Sexuality, and Calais

For LGBTQ people in hostile contexts the options are twofold: disclosure, or, formulating a way to manage their identities to limit the exposure they face as individuals.

McLellan, I.M. (2017)

It does, almost, pop up every now and then in the field.

“You have a girlfriend?”

“Why not?”

“Are you married, then?”

“Why no girlfriend? You’re gorrrrrgeous?”

“You’re beautiful. I mean it, I look at your photos on Facebook.”

“Maybe you don’t like girls?”

Many of the young women and non-binary people on our team wear rings or just pretend that they are married, when asked. It saves hassle. We’re here to discuss information or give out food, not fend off marriage proposals from bored, frustrated young men. Regardless of gender, we all wear long trousers and cover our shoulders for professionalism, solidarity, modesty and respect.

With regards to sexuality; there’s not been an occasion  in the field yet where it would have been necessary to bring it up – not even out of protectionism, but it’s just not relevant while you’re serving rice or handing out clothes.  I don’t need to know the sexuality of servers in restaurants or shop assistants. But now, I work for an organisation which provides information and involves in-depth conversations with people in the field for upwards of 4 hours each day. It might be more likely to come up.

A muddy field in Calais isn’t necessarily the place for introducing people to gender and sexuality discussions.

But, if not now, when?

“It’s impossible to estimate how many gay, lesbian, or transgender people are among the refugee and migrant population in Europe, especially as many are still not ready to talk openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity. The lack of numbers means even Europe doesn’t know how many people they are failing to protect.” It was difficult enough constructing my identity and accepting my sexuality in a pretty liberal, stable, nurturing, theatrical environment in the UK, so I don’t expect my Afghan pals to be shouting about it just yet.

But now that my sexuality has nearly come up a couple of times in the field, am I prepared for if I am asked outright?

In an ideal world…well, in an ideal world I wouldn’t have to be in Calais at all, but that aside…in an ideal world, it’ll open up an interesting dialogue, and we’ll both learn something.

For example, in order to claim refugee status in the UK, a gay Afghan man would have to not only prove his sexuality, but it is not enough to even *just* be a gay man from a Taliban-held village. He would have to prove, down to the time and date (never mind the language barriers, that the year is 1396 right now in Afghanistan, the arduous and traumatic journey, the fact that he may never have opened up about his sexuality before), that Person A from the Taliban came to his house and personally threatened him and his family, and that this would also be the case if he should return to the country. There have been instances of individuals feeling that they have to share explicit material in order to prove themselves, which they absolutely do not have to. Useful information, and I’m sure someone needs it.

“In fact, the experience of homophobia as the primary discrimination one faces in life is usually the mark of an otherwise privileged existence. For the majority of the people of the world, oppression, to paraphrase Edward Said on culture, is contrapuntual. It moves, is multi-directional, it is adaptive, and it forms a terrain of interconnected injustices.”

There was a transgender person living in the Jungle at its peak, and people are aware of the LGBTQ+ community – whether individuals accept it or not is obviously a whole other ballgame. In the Moria camp on Lesvos, members of the gay and transgender community have been isolated and driven from their assigned tents by threats and abuse. People need support, and we can help, if we know who to help.

Worst case scenario, I guess: opening up personally could be seen so negatively that I reach an impasse with the person I’m trying to help, and my job is to build trust in order to provide information. With regards to the man who has come closest to asking me outright, I doubt it would get to that stage – he might have opinions on it that I don’t like, and that’s just life, and the very fact that it’s nearly come up twice now suggests an openness. But you can never be sure.

Ha. It occurs to me that I haven’t been this hesitant to mention being gay since Freshers Week 2011. Doesn’t help, no doubt, that I’ve lived in such a middle class utopia since that it’s just never been an issue – not that that’s a bad thing. None of this is about me though. I don’t think there’s an answer – like most things in Calais, finding a solution is like searching for a needle in a haystack only to later realise that the needle wasn’t even there in the first place.

It’s weighing up what I can do to help, most effectively and usefully, while balancing my own values. This isn’t an issue restricted to sexuality in Calais, or indeed elsewhere in even more hostile environments: if anybody wants to try to tackle “Gender, and Calais”, I’d love to read it.

My only other dealing with it thus far has been on the more negative end of the scale. Again Afghan, this man stands on a hill as the police clear their tents for the 4th day in a row, yelling in an impressively continuous dialogue for about half an hour. Nothing that helps his cause, though.


Tell that to his high school teacher.

I get a chance later to speak to him. Or, rather, he talks at me for a bit. He’s looking for Jesus, apparently. I tell him he’s probably not in the Jungle. He says something about just wanting safety here.

“Well, I can give you some information on claiming asylum in France, if you like.”

“No. Not France. All of France is gay. Too many gays.”

Right. I stand in the cold, muddy field, in scruffy double denim and a pink bobble hat, and brace myself. “Well, welcome to Europe.”

“No Europe. All over Europe, men are grabbing me here, grabbing me there. It’s a problem. Last night, there was a man standing over there. He offers us 200 euros for sex. He is disgusting. Gays are disgusting.”

No denying your first point, that’s fucking horrendous. Donate your 200 euros to charity and go have a wank you prick.

But, as to your second point…no, it’s not the time.

“No, France has too many gays. Girl gays are fine, but not boy gays. I will go to London. There are less gays there.”

Gurl, just you wait.


I’ve tried to address a couple of different issues here, from personal conversations in the field to what support we could offer in Calais to the wider context of LGBTQ+ refugees in Europe. I’ve possibly tried to explore too much in just 1000 words, but it’s really just a starting point for a complex issue which I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.


A stark reminder of why it can be so difficult to go beyond basic needs in Calais. Taken Tuesday 21st November 2017 at around 9am, a group of Afghan and Pakistani refugees, many of whom I’ve known for months now, look on in silent protest as the police destroy their belongings and tents for the 3rd day in a row.


Further reading:


The difficulties in identifying LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in Europe:


A photoseries of LGBTQ+ refugees from Iraq/Iran/Syria in Turkey (see also the photographer Bradley Secker’s website)


Looking at the problem of proving sexuality in asylum interviews in the Netherlands:


A Right to Remain article on Home Office asylum policy surrounding LGBTQ+ applications:


A 2015 article on homophobia and misogyny, and general lack of tact, by the Home Office:


It took until page 8 of Googling “sexuality and humanitarian work” to find it, but here’s an excellent masters thesis on the subject of “What are the systematic needs and experiences of LGBTQ humanitarian workers?” Would recommend the time taken to read through this.


Pinkwashing and Homonationalism, particularly in Israel and Palestine:


Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants solidarity group:


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