“Queering” migration: LGBTQ+ History Month

LGBTQ+ History Month is about increasing the visibility of queer people and their history. It’s also an opportunity to explore and raise awareness of the issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community. At a time where marginalised people, including migrants and queer people, are under increasing attack, talking about the experiences of queer racialised and migrant people is essential.

Migrants and queer people are often pitted against each other. However, the struggle for queer justice is intertwined with the struggle for migrant justice. Colonialism and White Supremacy has shaped the modern world while embedding and upholding harmful Western norms around gender and sexuality

Queer migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, experience violence at the UK’s borders and rampant disbelief culture. Alongside the prospect of detention, deportation or pushbacks, queer migrants face extensive hurdles to prove their sexuality and/or gender identity, known as the ‘burden of proof’ as well as ingrained queerphobia, transphobia and general misunderstandings of the nuances and complexities of queerness at the hands of the Home Office and border officials. 

Queer communities’ pasts, presents and futures overlap with systems of oppression and how colonial history shapes how marginalised people are treated. This LGBTQ+ History Month, we will explore the relationship of gender and queerness with immigration status and borders as part of our Who is Welcome: Gender, Queerness and Migration campaign.

Queer liberation means decolonisation

The colonial introduction of Western gender and sexual norms was bathed in blood.*

Rhys Allison.

Queering migration is about unpicking and defying mainstream discourse on migration, a crucial part of which is understanding the link between decolonisation, queer liberation and migration. Decolonisation is about dismantling colonial structures- whether that is borders, or violence towards racialised and/or queer people. 

Queering migration is also about understanding how multiple marginalised groups, including migrants and queer people, are constructed as “Other” by the nation state and its borders. It allows us to understand that migrants, queer people, and Muslims are all being marked for violence by the same system that “queers” them all. 

Colonial powers, specifically the UK, significantly contributed to the conditions for violence against queer people in the Global South. However, despite its homophobic and transphobic past (and present), the West paints itself as a queer utopia. This is called homonationalism– the weaponisation of LGBTQ+ issues in order to pit migratised and racialised communities against queer communities, which serves as a distraction from the real systems and forces that oppress queer people around the world. Many queer migrants, including refugees, continue to flee the violence that was put in place during the colonial-era, only to be met with further violence at the hands of border regimes. 

Enze Han, author of “British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality,” traces how Britain’s Victorian values created the concept of the ‘Orient’ (e.g. non-Western world) as being erotic and “over-sexed”. In 1860, the first prohibition on ‘sodomy’ was written into the penal code and this law was exported across the British Empire, known as Section 377. Many former colonies still retain British ‘anti-sodomy’ laws. In 2018, 71 countries criminalised “consensual same-sex acts between adults in private” and at least 38 of them were once subject to colonial rule

The experience of the Hijra is one of the most poignant examples. The Hijra identity is complex under the lens of Western ideas of gender. However, the ‘third gender’ has played an important part in societies for over 2000 years. The Hijras’ defining characteristic is leaving home to become part of the Hijra community.

The Hijra were largely treated with fear and respect for thousands of years, which ended with the British colonisation of South Asia and Western ideas of gender binaries. They were criminalised as a result. While they have regained some of the rights they lost during the colonial era in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, they still face widespread violence by states and refused treatment at hospitals. 

It is crucial to understand that histories of migration from the Global South to the Global North are marked by violence against queer communities. In the current context, the third gender (or those exhibiting some kind of gender variance that was previously accepted in pre-colonial history) are penalised in their origin countries through the maintenance of colonial-era attitudes and laws. This colonial violence follows them around, as they are forced to flee from the Global South, and as they are forced to encounter the queerphobic and violent border regimes of the Global North. 

Colonial regimes enforced systems based on the control of sexual access, authority or production of knowledge in the hands of the colonisers at the expense of the colonised. Queerness, migration and decolonisation cannot be separated. So, throughout LGBTQ+ History Month, we will be looking at how queer people navigate borders and how history has shaped these conditions. 

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