Israel just denied a woman asylum because she wasn’t lesbian enough

Israel isn’t always the LGBT haven it claims to be.
Israel isn’t always the LGBT haven it claims to be.
Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
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When Mavis Amponsah, 41, entered Israel on a tourist visa in Dec. 2013, she immediately filed a request for asylum. The Ghanaian citizen claimed she had been in a relationship with another woman in Ghana for more than two decades, and that “her community objected to this and pressured her father, the tribe’s leader,” Haaretz reports.

Amponsah says she and her partner were assaulted on two occasions, and were repeatedly threatened by community members. She told Haaretz that, although her partner remains in Ghana, she cannot return “out of fear for her life.”

An advisory committee on refugees for the Israeli ministry of the interior didn’t buy her story, however, rejecting her application on Aug. 19. The committee ruled that Amponsah had “chosen to adopt a lesbian lifestyle,” citing evidence of a supposed previous relationship with a man and “contradictions” in her statements. The wording of the decision sets a potentially dangerous precedent for a country, Israel, that often bills itself as one of the few havens for LGBT life in the Middle East.

Committee chair Avi Himi noted that Amponsah hadn’t attempted to meet any women or “act on her alleged preference” since arriving in Israel, and that this is “contrary to what might be expected of someone fleeing persecution for a sexual preference,” according to Haaretz.

It’s difficult to know exactly how any individual identifies. But it is incredibly presumptuous of Avi Himi and his fellow committee members to summarily decide—based on a mixture of roughly delivered responses (Amponsah was interviewed in English, despite informing the committee she doesn’t speak it well) and the subjective biases of the interviewers—that Amponsah does not meet the “qualifications” of lesbianism.

“Why can’t it be a choice?” American actress Cynthia Nixon, who is married to a woman, told The New York Times in 2012. “Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.”

It’s outrageous to disqualify a candidate for asylum because she may or may not have been in a relationship with a man at some point. Given the insane amount of homophobic pressure levied against LGBT people the world over, is it really that inconceivable that a gay woman might attempt to conform to local sexual norms by repressing her sexual orientation, or even feigning heterosexuality? “The arguments appearing in the committee’s decision regarding sexual inclinations are baseless and outdated, and should no longer be used,” the Israeli LGBT Association told Haaretz. “A lesbian’s inclination can exist even if she doesn’t act on it by living with another woman, just as a heterosexual woman maintains her sexual identity when she lives alone, or when she chooses not to act on her romantic or physical attraction to men.”

Maybe Mavis Amponsah is a lesbian. Maybe she’s bisexual, or questioning, or simply a self-identified straight woman who happened to meet another woman she felt attracted to (emotionally, sexually, or some combination thereof—it happens). But regardless of whether Amponsah “chose to be gay” or was “born like this,” (which, again, no one can empirically know, other than Amponsah herself) the fact remains that she was alienated and assaulted for being in a same-sex relationship. And if Israel is truly the regional leader it claims to be in the fight for LGBT rights, that’s the only fact that should’ve mattered to the committee.