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Suella Braverman and her attack on LGBTQ+ refugees

by Reuben Bye (he/him)

28 Nov 2023

Image: Wikimedia Commons / David Woolfall

On a recent trip to America, the darling of the Tory right – and then home secretary – Suella Braverman, paid a visit to the American Enterprise Institute (a right-wing policy thinktank based in Washington DC) to give her view on global migration. She announced that being gay or a woman is not enough to qualify for asylum. She argued that allowing asylum cases based on homophobic or misogynistic persecution is “unsustainable”. Other voices (including from her own party) accused her of singling out vulnerable groups so that she could cultivate her image as a hardline migration sceptic. 

Suella Braverman is an infamous figure in the so called ‘culture wars’ and has gained a sizeable following for her unrestrained remarks, especially for her regular attacks on trans people. She first joined the cabinet in 2020 as attorney general, but she truly gained national prominence in the battle to succeed Boris Johnson. During the leadership contest she gained traction as a favoured candidate of the hard right and, although she was eliminated after the second ballot (out of 6), this support was enough to see her promoted to home secretary.  


Her career has been mired by rows, controversies, and scandals: as Attorney General she was criticised by members of the Bar Council (legal regulators) for her poor judgement; her first stint as home secretary was cut short after she broke the ministerial code - impressively lasting a day less than Liz Truss; she has expressed desire to leave the European Convention of Human Rights to more easily implement the Rwanda deportation scheme; she frequently derides ‘radical gender ideology’; she has been chastened by the Independent Press Standards Organisation for her racist characterisation of Pakistani men as predators; and most recently, she was sacked by Rishi Sunak for criticising the police for being too lenient towards pro-Palestinian protestors. But the controversy considered here is her claim that allowing refugees to claim asylum based on the reprisals they face for their sexuality is "unsustainable". 


The data speaks for itself when assessing the scale of the pressures faced by the home office. In 2022, 74,751 asylum claims were made. Of these, 1,334 involved sexual orientation as a component of each claim. This represents 1.78% of claims (a very small portion). It should also be noted that this does not say anything about the outcomes of the claims, or what influence this had on the claims, or what else made up each claim. But it does seem to rather comprehensively undermine her own claim.

Information about the nationality of claimants where sexuality made up part of the application is also available. The most common nationalities, by some margin, were Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Nigerian. This is important because being gay in any is highly illegal: simply being LGBTQ+ in all of these can result in a prison sentence for life, and even execution in northern Nigeria. People don’t only need to fear their governments since homophobic and transphobic violence from their fellow citizens is also very common.

It should be obvious why queer asylum seekers from extremely oppressive communities and countries may want to leave and attempt to build a new life for themselves somewhere where the state tolerates their existence. To quote Suella Braverman in her speech, “Let me be clear, there are vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay”. But following that inciteful statement by denying sanctuary to queer migrants fleeing persecution betrays her disingenuity. It implies that either she doesn’t understand the extent of the hardship and threat that comes with being LGBTQ+, or she does, and has concluded that it doesn’t matter. 


Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. So far, homophobic, transphobic, and racist rhetoric has been very successful in backing up her ‘tough on immigration’ and ‘culture war’ credentials which have catapulted her to prominence. It certainly can’t have been her ministerial accomplishments.  

At present, she is a big name with a strong following in a party in crisis. Sunak’s government has been trailing Labour in the polls for months now and Labour seems certain to triumph at the next election. Having lost donors and so much public support, a lost election would put Sunak’s leadership in contention and Braverman would be a prime candidate for succession. To that end, this abhorrent rhetoric is a means for her to appeal to the Tory membership that would be responsible for picking their next leader. She cares more about how her words are received than what she says, or what consequences they bring. In the speech in question, she called for wider review of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – the one that established the principle that those individuals at risk from violence or persecution in their home country should not be returned there - an idea dismissed by the UK branch of the UNHRC. International consensus building to the extent of worldwide treaty reform is difficult and takes decades, the idea that the woman known for her uncompromisingly harsh rhetoric toward immigrants and minorities is capable of leading this effort seems… optimistic – unless it’s all about the optics. 


This idea might sound a little conspiratorial, yet it is supported by a breakdown of party discipline. In the same speech in which she denigrated the struggles of gay asylum seekers, she also claimed that multiculturalism has failed in Britain. That drew fire from fellow members of the Conservative right and was even rebuked by Sunak himself at conference. But not doing the same for her attacks on LGBTQ+ people, suggests that any taboos around homophobia may be crumbling.  


David Cameron’s reinvention of the Conservative brand during his time as Prime Minister provided a space for queer people, at least compared to its successors. At Braverman’s conference speech a prominent gay Tory, Andrew Boff, a member of the London Assembly, was ejected from the conference after he was heard muttering that “there’s no such thing as gender ideology”. Braverman’s escalating rhetoric is inciting hatred toward queer people and dividing her party. Scapegoating vulnerable people may aid her leadership ambitions but a nastier, more toxic party will likely deprive her colleagues of socially liberal votes. 

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