Trigger warning: mention of sexual violence, suicide, murder, death, transphobia, violence
Content note: The author does not necessarily align with everything being said in all the links in the article, however, the texts are meant to provide context for the language and concepts used.
In general, for queer people, the idea that certain places in the world are ‘better’ than others for them is quite prevalent. Queer people are oppressed in nuanced ways all over the world and as such, when possible, they seek potentially ‘better’ and safer possibilities of surviving and thriving outside of the spaces they grow up in. While this particular narrative of queer oppression and migration is definitely common and more dangerously present in the case of places where horrific practices like hate crimes in the form of physical assault, ‘conversion therapy’ and other means of actively suppressing a queer person’s livelihood are frequent and normalized, this idea of nation-states being accepting of queerness on a hierarchical basis still perpetuate and result in attacks on and oppression of the queer community as a whole, but more so for particular parts of the community who are marginalized even within the community itself. Overall, the sentiment of a ‘better life’ through migration and the subsequent romanticization of the so-called ‘first world’ countries and regions affect us in more insidious forms of how we deal with oppression, both in the places we grow up in and the places that we then potentially move to, which make thriving and surviving with radical honesty near impossible.
State oppression in the form of fascist governments and authoritarian regimes in countries such as Bangladesh and Hungary, not only make queer life unlivable, but they also push queer people to the edges of society, where they are unable to exist as themselves. However, these narratives of queer oppression and social mobility that leads to migration is not as straightforward as they are usually made out to be. Particular groups of queer people, especially people of colour, trans, and non-binary people, continue to be oppressed and misrepresented in neoliberal society as well as within the larger global queer movement. Individuals have a multitude of changing relationships to their queer identities within the context of their own nuanced oppression that can consequently affect how they want to live their lives, which may not always constitute the same standards of being and thriving that neoliberalism suggests.
Migration narratives are closely tied to the global paradigm of ‘development’ and ‘progress,’ which places countries in a ranked hierarchical setting where they are judged with colonialized eyes. These judgements are based on whether practices like homosexual marriage, workplace ‘inclusion’and other neoliberal, homonationalist and capitalist ways of constructing a ‘good’ life are said to be made available (‘legal’) to queer people, including migrants and refugees. This ranking is problematic on several levels, as it constructs a linear way of looking at regions, disregarding colonial history and reconstructing ideas around autonomy and freedom, which always leaves some groups of people with advantages over others in the present world. Universalist neoliberalism puts everyone under the same views of what it means to be free, safe, and autonomous. The needs and desires of queer people and people from different sociocultural contexts are too different for them to be equated as such. Queer migrants and refugees may be escaping the violence from their state and societies, but too often, their experiences and bodies are used as a tool to perpetuate the imperialism agenda of the ‘global North’ that reinforce the idea that the ‘global South’ is inherently queerphobic and queer migrants are given refuge in their ‘progressive’ countries. Subsumed under Islamophobic ideas that Muslims and people from Muslim communities cannot be queer, these narratives erase the history of queerness in the region while propagating the idea that Muslim societies have been always been against non-normative gender and sexual identities.
Historically, the ideas that gender and sexuality are binaries and that bodies can be categorized accordingly have been put in place through violent and indirect means by Victorian-era European Christian values and, in the case of Bangladesh, by British colonizers. Structural inequality that serves heterosexual (straight) and cisgender men, which grew in the colonial era (in the case of South Asia) still persist today. Further, it is especially frustrating to see that the same portions of the world that punished non-normative people during this time are pushing their homonationalist propaganda that they are queer-friendly and that other countries in the ‘global South’ who are not pro-queer on their terms are all ‘backwards’. There are not only colonial hangovers of queerphobic laws, but colonizers have pushed previously integrated non-normative gender and sexual identities to the edges of society and now condemn these societies for not accepting them anymore. This phenomenon creates space for the ‘white saviour complex’ to kick in and makes it possible for them to act as aid and philanthropists.
The idea of migration is tied to middle-class narratives of living a ‘better’ life; this is situated within the larger discourse of state border control, global racism, and class politics, where mostly white or white-passing, middle and upper-class individuals and people with ‘stronger’ passports (and connections to the state) are able to thrive. For queer folx, some reasons of migration might include less workplace discrimination and the ability to be openly trans and/or non-binary at work without risk of getting fired and consistently misgendered, or the ability to freely love whom they choose without fear of death. Their concern is always valid; even as people migrate, their identities are always in flux and constantly being negotiated within the inescapable global political context. Further, neoliberalism allows for institutions, offices, and individuals to performatively ‘support’ the queer community by being ‘inclusive’ in language and not in practice, including states that proclaim that they include queer people and refugees into the national sphere in order to reinforce other divisions between groups. Neoliberalism avoids upholding the voices of the most oppressed by dismissing the larger discourse of sociocultural assimilation, rainbow capitalism and universalism (which erases the specificities of queer experiences). Even the use of the word ‘queer’ as an umbrella term to mean these transgressive identities as such is a result of my consumption of North American and European content, access to the internet and English language growing up.
