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.
a pride flag hangs in a faith space supporting refugees and asylum seekers
Negotiations with difference: emerging solidarities
My research in Bristol and London has explored the many negotiations that queer asylum seekers make between their sexuality, gender identity, faith and culture, as well as the contentions and new solidarities that emerge between queer, religious and migrant communities at this intersection. One asylum seeker reports feeling supported when attending evangelical communion with two other queer friends. Whilst they choose to keep their sexuality hidden, the ability to participate in a church group and to find spiritual support alongside other queer folk provides a lifeline amidst the scrutiny and precarity of the asylum process. Similarly, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker has found dignity and purpose through Central American diaspora groups campaigning in solidarity with rights and social justice movements in their countries. These are not LGBTQ+-focused but address a wider set of rights violations and hopes for the future and enable a connection with other Spanish speakers in contrast to English-language dominated LGBTQ+ refugee support spaces.
Such examples suggest that the assumptions made about what queer refugees and asylum seekers need – namely LGBTQ+-specific spaces that provide protection and safety linked to specific protected rights categories – cannot encompass the inevitable complexity of their own lives, needs and aspirations. Indeed, the everyday lives of the queer refugees and asylum seekers I speak with frequently capture a form of enacted power where safety, security and rights are claimed in spaces that might otherwise be assumed to be unsafe, insecure and where their rights as LGBTQ+ people may be threatened.
For many queer refugees, relationships with communities from their country of origin may also mean that they continue to face religiously-justified persecution in spaces of accommodation (Dustin & Held, 2021). Nevertheless, the support that occurs in diaspora spaces is often essential to the strategies and livelihoods of queer refugees, making it difficult to neatly categorise spaces as purely hostile, homophobic or ‘un safe’. For example, religious organisations in the diaspora continue to play an important role in creating spaces of welcome for refugees, including queer refugees, despite the fact that such spaces may be characterised by patriarchal or anti-homosexual values (Cordova Quero, 2016: 157). Access to shared language and shelter in such spaces are important and challenge us to think carefully about the assumed needs of queer refugees as they navigate everyday life in host societies.
Indeed, overlooking the importance of such diaspora spaces, regardless of whether or not they are homophobic, risks playing into prevailing assumptions about what queer asylum seekers need, as well as racialised assumptions about certain cultures being inherently antithetical to liberal values of tolerance and rights. By contrast, engaging with diaspora and faith-based settings in the context of queer asylum and displacement offers an opportunity to locate the agency and strategies of queer refugees and asylum seekers to chart out safety and accommodation on their own terms, even if this may appear contradictory and antithetical to legal notions of queer safety and rights.
 This paragraph is paraphrased from a forthcoming chapter by the author. Greatrick, A. (forthcoming) “Religion, Faith, Sexuality and Asylum”, in Rowlands, A. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (Eds.) Oxford Handbook on Religion and Contemporary Migration (Oxford UP)
Aydan Greatrick is an ESCR-funded PhD Candidate at University College London. His research focuses on the experiences of receiving and providing support for LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers in England and Germany. He is also project coordinator on the AHRC-ESRC funded Refugee Hosts project at UCL, and a Project Officer with the ESRC-funded Pride in the Field project, University of Leeds. Aydan also teaches on the MSc in Global Migration, UCL Geography. Aydan has a BA in History from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Global Migration from UCL. See Aydan’s publications here.
Dustin, M., & Held, N. (2021). “They sent me to the mountain”: The role of space, faith and support groups for LGBTQI+ asylum claimants. In R. C. M. Mole (Ed.), Queer Migration and Asylum. London: UCL Press.
Giametta, C. (2014) ‘‘Rescued’ subjects: The Question of Religiosity for Non- Heteronormative Asylum Seekers in the UK,’ Sexualities 17(5/6): 583–599.
Levy, J. T. (2005) “Sexual Orientation, Exit and Refuge” in EISENBERG and SPINNER (eds.) Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 172-188.
Puar, J. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Quero, H. C. (2016). Embodied (Dis)Placements: The Intersections of Gender, Sexuality, and Religion in Migration Studies. In J. B. Saunders, E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, & S. Snyder (Eds.), Intersections of Religion and Migration (pp. 151–171). New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-58629-2_6
Randazzo, T. (2005) “Social and Legal Barriers: Sexual Orientation and Asylum in the United States” in LUIBHÉID, E. and CANTÚ, L. (Eds.) Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship and Border Crossings. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press: 30-60.