‘Prov­ing’ queer­ness

The Ob­sta­cles that Face LGBTQ+ Refugees

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Quinn lazenby Com­men­tary Writer

When LGBTQ+ refugees ar­rive on Cana­dian soil, they must prove what they have been try­ing to erase their en­tire lives. Their queer­ness.

Th­ese refugees are in­ter­ro­gated by refugee boards, which cross- ex­am­ine a claimant’s sex­ual his­tory, erotic texts mes­sages, in­ti­mate jour­nals, and other ar­ti­facts to au­then­ti­cate their sex­u­al­ity. For many refugees flee­ing ho­mo­pho­bic vi­o­lence, the bur­den of proof is crush­ing.

In­di­vid­u­als es­cap­ing the threat of in­car­cer­a­tion, tor­ture, or in ex­treme cases, ex­e­cu­tion, have most likely de­stroyed any ev­i­dence of their queer iden­tity in or­der to sur­vive. But to se­cure their sanc­tu­ary in Canada, they must pass a sort of queer lit­mus test to ver­ify that they are in­deed a “gen­uine gay.” All too of­ten, how­ever, mi­grant jus­tice is de­fined through het­ero­sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity through a white lens.

This leaves LGBTQ+ refugees at an abyss, as the si­mul­tane­ity of their op­pres­sions are un­rep­re­sented. If an im­mi­gra­tion board de­ter­mines that a refugee doesn’t fit the western mold of queer­ness, their ap­pli­ca­tion is of­ten dis­missed. In a case from the Bri­tish court, an Ira­nian gay man was ini­tially de­nied refugee sta­tus be­cause “he did not look like a ho­mo­sex­ual.” In this way, gay stereo­types in­flu­ence how im­mi­gra­tion courts view “au­then­tic sex­u­al­i­ties.” In a sim­i­larly dis­turb­ing case, a Ro­ma­nian man was sub­jected to anal ex­am­i­na­tions by Bri­tish im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers to “au­then­ti­cate his al­leged ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.” This in­va­sive pseudo-sci­en­tific method of screen­ing re­duces queer­ness to a sex­ual prac­tice, and not an iden­tity. More­over, the life-or-death ur­gency of a refugee’s case is un­der­mined if a court views ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a “vol­un­tary prac­tice,” and not an in­te­gral part of their iden­tity. One can’t help but won­der whether th­ese im­mi­gra­tion judges view their own het­ero­sex­u­al­ity as ‘vol­un­tary.’

Of course, if a refugee hails from one of the 73 coun­tries where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is still crim­i­nal­ized, they are all too fa­mil­iar with the lack of choice in be­ing gay. Still, im­mi­gra­tion courts have rec­om­mended that queer folks sim­ply re­strain from “flaunt[ing] their ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties” to avoid vi­o­lent per­se­cu­tion. The ar­gu­ment that queer peo­ple should self-cen­sor ul­ti­mately erases the value of pub­lic ex­pres­sion, and rel­e­gates queer bod­ies and voices to the dan­ger­ous iso­la­tion of in­vis­i­bil­ity. While it would be pre­pos­ter­ous for courts to sug­gest that po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious mi­nori­ties sim­ply cease prac­tic­ing their re­spec­tive be­liefs, per­va­sive myths around ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity al­low judges to sug­gest that one turn their ‘queer­ness off’ — or at the very least, con­ceal it. Per­haps a more eq­ui­table rul­ing would ad­vise th­ese judges to stop be­ing so damn straight!

In Canada’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, where there is a 70.5 per cent suc­cess rate for refugees seek­ing asy­lum based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, the is­sue is not bla­tant ho­mo­pho­bia, but rather a western fram­ing of queer­ness. Pro­fes­sor Shar­a­lyn Jor­dan, who ad­vo­cates for queer refugees at the Rain­bow Rail­road or­ga­ni­za­tion, con­tends, “it is not a case of board mem­bers be­ing overtly ho­mo­pho­bic or trans­pho­bic but […] of eth­no­cen­tric cri­te­ria be­ing ap­plied.” For in­stance, the life­style of a hi­jra per­son from South Asia might not per­fectly trans­late into a Cana­dian frame­work of be­ing queer (that is: they can’t be specif­i­cally cat­e­go­rized un­der L, G, B or T), and will sub­se­quently be dis­missed. Des­per­ate to se­cure their sanc­tu­ary in Canada, LGBTQ+ refugees may then feel pres­sured to con­form to western stan­dards of gay­ness.

In­deed, white gay norms in­flu­ence how im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers ad­ju­di­cate le­git­i­mate LGBTQ+ peo­ple. Refugees who do not fit western con­cep­tions of be­ing gay or trans may be con­sid­ered im­posters. In re­al­ity, only 2.2 per cent of queer refugee claimants have no cred­i­ble ba­sis. Crit­ics as­sert that “bo­gus refugees” will “act gay” if it pro­vides an easy route to cit­i­zen­ship with­out con­sid­er­ing that pre­tend­ing to be queer and fail­ing comes with the risk of hor­ren­dous marginal­iza­tion and vi­o­lence in one’s coun­try of ori­gin.

Fur­ther­more, refugee boards of­ten lack ba­sic dis­cre­tion, which makes the de­ci­sion to dis­close one’s queer­ness a pre­car­i­ous gam­ble. In a tragic case from the Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, a fam­ily of asy­lum ap­pli­cants learned of their brother’s clos­eted ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity after a refugee of­fi­cer non­cha­lantly di­vulged this pri­vate in­for­ma­tion. Sub­se­quently, rel­a­tives ha­rassed and com­pletely sev­ered ties with their queer fam­ily mem­ber. This meant that the very of­fi­cers who were re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing asy­lum for the fam­ily ended up en­dan­ger­ing the safety of the fam­ily’s most vul­ner­a­ble ap­pli­cant. If the pur­pose of refugee pro­grams is to pro­vide sanc­tu­ary for those who have en­dured unimag­in­able hor­rors, then we must re­struc­ture our sys­tems to avoid fur­ther trau­ma­tiz­ing th­ese al­ready op­pressed com­mu­ni­ties.

Iron­i­cally, ho­mo­pho­bia’s colo­nial his­tory is of­ten erased from de­bates con­cern­ing queer refugees. In re­al­ity, the vi­o­lence that many LGBTQ+ in­di­vid­u­als flee in the Global South is the legacy of anti-sodomy laws im­posed by Euro­pean colo­nial­ism. There is a risk in mythol­o­giz­ing the west as a pro­gres­sive haven for LGBTQ+ peo­ple: the colo­nial roots of ho­mo­pho­bia are ob­scured. For ex­am­ple, in much of pre-colo­nial South Asia, hi­jras were ac­tu­ally cul­tur­ally cel­e­brated. In­deed, the prob­lem­atic nar­ra­tive of white coun­tries eman­ci­pat­ing gen­der non-con­form­ing peo­ple of colour from their ‘bar­baric cul­tures’ only fur­ther en­trenches imperial power dy­nam­ics. While Cana­di­ans can cel­e­brate pro­grams such as the mis­sion to bring gay Syr­ian men to Canada, we must avoid a self­con­grat­u­la­tory de­pic­tion of the West. We must rec­og­nize that both the ho­mo­pho­bia from which th­ese refugees are flee­ing, and the con­cep­tions of queer­ness to which they must con­form, are prod­ucts of western dom­i­na­tion.

De­spite the sys­tem’s fail­ures, or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Rain­bow Rail­road have been suc­cess­ful in as­sist­ing LGBTQ+ refugees through­out their ar­du­ous screen­ing pro­cesses. In the spring of 2017, when the govern­ment of Chech­nya be­gan its anti-gay purge, the Rain­bow Rail­road part­nered with the Lib­eral govern­ment of Canada to pro­vide sanc­tu­ary to more than thirty queer refugees. The Cana­dian asy­lum op­er­a­tion, which breached in­ter­na­tional law and threat­ened Moscow- Ot­tawa re­la­tions, demon­strated Canada’s ca­pac­ity to be a global leader. Re­mark­ably, Justin Trudeau, (the ul­ti­mate saviour- daddy) who seizes ev­ery photo op­por­tu­nity to hug a refugee or snap a selfie at Pride, some­how avoided to­k­eniz­ing the Chechen mis­sion. Op­er­at­ing with dis­cre­tion and min­i­mal me­dia cov­er­age, real lives were saved. Th­ese per­se­cuted queer Chechens, some of whom had es­caped gay con­cen­tra­tion camps and electric­shock tor­ture, were given a sec­ond chance at a bet­ter life. Al­though it’s sim­ple to con­demn the western gate­keep­ing of queer refugees, propos­ing con­struc­tive so­lu­tions is far more de­mand­ing. A more eq­ui­table and in­ter­sec­tional method of screen­ing would rec­og­nize the cul­tural di­ver­sity of queer­ness and ul­ti­mately pri­or­i­tize the needs of asy­lum ap­pli­cants. In fact, rather than forc­ing refugees to tra­verse the bu­reau­cratic tightrope to­wards cit­i­zen­ship and prove their queer­ness based on western norms, per­haps the ta­bles should turn. Per­haps the time has come in­stead for im­mi­gra­tion boards to prove their straight­ness.

This in­va­sive pseu­do­sci­en­tific method of screen­ing re­duces queer­ness to a sex­ual prac­tice, and not an iden­tity. Des­per­ate to se­cure their sanc­tu­ary in Canada, LGBTQ+ refugees may then feel pres­sured to con­form to western stan­dards of gay­ness.

nelly wat | The Mcgill Daily

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