Lessons on Queerness from Refugees

According to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is

A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country

Queer refugees are people who flee their countries of nationality based on a well-founded fear of being persecuted for their non-normative sexuality and gender identity.  I’m using ‘queer’ because it’s much less sterile than ‘non-normative’ and carries fewer of the kinds of burdens born by agglomerations of initials.

It took more than three decades following the adoption of the refugee convention for queer people fleeing persecution to begin to be granted refugee status.  Because neither sexual orientation nor gender were  included among the acceptable grounds for persecution, it was as members of a particular social group that queer refugees were shoehorned in.  This particular social group was most frequently labeled, of course, “homosexuals”, a term rooted in and never untethered from a pathologizing medical discourse.

Unlike refugees persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices or on the basis of their political opinions, queer refugees have often faced a “discretion requirement”.  That is to say, in many cases they’ve been told that, because it was possible for them to conceal their sexual orientation in order to prevent being persecuted, the burden was on them to do so and they were therefore denied the protections and rights associated with asylum.

Those most at risk for being told to go home and conceal their sexual orientation were refugees that, to Western adjudicators, seemed to be ‘naturally discreet’.  What this meant was in the Western eye of the beholder.  Adjudicators of asylum became adjudicators of correct expressions of sexual identity, deciding who was convincingly queer and who, same-sex attracted or not, could and should cover and thereby participate in their own persecution.

Understandably, these decision-making trends influence how asylum-seekers perform their sexual and gender identities.  Queer refugees are often to be pressured to be other than who they are.  Just as they are being judged on their worthiness to be granted asylum, the kind of sex they have, the kinds of places they socialize, the kind of music they listen to, and other supposed evidence is assessed for its homosexual verisimilitude.  Their very lives may hinge on this performance, on playing just the right kind of homosexual.

Whereas living under persecution or the threat of persecution for years, queer refugees may have finessed an ability to pass as straight, suddenly they are meant to call up expected measures of campness or butchness and tell believable narratives about queer sex and queer relationships that map to the individual adjudicator’s conception of homosexuality.  And, whether they’re granted or denied asylum, the expectations will yo-yo back.  If they’re returned to their countries of origin, they’ll be expect to repress their queer sexuality.  If they’re allowed to stay, all the expectations that face immigrants of all kinds will be waiting for them: demands that they will live out their queerness according to norms in the host country, however ill-fitting, but also demands along other axes of identity such as language, religion, and so forth.

I’ve been thinking lately about a couple of parallels between the queer refugee experience and the lives of queer people who live under the jurisdiction of US government and/or are impacted by American culture.  When NBA player Jason Collins came out, for example, there were countless ‘soft’ detractors with comments to the effect of “It’s not that I have a problem with gay people, I just don’t see why they need to advertise it” or “it’s what he does on the court that matters, not what he does in the bedroom”.  People who belong to this as-long-as-I-don’t-have-to-see-it camp are generously thought of as tolerant (one reason why that description is so problematic).  In line with the reasoning behind the discretion requirement, they just don’t see why queer people can’t just be queer quietly, but outwardly be just like ‘everybody else’.  Presumably, to this demographic, revealing that one is same-sex attracted is tantamount to talking about private sexual behavior.  Like fish unaware of the water they’re swimming in, they fail to recognize the pervasiveness of heterosexual norms and the ways they are constantly reinforcing and performing their own idealized heterosexuality outside of their own bedrooms.

Queer people are bombarded by the minute with reminders that they’re abnormal.  In blockbuster films, on major television networks, in print media, through advertising, in the questions asked by strangers and family members, in forms to be filled out, in behavioral questionnaires, in advice columns, in love songs, in mosques, synagogues, churches and temples, on bestseller lists, when prophylactics are marketed as contraceptives, when aunts inquire about love lives, in hospitals, at funerals, when talking about baby’s futures – in all of these contexts, queer people are reminded that heterosexuality is the baseline from which they are deviating.  If queerness is taken into consideration, it’s often comedic or strange or uncomfortable or secondary (think supporting queer characters in a movie about straight love).

When a man and a woman walk down the street holding hands, we think about romance or love or commitment.  When a woman and a man are in a park with children, we see a family.  When a boy asks a girl to a high school prom, we think of the awkwardness of adolescence.  When we see an elderly woman and an elderly man together on a porch swing, we think of lives well-lived and unbreakable bonds.  When see a man and a woman together at an altar, we think of marriage.  And on and on and on.  But when we see two women at the altar, two men holding hands in the street, two men in the park with children, when a girl asks a girl to a middle school dance, when two old men are together on a porch swing, it is ingrained in many of us to do a double take, to find a political statement, to perceive a disorder or a mistake.  But how these acts on the one hand be a part of life and on the other hand be shoving ‘what people do behind closed doors’ in the faces of the decent, sensible citizenry?

