IN THE LATEST episode of a podcast ‘for migrants by migrants’, two people with experience of seeking asylum share their stories, one who won leave to remain in the UK with support from an Open Table community, and another who is afraid to get support from an LGBT-affirming Christian community because she fears that the Black African church she attends will no longer support her.
Now in its third season, the current episode of The Mic Drop podcast features an interview between me, in my role as Coordinator of the Open Table Network (OTN) and Sam, a gay man from Malaysia who won the right to remain in the UK following a challenging appeal against the rejection of his asylum claim in 2019.
The Mic Drop podcast is a collaboration between members of Many Hands One Heart, Liverpool’s Asylum and Refugee LGBT Support Network, British Ghanaian award-winning artist Larry Achiampong, and Merseyside collaborative and social arts agency Heart of Glass.
Host Britney, a trans woman and former trainee priest from El Salvador, also speaks with Manono, a lesbian from Malawi, who has been seeking asylum for 18 years. Together, the panel discuss their experiences within the Christian faith and how this intersects with their sexuality, sharing stories of how religion has been used to exclude people as well as how faith has been an important route to finding community.
Sam from Malaysia shares how he came to discover the first Open Table community in Liverpool when he was sent to live in Home Office accommodation on the same street as the church where Open Table began. He began attending Sunday morning services at St Bride’s Liverpool in Spring 2017, before the Home Office moved him to the suburb of Kirkby. He continued to attend St Bride’s regularly despite limited funds to travel the eighteen-mile round trip from Kirkby to Liverpool city centre and back on less than £5 a day.
As English is not Sam’s first language, he did not immediately understand that St Bride’s offers a safe, affirming space for LGBT+ people known as Open Table. As Sam is of Chinese heritage, he was reluctant to ask for help at first, which is typical for his cultural background, until he met a woman also of Chinese heritage who encouraged him to ask for the help he needed. He began to get more involved in the church and in the community, and volunteered at the Pride festival in Liverpool in July 2017, where he saw that St Bride’s had a community stall there, and started attending Open Table meetings soon afterwards. While he was helping to steward the Liverpool Pride march, several photos were taken of Sam walking in front of the St Bride’s / Open Table group, such as this one on the right:
Another photo like this was published on the back cover of a book called God Loves Gays by Ken Harrow (published in November 2017), who has written of his experience of reconciling his Christian faith with his love for his two sons who are gay, and how he accompanied them to Pride In Liverpool in July 2017 and saw the St Bride’s / Open Table group marching. The author kindly provided a copy of this book to support Sam in his appeal for asylum.
Sam became an active and valued member of the community, attending both morning and evening services on Sundays when his health and finances allowed. At Pride in Liverpool in 2018, he walked with the Christians At Pride group alongside the Church of England Bishop of Liverpool. A number of photos of Sam at the event were published online, including the one below from the Liverpool Echo website.
If these images had been seen by those who know Sam in Malaysia, they would have increased his risk of harm if he were compelled to return. In Malaysia, sexual acts between people of the same gender are illegal, under a remaining British colonial law, with a penalty of up to 20 years of imprisonment and whipping. The consequences for Sam if he were to return to Malaysia were extremely serious, so much so that he has expressed the desire that he would ‘rather kill himself than go back’.
Sam’s appeal was rejected at first because the judge said he ‘cannot be gay as he does not have a partner’. Sam was then 67 years old, in poor physical health with limited English and income – a difficult situation for anyone to enter a relationship, and an insufficient test of the validity of his sexual orientation.
Sam feared for his life if his case was dismissed – he has endured many years of living in secrecy and fear in a culture where asking for support and sharing intimate details of his sexual life was not only taboo, but dangerous. Sam went on to share his story with the Open Table communities in Liverpool and Manchester, and was interviewed by national media during his appeal and when he won the right to remain in the UK in 2019.
Meanwhile, Manono from Malawi told The Mic Drop podcast host Britney about her ‘special relationship with God’ and how faith has influenced her life. Her experience contrasts with Sam’s because she came from a very Christian family and country where talking about being LGBT was ‘an abomination’. In Malawi, same-gender sexual activity is prohibited by a law inherited from British colonial rule, with a maximum penalty of fourteen years’ imprisonment with corporal punishment.
Since coming to the UK she has become more open about her sexuality but has kept it separate from her faith. She has been attending Black African churches and getting some support. Although she has also been to the Open Table community in Liverpool, but does not go often because:
‘it’s because my own people, if they come to find out that, “oh, she’s a lesbian, oh, have you seen how she goes to LGBT church?” If I want help from these people, they will not help me.’
When I asked Manono what advice she would give to church volunteers to want to support people seeking refuge and asylum, she said the most important this is to believe them:
‘there is a lot of people out there who are like me. Some they’re still in closet, some they’re scared to come out… the country that I was thinking that they can help me the way I am, now they saying that they don’t believe me. And who can I go and tell my story to? Do you think if I go and tell my story to people, they are ever going to believe me? Or are they going to understand me very well, like where I am right now, if people that I believed, they’re not giving me freedom?’
The presenter Britney sums up the contrast between Sam’s story of a community of support in Open Table, and Manono’s story of being unable to attend an Open Table community because
‘you feel sometimes you are scared to feel rejected by your own people.’