Aderonke Apata has been honoured with an Attitude Pride Award for her work with LGBT+ asylum seekers.
Aderonke has spent 13 years since arriving in the UK in legal limbo, trying to prove her sexuality to secure her safety.
She was born in Nigeria, which she still regards as her home despite harrowing experiences of growing up as a closeted gay woman in a country where same-sex activity is illegal. “Day-to-day life was hard,” she recalls. “You’d hear the preacher in church telling you that you were possessed by witchcraft, evil spirits; that you’d need to have an exorcism.”
After graduating university, Aderonke came under extreme pressure from her family and society to find a man and settle down. So, despite being in a long-term relationship with a woman, she married and had children. But she deliberately chose to marry a Muslim instead of a Christian. “I knew that [his family] would never accept a Christian unless I was ready to convert to Islam. I just wanted that marriage to run its course and break down so I could say, ‘Well I tried and it didn’t work’,” she explains. But things didn’t go as planned. Her husband’s family suspected her of having an affair and she was arrested.
Under Sharia law, she was sentenced to death by stoning. During the ordeal, her husband was murdered — “an honour killing” — and she lost her son and other family members. This is a subject she finds too distressing to relive.
Arriving in the UK, she expected to find refuge but her ordeal was far from over.
She was shipped around prisons and detention centres. The worst was Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford, which Aderonke refers to as a “concentration centre.” With a large population of deeply religious migrants, she was soon being persecuted because of her sexuality again, facing daily verbal abuse from fellow Nigerians.
Aderonke was eventualy able to move out of the centre, but she was asked to produce evidence of her homosexuality. Because she had been married to a man and had children, she was accused of adopting the mannerisms of a lesbian and lying to further her application. Desperate, she felt forced to make a sex tape with her partner at the time. “It’s dehumanising for me to even mention it. What you do in your room with your lover should not be shared with anybody. So, if you have to share that, it’s like pornography.”
But even that wasn’t enough to convince officials and her experience at the hands of the Home Office have led her to set up African Rainbow Family, a charity that seeks to help LGBT+ African people who arrive in the UK ill-equipped to deal with the system.
The organisation has helped a record number of persecuted LGBT+ people claim asylum. It is also seeking to offer a measure of reassurance for a system obsessed with false claims. “We have a very strict policy of getting to know people, in case they are trying to exploit the system,” says Aderonke. “Not that we’ve seen one, but to avoid that happening we won’t refer a person until after six months of knowing them.”
Read the rest of Aderonke’s story in the August issue of Attitude, out on July 20.