Among the numerous barriers LGBTQAI+ refugees* in Europe face well into their arrival is the struggle for self-determination. In Spain, hostile immigration, social, and labour policies work to restrict the movement and entitlements of refugees. To make up for gaps where the State denies (or fails in the) provision of social services and aid, a new mix of humanitarian solidarity networks are stepping up to (in)directly support refugees. With the rise of austerity measures and far-right movements in Spain, ‘informal humanitarian networks’ have grown exponentially as avenues of support and shelter for vulnerable citizens and refugees alike. However, the intent of solidarity alone is not enough to confront the legacies of racialization, institutionalized racism and homophobia in Spain. While informal solidarity networks can potentially create counternarratives to the widespread depoliticized and heteronormative representations of refugees, these networks can also promote narratives that decontextualize, reproduce and maintain power relations which keep LGBTQ+ refugees from actively participating as political subjects within ‘migrant sanctuary’ initiatives.
Throughout my PhD fieldwork in the Spanish province of Catalunya, European activists inadvertently demonstrated how even the most well-intentioned solidarity acts allowed for forms of violence which harm, exclude and silence LGBTQIA+ refugees as activists.
To start, many activists had difficulties recognizing that racialization takes place ‘within’ their activist circles. ‘Migrant melodramas’ (Puga 2012), or spectacles of hyper-suffering and displays of virtue, were commonly used by European activists to establish a ‘shared humanity’ between refugees and citizens. These accounts were often shared in roundtable chats, as captions in organizational photographs, or as a way of engaging donors. The narratives often followed a similar structure: a refugee’s near-death journey to Europe or brutal violence in their country of origin, followed by extreme suffering since reaching Europe that is redeemed through their commitment to hard work – all as part of making claims for sympathy and solidarity.
At their core, narratives of ‘migrant melodramas’ are about complex violent injustices and deserve attention. However, the decontextualization of violence – the deflection away from discussing the conditions which perpetuate vulnerabilities not only for the ‘affected refugee’ but for other vulnerable migrant communities in Europe, the singling out of a desexualized ‘deserving’ migrant who suffers enough to receive sympathy while other bodies can remain ignored – and the dismissal of racialized factors in LGBTQIA+ refugee narratives maintain structures of institutionalized racism within advocacy.
This language of benevolence is at the heart of Catalonian citizen-refugee solidarity, determining the visibility of LGBTQIA+ refugees in activism as well as the extent to which refugees can independently advocate for themselves.
In addition to removing agency, these narratives also deflect from the violence and harmful impact of systemic racism within Europe through racialization. Racialization is the process through which bodies are instrumentalized to (re)produce race and categories of political inclusion/exclusion (Weheliye 2014). Across different Catalonian solidarity networks, racialization implicitly sets the expectations around who can defend rights, which bodies need their rights defended, and which are justifiably excluded. Through these migrant melodramas, activists inadvertently reinforce colonial legacies which dictate that black and brown bodies need to fit within fixed representations of sexual orientations, relationships, gender identities, body shapes, skin color, lifestyles, and levels of pain to then merit European ‘allyship’.
Below are some of the responses I received when I would ask why there were so few refugees actively participating in activism…
“Refugees don’t really have the time for this” “It’s not in their culture to make decisions like this (unless we teach/empower/sponsor them)”
Or, arguably the most painful irony told to me during a human rights conference in Catalunya –
“The people that we’re really concerned about are [outside of Europe]. Here, refugees are taken care of by the government or organizations like Caritas or the Red Cross. They can get everything they need”.
