LGBTQI+ immigrants’ experiences of in/exclusion in the UK

Dr Sarah Scuzzarello, Senior Lecturer in migration (SCMR and Dept of Geography, University of Sussex) and co-coordinator of GenSeM, Gender and Sexuality in Migration research at IMISCOE. With Golchehr Hamidi-Manesh, Research Assistant.

Rainbow and transgender flags

To what degree do the experiences of migration and settlement of LGBTQI+ people differ from those of heterosexual and cisgender migrants? The burgeoning field of ‘queer migration’ asks this and related questions, fore-fronting how sexuality and gender identity impact migratory processes. Working within this body of research, I conducted life-story interviews with LGBTQI+ migrants (N:17) from Europe (N:12), the US (N:3), and central America/Caribbean (N:2), eight of which identified as Black or minority ethnic (mixed race; Arab; Latinix). No participant had refugee background. The preliminary findings point to the need to enquire systematically, first, how LGBTQI+ individuals’ experiences of migration and settlement are influenced by intersecting social location of sexuality and gender identity, race, class, and migration status. Second, we need to analyse in which social spaces sexuality and gender identity matter in shaping one’s migratory journey, rather than assuming their ubiquitous relevance. Here, I present some of the participants’ experiences of settling in the UK that speak to these points. All participants’ names are pseudonyms.

At the margins as (relatively privileged) migrants

16 participants migrated to the UK as European or US citizens and they came as university students, family members, or high-skilled professionals. They did not face the same restrictions upon entry imposed on migrants from the ‘Global South’ or ‘low skilled’ migrants. Their relative privilege, however, does not spare them from the UK hostile climate towards migrants. Paolo (Italian gay man), who works in design, feels that British acquaintances treat him “like a guest”. Others point at how British politics have changed public attitudes for the worse.

As an immigrant [things have changes], yeah! I think it’s much less welcoming, open, than I think it was 20 years ago, 15 years ago […] I think over the last 12 years before the government, that has changed hugely. Things like this Rwanda policy is just a disgusting example of that. That no-one is welcome. (Mark, French American bisexual man)

European participants are adamant to underline that the climate of hostility worsened after the 2016 Brexit referendum, which has eroded their rights. They feel “unwelcome”, in the words of Christophe (French, gay man), “unstable”, “stressed” and “anxious” (Mark), and “sad” (Fatime, French queer woman), their right to be in the UK questioned (Frank, Italian gay man). Four participants decided to mitigate the insecurity borne out of Brexit by naturalising as British citizens.

British citizenship completely came out of Brexit because there was no need for this before. We were just here. And it was forever. (Olle, Swedish gay man)

Thanks to their privileged status as eligible citizens who had the means to naturalise, those participants could act upon their perceived insecurity and create a sense of stability after the rug “had been pulled out from under us”, as Mark puts it.

Findings suggest that the participants’ sexuality and gender identity does not fully define their experience of migrating to the UK. Instead, being foreign citizens, regardless of their relative privilege, shaped their experiences.

Spaces of belonging in queer Britain

Several White respondents stated that life in the UK, with a relatively vibrant LGBTQI+ community, enabled them to achieve an integrated and fully open queer life. Those who came to the UK to study at university, found “freedom” that made them “ignore a lot of shit in those few months [when they first arrived in the UK]” (João, Portuguese, non-binary). This positive experience was shared by ethnic minority participants who could ‘pass’ as White, highlighting how intersections of race, sexuality and gender identity matter in the participants’ experiences of settlement. Kai (American, Latinix, trans*) says:

[City] is a much better place for me to live. I think people just see me as Italian […] the racism that I experience is markedly lower than back home […] And also, I noticed that […] people, rarely gender me. […] this is the ultimate space for transmasculine people.

The opportunity to socialise in queer spaces is welcome by many, but some Black and ethnic minority interviewees report instances when socialising in queer spaces is mediated by race and their migration background. They describe the British queer scene as predominately White and several participants recounted being “objectified” (Christophe, French, black gay man) and “fetishized” (Drew, Arab-Danish, gay man). They also describe not fitting in culturally:

I’ve loved what [city] has given to me [but it is] too small […]I think more than just [city] it’s just probably British culture and I just… even the pop culture I don’t really enjoy… you know, having a beer at the pub I don’t enjoy it so much or, you know, the gay scene… so many people  just…they always tell me to just go to a drag show and that bores me. (Connor, Caribbean-Canadian, mixed race, gay man)

Living in predominately White spaces, where there is not only a risk for objectification and racism but also a cultural disconnect, has made these participants look for specific places of belonging and solidarity outside mainstream White British queer culture. To Christophe, this means socialising in local networks for Black and brown LGBTQI+ (which can however be small and run by gossip, as Connor hinted to) and in London, which offers more diversity. Others searched for “people that had the same story, had the same past, and hopefully have the same future” as Drew described his network which includes predominately Black, Brown and Arab queer people.

Navigating unfamiliar territory

The participants underline that it takes time to find and become part of safe (queer) networks and that the first years in a new country, making contacts, and navigating the unfamiliar rules of the local queer community could be challenging. Paolo, despite living in the UK for five years, has not yet found a social space where he can share interests and “be myself, but in a gay environment”. Drew describes his first years in the UK as frustratingly “trying to fit into a group that I did not belong in” and in hindsight he says he was being “white-washed”.

Raphael’s (Polish, White gay man) experience points to more concerning implications of navigating unfamiliar queer territory. He recounts that, as he moved to the UK, he was drawn to what seemed exciting gay venues and bought into a lifestyle which involved partying and chemsex. Years on, having left those circles, he is adamant to stress the risks for young gay migrants. Especially those coming from highly heteronormative societies and with limited experiences of queer identities, can get “lost”:

If a young migrant from Eastern Europe who didn’t have any experience in the gay community before, because there was no gay community, comes to London and finds himself straight into the darkest worst part of gay community like Vauxhall nightclubs and everything. That is a very drastic, extreme change. So sometimes they might get lost in that new world. Because it’s exciting, of course. But it’s also something that they probably can’t handle, […] if you’re surrounded by wrong people who are only dragging you down, it’s very difficult to find yourself back. If you don’t have that somebody, if you don’t have good friends around you, and you are only relying on yourself, it might be more difficult, it might take more time.

These examples speak to specific needs of parts of the queer migrant community that are not fully attended to. On the one hand, a desire to ‘fit in’ – often identified in research on migrants’ ‘integration’ – and the strategies adopted by participants to find a place of belonging. On the other, the need for safe spaces for young LGBTQI+ migrants where they can find advice.

The initial findings from the research emphasise how the participants’ experiences of settlement in the UK are not only shaped by their sexuality and gender identity. Their ethnicity, class and migration status are equally important in influencing their migration journey. These intersecting social locations give them differential abilities to navigate life in the UK and attention to these intersections can contribute to a more holistic understanding of the life experiences of LGBTQI+ migrants that avoids treating these migrants simply as sexual subjects.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Migration Research

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *




The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).