Commentary  Prove Your Queerness

The Obstacles that Face LGBTQ+ Refugees

Content warning: Homophobia, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, refugee discrimination

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.’

This invasive pseudo-scientific method of screening reduces queerness to a sexual practice, and not an identity.

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.

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 self-congratulatory 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 electric-shock 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.