Queer enough? Categories and norms at the border

  • data politics
  • surveillance

The critique of border technologies often centres around technologies like walls or fences, drone and radar surveillance, full body imaging, facial recognition technology, biometric data, or predictive algorithms that draw on social media and other digital databases. That is, the work of sensing, identifying and keeping track of bodies through digital and bureaucratic technologies, often to keep them out. This essay turns to gender and sexuality as technologies that are also mobilised along the border, operating to structure admission and exclusion of asylum seekers who have fled persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It shows how gendered logics of classification and sexual taxonomies work to reproduce and normalise a particular set of queer identities.

The recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as basis for belonging to a particular social group1 hinges on innateness and immutability. In other words, those who cannot show that they were ‘born this way’, or cannot document a sufficiently queer public life, struggle to make a credible case for asylum. This is particularly difficult for women, who have structural inequalities stacked against them, often have less access to visible public spheres than men, and are less likely to openly participate in queer subcultures or activism. ‘Proving’ one's sexual orientation or gender identity to support a claim for asylum requires a chain of evidence that has to con-form to a set of expectations about what it means to be L, G, B, or T.

Where are these expectations set and what do they look like? Gender and sexuality are mobilised as border technologies in the service of sorting non-normative bodies into deserving refugees and fraudsters based on (Western) stereotypical notions of queerness like ‘coming out’ or attending gay pride parades. Thus, asylum regimes subject queer asylum seekers to intensive ‘truth-seeking’ in the hope of excavating their ‘real’ gender or sexuality. In the process, bodies and their stories are filtered through expert opinions. Judges, case workers, country data, and at times even Google search results take precedence over queer and trans experience. Under guise of objective case assessment and truth finding, normative logics of classification and quantification operate to order unruly queer lives, to exclude, further marginalise, and keep out.


One of the critiques of big data and algorithmic regulation of everyday life is that these technologies set up categories that people are slotted into based on their digital behaviour. Yet, societies are already fairly well stratified along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and other identity categories that work to sort and order people within unequal power relations. Infrastructures of classification informed by hetero- as well as homonormativity2 order queer and trans bodies into those intelligible to asylum regimes and those who struggle to comply with hegemonic notions of lesbian, gay, and binary trans identities.

Research by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group shows that only 1-2% queer asylum cases passed the initial interview stage, compared to 27% of other asylum claims . Stories of marginalisation, of navigating (in)visibilities, of violence and persecution in the public and private sphere are often impossible to narrate as a stable gender-identity, sexual orientation, and publicly queer (enough) lifestyle.

Uche Nnabuife fled Nigeria for the UK, where he later filed an asylum claim based on his sexual orientation. In a short film produced by African LGBT digital media organisation None on Record, he shows a clipping from a Nigerian newspaper reporting on his story, complete with his portrait, that reads “Uche Nnabuife, a gay Nigerian has been warned not to come back to Nigeria, or his body would not be found.” Yet nothing he tells case workers to support his claim seems quite queer enough for asylum: “may-be I should be wearing a skirt or have a handbag, then that’s when they will believe me”, and “I don’t know if they want to see me sleep with a man naked or they want a picture of that”.

When queer asylum seekers’ stories aren’t heard, or fail to convince authorities of credible queerness, the pornographic measures Uche Nnabuife refers to become a last resort. The media as well as migration researchers3 report numerous cases where photo and video evidence of gay couples having sex was provided, and accepted, as evidence of their sexuality.

Lesbian activist Aderonke Apata also submitted private photos and a DVD of her sex life to the authorities as evidence of her sexual orientation. In her case, however, the High Court ruled that she merely “engaged in same sex relation-ships in order to ‘fabricate’ an asylum claim.”4 One of the reasons Aderonke Apata’s claim for asylum in the UK was rejected, was the Home Office’s opinion that, as a previously married mother, she could not possibly be a ‘real’ lesbian. While the High Court didn’t share this view, it agreed that she doesn’t belong to the particular social group of lesbians and, sex-tape notwithstanding, also rejected her bid.

The life stories of queer women who have been (or are) married, and/or have children don’t fit the narrative of an innate lesbian sexuality. By the same logic, bisexuality is invalidated as grounds for queer asylum. The bid of a bisexual Algerian man, for instance, was rejected by a German district court on the basis that he could ‘openly’ live his sexuality in Algeria by simply having a relationship with a woman rather than a man. The fact that he had also fathered a son while in Germany was taken as further evidence to support the rejection of his claim.

Invisibility is constructed as safety in order to reject asylum claims. At the same time, however, documented visibility is constructed as a quasi-prerequisite for queer asylum. When concealment becomes a matter of safety for those who experience violence as a result of their visibility, that (relative) safety in turn weakens their asylum claim. Producing a coherent and publicly documented story from fragmented lives, particularly from stories marked by in/visibilities between the public and the private sphere, from stories of the persecution of precisely such coherence remains an impossible fiction for many. Ugandan athlete Megan Nankabirwa, for example, had to keep her sexual orientation and relationship with a woman private out of fear for their life: “If the mob lets you go free alive, there’s life imprisonment. If you survive them, then you won’t survive the law.” When accidentally found out, the couple escaped an angry mob and fled to the UK. They struggled for two years to convince case workers and courts that they are indeed lesbians: “They said we need photos from when [we] were together back home, which were not possible.” Women are often presumed to be less vulnerable because their sexuality is less public. But the more severe the feared consequences upon discovery are, the less publicly a lesbian woman is likely to present5. Like gender-based violence more broadly, violence against queer women is more likely to take place in the private sphere than in public, making it that much more difficult to document and verify.

