Clare Summerskill: Unearthing the voices of LGBT asylum seekers in Rights of Passage

Molly Moss 16 October 2017

Cambridge theatre is staging Rights of Passage from the 17th October in Corpus Playroom, a play uncovering the voices of LGBT asylum seekers with a script based solely on interviews. I listen to the author Clare Summerskill, also LGBT activist, comedian and PhD student researching the role of the contributor to verbatim theatre, as she inspires a room full of students at Sidney Sussex college with the story behind her play.

Based on interviews with LGBT asylum seekers in the UK, and also interviews with people who work in that area, Rights of Passage is “a powerful, direct, challenging and moving means” of sharing experiences and lives which have been ignored and overlooked for far too long.

Why are LGBT people seeking asylum in the UK? Homosexuality is still illegal in a shocking 76 countries around the world, and in 41 out of the 53 commonwealth countries. These statistics are beyond frightening. “We have an obligation”, Summerskill insists, to stick to the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and give people fleeing their countries in desperate fear of punishment, torture and death the rights they deserve.

But how can you ‘prove’ you are gay? Sexuality isn't something which can be shoved on a certificate, and is instead policed by the Home Office in what can be a cruel game. “The more I heard about the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers the more it seemed these practices seemed criminal and violent,” Summerskill adds. “LGBT people who had travelled to the UK were being violated, criminalised, subjected to personally explicit sexual procedures, and then sometimes deported.” The process can be a vicious cycle, with one traumatic blow followed by another.

When Summerskill began interviewing people, she wasn’t completely focused on what the final direction of the script would be. She gathered interviews from "people from African countries, Middle Eastern countries, as well as from Russia, Malaysia, Turkey, China and several others besides”. She adds, “I also interviewed people from the home office, from the asylum group, and LGBT and human rights lawyers.”

The play ended up focusing solely on three contributors: a lesbian from Uganda, a gay man from Malaysia, and a gay man from Iran. The first act of the play is staged in their home countries, detailing their traumatic experiences, while the second act follows their encounters with the asylum system in the UK. The trauma of asylum seekers is ongoing, Summerskill makes clear, and by the end of play only two out of three have successfully attained refugee status. The outcome of the third asylum seeker is left “theatrically in the air.”

But is it insensitive to reduce the tragic to an art form? Does this encourage passivity, distancing us from the reality of it? ‘Rights of Passage’ proves that this is certainly not the case. When working ethically and sensitively, as Summerskill has always endeavoured to do, blending art with real world suffering raises awareness and can bring about change.

Years of research have gone into Rights of Passage, during which Summerskill went on protests and demonstrations highlighting LGBT rights abuses, supporting individual asylum seekers faced with imminent deportation, and offering free writing workshops for LGBT asylum seekers. Becoming personally acquainted with LGBT asylum seekers meant that when the writing began, Summerskill was approached by many aslyum seekers who wanted their voices to be heard.

As the talk comes to an end, Summerskill talks about Miremba, a main contributor to the script. Some of Marimba's words in the play recall a visit to her brother in London, and her shock at seeing two women kissing publicly. She cannot believe that it is legal to be gay in the UK. In her country, Uganda, gay people are raped as a 'cure', or punished with a number of car tyres on top of them which are then set on fire. Such brutal torture and killing is advocated by the police, and even the community.

The voices of the contributors are heart-breaking, moving, and have been overlooked for too long. Summerskill is passionate that one day the world will have changed, and that asylum seekers will have the option to return to their home country. With artistic productions like Rights of Passage demanding awareness and unearthing such neglected voices, this is certainly something we can hope and fight for.