Part of the success behind migrant melodramas, and the normalization of the above statements, is the frequent de-racialization of refugee narratives. Gurminder Bhambra (2017) explains ‘methodological whiteness’ as the whitewashing of complex historical injustices, often practiced by citizen-subjects, in an attempt to subvert what they believe are restrictive ‘identity politics’. Rather than recognize the significant role of race in structuring Europe (and its activist landscape), a ‘universal perspective’ became the preferred activist strategy. “Better to not talk about race, that’s too radical. Focus on gender or sexual orientations instead” (or vice versa). Through methodological whiteness, social causes were often identified and labeled – as combinations of ‘LGBTQIA+’, ‘feminist’, or ‘human rights’ – based on the collective (white) identities of the activists in the room. Often overlooked was the irony of activists who believed that the same governments and members of society which disregarded the rights they demanded and protested for would somehow benevolently protect the rights of people with whom the state had a history of colonialism and exploitation.
Methodological whiteness and institutionalized racism work hand in hand to confine LGBTQIA+ refugee activists to passive observers in the struggle for their own rights.
To clarify, there is no one activist space, cause, organization, or collective of citizens alone which stood in the way of LGBTQIA+ refugees’ solidarity. The above examples are amalgamations of far too many racist homophobic encounters and observations from my fieldwork.
Administrative and intra-group tensions were also detriments to safe solidarity spaces for LGBTQIA+ refugees. For example, bureaucracy also restrains non-governmental organizations (‘NGOs’). Many NGOs usually work within fixed categories and identities as part of their administrative practices, and to an extent, are forced to exclude the cases of identities that do not conform to management policies. Conflicts between interpretations of causes by larger organizations and refugees’ identities also created frictions. Interviews given by LGBTQIA+ refugees demonstrated that some humanitarian institutions would advocate for human rights but would not necessarily extend these rights to LGBTQ IA+ persons. Catalonian LGBTQ+ entities sometimes prioritized ‘homonationalist’ (Puar 2013) approaches to activism, advocating for the protection of the rights of citizens while conveniently ignoring the racialized dynamics within imagined queer communities. Similarly, migrant diaspora networks, faith-based institutions and feminist grassroots collectives sometimes targeted issues around institutionalized racism, but prioritized heteronormative expressions of social injustices for their agendas, rather than accommodate the experiences of LGBTQIA+ identities.
Still, LGBTQIA+ refugees activists exist, organize and lead discussions in Catalunya.
LGBTQIA+ refugee activists leveraged different parts of their identities, depending on the context, to connect and build solidarities. LGBTQIA+ refugee activist initiatives, such as Ama and Rosario’s lesbian migrant support group, attended by mostly lesbian asylum-seekers, would host group meditations and discussions around members’ day-to-day life. Struggles were discussed not as isolated incidents, but instead the group worked towards emotional validation, connecting personal violence to wider systems of structural violence. Group discussions, meditations, theatre performances and artworks all helped make the distinct influence of migration and displacement on emotional precarity visible.
Unlike ‘homonationalist’ activism, LGBTQIA+ refugees’ activism is not limited to one issue, territory, fixed strategy, expression, or singular collective identity. Focusing their solidarity on multifaceted histories and identities, LGBTQIA+ refugee activists such as Ama and Rosario work to raise awareness, mutually care for one another and mobilize different elements of their identity to build collaborations with different Spanish feminist, humanitarian, and LGBTQ+ entities.
Because visibility can lead to expulsion from humanitarian programs, loss of child custody, and even deportation, theirs is a form of activism that mixes ‘conventional’ forms of social movement protests – e.g., mass street protests, public sit-ins, hunger strikes – with less visible instruments of social movements such as Ama and Rosario’s integration of art, healing and grassroots awareness-raising. These more intimate forms of activism fall in line with efforts to decolonize solidarity, elaborating activist strategies through creative, reflective, and transformative actions to build solidarity (Gaztambide-Fernandez 2012). Though smaller in numbers and restricted by the politics of their legalities, refugee-led initiatives contribute to decolonial feminist philosophies (Espinosa-Miñoso 2014) which de-center methodological whiteness to elevate the narratives ‘from the margins’ and allow for “Others” to tell their own stories. By exposing tensions, they also work towards exposing radical possibilities within activism.
