Un/convention(al) refugees: contextualizing the accounts of refugees facing homophobic or transphobic persecution.

Author:Jordan, Sharalyn R.


Propelled by fear of violence and flight from stigma, impelled by desire for connection and belonging, the movements of people whose sexualities or genders defy and offend norms cover a complex spatial, social, and psychological terrain. This paper presents partial findings of a critical qualitative inquiry conducted in partnership with Rainbow Refugee Committee, a community organization that supports and advocates with Queer, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans (LGBTQ) and HIV-positive refugee claimants/migrants. This inquiry into how queer refugees engage in settlement comprised participation in Rainbow Refugee Committee and narrative interviews with LGBTQ refugee claimants and refugees, as well as interviews with service providers, community organizers, and lawyers. This paper explores how pre-settlement experiences conditioned possibilities for safety and belonging through refugee protection. While seeking refugee protection, queer refugees are evaluated against expected narratives of refugee flight and of LGBT identity. This paper reflects on the unconventionality of queer refugees' accounts in relation to these expectations. Queer refugees settling in Canada recounted surviving persecution by dis/avowing their desires, distancing/taking on available identities, avoiding/seeking out others, and conforming/escaping. They pursued mixed, often precarious, migration trajectories constrained by tightening migration controls and the relative obscurity of refugee protection for sexual or gender-based persecution. In their hearings, they struggled with and against Western cultural narratives of sexual and gender identities, coming out, and gender dysphoria. Interview excerpts highlight relational agencies in claimants' engagements with the refugee system.


Propulses par la crainte de la violence et la fuite de la stigmatisation, pousses par le desir de connexion et dappartenance, les mouvements de personnes dont les sexualites ou les genres sont un defi ou une offense aux normes couvrent un terrain complexe spatial, social et psychologique. Cet article presente les resultats partiels d'une enquete critique qualitative menee en partenariat avec Rainbow Refugee Committee, un organisme communautaire qui soutient et defend les demandeurs d'asile/migrants lesbiennes, gays, bisexuels, transgenres, queer (LGBTQ) et seropositifs. Cette enquete sur la facon dont les refugies queer sengagent dans la migration comprend des entretiens du Rainbow Refugee Committee et des interviews narratifs de l'auteur avec des demandeurs d'asile et des refugies LGBTQ ainsi que des entrevues avec eles prestataires de services, organisateurs communautaires et avocats. L'auteure etudie comment les experiences pre-migratoires ont conditionne les possibilites en matiere de securite et dappartenance a travers la protection des refugies. En cherchant asile, les refugies queer sont evalues en fonction de recits attendus sur la fuite des refugies et l'identite LGBT. L'auteure offre une reflexion sur l'aspect non conventionnel des recits des refugies queer par rapport a ces attentes. Les refugies queer qui s'etablissent au Canada disent avoir survecu a la persecution en des/ avouant leurs desirs, en fuyant ou en revetant des identites disponibles, en evitant ou en recherchant autrui, et en se conformant / s'echappant. Ils ont poursuivi des trajectoires migratoires mixtes, souvent precaires, contraints par le renforcement des controles migratoires et l'obscurite relative de la protection des refugies de la persecution en raison de leur sexe ou de leur genre. Dans leurs auditions, ils se sont battus avec et contre les discours culturels occidentaux sur les identites sexuelles et de genre, le coming out et la dysphorie de genre. Des extraits d'entrevues mettent en evidence les intermediaires relationnels dans les engagements des demandeurs d'asile avec le systeme des refugies.


Currently no fewer than eighty countries criminalize same-sex sexual acts or gender deviant behaviour. (1) Among these, five maintain the death penalty for male homosexual acts and four for sexual acts between women. Public morality laws are used to penalize same-sex sexualities and gender variance. Laws prohibiting the "promotion of homosexuality" are used to inhibit political organizing. The existence of these laws creates a justification for violence and coercion against those whose appearance or behaviour transgresses sexual and gender norms. Protection from discrimination is not a right for queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBTQ) people in many parts of the world. (2) Without this protection, groups are limited in their ability to organize, and people whose behaviour or appearance defies normative genders or sexualities are vulnerable. Legal statutes tell only some of the stories of homophobic and transphobic persecution. Pervasive social intolerance, compounded by lack of state protection, can make schools, neighbourhoods, faith communities, and families sites of violent persecution. Homophobic and transphobic persecution impel some LGBTQ people to move, leaving their homes, communities, and countries in an effort to create safety and belonging in their lives.

