Performing the “queer” asylum seeker: desire for sameness

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Following the 2015 “refugee crisis”, dominant political rhetoric in the European context has divided the asylum seeker into categories of “deserving” and “undeserving”. Striving to filter out who is “eligible” for protection, such exclusivist and static categorizations fail to align with real-life identifications and lived experiences of asylum seekers. In the process, managing and fragmenting bodies and identities has emerged as mainstream practice of the refugee regime in the Global North. So-called “genuine” refugee identity has been reconfigured, previously imagined as masculine, strong and heroic, towards a vulnerable, femininized, agency-less conception. Gender dimensions are thus central to constructing and reproducing “the refugee” and are moreover repeated throughout the asylum case assessment procedure. Gender in this context is imaged as fixed, essentialist concept, feeding on gender stereotyping and gender binary. Importantly, gender cannot be understood as “innate”, nor can it be meaningfully analyzed by relying on distorted categories. Instead, gender is a product of complex expressions and is repeatedly and continuously performed by the individual.

Nevertheless, refugee status is granted based on identity “qualifications”. These “qualifications” must be met in order to access international protection. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, refugee status is only awarded if evidence of well-grounded fear of persecution can be presented. In this way, LGBTQI+ individuals seeking asylum abroad are compelled to prove their persecution, generally by performing their “precarious queer positionality” as part of the LGBTQI+ community. In this way, sexual orientation is transformed into an object needs to be sold in a “believing” way to receive protection. As a result, the content, but more importantly the expression of “queerness” becomes fixed, unchangeable. Resisting or deviating from preconceived notions of “queerness” has real consequences, in a way that individuals are declared “non-genuine” asylum seekers and thus denied refugee status.

Ideally, one must perform the generic “gay” or “lesbian” refugee, since sexual orientations in-between, which are not located on either end of the spectrum, are interpreted as “ambiguous” and “not queer enough”. Ideas of the “genuine queer subject” carry negative implications for example for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers with children, since their sexual orientation is deemed too “heteronormative” and again, “not queer enough”. In short, queerness must be performed in a universally and culturally “understandable” way to receive refugee status in the receiving country. A single, fixed “queer experience” is imposed by caseworkers, coercing LGBTQI+ asylum seekers into producing, during their interview, a story, even tale of queerness.

With such tales of queerness follows the need to perform the vulnerable, stigmatized, shamed subject and the inferior “queer body”. At the same time, tales of queerness must be coherent and credible throughout the interview and the assessment as a whole. Differently put, whoever succeeds in performing the politically imagined “authentic queer subject” is awarded. However, one must be careful to not come across, based on such conceptions, as “queerer” or “less queer”. Such performances clearly collide with sexual and gender identities and expressions and may cause a sense of existential crisis, internal corruption, or even affect mental health in negative ways. LGBTQI+ seekers must be “easily recognizable” in their expression of queerness: multiple or complex identifications are excluded, dismissed and portrayed as “fake LGBTQI+” subject. In this process, different expressions of “queerness” compete against each other in the fight for refugee status.

Elaborate mechanisms to “screen” and “test” for queerness during the assessment are put in place to “sort out” non-queer and non-deserving refugees. Performing and mobilizing the “universal queer refugee” identity becomes compulsory in the quest for international protection. Anxiety about the possibility of deportation persists. Additionally, discourses of “queer liberation” as part of the “liberal West” who “protects” and “rescues” marginalized, weak LGBTQI+ “outcasts” circulate within international media. Here, the West acts as imaginary hero, providing a safe haven for victims of “oriental” and “backward” repressive regimes (especially in context of the Middle East). The “liberal West” emerges as savior of the artificially constructed “queer victim”.

by Kaja Simmen