As in the case of refugees and other kinds of immigrants, there is a sense that one group is begrudgingly helping a disadvantaged group who must in recognition of the undeserved graciousness of their hosts be deferential and nonintrusive.

When refugees are granted asylum, the onerous expectation of assimilation looms before them.  There’s no consideration for the fact that, like many immigrants, most refugees are not thrilled to have been torn from their homes, from the parts of their culture that they identify with, from communities whose norms and customs they were used to navigating.  There are those who would demand that these refugees to abandon their native languages, aspects of their religious beliefs and practices, behaviors that just don’t quite fit with prevailing norms.  They are, after all, in the host country because of the gracious goodwill of the good normal folks who were living there first.

This brings me to my thoughts on the recent advances in marriage equality.  That rallying around a normifying institution like marriage has become the centerpiece in the fights for the acceptance of queer people is telling.  We see corporate sponsorship of pride parades, religious support for same-sex marriage, and media portrayals of wholesome and harmless lesbian and gay couples (most often white).  We have musicians like Macklemore singing about how queer love is the same as straight love (paired with wedding imagery) and we have celebrities galore expressing their support for the legal ability of queer people to marry.  DOMA being struck down seemed a lot like a major victory, but for what?

We have narratives of ideal refugees and immigrants.  From the earliest days of our international legal obligations to refugees we have figures like Einstein whom we hold up as a success of American benevolence to people fleeing persecution who then thrived and lived the American dream.  We have various groups of industrious immigrants whom we distinguish from those who are here to steal jobs and live on our oh-so-generous welfare system.  If you want to seek refugee in or immigrate to America, you must be a certain kind of person willing to jump through hoops.  Whatever your position on immigration, this is not supposed to be the case for refugees who, unless they are guilty of serious crimes, have an inalienable right under international law to seek and be granted asylum from persecution.  They need not be seeking the American dream or even desirous of learning English or becoming the next Einstein.  In reality, of course, our asylum system is more selective than that.

And so it is this conditional support that queer people are receiving today.  As long as you fit into this clean-cut, married, family-oriented, industrious prototype, we’ll overlook your negligible flaw, goes the narrative.  We’re generously allowing you to be almost like us by granting you access to an institution that we consider the cornerstone of society.  In return, you’ll just need to toe the line.  Come join our churches, put your considerable wealth into the wedding-industrial complex, start feeling a little more squeamish and ambivalent about sex, help us reinforce it as a taboo we wink and nod at, etc. etc. etc.

Let me be clear, in drawing parallels, I do not mean to equate the unimaginable hardship of the refugee experience (especially the queer refugee experience) with what most queer people in the West have to contend with, but I do think it’s instructive to see the consistency in some of the attitudes that are at play both in asylum courts and in society at large.

We have two types of tolerance here.  The first is intolerance masked as tolerance where a refugee is told by an asylum court that it’s fine that they’re a ‘homosexual’ but that they mustn’t act on it or manifest it in society in any way; and where a queer person in, say, the US, is told, “I don’t care if you’re gay, but I don’t want it shoved down my throat”.  In these cases, the tolerability of queerness is only in the abstract.  There’s no room for lived queerness.  The second type of tolerance is condition tolerance where a refugee, proving that s/he conforms to certain stereotypes that convince an adjudicator s/he is worthy of protection based on membership in the particular social group of homosexuals, is welcomed to remain safe from persecution if s/he makes a variety of sacrifices; and where a queer American would be embraced, loved, and respected if they simply mimic idealized heterosexuality as best they can.

What we need in actuality is to embody fully  the spirit of the Convention inasmuch as that entails the recognition of the right of queer people to be safe from harm and persecution, to be safe from living bare lives, to be safe from having to sacrifice themselves in the process of trying to save themselves.  Queer people must be accepted without conditions, something that entails both straight and queer people building a society together that does not marginalize queer relationships and queer identities.  Institutions, practices, and norms that reinforce straight hegemony must be question not only because of how they wound and restrict queer lives but because of how they wound and restrict all people.  And just as importantly, it needs to be recognized that this isn’t just about queerness, but more broadly about how we conceive of difference and how we create and recreate, enforce, and reinforced norms.  What are we policing and why?  What are we upholding?  What’s the value in it?  Why are we trying to exclude whom we do?


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