ReachOUT is a Leeds-based support and advocacy charity for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. As February saw the country celebrate LGBT History Month, we talked with Jess MacIntyre, who founded the group in 2012, about the work that ReachOUT does in Leeds.
What made you found ReachOUT Leeds?
I had worked in refugee services for about 5 years, with various charities including the Refugee Council and British Red Cross. As a caseworker in refugee services, including with the Refugee Council and British Red Cross, I became aware that several of my service users identified as LGBT but were living in silence – that is, there were not ‘out’ amongst their community in the UK and frequently only their lawyer and UKBA knew that the real reason they were here was because of persecution experienced as a result of being LGBT.
Not being able to find a support group that meet LGBT refugees needs, I decided to set up ReachOUT in August 2012 as a response.
Can you tell us a bit about the work of ReachOUT?
We now have a group of around 12 service users meeting every week or every two weeks, depending on what activity we can schedule and how many people can attend. And we are constantly expanding, receiving referrals from both LGBT and refugee services in Leeds. ReachOUT creates a safe space where people can be out, can express themselves freely, met people like them and build a sense of camaraderie around shared experience.
What have been the challenges?
It’s hard work! ReachOUT is a full-time job, but also a full-time passion. It is hard to get to know service users and become close through shared experiences, and then find out the next week that they have been deported.
The questioning that many of ReachOUT’s service users are faced with by the authorities is very often overtly focused on matters of a sexual nature, which is a total misunderstanding of what makes someone LGBT. It has become increasingly common for service users to feel pressured to come up with photographical or video evidence of engaging in sex acts, as they have been told they cannot ‘prove’ they are gay. Understandably, this is an almost impossible thing to prove, especially as witness testimony is often not available through previous partners, who may be too scared to speak up or may have suffered violence themselves.
But no matter what our service users are going through, ReachOUT creates a space where at least for a few hours they can let their guard down. At the end of every meeting people leave smiling with an affirmed sense of self. That is why ReachOUT exists.
What do you think of Leeds as a city?
Leeds is truly unique, and I believe it is the city’s dynamic that enables ReachOUT to be a success. Leeds has an incredible history of queer activism – from early HIV activists to demonstrations around Section 28 and right through to the present day. Especially through close links with MESMAC and the Leeds Mental Health Partnership, ReachOUT is privileged enough to work closely with these individuals and be part of our current culture of activism. However, it is Leeds’ unique sense of generosity that enables third sector organisations to truly make their mark in this city. Leeds has been able to become a City of Sanctuary through the hard work of these organisations, which ReachOUT is proud to be a part of.
What are your plans for this year?
Lots! We hope to be launching a video campaign later this year, and are working with the Mental Health Partnership and artists at Leeds University to showcase the diversity of LGBT experience at several events in the coming months. At the moment we are working on an orientation publication for new LGBT asylum seekers/refugees in the city, which will act as a directory for LGBT-sensitive essential services. And we will also be holding special events for both Refugee Week in June and Leeds Pride in August. Watch this space!Fisayo Akinade in the background!