As a lesbian I have chosen to live that way, often against family and social pressures. And although in Australia in my particular social class and culture, those pressures have diminished in the last thirty years, that is not universally the case in Australia, and more particularly not the case in many other countries.
Lesbians are a vulnerable group, made more so by a patriarchal culture that is unescapable. That is, even when lesbians go into exile, patriarchy frequently accompanies them – as extended family, as community – and this can create complex difficulties in claiming asylum.
So I’d like to finish with some guidelines.
• It should not be assumed that women presenting for asylum are seeking asylum simply because their spouse or another male family member is doing so; they might need asylum in their own right, and for very different reasons, including persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation.
• Some women may however be persecuted because of their association with men who are under threat. If they are lesbians, their level of risk may be increased.
• It should not be assumed that a married woman cannot be a lesbian. In some countries marriage is the first level of protection a lesbian might seek.
• Lesbians seeking asylum are likely to be politically active, but even lesbians who are not politically active come under threat in some countries.
• Do not assume that because a woman does not use the word lesbian to describe herself, that she is not a lesbian. It may have been too dangerous for too long for her to be able to speak the word lesbian (or the equivalent in her language) out loud.
• Do not assume that because there is no word for lesbian in any particular language that there are therefore no lesbians in that society or linguistic group.
• Do not assume that if a woman comes from a country where it is not illegal to be a lesbian, that she is therefore not able to claim having been tortured or in danger of torture or other external harm to her self.
• Do not assume that your interpreter is open to her experience. The interpreter may be hostile to her claim.
• Lesbians who have been tortured will find it difficult to speak of their experience. Speaking to a stranger is difficult, speaking to a strange man might be impossible. Uniformed men may precipitate reliving the experience of torture.
• As a result of trauma, some lesbians may be unable to relate the experience at all, or may appear detached and emotionless. This should not be read as evidence of fabrication.
• Lesbians who are refugees might also be in danger from their families, in particular from the men in their families. Her confidential interview should not be shared by asking questions about her sexual orientation of other family members.
Amnesty International. 1997. Breaking the Silence: Human rights violations based on sexual orientation, London: Amnesty International United Kingdom.
Amnesty International. 2001. Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence, Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity ACT 40/016/2001.
Amnesty International. 2001. Broken bodies, shattered minds —Torture and ill-treatment of women, AI Index: ACT 40/001/2001.
Amnesty International. 2005. “Uganda: Intimidation of lesbian and gay activists.” firstname.lastname@example.org 2 August. AI Index: AFR 59/003/2005.
Eddy, FannyAnn. 2004. “Testimony by FannyAnn Eddy at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Item 14 – 60th Session, U.N. Commission on Human Rights.” http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/10/04/sierra9439.htm
Godfrey, Tom. 2001. “Mexican Gays Get Asylum: Canada’s 1st Lesbian Refugees.” Toronto Sun. 8 August. http://www.gaylawnet.com/news/2001/im010712.htm#gay_men.
Hanscombe, Gillian. 1992. Sybil: The Glide of Her Tongue. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2004a. “Research and Silence: Why the torture of lesbians is invisible.” Collected Papers and Presentations. Proceedings of Women’s Studies Association Conference (NZ), Massey University, Palmerston North: pp. 64-72.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2004b. “The Torture of Lesbians: Where is the outcry?” Reproductive Rights Newsletter. Vol. 82, No. 2, pp. 12-14.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2005. “The Invisible Torture.” Arena Magazine. No. 78. August-September. p. 10.
ILIS Newsletter 15 (2) 1994.
Machida, Tina. 1996. Sisters of Mercy. In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. London: Cassell: 118-129.
Magardie, Sheldon. 2003. ‘Is the applicant really gay?’ Legal responses to asylum claims based on persecution on account of sexual orientation. Agenda: Women, the Invisible Refugees (55): 81-87.
McGee, Derek. 2003. Queer Strangers: Lesbian and gay refugees. Feminist Review: Exile and Asylum (73): 145-147.
Millbank, Jenni. 2003. “It’s not reasonable for homosexuals to ‘be discreet’ in fear for their lives.” On Line Opinion. 18 December. www.onlineopinion.com.au
Millett, Kate. 1994. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. London: W.W. Norton.
Morgan, Ruth and Saskia Wieringa. 2005. Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female same-sex practices in Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Reinfelder, Monika. 1996. Persecution and Resistance. In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. London: Cassell: 11-29.
