Last Wednesday, on the 9th of January, a small group of supporters gathered outside Taylor House in central London to show support for Serigne Tacko Mbengue. ‘Tacko’, as he is called by his peers, is a 26-year-old student at Newham College who, for the last four and a half years, has been fighting to stay in the UK in order to avoid violence and persecution in his home country of Senegal.
According to Tacko’s lawyer, Hani Zubedei, there is documentary evidence affirming the marked danger Tacko faces in Senegal: his case includes ‘credible witnesses and a medical record that shows he was tortured’. Further, an incident which took place ‘shortly before Christmas’, in London, suggests that Tacko is indeed in need of protection as ‘a group of Senegalese men’ harassed and attacked the student.
I am not an employee of the UK Home Office, nor am I an immigrations expert. Nevertheless, the facts I have illuminated thus far seem to me to be more than sufficient for an effective case of asylum to be established. Of course, because it is the case that my opinion does not matter in Tacko’s fight, I must report that the UK Home Office disagrees entirely with my analysis of the situation.
What is it about Tacko that puts him at such risk in Senegal? And what it is that has given the UK Home Office such great reservations that even medical records indicating torture are not enough to inspire them to protect this man’s human rights? Serigne Tacko Mbengue is gay.
When Tacko Mbengue reached these shores in 2008—after years of personal tragedy and persecution in his home country—he was arrested at Gatwick airport and detained for two years; events for which Tacko was never given a full explanation. Upon his release, Tacko enrolled at Newham College and began actively campaigning with the National Union of Students as a member of the Black Students’ Campaign Committee and as a member of the LGBT Committee.
Despite his activism within LGBT communities, and the known threats for homosexuals in Senegal, the UK Home Office has nevertheless persisted in denying Tacko legal rights to stay and live in the UK because they ‘[doubt] him on credibility grounds’. They have even gone so far, in his most recent hearings, to demand that he prove he is gay.
The mind absolutely reels at the prospect of having to ‘prove’ something like sexuality, but I’ll come back to that. First, what I want to know is how an office as established, well-resourced and as globally-connected as the UK Home Office can be so shamefully and willfully blind to the violence surrounding homosexuality in Senegal.
According to The Huffington Post (yes, even HuffPo got the picture on this one), in Senegal, ‘homosexual acts are illegal and carry a punishment of up to five years in jail. There is also no legal protection for those who are discriminated against due to their sexual orientation’. In The Guardian, Tacko described the dangers inherent in his potential deportation: ‘I’m a very outspoken gay man. I’m not going back to Senegal. If I do, I will be a dead body’.
How is that not reason enough to grant this man asylum? Even if the UK Home Office doesn’t believe that Tacko is actually gay, he has openly proclaimed himself as such and would surely suffer the repercussions. In fact, he already has! Apparently, Tacko’s own proclamations about his sexual orientation were more than enough ‘proof’ for a group of Senegalese men in London who brutally attacked the campaigner. As volunteer Antonia Bright demanded, ‘If he can be attacked in Britain, then how can he be safe in Senegal’? Surely it is entirely irrelevant whether Tacko is ‘legitimately’ gay!
And speaking of which, what the hell does it mean to ‘prove’ one is gay, anyway? Fellow members of the NUS shared their outrage at the demands of the Home Office by tweeting questions like, ‘How does one “prove” their sexuality during an assylum hearing?’ [sic]. Aaron Kiely, black students' officer at the NUS, tweeted, ‘I don't even want to try and fathom what they would class as evidence..!’.
Indeed, one wonders what counts as ‘proof’ in the eyes of the Home Office. Is there a legal document outlining what specifically counts as legitimate evidence of homosexuality? Raunchy pictures are a grey area, but fellatio in the courtroom is a gold standard. WTH.
Aside from the sheer insanity of these demands, the UK Home Office has also revealed deeply embedded, systematic bigotry by asking Tacko for proof of his sexual orientation. In asking for one man to ‘prove’ he is gay, the Home Office has implied that ‘gay’ is visible, definable, recognizable, singular. They are relying on assumptions that they, as ‘normative, heterosexuals’, will be able to ‘diagnose’ the presence of homosexuality in Tacko Mbengue because ‘to be gay’ is a static condition which manifests in limp wrists and swaying hips.
Human sexuality is terrifically complex, spectral, polysemous, dynamic and contingent. And the ways in which people identify themselves—as Gay, Straight, Lesbian, Asexual—cannot be entirely deconstructed nor ‘evaluated’ by singular actions, sexual or otherwise.
The (willful) ignorance of the UK Home Office regarding this case matters not only because it reveals the ways in which British governmental institutions still define ‘normal’ or ‘credible’ as heterosexual (and white), but also because these kinds of dangerously embedded assumptions may be costing people their lives.
To show support for Tacko Mbengue, you can tweet a message using the hashtag #TackoMustStay. His next hearing is set for 5 March.