It's Wednesday night, and in a flat on an estate in south London activists from a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants are running over some last-minute plans. In borrowed dinner jackets and dresses dusted off for court appearances and weddings, they’re plotting their way into an airline industry dinner at the four-star Park Plaza hotel in Victoria. Their intention is to embarrass an industry – particularly British Airways – complicit in the deportation of gay and transgender asylum seekers to countries where they could face imprisonment and much worse.
Gay asylum seekers are often deported to countries whose homophobic legislation has its origins in the colonial era. Of the 71 countries around the world in which same-sex relations are illegal, more than half were once part of the British Empire. Those that make the hard and heart-rending journey to the UK from former imperial outposts often set out expecting to find the version of Britain – and Europe, and the West – that has been sold to the outside world: prosperous, tolerant, a place where money can be made and security found. So often, what they find is the British reality as those in power deliver it: cold, intolerant of outsiders – particularly vulnerable ones – and prepared to use the resources of the state and large corporations to crush them.
Gay applicants for asylum are put under awful pressure by the Home Office to not only show that they will be at serious risk of physical violence if they return to their country of origin, but to also prove their sexuality, as official reports have noted. The Home Office has refused some claims on the basis that they don’t believe those making them are gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex or transgender.
Last summer, after years of providing seats on its commercial flights to detainees and security staff accompanying them, Virgin announced it would no longer carry out deportations for the Home Office. Like British Airways, Virgin sponsored official Pride events and makes a great show of being an ally of the LGBT+ community.
Morten Thaysen was part of starting Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants in the summer of 2015. "We are a group of LGBT+ people who were inspired by the solidarity shown by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in the 1980s, and deeply concerned about the brutal treatment of migrants in the UK and Europe," he tells me. Thaysen points out that British Airways – despite its professed support of the gay community – is "still entering into contractual agreements with the Home Office to voluntarily deport people in order to make profits".
The airline believes it is more complicated than that. A spokesperson for British Airways told me that the Immigration Act of 1971 made it a legal requirement "for all airlines to deport people when asked to so by the Home Office". The spokesperson said the airline was given no information about the person being deported – including their sexuality – and said that Virgin's policy would have to be the same as BA's. The spokesperson did not reply when I sent them a report detailing Virgin's announced change in position.
After one of the activists returns to the flat, having done some recon, the group heads to the hotel. There are two security guards standing at the top of a spiral staircase, which leads down to the room in which the dinner is being held, but in their dinner jackets and cocktail dresses – and, in some cases, wigs from a theatrical costumier – the activists look the part. The security guards smile and nod as they file in.
The room is full when they arrive, and organisers ask if anyone needs help finding their table. At a podium on a small stage, an airline industry executive is giving a speech in front of some hoardings advertising an air-to-ground system made by the French multinational company Thales. Some of the guests double take as they notice the late influx of attendees. The Airlines UK Annual Dinner is attended by 250 representatives across the sector, including British Airways CEO, Alex Cruz, and aviation minister, Baroness Liz Sugg.
The activists fan out and then one of them, a recently graduated drama student – and chosen for this job precisely for that reason – walks onto the stage, a vision of plausibility. He gracefully takes hold of the microphone and begins his speech with a "Ladies and Gentleman", making a joke about how "we in the airline industry are used to nausea" as the other activists move around the room handing out sick bags. As soon as he mentions deportations, the speaker mutters that this isn’t happening – it's not acceptable – and calls for security.
Chants rise up: no to deportations, no to turning airline cabin crew into border guards – a reference to Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan migrant who was restrained on a British Airways flight in 2010 and died following a cardiac arrest. Then a new shout: "Where is Alex Cruz?" The activists locate Cruz, a Spanish businessman and the CEO of British Airways, sitting at a table close to the podium. One of them brings a sick bag to his table. The women on either side of him look away. Cruz refuses to make eye contact with any of the activists. He can’t quite decide whether to look furious or dismissive.
Security is on its way. One of the dinner's organisers puts her hand over the lens of a camera filming proceedings, and the activists begin to leave the room – escorted from the premises by security and the event's organisers. It's pretty orderly, pretty peaceful. The industry speaker tries to save face. "Now, where were we?" she asks, to some nervous laughter. The dinner guests can go back to contemplating the three course menu.
The group reconvenes at the pub. They feel good. They’ve embarrassed Cruz and his associates, and they may have influenced some of the people in the room. They tell me a British Airways employee got in touch with them recently to say she'd brought up the issue of deportations, but that no one listened to her and she ended up quitting.
"We wanted to make sure [Cruz] received a sick bag, because every time he’s been questioned on deportations he's denied all responsibility for it and ignores his company’s complicity," one of the activists tells me.
"British Airways sponsors Brighton Pride and promotes itself as a supporter of LGBT+ people globally," says Thaysen, pointing to the hypocrisy of the company's "pink washing". "But at the same time they make profits from deporting people, including LGBT+ people, to countries where they might face danger."
Having run a successful tube campaign over Christmas and invaded the airline industry’s gala dinner, the group feel as though they can shift BA's position.