The spectre of colonialism for queer asylum seekers
Public and political advocacy for the ‘sexual refugee’ in western democracies has increased significantly in recent years despite the low numbers of asylum cases made (or granted) on grounds of sexual or gender identity. Here Calogero Giametta explores this recent history and warns against false dichotomies that pitch a liberal, sexually progressive global north against a regressive, homophobic south.
Over the past decade coverage of LGBT refugees living in the UK and across the European Union has continued to rise. Thanks to new EU legislation, growing mainstream media attention, and the growth of queer asylum support groups across Europe, the term ‘sexual refugees’ has now entered common parlance. More specifically, if we look at how immigration regimes function in Europe today, we can see the many ways in which the sexual refugee has become perhaps the most prominent avatar for refugees. This new figure has emerged despite the negligible numbers of asylum applications lodged by the queer migrant population within ‘refugee-receiving’ countries.
This was not the case when I began my research on gender and sexual minorities going through the asylum process in the UK between 2010 and 2013. At that time, very few asylum seekers were aware that applying for asylum on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation was a legitimate option. Despite the existence of some grassroots organisations supporting these asylum claimants since the mid-1990s, public and political familiarity with asylum for gender and sexual minorities is very recent. It was only in 2010 that the UK Supreme Court addressed for the first time the challenges of sexual orientation as a ground for asylum through the repeal of the discretion requirement. Before then, asylum decision makers could send queer claimants back to their home countries if it was shown that they could be ‘discreet’ about their sexuality or gender identity: essentially they were repatriated with the advice to act straight.
And it is even more recently that, within the system of international protection and immigration policies, the LGBT category has been assigned a ‘democratic’ value. French sociologist Eric Fassin argues that how we in the west deal with sex reveals our ultimate commitment to a democratic truth. This new form of democratic rationality is what Fassin calls sexual democracy. Sexual democracy requires acknowledging, tolerating, and accepting equal rights for gender and sexual minorities. Today these are the indicators of good sexual democratic citizenship. In this context, European discourses on sexuality under sexual democracy have shifted considerably, and sexuality as a right-claiming object has acquired an unprecedented salience in politics and policy making. Furthermore, Western political leaders and more recently even the World Bank – among other improbable actors – have picked up the critique of homophobia in the ‘developing’ parts of the world. We are now exposed to a multiplication of representations of gender and sexual others’ lives and an increased attention to our needs and rights; mainly through the language of human rights and humanitarian-inflected interventions.
But for queer refugees, whilst sexual and gender diversity continues to be flaunted as an essential feature of western democratic superiority, the asylum system still fails them on two counts. Firstly, even after the repeal of the discretion principle, queer asylum seekers continue to be rejected. British courts may no longer tell refugees to go back to their countries and ‘act straight’, but they can still – and they often do – reject someone’s asylum application because they do not deem the person to be a ‘genuine’ queer. Secondly, even when granting asylum, with the accompanying performance of good sexual democratic citizenship, the state continues to withhold the prospect of full citizenship through failing to recognize how this is continually corroded by both economic inequalities and socio-political circumstances.
Relegating homophobia exclusively to the non-west misrepresents both the west and the rest of the world. Consequently, in the case of sexuality- and gender-based asylum, it remains important to examine the historical links between the homophobia at work within what are cast as ‘refugee-sending’ countries and ‘refugee-receiving’ countries. Such dichotomies deny the histories of same-sex desire and practices in different historical times and geographical locations while whitewashing evidence of rising prejudices and injustice throughout the UK, EU and most northern hemisphere democracies. Homophobia and gender-based prejudice must be read historically through the lens of the colonial legacies that have marked international relations, so that the supposedly African or Sub-continental homophobic ‘cultures’ are not conceptualized as discretely sexually regressive. On the contrary, this perceived regressiveness needs to be interpreted as the fruit of intricate relations of power that transcend national boundaries. In the British asylum context I learnt that even the refugees I interviewed felt compelled to actively partake in what I saw as the culturisation of homophobia in relation to their countries of origin—those non-liberal states. Many respondents in my study would describe their experiences of homophobia or transphobia in their countries as an inherent ‘cultural problem’ of their countries, this would often be stressed by a resigned conviction that ‘nothing can done about it’.
History should help us complicate the notion of homophobia as generated in culture and as produced only within the boundaries of ‘a’ nation. It is important to think about the politics of encounter that operates within and beyond national borders, particularly in a world shaped by postcolonial relations. Scholars in different geopolitical contexts of the Global East and South have provided nuanced accounts of the politics of sexuality in the encounter between colonial rulers and local elites and how homophobia started to become institutionalized at that moment. And today it isn’t hard to detect the strong political power behind the discourses on sexuality that circulate at a global scale; some political discourses in the Global North strongly locate homophobia outside its geographical area, whilst other political discourses in the Global South and East entirely view homosexuality as a Western construct. This double move, of externalizing homophobia on one side and homosexuality on the other, shows that the culturalisation of homophobia and homosexuality has multiple roots and that it occurs far beyond the national level.
Calogero Giametta’s book, The Sexual Politics of Asylum, is published by Routledge (2017).