“As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s speech, given on the 49th anniversary of Gambia’s independence from Britain in early February of this year, starkly frames the situation from which Valerie and Bennet flee.
Valerie and Bennet (pseudonyms adopted for the purpose of this interview) are a lesbian couple who left their home country of Gambia in order to seek a better life in the United Kingdom.
According to the UK Foreign Office, Gambia has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward members of the LGBT community: “The Gambian Criminal Code states that any person who has or attempts to have ‘carnal knowledge’ of any person ‘against the order of nature’ is guilty of a crime and could face 14 years’ imprisonment.”
Bennet’s road to asylum status has been carved in violence and paved with emotional and physical pain. When she and another girl were found together in the school bathroom, both were beaten by staff before Bennet herself was subjected to physical abuse from her mother.
At the age of 25 she was forced into marriage with a man who abused her and cheated on her on a regular basis.
“Things were too much. I wanted to obey my family. I didn’t want my family to disown me,” said Bennet.
“You can’t go to the police and say you were being beaten. He could tell them I am a lesbian and they could throw me in jail.”
Bennet was not alone in her struggle at first. Her brother was also gay. However, he passed away under mysterious circumstances. It is her firm belief that his death was the result of intentional poisoning.
Fleeing to the United Kingdom, Bennet’s situation did not drastically improve. Already pregnant with her second son when she arrived, she spent time focusing on earning money by using her tailoring skills.
Soon after giving birth to her second child, her husband appeared on her doorstep. Through a series of unfortunate events, her husband managed to take her child back to Gambia without her consent.
In 2013, events began to take a turn for the worse. She was taken into custody under the assumption that she had not yet applied for asylum status even though her application was pending.
Pushed to the brink, on November 19th, 2013, Bennet attempted to take her own life. The date of her attempted suicide was also her own birthday.
On December 15th she attempted to take her life once more at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, but was saved by the intervention of Valerie.
“Bennet and I met in the Detention Centre in Bedford. The first day we had an encounter was the day she was trying to commit suicide, because she could not handle the stress any longer,” said Valerie.
“From there I would console and encourage her to know that life still goes on.”
Valerie’s own story was filled with violence and almost included a forced marriage.
“In May 2012, I left Gambia because I am homosexual and my family realized that I never engaged with the opposite sex. They wanted to force me into marriage, to marry a man I have never known or met before,” said Valerie.
“An uncle beat me up during an argument which resulted in me falling down and hurting my left thigh through the edge of a jerk barrel. There and then they told me to my face that they have arranged for a man to marry me.”
Her own experiences seeking asylum in the United Kingdom have not been pleasant. In March of 2013, she was detained for several months at Yarl’swood before being released.
Both Valerie and Bennet have a dim view of the United Kingdom’s asylum seeker process.
“It is good to seek asylum, yes, but in the UK? Not at the moment. It is very stressful and risky, based on my own experience,” said Valerie.
“A lot of people got deported back to their home countries after seeking asylum even though their lives are in danger.”