Challenging the Binary Western Thoughts on Asylum Seekers, Religion, and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
Some years ago, I was invited to lecture about the early findings of my ongoing research focusing on Latin American LGBTIQ+ refugees fleeing to the US and the EU and the role religion plays in their journeys. The audience was a group of around 30 enthusiastic undergrads from my university in the US. As I started to talk, I saw bewilderment spread across their faces. One of them raised her hand and said, “I didn’t imagine that the problem of LGBTIQ+ refugees was so big in America. Neither did I think that in Western, democratic, Christian countries, LGBTIQ+ people are persecuted and need to flee. I thought that was a problem of Islamic countries.” I decided to stop my presentation and make two needed clarifications. Firstly, LGBTIQ+ individuals who seek asylum based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) are not necessarily from countries where non-normative sexualities and identities are criminalized, territories in which Islam is the mainstream religion, nor places with no democratic governments. They also flee from many other countries with progressive legislation on LGBTIQ+ rights, established democracies, and Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hinduist traditions. (This without considering internal migration/scape from more dangerous to more “friendly” areas within Western, democratic, and Christian countries.) Secondly, many LGBTIQ+ individuals—seeking asylum or not— are themselves believers, profess a religion, and practice their faith.
Over the years, I needed to make that same clarification to many different audiences, from students to colleagues, to scholars, in relaxed chats or sophisticated conferences. Most importantly, I needed to recall those two points to myself once and again: LGBTIQ+ refugees exist and believe. For us, who are sitting comfortably in our homes or offices, writing papers or designing aid programs on our laptops, inhabiting the ivory towers of the academic world and advocacy networks, and walking without fear across the streets of our cities, it is hard to get rid of the Western beliefs that sets the problems of religion and LGBTIQ+ refugees outside of the borders of our “civilized” (part of the) world. Such thoughts depict a binary conception of religion when intersecting with SOGI and forced migration issues. I believe that such binary Western imagination is a threat because it oversimplifies the multifaceted roles of religion and, consequently, place religion in the apparently irreconcilable extremes of binarism.
On the one hand, religion is at the base of the severe conditions that compel LGBTIQ+ refugees to flee their homes in order to save their lives. While the tragic fact remains that more than 70 countries criminalize members of the LGBTIQ+ community based on laws grounded in religious values, it is necessary to highlight that countries with progressive laws on SOGI issues often experience a gap between legislation and the violent reality that the LGBTIQ+ community suffers, and religion is among the factors that lead to the increasing number of SOGI-based asylum seekers. In the case of Latin America, for example, together with actions and discourse of governments such as that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the rise of “radical” Christianisms has created an adverse and increasingly dangerous place for LGBTIQ+ individuals. These religious groups are gaining more and more ground among the population and in media discussions. They have championed the fight against “gender ideology,” an umbrella term that involves much of human rights advances. Similarly, in Europe, far-right discourses with religious connotations have risen against LGBTIQ+ refugees. The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, illustrates this perfectly. His group’s position can be synthesized with the phrase of Laszlo Toroczkai, the leader of the Our Home Movement political party: “Neither Muslims nor gays. The Hungarian people want to be white and Christian.”
On the other hand, the international community recognizes the active role of religion in offering aid to (LGBTIQ+) refugees worldwide. Indeed, the UNHCR stated “the valuable contributions that faith organizations and communities make to the protection of refugees and the displaced.” In December 2012, the fifth High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges was held on the theme of Faith and Protection. The event assembled over 400 representatives of faith-based organizations, faith communities, faith leaders, and other partners for a two-day discussion in Geneva on partnership with faith-based actors. The contributing roles of faith leaders, as envisioned in such an event and shrined in the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (paragraph 41), have been embodied by many religious organizations that offer specific projects for LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers in the US and the EU.
Both extremes of binarism are real. The problem lies not in the extremes but in the fact that the binary Western imagination cannot reconcile them. The capacity of religion to both enable and constrain the aid to LGBTIQ+ refugees is pervasive, and hence, influence at several levels. Religion is not either a problem or a solution, either the perpetrator or the savior, either the devil or the saint. It may well be all of the above. By no means is religion merely an external factor that persecutes LGBTIQ+ individuals or offers aid to SOGI-based asylum seekers. It is now when I need to remind myself of the clarifications in that lecture: LGBTIQ+ refugees exist and believe.
One of the most impactful effects of the Western imagination on LGBTIQ+ refugees is the infeasibility of putting these two facts together. One can think that this is an intellectually baroque claim or a mellifluous spiritual stand, and therefore, irrelevant for the processes that asylum seekers need to face. Although it can be both things, Western imagination is also both highly effective and harmful. Here, I present three examples.
