As gays and lesbians facing repression at home have come knocking on European doors, pleading for asylum, they have often been assured they will be safe -- if they stay home and stay in the closet.
In Hungary, a court weighing the case of a West African woman opined, “If she would not make her lesbianism public, she would not have to fear the consequences of her behavior,” according to a Dutch study of European asylum practices last year. Switzerland turned down an Iranian man, saying homosexuality was tolerated in Iran “when it is not publicly exposed in a way which could be offensive.”
The British Supreme Court made headlines by rejecting that idea two years ago, likening requiring gays and lesbians to hide their identities to sending Anne Frank back to her Amsterdam attic. The United Nations refugee agency flatly states that asylum seekers cannot be expected to change or hide their identity to avoid oppression, and that being forced to do so can itself be a form of persecution.
Yet the argument that gays and lesbians can simply be sent back to the closet has continued to hold sway in many parts of Europe, according to researchers who have tracked cases in France, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Denmark and elsewhere. In one recent case that sparked outrage in Germany, an Iranian woman was turned down for asylum and told she could live “unobtrusively” without any problem.
Her story became infamous in Germany after she pleaded with a Nuremberg feminist organization for help. Samira Ghorbani Danesh, 24, fled Iran nearly two years ago after dodging arrest at a Tehran party that was broken up by religious police who took her girlfriend away. Danesh hid elsewhere while police turned up at her home looking for her.
Iranian law says homosexual acts between women are to be punished with whippings and, after the fourth offense, death, though researchers and activists say it is unclear how often such executions are carried out. Terrified that police or her father would punish her for being a lesbian, the Iranian woman fled to Turkey and ultimately arrived in Germany, where she sought asylum.
Her attorney, Gisela Seidler, argued that Danesh faced arrest and torture in her home country. But German immigration officials said the young woman could simply hide the fact that she was a lesbian and live safely in Iran. Unhappy with the decision, Danesh spoke out about the case in German media, a decision that brought an outpouring of support from gay rights groups but also added to her fear of returning.
“Now she is in even more danger,” Seidler said earlier this year. “Her name is known all over the world.”