In my teenage years, I was attracted to the media’s representation of immigration and LGBTQ asylum to the West… eternal comfort and happiness, liberation, pride parades, and holding hands with whomever you love. It wasn’t until I got older and became involved in the queer struggle that I understood how diverse our options and experiences are. I understood that reducing this diversity to a singular utopic experience silences a great deal – whether intentionally or accidentally. I also lost many people to asylum in the West as I aged. I don’t blame any of them, but every time I lost someone, I felt more estranged from home in some way. As the Palestinian author and freedom fighter Ghassan Kanafani said, estrangement is “to lose the conversations of who you love.” For those whose leaving caused this condition without moving me from place, I write this text.
Most media platforms, Arabic-speaking or otherwise, fall into similar traps when they “advocate” for LGBTQ rights by recycling on the same tropes of the LGBTQ migrant from Arab speaking countries who lands in the West. Here, I will present four of the most prominent of these traps and tropes, and explain why they are harmful to LGBTQ communities in Arab countries and the West alike. I aim to provide tools to those who want to discuss the experience in their work without reinforcing these stereotypes or fallacies.
(1) Portraying the West as a paradise for LGBTQ people. This representation continues despite the growing cases of daily hate crimes that claim many lives of LGBTQ people in the West. After HRC, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the United States recorded the killing of 26 Transwomen in 2018, the death toll exceeded this number in 2019. The FBI also reported 1,300 hate crimes that targeted LGBTQ people in 2018. According to the UK Government’s 2017 National LGBTQ Survey involving a massive sample of 108,000 people, more than two-thirds of the respondents feared holding hands with a same-sex partner in public spaces and 2 in 5 respondents had experienced verbal or physical harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And according to statistics, about 40% of youth experiencing homelessness in Canada belong to the LGBTQ community.
Dalia Al-Faghal, a queer feminist activist from Sweden, told me that the impact of this narrative is similar to when your mother asks you to eat your lunch even when you don’t like it simply because there are people who can’t find food; calling it the “thank you God policy”1. She said that this “reinforces chauvinism and white supremacy. The comparison in this context alone is a disturbing form of marginalization. Our problem is shared around the world and it must be presented from an intersectional perspective that takes privileges into account.”2
Juxtaposing the image of the misery of an LGBTQ individual in Arab countries with the image of absolute comfort and happiness of an LGBTQ Arab Asylee in a Western city is unrealistic and inaccurate. This West as haven for LGBTQ people silences the pain of those who suffer in the West and renders them nonexistent.
(2) Portraying the West as a friend of LGBTQ Arab and Muslim asylees. Even if well-intended, this portrayal ends up setting false expectations that asylees have to confront upon arriving in major western cities, when they realize that reality is colored not only with homophobia, but also anti-immigrant, right-wing sentiments and racist crimes against non-whites, especially against Arabs and Muslims.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch documented “instances of racist intolerance or violent hate crimes in many EU states including Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.” Wearing hijab and speaking Arabic publicly might make LGBTQ individuals more vulnerable to Islamophobia and racism both in workplaces and streets by marking them as more “visible” as targets. According to the CCIF, 70% of the victims of Islamophobic acts in France are against women and their likelihood increases with veil-wearing and goes as far as rape attempts and physical attacks.
The violence practiced against people because of their sexual orientation or gender expressions in Arab countries could transform to violence inflicted on them because of their skin color, accent, or religion in Western countries. This relation is often overlooked in global media coverage of immigrants and refugees from the LGBTQ community when they are asked exclusively about their sexualities in the West, as if they are only gay or trans because they are in the West. It overlooks the shift from becoming a sexual minority to an ethnic or religious minority, and the intersecting forms of discrimination. Again, we see how “LGBTQ-friendly” media ends up reducing the experiences of LGBTQ Arab and Muslim immigrants to their sexualities.
Rama Sabanekh, a member of Pride of Arabia (a space for the Arabic-speaking LGBTQ community in London), asserted that the problem “manifests in a clear paradox: how can they claim LGBTQ advocacy and, at the same time, practice political violence against a group of LGBTQ people (Muslims and Arabs) through not addressing the hate and violations targeting them.” She continued “These are exclusionary media that love and defend one type of homosexuals and turn a blind eye to the clear violations of others. Simply, the media are racist and discriminatory.”