This has led to the rejections of asylum claims based on SOGI in the US and the EU. Religion is a recurring element in the decision-making process in tribunals. Particularly for Muslim applicants, confessing their religious beliefs may complicate the proof of LGBTIQ+ asylum claims. Many decision-makers in the US, Spain, Germany, the UK, Italy, and the Netherlands (to simply name the countries in which I found evidence) consider any kind of religious affiliation or identification as evidence that the asylum claimant is holding on to beliefs that are incompatible with their SOGI; therefore, they reject the cases on the bases of lack of credibility. How can a person by LGBTIQ+ and Muslim given the Islamic doctrine on SOGI? This impossibility to reconcile religion and non-normative SOGIs in Western imagination that we can find in several decisions refusing asylum is not very different from the bias in that group of undergrads. It is just much more dangerous.
Jose, an indigenous LGBTIQ+ refugee from El Salvador in Miami, US, told me, “I’m not gay the way they want me to be.”  He referred to the Christian community that received him and helped him with his legal procedures and the integration process. While the community was very beneficial and supportive to him, the Western imagination started to harm the relationship between Jose and his community over time. Faith-based leaders can be very helpful in the reception and integration process of LGBTIQ+ in host societies. They even articulate their mission with the national and local legal frameworks and, in many cases, challenge the systems on behalf of the LGBTIQ+ refugees. Some communities, furthermore, challenge their own religious dogmas to integrate LGBTIQ+ in new societies. However, they can also reproduce religious heteronormativity from the refugees’ countries of origin. Others also embody the host societies’ homonormative idealization of queer identities through institutional expectations around sex, gender, and sexuality. The Western perception—raising questions about whether an LGBTIQ+ religious individual exists in other geographies rather than in the “civilized” world, what an LGBTIQ+ religious refugee “really” is, and how they should behave within a religious community that pretends to hold the legitimate forms of beliefs—is at stake and challenge the integration of individuals.
Last, and probably the most critical point, when the Western culture places religion and faith outside the LGBTIQ+ refugees themselves, it reinforces the idea of the disempowered victim or the weak and the vulnerable needy without agency. Religion is the aggressor responsible for the flight; then, the LGBTIQ+ refugee does not believe. They are conceived as victims of an (also religious) system that triggered their persecution and, thus, religion is irreconcilable with their SOGI. The heartbreaking narratives of refugees facing the legal, religious, and social networks, deciding to embark on small boats or interminable walks with an uncertain future, do not seem to fit in the idea of a disempowered victim. The role that faith plays in those intimate narratives does not seem to fit with the idea of non-compatibility between religion and non-normative SOGI. Similarly, religion is the “good Samaritan” who helps the vulnerable needy without agency. Faith actors sometimes see LGBTIQ+ refugees as those weak and poor individuals whom they ought to save, moved by their religious convictions. If the asylum seekers’ faith was genuinely recognized, the ground of the faith actors’ agency would be challenged. Thus, the vulnerable needy neither have faith nor have agency. The actual contribution of LGBTIQ+ refugees during the reception and integration processes as recognized by many faith-based organizations that open their doors to them does not fit the idea of the weak and needy devoid of faith and agency.
The binary Western culture, thus, is always a threat at stake out there and in our own minds. Meanwhile, LGBTIQ+ refugees exist and believe.
The authour, Ernesto Fiocchetto is an Argentinean Sociologist and Specialist in Religion and Migration. He studied and worked at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Mendoza, from 2001 until 2017, when he moved to the US to start his graduate studies at Florida International University (FIU). At FIU, he earned a Masters in Religious Studies and, currently, he is a Ph.D. student in International Relations. He also works as a Graduate Assistant for the Miami-Florida Jean Monnet European Center of Excellence. His research interests center on the multidimensional intersection of transnational mobility, sexual orientation and gender identities, and religion. For his dissertation, he explores the displacement and reception and integration processes of LGBTIQ+ Latin American asylum claimants in the EU and the US and the role of religion, particularly faith actors, in such processes.
Endnotes:  UNHCR. Partnership Note: On Faith-Based Organizations, Local Faith Communities, and Faith Leaders. Geneva: UNHCR, 2014. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/protection/hcdialogue%20/539ef28b9/partnership-note-faith-based-organizations-local-faith-communities-faith.html  This is a pseudonym. I do not use the real name to protect the privacy of the interviewee. (My translation from Spanish.)