Interview: Branded a liar by UK authorities, the Ugandan lesbian outed in a national newspaper

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Ugandan lesbian Betty Tibakawa has been branded three times. Twice, physically with a flat iron full of hot charcoal, in a brutal homophobic assault in Uganda which left her with permanent scars on her inner thighs. The third occasion took place here in the UK, where she has now been branded again, as a liar.

There’s something desperate about the UK Border Agency’s case, in which Betty is not the victim of the violent homophobia which is known to be legally endemic in Uganda, but rather, is lying to gain asylum after somehow accidentally branding not one, but both, of her inner thighs. The case against her rides on supposed inconsistencies in her testimony, leading the UKBA to deny that she has any credibility whatsoever, concluding, against a barrage of evidence, that there is no “prospect … that Ms Tibakawa will be exposed to a real risk of persecution on her return to Uganda”. Apart from the torture that she must have accidentally done to herself, that is. That’s not to mention the exposure in Ugandan national tabloid Red Pepper, describing Betty as an activist likely to recruit young girls to lesbianism.

When I finally meet Betty, I begin to wonder what reason this charismatic, strong young woman may have had to leave Uganda if she were heterosexual. To confront the merciless hordes of the ‘keep them out’ brigade is no picnic even as a progressive British citizen. For a 22-year-old Ugandan with no previous knowledge of the British legal system, it’s a nightmare.

Her detention centre, Yarl’s Wood, is a prison for the disenfranchised that, through little more than a slick of fresh paint on the walls, attempts to masquerade as a kind of half-way house. “Every night there is a deportation,” says Betty, “women screaming… some just give up. The system is designed to wear you down so you go back.” But for homosexual Ugandans like Betty, going back isn’t a viable option.

I ask Betty how she would feel if she were deported back to Uganda. She becomes emphatic: “I can’t go back… I just can’t go back… You can’t get a job if you’re a lesbian! No one will employ you… you’re risking losing your education; you’re risking your whole life really. Your friends, none of your friends will talk to you. Imagine you’re a teacher… who’s going to bring their kids in school for you to teach them? All they’ll think about is you’re going to tell them to become lesbian.”

This is the human face of asylum. The aspirational young woman who had held hopes for a bright future in Uganda waiting in a detention centre as others decide her fate. A teenager who enjoyed art, geography and history at school. Who was a pretty damn good volleyball player. She tells me: “I would have moved into playing for a national team if I had stayed. I was the one who made the points.” She mentions her place on a procurement course in the business department of Makerere University, a place that, due to the attack, she wasn’t able to take up.

Betty now has no relationship with her family, but is still desperately proud of her role in “helping to bring up my little sisters and my little brothers. Helping my mum out. ‘Cause my mum is a single mum, and she had to work to provide for all of us.” Subsequent to the attack and two-month bed-bound recovery, a trip with her mother to England left her homeless, stranded, and permanently disowned. Her crime? Coming out as lesbian.

Betty’s fears of return are rooted in a short lifetime’s experience of legal oppression. She was forcibly separated from her first girlfriend, Denise. When Betty speaks of Denise, her voice becomes audibly distressed. It is obvious that the memories still hurt. “Her parents found out about her and me. And when they did, when her parents met me, they had to… they kind of like lashed at me… she said it was me who, you know, made her lesbian or, you know, start having sex with girls. They told me to stop talking to her and stop contacting her.”

The second relationship acted as a catalyst, setting in motion the traumatic series of events that eventually led Betty to the UK. An initially secretive liaison with a girl named Sharon, in Entebbe, where Betty was living, became slightly more open. “We’d go swimming at the beach, we’d hold hands, we’d kiss, we’d chill together. Of course people would look at us, and they would say cuss words at us. They’d say we were disgusting, why don’t we think of doing something else, apart from, you know, wasting time. We were scared, we were really scared.”

Underlying Betty’s history is a testimony to the power of supposition. In Uganda rumours of homosexuality, once started, follow their subject around. “There’s some horrible stuff. It just carries on and carries on and carries on.” Betty doesn’t know how her attackers heard about her girlfriend Sharon. “I don’t know how they knew her, but we used to go to the beach. It was the same beach, Anderita beach.” The attackers knew Betty by reputation, but she did not know them.

In the course of applying for asylum, Betty has been forced to relive the minute details of her assault again and again. We speak of it briefly. “After the rain had stopped, I just decided to take a walk down the beach. I’d been walking on my own, and in the opposite direction three men are coming towards me. One of them called me a ‘lesbian bitch’ and smacked me across my face. There was no one on the beach. Anyway they, hit me, they smacked me, they dragged me to the warehouse like up the hill. Two of them pinned me down. One held my hands and the other held my legs… and burned me, on my thigh, and then I passed out.”

It’s not difficult to read between the lines of the UKBA narrative. Unless an asylum claimant has perfect recall, something few possess, she is utterly discredited. The letters from previous girlfriends, letters from parents worried about their daughter’s ‘initiation’ into lesbianism, the outing in a homophobic national paper, the evidence that she has, indeed, been disowned by her family, are, according to the UKBA, scant support for a claim of legitimate asylum on grounds of sexuality. One case worker even disputed that her family would have disowned her, an assertion that displays a clear lack of cultural understanding. One can only wonder what enough evidence for a successful claim would look like.

In everything Betty and I discuss, I am aware of a brave, naive young woman who nevertheless knows that her human right to live an open, peaceful life is being denied. Her story, a story similar to that of many other homosexual and transgendered people from many other countries including Uganda, continues to be stifled, suppressed, and ignored. The oppression that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people around the world face is redoubled when the borders of ostensibly less prejudiced nations refuse to believe what they are saying.

This is what Betty is saying: “I look at a community like in Central London, I see so many of them. They walk in the street, they hold hands, they kiss at the bus stops. You know, its free, so it’s not hard for me to tell them I’m a lesbian. But in Uganda, I can’t say that. I really can’t. I just have to, I don’t even know how to. I just can’t. I just can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I don’t want to live, not being able to live as me. I don’t wanna be someone else just because of the situation around me. I just want to live truly, and just live like me. That’s really what I want.”

A petition has been set up to reverse Betty Tibakawa’s asylum decision.

The writer is part of Betty Tibakawa’s campaign team.

Ray Filar is a feminist writer and activist. She writes a blog called Political Correctness Gone Mad and tweets as @rayfilar.