The role of communication in the identification of gay refugees and asylees throughout migration

Date

2016-08-18

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Abstract

In recent years, millions of refugees have migrated across the globe fleeing persecution, in search of better lives. Among these refugees are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals who are escaping maltreatment for their sexual orientation. At the time of writing, there were 76 countries with laws imposing harsh sanctions against same sex intimacy, varying from fines, imprisonment, violence, and even death. Because of their unique situations, these refugees and asylum seekers are doubly marginalized as forced migrants and sexual minorities. This study investigates how LGBTI refugees, asylum seekers, and asylees navigate their identity through the interactions throughout the migration process. Identity is produced and reproduced through social interaction. This study’s main goal was to investigate how social interactions, embedded in the lived experiences of LGBTI refugees/asylees during their migration process, created and shaped meaning specific to their identity. More specifically, the current study looked at social interactions using communication, mediated and interpersonal, to negotiate identity. In order to answer the overall research question of identity negotiation, interviews and a focused ethnography were conducted. Six self-identifying gay refugees/asylees from the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, now residing in California’s Bay Area, were interviewed. Additionally, a focused ethnography was conducted in the queer diaspora of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. The LGBTIs use of media was influenced by English and computer literacy. In a pre-asylum context, media were used for asylum seeking, to find information on gay culture, and to build relationships with other queers living in secret. Whereas interpersonal communication was used to find and initiate escape routes. In a post-asylum context, media were used to find other LGBTIs in the queer diaspora, however not used to build relationships. Interpersonal communication was utilized more in the queer diaspora to foster relationships, acculturate, and shape identity. Intersectionality, marginalization, and power come together to shape the identities of the LGBTI refugees/asylees. For most of the participants, being a ‘refugee’ was substantially part of who they were. It defined their past and situated their present. For others, however, ‘refugee’ was an identity they wanted to shed. They wanted to create a new life and leave their pasts behind them. In both scenarios, being gay was still the most salient attribute of their identities. In sum, the media they consumed pre-asylum helped the refugees realize “what they were,” while the media post-asylum helped them negotiate “who they are.” The LGBTIs interviewed communicated that little aid was received from NGOs in the migration process; however, the NGOs positioned themselves as LGBTI refuge-focused. To further understand the communication endeavors seven LGBTI refugee-focused NGO employees, each charged with communication tasks, were interviewed. Specific to identity, the niche NGOs strive to create counter-narratives that help foster positive and nurturing categorizations of LGBTI refugees and asylees. They, and other LGBTIs in similar areas, have been socialized in with pejorative categorizations of gay and LGBTI. The goal of the NGOs is to change these meanings and instigate a more positive categorization for the LGBTIs and in the process save lives. The NGOs also focused on creating a more encouraging and supportive environment for the LGBTIs in their new home post-asylum. By fostering a sense of tolerance coupled with volunteers and staff who are LGBTI-friendly, the NGO introduces a social institution where more advantageous interactions can take place. These interactions help shape and reshape meaning for the LGBTIs, ultimately helping them create a social identity that cultivates happiness and a sense of self-worth.

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Keywords

Gay, LGBTI, LGBTQ, