The queer community is passionate about LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers’ issues, but it can fail to integrate them culturally. During Pride month, I got an opportunity to know one brave-hearted person who came to Ireland to live with freedom but who is struggling to make connections.
His name is Leo Snygans, now 47 years-old, born and raised in a right-wing household in the heart of the apartheid regions of South Africa and now living in Galway.
In the Eastern Cape, homosexuality is taboo, and in South Africa, ‘corrective’ rape and abuse against LGBTQ+ people is widespread. Some African ethnic groups are not supportive of homosexuality, and culturally everything has been divided into black and white.
Leo has witnessed the white minority government running the country. His close family members were part of the AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement). In his words, “It’s like the Nazi Party - highly racist and homophobic. I was the only gay in the village and (although mixed race) one of few ‘white’ kids. I grew up as white, but I’m made of many ethnicities in my heart. Quite unfit for the cultural and racial norm, I was a young anti-apartheid and LGBTQ+ activist. They called me ‘Moffie’ -f ****t -a very evocative name for homosexuality. You are considered an abomination and unfit to live.
“At home, my family kept me separated at the back of the house, in the maid’s quarter. My gay cousin committed suicide. They put me in a government boarding school for kids with problems. My anxiety disorder is a result of that mental abuse.
“At 15, I left the house searching for a safe place to live. My stepfather’s sister was kind enough to offer me shelter, but she passed away, and in 1993 I ended up doing compulsory police service. I never liked that as one has to carry a pistol all the time.”
Like many other young LGBTQ+ people who face physical and mental abuse at home, Leo decided to leave at 18. He travelled to the Middle East, worked hard, and survived an abusive relationship searching for a place called home. And then he moved back to his hometown again.
“In my hometown, people are extremely racist and homophobic. I tried to move to Johannesburg, but it was the same situation. Sadly, South Africa has extreme reverse racism that exists where white is a minority. White plus gay is a toxic combination. So I left for Thailand with very little money; it was the only cheapest option. To survive, I taught English illegally, and I ended up living with a group of monks for almost four years.”
Over time, with empty pockets and stomach, Leo learned about a system called ‘asylum.’ One day, someone asked him why he had never applied for asylum for safety? He tried to get asylum in Thailand, but the political situation in the country wasn’t supportive. Eventually, a kind woman from the Red Cross helped him get air tickets.
Claiming asylum was not easy for him. “I left Thailand with very little money and an uncertain future. On arrival in Ireland, I was interviewed by immigration staff and Interpol.” The authorities told Leo that South Africa didn’t come under the United Nation’s list of unsafe countries. “In Ireland, refugee status profiling has been maintained to discourage people from claiming it. I’m mixed race, but I look white, and people are apprehensive about seeing me as a ‘white asylum seeker’. Anyone who faces sexual, political, or religious oppression should be able to apply for asylum. There is a system that decides if the country is safe or not. In reality, the political system of South Africa is deteriorating, and it is an unsafe space for the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities.”
Leo came to Ireland to seek protection as a sexual minority. But in reality, at the Direct Provision centre, he had to hide his sexuality. “You have to live with other people from different countries who don’t tolerate homosexuality. I lived in a three by three metre room at the centre with two homophobic men. I was bullied and terrorised daily. One night I woke up with a knife against my throat. After complaining, they moved me to Galway, where I shared a room with another homophobic roommate who said to me, ‘you will die here’. There wasn’t enough physical or emotional support.”
During the pandemic, Leo was dealing with lifethreatening circumstances. Last September, he had to go for emergency skin biopsies, including having a melanoma removed from his skin. “At the centre, I stuck up in my room with a vulnerable health condition. I peed in a bottle; I was too scared to use the bathrooms or have human contact.”
In February 2021, Leo got full refugee status but also became almost homeless by then. He tried to reach out to the local LGBTQ+ community in Galway during Pride month for help. People would often say, “even as an asylum seeker or refugee, you speak good English; why do you need help?” Lack of understanding certainly affects an immigrant’s mental health, but Leo is optimistic about the future.
“I am carrying an extreme anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress. Since childhood, I feel that something special within me keeps me going, but it’s a lonely journey. I miss having gay friends. I want to study journalism to be a voice of marginalised intersections. I’m a part of Is Rainbow Muid, We Are Rainbow- a monthly peer support group for LGBTQ+ people seeking international protection in Ireland.” He is also hosting a show on the community radio station, Flirt FM. Called Love Without Judgement, it airs on Fridays at 4pm.
Immigrant LGBTQ+ people’s lives are lonely. It is hard to make friends or social connections. Leo explains, “People won’t believe my story as I am from South Africa, but not Black. People often judge me by my immigration status. I want people to see me as a person without these tags.”
Leo continues, “I am not in Ireland to take anything from anyone; I want to breathe freely. Diversity is a strength in any culture. I thank the Irish government and Irish people, even though it has been an isolating journey, I hope better days will come.”