The recent Uganda death penalty bill for homosexuality has raised awareness of the inhumane treatment of LGBT people globally. The repercussions of rape, jail, and murder for expressing your sexuality are horrendous, but they sometimes make it easy to cast a blind eye to the way so-called first-world countries continue to foster homophobia, transphobia, and sexism. Gay women seeking asylum in the UK know all too well that homophobia does not stop at the border.
Through a new art project with Artangel, an organization that sponsors interactive art projects, some of these woman are able to express the dehumanizing and difficult process of gaining asylum, which includes writing twenty pages on your prosection as well as being able to "prove" your new homosexual lifestyle in the West (for more information on seeking asylum, visit the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group). One gay woman who came to Britain from Gambia with her son writes "When you're in Africa you think that when you come to Europe there are gay rights. But it's not like that. There are so many issues that I'm dealing with right now which make things even more difficult for me, so I'm in a big battle. And until I win that battle, everything is on hold." Another woman writes, "Sometimes I wonder how I got into the position of a 'refugee'; being pitied, given handouts, being a second class citizen, labelled and displayed."
Working with the Israeli interdisciplinary visual artist Oreet Ashery, twelve lesbians seeking asylum in Britain from multiple countries including Barbados, Gambia, and Nigeria engaged in the project Staying: Dream, Bin, Stud and Other Stories Through a series of workshops, the women told their stories through developed alter-ego characters until they completed a manuscript of drawings, discussions, and stories compiled in a bound volume.
Ashery explains the idea behind the workshopping characters as "My aim was to work with each woman and the group as a whole to help each participant to develop a character. The character would enable the participants to tell their stories and experience themselves in a different way. To my mind, working with alter egos and fictional characters is never about pure fiction or about hiding behind a mask; on the contrary, it is a way to push to the foreground an aspect of oneself and to exaggerate it."
The character Dream was developed from her recurring dream about chains and handcuffs:
"Yeah, I had this dream. I was in chains and then my eyes... When you apply for asylum, they take your photo, and everything I saw was [in] this dream...I've never committed a crime, but in the dream I was a prisoner, and I did not understand why. I was taken in handcuffs like a criminal....Where I come from, you have to do something really, really, really big to be handcuffed. And I haven't done anything bad."
A sample dialog between two characters Bin (who as a gay person feels like a piece of trash thrown away) and House (a character made up of rooms that recalls an aspect of her life):
House: How is life treating you living in Brixton, compared with your home country in Africa?
Bin: I am not living yet.
House: What do you mean?
Bin: I am not living yet in Brixton, I am staying in Brixton.
House: What is stopping you from living?
Bin: I have to wait for the Home Office.
The character Bin
The project is scheduled to go live January 20, so Bitch readers in London should check it out. A slideshow of the women can be found on the Artangel site, and more of the artwork will be available online later as well. Five hundred copies of the finalized book will be distributed among various organizations, hopefully raising a more informed perspective on women seeking asylum (Ashery herself admits she was ignorant to how the immigration process worked for gay and lesbian asylum seekers before the project and had gross misperceptions.) "Before the project I couldn't express myself," Bin says. "I knew what I wanted to say but I kept quiet about it. But working with the others has taught me to respect myself. Writing has helped me to rediscover myself."
ArtAngel: Staying [ArtAngel]
Artangel gives African lesbians a voice in Britain [Times Online]