There is no one way to ‘be political’ or an ‘activist’. Nor should people be coerced into a political arena that does not actively value and make space for the integration of fluid, non-European identities. Building solidarity from emotional ties is not automatically racist, nor does every act have to come with a full speech on the legacies of Spanish colonialism. However, the consistent infantilization of black and brown bodies as a requirement for obtaining solidarity, and the glorification of isolated incidents where migrant melodramas do succeed (after obtaining enormous resources inaccessible to many others) creates a false sense of security in the public’s consciousness. It is imperative that we extend a decolonized praxis of solidarity and de-center white narrators to visibilize other LGBTQIA+ experiences, as well as challenge our own positions within the racialized hierarchies of Europe. From the heart of these tensions, we can move towards creating more space for contrasting and conflicting identities – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expressions.
Nathali Arias is an Afro-Dominican activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex school of Global Studies where she tutors in the Gender and Development module. She received an MSc from Queen Mary University of London in Migration, Culture and Global Health Policy in 2016, and has a BA in Political Science from Rutgers University. For her doctoral thesis Nathali is exploring the experiences of legally precarious migrant women, and the roles of care work and migrant-led activism in Cataluña, Spain.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2017). “LSE Brexit: Why Are the White Working Classes Still Being Held Responsible for Brexit and Trump?” 2017. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/11/10/why-are-the-white-working-classes-still-being-held-responsible-for-brexit-and-trump/.
Espinosa-Miñoso, Yuderkys (2014). "Una crítica descolonial a la epistemología feminista crítica." El cotidiano 184: 7-12.
Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén A. "Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity." Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012).
Puar, Jasbir (2013). Rethinking Homonationalism. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(2), 336-339. doi:10.1017/S002074381300007X
Puga, Ana Elena. "Migrant Melodrama and Elvira Arellano." Latino Studies 10, no. 3 (2012): 355-384.
Weheliye, A.G. (2014). Habeas viscus: Racializing assemblages, biopolitics, and black feminist theories of the human. Duke University Press.
Zaman, Tahir (2019). “What’s so Radical about Refugee Squats? An Exploration of Urban Community-Based Responses to Mass Displacement in Athens.” In Challenge the Political Across Borders: Migrants’ and Solidarity Struggles, 129–62. Center for Policy Studies Central European University.
 ‘Refugees’ is a contested term. In this text, the term reflects those often called ‘refugees’ in Spanish Catalunya. These include the following: LGBTQIA+ asylum-seekers beginning a formal case for international protection, those who were denied or appealing state protection, those granted international protection and formally recognized by the state, and those waiting for a final decision in their asylum case.  ‘Informal humanitarian networks’ are grassroots and informal collectives made up of citizens, international volunteers and legal migrants of diverse race, class, and professional backgrounds to provide care, aid and other resources to refugees and other vulnerable migrants independently. For more examples, see Zaman 2019.  There are migrant-led organizations, though few, which also operate on this logic. Racialization is a social phenomenon that affects all of society and is not exclusive to ‘white-black’ relations in Europe. However, recognizing that even legal migrants still must navigate a deeply racialized environment which persists within activism, the focus here is pointed towards white ‘citizens’ who also make up the majority in both the population and activist settings, and benefit from shifting forms of white privilege in their activism. Jasbir Puar conceptualizes ‘homonationalism’ to understand and how and why being a ‘gay-friendly’ state is an indicator of modernity. Puar explains that homonationalism is an extension of U.S. imperialism, which mobilizes advocacy for a global embrace for ‘sexually progressive multiculturalism’ and Euro-American expressions of queer identities as justifications for foreign interventions in defence of ‘democracy’ and progress. Like racialization, it is a socio-political process through which certain lesbian and gay bodies are deemed ‘worthy of protection by nation-states’. For more, please read Puar 2013.  Pseudonyms to protect identity