Brexit, LGBT rights and the spectre of the intolerant immigrant:

How does sexuality shape Brexit identities?

Migration was a topic that dominated the 2016 Brexit referendum of 2016. One post-referendum survey found that 73% of those who identified immigration as a source of worry voted for Britain to leave the European Union (Bulman, 2017). Indeed, a large number of Remain supporters have also expressed hostility to the idea of freedom of movement, with one survey finding that 48% of Remainers were in favour of having E.U. citizens apply to live in the UK under stricter rules that were in place during Britain’s E.U. membership (Zorzut, 2020). Similarly, during the campaign itself, 56% of respondents to a YouGov survey felt that “immigration and asylum” was identified as the biggest “issue” facing the country (Adam and Booth, 2018). The conflation of immigration and asylum in this survey is typical of the confused (mis)understandings of migration among Britons today, with the BBC even devoting a webpage to explain to the British public the differing meanings of terms like “immigrant”, “emigrant”, “asylum seeker” and “refugee” (Kelsey, 2019). This confusion is perhaps wilful, something to be strategically exploited by certain political actors. Nigel Farage, the prominent anti-EU campaigner and former UKIP leader, has popularised hostility to the European Union by associating it with the 2015-6 increase in refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. During the campaign, Farage unveiled the now infamous “Breaking Point” billboard, depicting a long line of mostly Middle Eastern and North African men trying to enter the European Union. In response to this, some liberal Remainers sought to counter this by distancing E.U. economic migration from non-Europeans seeking sanctuary.

The emergence of “migration” as a salient political “issue” is something that has been articulated through interlocking discourses of race, gender and sexuality. Rather than treat these as something separate and distinct from one another, Brexit provides a good case study for highlighting the way that attitudes towards migration and asylum are consolidated by different normative and non-normative sexualities. These are intertwined firmly with ideas around race and nationhood. This makes Brexit ripe for a queer analysis. Since its emergence as an academic discipline in the 1990s, queer theory has concerned itself with the study of what Eve Sedgewick identified as the “refusal to signify monolithically” (Sedgewick, 1993). Rather than having rigid categories of being either this or that - man/woman, gay/straight, trans/cis, domestic/international, migrant/citizen - queer theory pays attention to the way that these binaries are both rarefied and disrupted. Identities are not to be treated as stable, frozen and apriori entities, but are constantly being shaped and reshaped by the forces of politics and history.

When it comes to Brexit and migration, we can see that there is evidence of unstable and mercurial identity formation. There is also a complicated and seemingly contradictory picture emerging. Both of these lend itself to a queer analysis. Leave and Remain identities have been shaped by understandings of both normative and non-normative sexualities. While some LGBT Britons and E.U. citizens residing in the UK have been rendered increasingly precarious by the Brexit vote, with a surge in LGBT hate crimes in the months and years following the referendum, other LGBT Britons have found themselves folded into Brexit’s right-wing nationalist agenda. This is in keeping with what Jasbir Puar has defined as homonationalism - the growing embrace and inclusion of some previously marginalised and queered people into the national body politic (Puar, 2007). It might seem odd and contradictory for LGBT-identifying individuals to subscribe to the Brexit project. After all, surveys have found that large numbers of Leavers are against same-sex marriage and LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education being taught in schools. However, when examining the LGBT Leaver worldview more closely, it is clear that migration plays a central role in bringing them into coalition with other Brexit supporters. To take one example, Darren Grimes, a prominent gay Brexit-supporter has argued that “it’s a complete myth that any of these LGBT rights have come from the European Union, where many countries constitutionally ban same-sex marriage, enforce sterilisation for those who wish to change gender and ban LGBT people from serving in the military” (Grimes, 2018). Similarly, Boris Johnson sought to burnish his Liberal credentials, and attempt to mobilise LGBT voters, by presenting Brexit as an opportunity to protect LGBT Britons from bigoted Central and Eastern European immigrants. He did this by arguing that the European Union is an institution that had failed to protect LGBT rights, which are increasingly “under threat'' in “Poland, in Hungary, in Romania and in other parts of the E.U. where rights aren’t protected in the way they are in our country” (Pinknews, 2016). In addition to this, UKIP launched its 2017 election campaign manifesto with the promise to introduce “LGBT rights tests” for immigrants. Their leader at the time, Paul Nuttal, argued that “UKIP’s points-based immigration system will include one further major principle: we will test the social attitudes of migration applicants to foster community cohesion and protect core British values” (Duffy, 2017).