These migration narratives of capitalist ‘prosperity’ and safety are dependent on a person’s financial status, ability to perform within the state bureaucratic processes of immigration and asylum, and their social capital not just in the queer community but also in the context of politics and society, as they are able to play into some privileges over others. For womxn and trans folx, the situation is likely to be much more nuanced. As someone who is usually perceived as femme while also being quite visibly androgynous, I cannot hide my trans and non-binary identity, not that I would want to. Part of my own migration story of moving to Europe was motivated by the constant harassment I was subject to as a queer womxn while I tried to live openly as myself in my hometown, Dhaka (Bangladesh), where I had spent my entire life. I would get gawked at and experience verbal abuse regarding my expression and identity every time I left my house, and the closer I got to being myself wholeheartedly, the more scrutiny I had to deal with, which took a toll on my mental health. When one’s self-expression is directly tied to how people interact with them in public spaces and result in constant triggers and a build-up of trauma, it is no wonder that suicide rates are higher for trans people. We need to address the fact that trans and non-conforming queer individuals are more likely to be attacked and killed on the streets than cisgender gay people. We need to place this issue in the context of how mental health is directly linked to larger processes of systemic oppression and thus disproportionately affects people who are already at the bottom of the so-called social ladder.
For me as an individual, freedom is not merely the ability to present how I want, especially in terms of gender expression, and to have my pronouns be respected, but freedom is the (in)ability to be yourself in its entirety in what one considers home. And that freedom should not be conditional on respectability politics. How I am treated as a middle-class queer non-binary Bangali person should not be dependent on how I present, and, in general, people with oppressed identities should not be policed in order for them to be respected and valued as human. This especially applies to people who belong to minorities and systematically marginalized groups, like the working class, Indigenous groups, and sex workers, as their voices are very rarely acknowledged in mainstream movements, which tends to put forth the narratives and cater to the needs of mostly cisgender homosexual white men and, to a certain extent, cisgender white lesbians. In this regard, I will probably not see freedom for the people that we, as a community, fight for in my lifetime, as it is not enough to work within these oppressive systems and try to enact change from within. Bangladesh is not safe for me to exist in as a visibly queer, trans antifascist, and perhaps, the only way for us to fight for queer people is by dismantling these institutions entirely and replacing them with equitable communities of care.
In my experience of organizing in Dhaka and in these two cities here in Europe, namely Budapest, Hungary and Vienna, Austria, I have seen how my experience as an antifascist and trans person of colour has affected my ability to integrate into this neoliberal ‘global’ queer movement that is not only homonormative and cisnormative but also plays into the larger systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and pinkwashing. As a visible South Asian, I am usually assumed to be a Muslim femme, along with all its problematic connotations of political and social conservatism, and on a particular path of socioeconomic and transnational mobility, which involves the need for people like me to denounce our conservative societies and assimilate into the nation-states that we take refuge in. The fact that someone with my mix of identities existed in a country like Bangladesh was astonishing to some, while most were bewildered by my fluent English or the fact that I am studying in the social sciences. I have noticed discrepancies of ideologies in people who claim to be working for marginalised groups but are mostly failing, both back home and here in another continent, to be ‘inclusive’ and considerate of factors, for example, socioeconomic class, immigration status and race/ethnicity. While my comrades in anti-fascist spaces in Europe and queer spaces back home have tried to make space for me as a young, radical trans activist, it does not take away the real dangers that people with similar intersections of identities face. For example, in the many demonstrations and political spaces I have occupied in Europe since I moved, I realize that I am more at risk of being harassed, arrested, and deported – consequences that my white and cisgender colleagues are less likely to encounter.
Neoliberalism erases the nuances of experiences even in its attempt to help those in need, and imperialist capitalism sees people and the world through the lens of profit, gain, and consumption. Both solidify these models of power, migration, and rainbow nationalism. Those of us who have privilege, whether of language, platform, or location, it is our duty to use it to further the movement in terms of making sure those who need help the most are the ones who are prioritized, not individuals who are already represented in the mainstream gay movement. This can be emergency housing, providing safe spaces for younger individuals to safely explore their own identities, and finding work and funding for the community but allowing them to decide how it should be redistributed and invested. Equitable communities of care are based on mutual aid, on people providing whatever they can as much as they can, only to their capacity, and everyone looking out for each other. Obviously, I cannot speak for the most marginalized groups of people, including indigenous groups and trans sex workers, but I urge you as people, writers, and organizers to center the voices of people who are left behind. We need to hold space for the voices of working class people, sex workers, trans womxn, Black, Roma, and Indigenous womxn, and for all those who have lost under the blur of the rainbow flag.
Banner art: The header art has been created by Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo in collaboration for this article.
Puar, J., 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times. London: Duke University Press.
Orchi Lohani is a queer social worker and artist working on queer organizing, community healing, mental health and anti-fascism.