Senegalese student Tacko Mbengue faces deportation unless he can prove he is gay – raising questions about society’s attitude to homosexuality
‘Prove you’re gay or go home.’ It is the kind of stark ultimatum we might expect from a faraway backwater, rather than a challenge laid down by the UK government. Yet here in Britain, a London-based student has been told exactly that.
Next Tuesday, the latest in a string of hearings will decide the fate of 26-year-old Senegalese student Serigne ‘Tacko’ Mbengue, a man whose sole crime is his sexuality.
No less than 76 countries continue to prosecute people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, with punishments ranging from a short spell in prison to, in seven countries, death. Whilst our government is content with raking in billions through the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia – as our royal family frequently cavorts with theirs during state visits – homosexual Saudi citizens face execution back home.
Senegal imposes a comparatively liberal penalty of up to five years imprisonment. Legality aside, the near-constant persecution Tacko would be faced with on return to West Africa doesn’t bear thinking about. “Senegal is a very homophobic country,” Tacko lamented as he spoke to The Mancunion. “Of course there are some homophobic people in Britain, but it is safer here.”
When Tacko landed at Gatwick Airport over four years ago, it was not on a whim. This was not, as some of the shadier elements of the right-wing press would have you believe, a journey made in the name of aspiration or self-interest; it was the desperate act of a man whose primary instinct was survival.
His immediate family having been killed years previously, Tacko was taken into the care of his aunt, who promptly disowned him on discovering his sexuality. Unable and unwilling to hide who he was – “I was very young when I first realised I was gay,” he says – Tacko was tortured in his homeland.
Now the Home Office is asking for “credible evidence” of the abuse he suffered, as if the physical and emotional scars he wears to this day are not significant enough to merit his asylum. “When Tacko first arrived in this country he was escaping persecution, but he was basically taken into detention as soon as he arrived,” his friend Antonia Bright, a leading figure in the student campaign group Movement for Justice, explained.
The appeal process to allow him to remain in the UK drags on; the Home Office requires Tacko to prove that he is gay. If his lawyer fails to substantiate Tacko’s homosexuality, he will be unceremoniously dumped back into a culture which has no desire to accept or understand him.
“I won’t get on the plane alive. If they send me back I will die, because they will be up in arms if I go back as a gay person”, Tacko says without a trace of doubt in his voice. “I’m not going back to Senegal as a human, as someone who’s alive. If they send me back they send me back as a dead body.”
The Home Office told The Mancunion: “It would be inappropriate for us to comment as the case is ongoing. We don’t routinely comment on individual cases.” It is a statement Christine Burns MBE, an equality and diversity campaigner who has spent decades fighting for the rights of LGBT people, finds “bizarre.”
“Is gay only defined by the fact that you are currently having homosexual sex with somebody, or have had in the past, or plan to have? In which case, how do you prove that you’re heterosexual – how does the Home Secretary [Theresa May] prove that she’s heterosexual?”
Burns argues that the crux of the matter lies not in the issue of sexuality, but in the fundamental human response – or lack thereof – to Tacko’s plight in Senegal. “I think you can actually strip away the sexuality part of it, because the whole principle of asylum is that we are one of the few countries who provide a genuinely safe haven for people at risk of imprisonment, persecution or death in their own countries,” she maintains.
“And that [persecution] would probably be meted out without test – people in those countries will say, ‘you’re a homosexual, I’m going to hang you.’ So requiring a test in the UK is absurd, because the test that matters is the standard that would be applied in the country that you’re proposing to send somebody back to. It’s the reality of the persecution that is the important fact.”
Ms Bright shares these concerns, and has no intention of holding back when it comes to criticising the government’s stance. “How does someone prove that they’re gay? It doesn’t matter, because really the policy is to reduce immigration. Someone can be escaping violence and persecution, but the policy of getting rid of people is just so much more important to them.”
“I think the Home Office may be split in some way,” she suggests. “Tacko has been openly gay for two or three years now, and it’s even been reported in Senegal; so you would think that they ought to just grant asylum.”
“Our immigration laws don’t start with the human being – I think that the racism and anti-immigrant policies are overriding. The government is willing to send women who have been trafficked back into incredibly dangerous situations… they’re literally calculating ways to send these women back as soon as possible.”
Naturally, Tacko is concerned about the impending hearing. “I’m not feeling very well,” he tells me. “I’m not happy about what’s happening.” Yet his response to this unimaginably turbulent period has, by all accounts, been one of dignified resilience.
“When [Tacko] looks around at the movement that’s been growing up around his case – there are people who have never been political before who are coming out and campaigning on his behalf – then I know that he feels very encouraged and upbeat about that. But he’s not naïve about the struggle that he faces and the way the Home Office are, and regularly treat people,” Ms Bright accepts.
Just as Tacko has taken great strength from the support of those around him, it is clear that he has been an inspiration to countless people in the LGBT movement. A prolific NUS activist on LGBT issues, Tacko has worked tirelessly for the cause ever since he arrived in the UK.
“He has always been someone who wants to speak out and encourage people to be who they are,” says Ms Bright. “He’s someone who has come right out of his shell and spoken on lots of different campuses on LGBT rights and asylum issues, talking about who he is so that he can show other people what’s happening,”
She continues: “When you’re coming out of a culture where you really have been so in the closet, and there’s no expectation that it will be accepted… just in talking about himself, it has made other people feel more confident. He’s someone who the student movement and the LGBT movement can unite around.”
As we approach the end of LGBT History Month, there is some sense that we are in the midst of a defining period for the movement. A bill to introduce same-sex marriage sailed through the House of Commons despite a significant rebellion by Conservative MPs – a development which, on the face of it, suggests a fairer, better, more tolerant society than at any time in our history.
Yet the last week has seen this very paper expose vicious homophobia at the heart of our university campus. The incident, coming just days before Tacko Mbengue faces a hearing to decide his future, begs the question: is homophobia more prevalent in our society than we would care to admit?
Labour councillor Kevin Peel pointed to a generational gulf in attitudes to homosexuality. “A lot of older people do support LGBT issues, but the numbers are quite stark between those who are under fifty and over fifty,” he stated. However, he is concerned that ‘casual homophobia’ remains a problem amongst young people.
“Homophobia in schools is still a really serious problem that we still have to tackle. At every opportunity, when people say casually, ‘oh, that’s gay,’ we need to be challenging those attitudes. We need robust anti-bullying behaviour and we need to be making sure that schools are properly recording these incidents because at the moment they don’t.”
Thankfully, homophobia is met with disdain in today’s student community, but it wasn’t always thus. One of the leading transgender figures in the country, Christine Burns puts the prevailing attitude of students today into the context of her time at the University of Manchester in the 1970s.
“I clearly remember the consternation amongst students in those days when members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) proposed a stunt that there would be a day when wearing jeans to lectures was taken as an indication that you were gay,” she recalls.
“On my first night in my halls of residence in 1972, somebody stood up to warn students about Canal Street… basically telling them, ‘this is where the queers hang out.’ So it wasn’t a good place to be for gay students in the 1970s; forty years on, I think it’s transformed completely.”