The lack of media coverage on the dangers of hatred towards refugees, especially homosexual refugees, affects the resources and assistance available to them. Even services of associations and the protection of authority mimic the public opinion and its issues, “No coverage means there are no problems and no solutions!”3
Mala Badi, the activist and nonbinary trans Moroccan actress residing in Amsterdam, said that “Life here is not ideal for immigrants in general, and not only for queers and trans* but for heterosexuals as well. Yes, there is less violence and more freedom, but the price is racist encounters and institutionalized racism. And I’m speaking about the Netherlands where I live which differs from France and Italy, for example. The media predominantly tells stories of LGBTQ refugees in a racist oriental context at a time when refugees face difficulty finishing their studies or finding proper jobs, are exposed to violence in the camps, and are politically used as pawns – as if they’re saving us from our societies and governments.”4
(3) Portraying Western countries as LGBTQ allies in the MENA region, and hostile to regimes that violate LGBTQ rights. In actuality, most Western countries that receive refugees support the same governments that LGBTQ people fled out of fear. Sweden, for example, which receives gay and trans refugees, has arms deals with the homophobic, transphobic Saudi regime that blackmails LGBTQ people and threatens to expose their sexual orientations in case they opposed the regime. Not only does Saudi arrest anyone defending gay people on the internet (like the Yemeni blogger Mohammed Al-Bokari), but a video released by Saudi State Security classified “homosexuality” and “feminism” as forms of terrorism. And yet, Britain continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Ironically, one of the world’s three largest arms producers, BAE systems, funds pride marches in Britain to appear as an ally while using the money it reaps from selling weapons to regimes that kill LGBTQ people around the world. In other words, there are many mixed messages. Those who welcome, “love” and “support” LGBTQ immigrants are actually accomplices in perpetuating the same violence in their countries that force them to leave. Failing to mention that misrepresents the executioner as a savior, and relieves whoever caused LGBTQ and trans people harm from their moral responsibility.
Hasan Kilani, the co-founder of the Rainbow Street Organization, which is dedicated to helping LGBTQ refugees, tells us “It is ironic to portray those who give the tools of repression to the oppressor as an ‘LGBTQ-friendly countries.’ Because of this narrative in the media, we witness a rise of queer nationalism in the West, such as the one that supports Trump which hatred immigrants and Arab / Muslim refugees regardless of their sexuality.”5 As for Dalia, she said that “All the time, Western governments tell the LGBTQ community in the Middle East ‘I give charity to you. Look at how I protect and serve you, how good I am to you…’ At the same time, military cooperation continues with the same governments that oppress them simultaneously. This is because helping minorities, to them, is a chauvinistic duty whose purpose is to promote the idea of the white savior in their peoples so that no one notices their normalizing ties with the rising far-right and the fascist regimes from which they have so far benefited economically and strategically.”
(4) Portraying Western governments as a welcoming space for LGBTQ refugees. This is not true. Western governments send many gay and lesbian people back to their home countries even when they prove that their lives will be in danger. The UK’s Home Office rejected more than 3,100 applications for migration between 2016 and 2018 by LGBTQ people from countries that criminalize homosexuality and sexual transition. And in Austria, a gay Afghan man seeking asylum was refused because he fought with his roommates, something officials used as proof that he’s not gay saying it “wouldn’t be expected from a homosexual” as well as him not having many friends. “aren’t homosexuals rather social?” In another case, a gay Iraqi activist who translated books about sexuality and volunteered in gay associations was rejected asylum because he was “too girlish” according to the officials who thought he was faking homosexuality.
In an interview with Keegan Terek, an American PhD student in anthropology who researches asylum processes across Jordan based on sexual orientation and gender identity, told me more about how media overlooks this issue, “I think that mainstream media in many cases depicts LGBTQ asylum focusing either on the homophobic conditions from which LGBTQ refugees flee in their home countries or on these migrants’ arrival and ‘salvation’ in resettlement countries, or both of these topics at once. Accordingly, such media discourse often erases the reality facing the majority of refugees worldwide, who spend years living in ‘first asylum countries’. These countries, like Jordan, do not grant refugees the right of asylum within their borders or the legal recognition that would enable the full participation of these individuals in society, considering them instead to be ‘temporary guests’. The disproportionately large role played by these first asylum countries is not the product of ‘natural’ circumstances, but rather reflects the political economic interests of Western resettlement states – often undiscussed in mainstream media discourse – that work to keep refugees outside their borders, despite these states’ bearing the bulk of the responsibility for inciting violence and destruction in forced migrants’ homelands. Moreover, even those migrants who arrive in Western countries to seek asylum we see are subjected to formal adjudicatory procedures that can take years and often coincide with a number of other challenges, like discrimination and racism in accessing social and economic resources, as well as mental distress and suffering resulting from a recurring fear of forced removal. And given that these topics tend to garner media attention only in extreme cases, I think it may seem to some refugees – and especially those who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable among them – that the processes of seeking asylum and achieving resettlement occur not just with relative ease but with expedience – expectations that later conflict with refugees’ actual, lived experiences and drive their frustration.”6
I am not against seeking asylum; for many LGBTQ people there is no other choice. What I am against is broadcasting their stories in the media in ways that are potentially harmful and that reinforce Orientalist, racist, colonialist tropes in favor of countries and institutions that don’t care about anyone’s safety. I believe that the West must take responsibility for funding governments that kill their own citizens, and to accommodate those citizens and provide them with a safe environment not out of generosity, but because it is who arms and supports those who torture, arrest, and kill them. Media platforms must avoid these pitfalls and helps protect migrant stories from being distorted and weaponized against their brothers and sisters by the same regimes that made them leave their homes