Rochdale Fireground … Asylum Claims … First Lesbian Selfie

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Rochdale Fireground

Our visit this week was to the Rochdale Fireground, a museum located in the former Rochdale Fire Station. The Fireground preserves the history of fire, fire engineering and the fire and rescue services in the Greater Manchester region.

We learnt that the Great Fire of London made people think seriously about fire protection. It started in a bakery in Pudding Lane on 2 September 1666, and burned for four days destroying over 13,000 houses, 84 churches and most public buildings. Fire needs three things to sustain it – heat, fuel and oxygen. The Navy was called in to blow up houses that were in the path of the fire. This took away the source of fuel for the fire and so stopped it. Miraculously, only six people died. Two things happened as a result of the Great Fire of London: very primitive fire engines were built and the first organised fire brigades began to appear.

Insurance office fire fighters wore brightly coloured, though not very practical, uniforms to identify their company.
(left: The Atlas, centre: London Assurance, right: The Hand-in-Hand)

Fire fighters’ everyday uniform has changed several times in the last three hundred years but traditionally uniforms were worn to impress. They were designed to be smart and to look like military uniforms.

Over the years helmets have been made out of brass, steel, cork, leather, thermoplastic and composite materials. Tunics have been made from wool but now are made from Nomex which was first used for racing drivers in the Grand Prix. It is light and strong and easy to wear. Early fire fighters wore velvet breeches but again more practical Nomex overtrousers are now worn.

Women in the fire service

Women began to be part of the fire service during the Second World War. They played a vital role helping the fire service in communications, as dispatch riders and as drivers.

In the 1950s and 60s fire women used to work in the control room and they wore a uniform that was very similar to that of the men. The first female fire fighters joined the fire brigade in the 1980s, but the first women to join the Manchester Fire Service were not until the early 1990s. Absolutely no concessions were made to women in terms of uniform, as they wore exactly the same clothing as men.

Another good day out and more photos can be seen here.

How does the Home Office assess sexual identity in asylum claims?

People being persecuted on account of their sexual orientation can seek asylum in the UK, but face having to convince the Home Office that they are in fact lesbian, gay or bisexual. While asylum seekers are no longer quizzed about Oscar Wilde, more subtle forms of stereotyping persist. Decision-makers can demand of all LGBT+ asylum seekers a narrative that only some can provide: feelings of shame, stigma and difference, and a sort of emotional journey towards understanding their sexuality.

Different policies and procedures apply to claims based on gender identity, so trans and intersex claims are considered separately.

There were 1,012 asylum applications lodged in the UK in 2020, where sexual orientation formed part of the basis for the claim (LGB asylum applications), representing 3% of all asylum applications.

People claiming asylum based on their sexual orientation may form part of a “particular social group” which qualifies for protection under the Refugee Convention. 

In deciding whether to accept an asylum claim, part of the Home Office caseworker’s job is to assess the person’s overall credibility. This includes the often-difficult determination of whether the applicant is telling the truth about their sexual orientation.

Somebody’s sexual orientation is a highly personal and subjective matter, which manifests in many varied experiences. What criteria is used by the Home Office to assess it? 

“Stigmatisation, shame and secrecy”

Home Office guidance directs caseworkers to look for evidence that the person was made to feel “ashamed, humiliated or stigmatised” due to their sexual orientation. Examples can include being bullied by peers or teachers at school or harassed by members of their community. 

Caseworkers are also told to assess the applicant’s narrative to see whether it refers to “strong disapproval from external sources” indicating that the conduct is unacceptable, immoral, or sinful. 

They also look for the person having their belief that their sexual orientation is “wrong”. This can be problematic, especially with an applicant who has a strong sense that they are in fact doing nothing wrong. An applicant, for example, can repeatedly state that she was proud of her sexual identity as a lesbian woman and did not feel different; she just felt “herself”. 

An applicant will have two main opportunities to present evidence capable of demonstrating this: at their substantive asylum interview, and in supporting evidence such as a witness statement.

“Painful self-disclosure”

An asylum caseworker will also look for evidence of what the guidance calls “painful self-disclosure”, which means how the person has come to realise their sexual identity. Broadly speaking, the Home Office wants to see a “journey” to sexual awareness. 

Asylum refusal decisions have been known to state “you did not provide an overly emotional account of your sexuality”. There is often an expectation that someone’s journey will be an emotional and painful story to re-tell. But the nature of having experienced past persecution means that a person may not come across as “overly emotional”. And, of course, some genuine claimants will simply not be the kind of personality given to expressions of strong emotion.

An applicant was told repeatedly that her sexuality was wrong by her family. This meant she had spent years keeping her sexuality to herself. When questioned at interview she found it very difficult to talk with emotion about what she had experienced, as she had learned to repress her emotions as a safety mechanism. In this case, medical evidence of trauma was required to support the claim.

The guidance says that caseworkers should not stereotype behaviour and that the human dignity of the claimant is respected. But in asylum interviews clients have been asked repeatedly about when they first realised they were gay, or when they first were attracted to a member of the same sex. These questions place an undue burden on the applicant to examine and articulate their sexuality, an innate and often nebulous part of who they are.

The guidance does recognise someone may only realise their sexuality relatively late in life, and that this should not count against credibility. It also recognises that LGBT+ people may have opposite sex spouses or children, and that this should not count against them either. 

Country conditions

When it comes to the asylum interview, caseworkers are asked to explore with the applicant what social, legal, and cultural norms they are believed to be transgressing. For example, is homosexuality illegal in their home country, or considered sinful according to religious doctrine?

This is because the claim is not just assessed on the person’s local experiences, but on the wider context of the country. This can create problems if the applicant is from a sheltered or unrepresentative community – for example, a young woman living on a family compound may have little or no access to news about the situation for LGBT+ people elsewhere. 

Or, for example, Angola decriminalised same sex consensual relations in 2019, but many human rights organisations report that homophobia is still widespread.  Asylum cases should be decided on whether there is “reasonable degree of likelihood” that something is true. Claimants in sexual identity cases may feel that they are held to a higher standard when asked to “prove” their sexual orientation. Bearing in mind the framework used to decide such cases should help, although evidently it cannot neatly account for something as personal as sexual orientation in its every iteration.

These are believed to be the first ever lesbian self-portraits which were taken in 1910. Photo booths were how most of the earliest forms of LGBT visual documentation started. It was the only way they could capture a photo in total secrecy since there was no need for a third party taking the photo.

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