The 2016 Brexit campaign was fought in the shadow of the 2015-6 refugee crisis, when large numbers of mostly Middle Eastern and North African refugees and immigrants sought to find greater safety and stability in Europe. Images of large numbers of people arriving by boat across the Mediterranean or traversing the terrains of South Eastern Europe dominated the headlines and galvanised anti-immigration sentiment in the UK. This anti-immigration sentiment played out in the realm of the sexual. The Muslim male migrant in particular features heavily in anti-immigration discourse. Depicted as hyper-masculine, testosterone-fuelled and sexually aggressive, the Muslim male migrant is a figure that signifies queerly. By this, I mean that it is a discursive representation that is presented as having a sexuality which is depicted as threatening and dangerous to the British national body politic. This was typified by the Leave campaign’s now notorious “Breaking Point” billboard. Unveiled during the referendum campaign, the billboard depicted a large group of mostly Middle Eastern and North African men trying to enter E.U. territory in the summer of 2015. The image was accompanied by a caption titled “breaking point: the EU has failed us all” (Looney, 2017). The danger and disorder that the Muslim migrant male has come to signify stands in contrast to the way that some LGBT Britons have been folded into the national body politic. Indeed, the demonisation of the former has been justified in the name of protecting the latter. is one pro-Brexit campaigning group that sought to capitalise on the June 2016 Pulse massacre - a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida which was at the time attributed to ISIS - by warning that the UK public needs to “act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity here before too long” and that “Islamist extremism is a real threat to our way of life”. This equated European freedom of movement with ISIS-style terrorism and evoked the protection of LGBT people as justification for a stringer border regime that could only be delivered if Britain exited the EU. This is a representation that is very much racialised, tapping into colonial-era Orientalist discourses. For instance, British colonialists in Egypt sought to ban the Islamic veil because it would “liberate” Egyptian women from “backwards” and “oppressive” Muslim men (Ahmed, 2011). Today this idea of “white men saving brown women from brown men” has been accompanied by what Rahul Rao has identified as “white gays saving brown gays from brown men” (Spivak, 1985; Rao, 2012). Nevertheless, when it comes to the authoritarian populism that has propelled Brexit it is arguable that there is little actual concern for the brown woman or brown queer. Instead, the emphasis is placed on enacting stricter border restrictions to protect white British women and LGBT people from a perceived hostile and invasive racialised other.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to over-determine the extent to which Brexit supporters are willing to use LGBT rights to justify their anti-migration stances. In keeping with the “refusal to signify monolithically” that is so central to queer analysis, Brexit has (re)produced understandings of “LGBT” as both normal and deviant. Even though some Brexit supporters use homonationalist rhetoric to justify Brexit as a supposed boon for LGBT rights, other Leavers see Brexit as an opportunity to advance a more socially conservative agenda. This often intersects with anti-migration sentiment. To take one example, Nigel Farage used the 2015 general election party leaders’ debate to rail against the scourge of so-called “health tourism”. He did this by picking the example of those who are HIV positive. Farage declared that:

You can come to Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retroviral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient. I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world, but what we need to do is put the National Health Service there for British people and families who in many cases have paid into this system for decades”. 

This was a telling example for Farage to pick, not least because HIV+ health tourism was barely something that had been discussed by even the most right-wing of British media outlets. Raising the spectre of HIV/AIDS specifically was a way of associating migration with contagious sexual health diseases. It presents migration not only as a financial drain on the health service, but as a danger to the health of the national body politic. It is thus rendered queer and deviant, a sexuality that is marked as foreign and needs to be kept at bay beyond Britain’s borders.