While many lesbian, gay, and bisexual refugees struggle to match their experience to homonormative expectations, trans refugees to South Africa come up against a heteronormative barrier: the queue. Long before they ever speak to a case worker, narrate their story or submit documentation, asylum seekers report to a designated reception office. There, they have to choose between a queue for women and one for men to publicly stand in line, often for days at a time. As refugees from the same regions of origin are required to queue on the same days, trans refugees have to choose between blending in with the queue that best resembles their gender presentation and risk trouble due to diverging paperwork, or outing them-selves as trans and risk further violence from the communities they fled6. Presumed innate-ness and immutability are joined by a binary understanding of gender that potentially excludes trans refugees (few of whom will have paperwork to accurately reflect their gender identity), particularly those who don’t fit the gender binary neatly.

So what does it take to establish the credibility of a queer asylum claim? In 2014, sexualized modes of interrogation used by UK Home Office workers in interviews with asylum seekers made the headlines. Some of the question that appeared in the media, and in testimonies of asylum seekers and case workers are reproduced here7:


  • Why do you feel the need to have sex every day when that’s not even normal in heterosexual relationships?
  • What can a same-sex relationship provide that is absent from a heterosexual partner-ship?
  • What do you find attractive/turns you on about men/women?
  • Where do you have sex with your female/male partners?
  • What is it about the way men walk that turns you on?
  • What is it about men's backsides that attracts you?
  • How often did you have intercourse together?
  • How did you feel when having sex?

Sexual practice

  • Did you do anything other than kissing x? What did you do?
  • When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?
  • Did you have intercourse with him, not just blow jobs?
  • Did you put your penis into x's backside?
  • Why did you use a condom?
  • Was it loving sex or rough?
  • Did x ejaculate inside you?
  • Did you ejaculate?

Queer life

  • In [country] how many relationships have you had with men/women?
  • Why have you got to behave as a gay/lesbian/bisexual in [country]?
  • How do you show your sexuality when you are in the UK?
  • Why have you not attended a Gay Pride march?
  • In [city] did you have sex with other men?
  • What is your view of same sex marriages?
  • Have you read Oscar Wilde?

Queer history

  • Did you have less than 100 sexual partners before your current boyfriend?
  • How can you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never slept with a man?
  • What is your religion? What does the church say about homosexuality?
  • How can you, as a Christian, justify your sexuality with God?
  • What about before you were 18?

What shines through these lines of questioning are Western-centric and homonormative assumptions about what an appropriately queer story is expected to look like. What stories can be told, and what stories can be heard in the asylum process relies on a very particular narrative of queerness. A linear narrative, that is, progressing from the discovery of one’s non-heterosexual identity, to coming out as LGB or T, to an ‘out and proud’ queer life. To be legitimate, that life had best include same-sex relationships and sexual practice, and documented participation in whatever queer subculture is locally available.

Storytelling becomes a key skill in the process of seeking asylum: to evidence their credibility, queer asylum seekers have to narrate a concise and coherent story of fear and persecution while conforming to often unfamiliar cultural scripts. But being queer does not mean the same thing or look the same everywhere, nor does Anglo-American LGBT terminology apply to the same extent in all cultural contexts. Even where the particular story of struggle with sexuality, coming-out, and out gay life holds some truth for many, it rarely applies fully, and never applies to all.

The diffuse paranoia around engineered identities and fraudulent asylum claims that right-wing publications and the tabloid press8 would have us subscribe to, is turned on its head when queer asylum seekers are indeed required to engineer appropriate linear stories of gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual practice to navigate the asylum system. Translating sexualities by filtering them through a ‘rainbow splash’ becomes an integral part of storytelling for queer asylum9.

The persecution of non-normative sexualities in many parts of the world is in no small measure a product of European colonial histories. The surveillance, policing and regulation of gender and sexualities queer asylum seekers encounter, in turn, mirrors colonial modes of classifying, recording, quantifying and managing populations10. By reproducing the same categories and criteria, time and again, each record, document, inter-view question, or court ruling further validates and normalises the limited script of who’s queer enough for asylum that they collectively stem from in the first place.


1The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees lists persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership of a particular social group as grounds for asylum. Gender identity and sexual orientation were recognised as ‘particular social groups’ in the 1990s.

2In The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy Lisa Duggan coined the term homonormativity and described it as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them”. The term has since been used to describe the LGBT prototype all other queer lives are measured against. Western, white, middle-class, male gay stories, stories of coming out, gay pride, or same-sex marriage become the (homo)norm. There is nothing wrong with these stories in and of themselves, they are some peoples’ legitimate stories too. What’s problematic is how they eclipse queer narratives that don’t fit this norm: trans, bisexual, or non-binary stories, queers of colour, working class queers, and other queer lives that have little in common with the dominant narrative.

3Lewis, Rachel A. 2014. “‘Gay? Prove It’: The Politics of Queer Anti-Deportation Activism.” Sexualities 17(8):958–75.

4Dugan, E. 2015. “Nigerian gay rights activist has her High Court asylum bid rejected - because judge doesn't believe she is lesbian” independent.co.uk

5Shuman, A. & C. Bohmer. 2014. “Gender and Cultural Silences in the Political Asylum Process.” Sexualities 17(8):939–57.

6Camminga, B. 2017. “Categories and Queues.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 4(1):61–77.

7Yeo, C. 2014. "Questions to a bisexual asylum seeker in detention." freemovement.org.uk

8See for example http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3185508/Say-gay-UK-Posters-tell-migrants-lie-sexuality-claim-asylum.html, and the rebuttal of this story here.

9Akin, Deniz. 2017. “Queer Asylum Seekers: Translating Sexuality in Norway.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43(3):458–74.

10The ways in which gender and sexuality are implicated in colonialism and its legacies is well documented, cf. Stoler, A. (2010). Carnal Knowledge and imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule or McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Tactical Tech's editorial stance.

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