Rethinking diaspora and faith-spaces in the lives of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK
A hostile asylum system:
The UK immigration system is notably hostile toward refugees and asylum seekers. Ever narrower criteria determine who can and cannot seek protection from the British state. For those in the system, scrutiny and disbelief govern their experience, as well as inadequate housing, an inability to work, and generalised and racialised hostility. This sits in contrast to representations of the UK as a welcoming and tolerant nation which boasts a proud (but entirely fictional) history of helping the most vulnerable refugees. In recent years, the figure of the LGBTQ+ asylum seeker has become rhetorically emblematic of this supposedly welcoming and tolerant culture. Queer refugees and asylum seekers denied protection and safety in the supposedly backward, homophobic and transphobic cultures from which they have fled, are seen to be granted safety and dignity in the UK.
In keeping with this narrative, queer refugees and asylum seekers are often assumed to be fleeing from religiously motivated persecution, or from homophobic and transphobic cultures in their country of origin. In the UK, these assumptions are present throughout LGBTQ+ asylum seeker interactions with adjudicators and the Home Office. Successful testimonies are expected to put distance between queer asylum seekers and the ‘backward’ religions or cultures from which they have fled, before finding safety and protection from LGBTQ+ communities in the UK (Giametta, 2014). Indeed, whilst religious attitudes and cultural or social norms frequently justify the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in many countries, these assumptions often mean that queer refugees and asylum seekers are expected to reject, or to struggle with, their faith and cultural identities and backgrounds, instead favouring the protection and safety of fellow LGBTQ+ communities. These narratives and assumptions are narrow and limiting, built around a stereotype that religion is intrinsically hostile toward sexual and gendered difference. It also implies that certain cultures are inherently ‘backward’, in contrast to the supposed benevolence of ‘tolerant’ Western democracies whose secular attitudes are conducive to sexual liberation (Puar, 2007).
This trend conforms to an expectation that queer refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will be doubly marginalised (Randazzo, 2005) by virtue of their being a ‘minority within a minority’. In dealing with this, rights must be granted to protect those who are marginalised by diverse forms of gendered and sexuality-based forms of persecution, giving rise to the notion of ‘exit rights’ over ‘transformative accommodation’ with cultural difference. In other words, this drives assumptions that, according to J. T. Levy, queer members of ‘minority cultural groups’ must choose between their rights and their culture (2005). Such arguments make an assumption about where ‘culture’ lies in the lives of queer migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the decisions they must make in order to be safe. It is obviously true that many faith and community spaces, including diaspora and religious communities, will advance homophobic and transphobic norms, yet the lived experiences of queer refugees and asylum seekers also demonstrate a form of ‘transformative accommodation’ otherwise thought impossible by more pessimistic readings of such cultural and diasporic spaces.
For example, faith and cultural identity can often play a far more transformative role in the lives of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK than is typically acknowledged. Spaces that may seem implicitly homophobic, including evangelical faith spaces in Bristol or London, may provide spiritual sanctuary, a sense of relief and comfort for those with experiences of past trauma and provide ties with a familiar culture and language community in contrast to experiences of everyday linguistic and material marginality. This raises questions about queer subjecthood and identity, and challenges assumptions that secular LGBTQ+ spaces are inherently the most welcoming and supportive spaces for queer asylum seekers.