On the Remain side, Brexit is something akin to a cataclysm, provoking loss, grief, anger and despair. Keen to depict themselves as good liberal LGBT-allies, Remainers have been quick to highlight the ways that Brexit imperils British and European LGBT communities. The E.U.’s freedom of movement is portrayed as something that has brought about emancipation and self-actualisation for those who identify as LGBT, giving them opportunities to explore their sexual and gender identities across borders in the nightclubs and resorts of Europe’s cities and beaches. This is typified by Oliver Lewis, who has argued that "LGBT groups in central and Eastern Europe really want Britain to remain in EU because of the soft influence that UK politicians and civil servants have in the policy table in the EU and in bilateral meetings people have in Brussels." This makes a similar move to the LGBT Leaver argument, in that it raises the spectre of Eastern and Central Europe as a zone of homophobia and bigotry. However, instead of using this to justify a pro-Brexit stance, Lewis believes this is why Britain should remain in the EU. As a bastion of sexual liberalism, the UK is in a position to be a leader in promoting LGBT rights in Europe and beyond, liberating imperilled queers in countries less “advanced” than the UK. Leaving the EU thus diminishes Britain’s savour role. Even though the political agenda is different here, the narrative of Britain’s liberal sexual exceptionalism is maintained.

It’s arguable that these attempts to present Britain as a bastion of LGBT rights are clouded by a narrative of white innocence. The idea of white innocence refers to the denial of racism in presenting a country as “one of the good guys” in global politics (Wekker, 2016). While elements of both the Leave and Remain campaigns have sought to cast Britain as exceptionally good when it comes to defending LGBT rights, it’s worth asking whose LGBT rights are being defended exactly? The British Home Office has been criticised for its ‘culture of disbelief’ when it comes to LGBT+ asylum claims, rejecting over 3000 claims from LGBT nationals from countries where same-sex acts are criminalised (Grierson, 2019). The European Union, meanwhile, operates its own harsh mechanisms of racialised exclusion. Less than 15% of asylum cases are successfully granted refugee status to an E.U. territory. To compound this, most E.U. member countries refuse to consider asylum cases lodged abroad meaning perilous journeys have to be made over land and across the Mediterranean. The latter increasingly resembles a “macabre deathscape”, with nearly 20,000 deaths recorded between 2014 and 2019 (De Genova, 2016; InfoMigrants, 2019).

In conclusion, migration has played a central role in driving Britain out of the European Union. The way migration has been made to signify as a political “issue” cannot be fully understood without examining the role sexuality plays in shaping perceptions of migration. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to treat sexuality, gender and race as separate categories of analysis. Rather, they should be treated as mutually constitutive. This can be seen in the way that LGBT identifying Leave supporters are able to identify and align with the Leave campaigns. Despite surveys finding large numbers of Leavers to have anti-LGBT views, those Leave supporters that do identify as LGBT are still able to champion the stricter immigration controls Brexit promises to bring. They do this through representations of migration that are infused with specific racialised, sexualised and gendered tropes. These discourses of migration serve to consolidate rivalling political identities and serve to rarefy the domestic and international binary. These all constitute and reinforce one another and generate discourses that don’t just exist in the abstract, but have real material repercussions. They help to direct the attention of the state towards and away from certain populations that have been marked as deserving/undeserving of rights and protection.

Jack Lindsay is a third year doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, working in the field of International Relations. His academic interests include exploring contemporary European politics are organised around the intersecting grammars of race, gender and sexuality. His thesis is focusing on shedding greater light on how Brexit is impacting LGBT-identifying individuals, and what Brexit can tell us about their place in contemporary British and European politics. He is keen to explore how sexuality is a way of constructing and consolidating a political and cultural identity, and the ways this intersects with race and the legacy of Empire.


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