Rivera-Fuentes, Consuelo and Linda Birke. 2001. Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on bodies under torture. Women’s Studies International Forum 24, (6): 653-668.
Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Souhami, Diana. 1999. The Trials of Radclyffe Hall. London: Virago.
Thadani, Giti. 1996. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. London: Cassell.
Tiripano, Tsitsi. 2000. “Fighting for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Zimbabwe”. Off Our Backs. Vol. 30, No. 4. April. 1, 6-7.
Townley, Ben. 2005. “The wounds to my spirit are difficult to recover from.” GAY.COM. 1 February.
Voices Against Section 377. n.d. Rights For All: Ending Discrimination under Section 377. New Delhi.
 I am grateful to a lesbian in Uganda who may prefer to remain anonymous and who drew my attention to the injustices against lesbians in her country in 2002; to Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes and Lynda Birke (2001) whose article I stumbled across soon afterwards; to the anonymous researchers at Amnesty International whose reports on the torture of lesbians provide so much of the first hand material, and to Lara Fergus who sent me the Crimes of Hate document from Amnesty International; to Monika Reinfelder whose book Amazon to Zami (1996) contains some of the other first hand accounts; and to an unnamed friend with whom I discussed at length her experience of torture. I thank her for her time and generosity in sharing what was an extremely painful experience.
 As in other research on homophobia and sexism lesbian existence tends to be confounded with the lives of gay men, or subsumed under the broad and unsatisfactory term of homosexuality, or of queer or LGBTI. All these terms are used to simultaneously contain and exclude lesbians. A more recent term – same-sex attracted – fails for the same reasons. Lesbians who are tortured disappear. Lesbians are to be found as side issues in the literature on torture of LGBTI (Breaking the Silence, 1997; Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence, Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity ACT 40/016/2001), and secondly as a side issue on the torture of women (Broken bodies, shattered minds —Torture and ill-treatment of women, AI Index: ACT 40/001/2001). There is a significant shift in the balance of cases reported by Amnesty International between 1997 and 2001. This could be due to several factors 1) a greater willingness on the part of AI to look into torture of lesbians 2) an increase in the incidence of torture of lesbians 3) an increase in the reporting of the torture of lesbians 4) a combination of these and other factors.
 This paper draws on research presented at a number of conferences since 2003. See Hawthorne 2004a, 2004b and 2005 for published versions.
 An interesting point is raised by the way this case is indexed. As you can see from the web reference it is incorrectly indexed under gay men. I have found a number of instances like this. So it is not surprising that lesbians disappear in the literature on refugees. Another article under
tells of the case of a Ugandan lesbian
seeking refugee status in the UK, but no where does it indicate that the asylum
seeker is a lesbian until she speaks and says “I’m Claire, I’m a lesbian and
I’m from Uganda …” (Townely 2005).
 Think about the lesbians you know who have been incarcerated and labelled as mad. Think about the “treatment” they have received. Was it electroconvulsive therapy? What is the difference between this and the shocks given to prisoners who are tortured? Was it the use of drugs? What is the difference between this and a host of other silencing techniques used by torturers? In most instances the difference is simply the name of the institution in which it occurs; in some instances there is also a difference in intensity, or in the fact that “patients” are given shock treatment while unconscious. See Millett (1994) for a discussion of the similarities. Rivera-Fuentes and Birke also discuss the role of doctors in places where torture is inflicted (2001: 658-660).
 Robin Lucas jailed for credit card fraud in 1995 in California. As was reported:
One evening in September 1995, three male inmates unlocked the door of her cell, handcuffed her and raped her. Robin Lucas suffered severe injuries to her neck, arms, back and vaginal and anal areas (Crimes of Hate 2001: 18).
 In reading this statement by FannyAnn Eddy, I am reminded of another woman who was silenced and who, surprisingly, spoke out about “the deadly campaign of silence”, Radclyffe Hall. In an unpublished article about The Well of Loneliness she wrote: “Not only has this constituted a grave danger to the inverts themselves who, in addition to all else have not hitherto dared to proclaim their existence, (a most undesirable state of affairs and one likely to render them morbid,) but this campaign of silence has been a grave danger to a hetero-sexual society, that has resolutely refused to face a problem which was and is above all social.” (Souhami 1999:158).
 The Appendix contains some guidelines for how to treat lesbians applying for asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation.
 The idea for this came from a similar list of guidelines contained in Agenda: Women, the Invisible Refugees (55).