This paper presents part of a larger research project that traces and explores the intertwined psychological, spatial, and social trajectories of LGBTQ refugees settling in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Refugees who have made claims based on sexual orientation or gender identity have lived in defiance of social erasure, stigma, and threatened or actual violence in their home countries. In migrating to Canada they have engaged with migration and border security systems that enable and restrict mobility based on the priorities of global capitalism and post-9/11 notions of security. Undertaking an asylum application entails accessing and working within a refugee system that was not designed with LGBTQ refugees in mind; requiring claimants to document an often hidden and stigmatized identity, and to disclose experiences, some traumatic, that are deeply private. In refugee hearings or interviews, applicants work with/against Western narratives of LGBT identities and coming out for recognition of their "membership in a particular social group," while their credibility is scrutinized. To settle, queer refugees negotiate belonging and exclusion within and across multiple communities: diasporic immigrant and co-national, LGBTQ, faith, and mainstream. In their defiance of oppressions, their engagement with the refugee system, and their quotidian work of settling, the efforts of LGBTQ refugees to build safety and belonging in their lives stretch the bounds of the possible.

Settlement is a long process, unfolding complexly over years. Possibilities for settling are shaped by experiences that precede and fall outside of "settlement" as defined by policy and practice. In this paper I draw on queer refugees' accounts of their experiences of their country-of-origin, migration, and the refugee application with a view to understanding how these shape and curtail possibilities for safety and belonging. Queer refugees' experiences living under persecution and during often complex, precarious migrations may work against their ability to be recognized as genuine refugees. The refugee system, implicitly and explicitly, evaluates applicants against expected trajectories of refugee flight and against Western narratives of LGBT identities, coming out, or gender identity dysphoria. Yet, for reasons and in ways explored in this paper, the migration trajectories and identity accounts of queer refugees may not meet these expectations. Having fled persecution, queer refugee claimants' potential for safety and belonging is constrained when they do not conform to conventions. By re-examining these assumptions in relation to knowledge constructed through refugee claimants' accounts, I aim to create alternative understandings of how the unconventional accounts of queer refugees make sense.

Mode of Inquiry

My research interest in queer migration has grown out of my volunteer work with two Vancouver-based community organizations that support and advocate with queer, lesbian, gay, bi, and trans migrants. I began volunteering with LEGIT: Canadian Immigration for Same-Sex Partners in 2000. In 1999 they supported my partner and me with an application for her permanent residency prior to the recognition of our relationship as family in Canada's immigration laws. LEGIT, along with EGALE and other legal advocates, played a central role in advocating for the recognition of same-sex partners in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act enacted in 2002. (3) By the mid-nineties LEGIT was fielding inquiries about asylum. To better address these issues, they formed Rainbow Refugee in 2000 to focus on advocacy and support for those facing persecution due to sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.

I began volunteering with Rainbow Refugee in 2004. During drop-in meetings members who have completed the application process share experiences and answer questions for those beginning or engaged in the application process. As a volunteer with Rainbow Refugee I have witnessed and supported LGBTQ refugees' engagements with the refugee system and their efforts to rebuild lives in their new locale. This research grew out of recognition of the critical potential of their accounts to speak to a challenge that we were encountering in our community work, and that is articulated by queer migration scholar Eithne Luibheid in Queer/Migration: An Unruly Body of Scholarship.

Most scholarship, policymaking, service provision, activism, and cultural work remain organized around the premise that migrants are heterosexuals (or on their way to becoming so) and queers are citizens (even though second-class ones). Where do queer migrants figure in these frameworks and activities? (4) Articulating a place for queer...

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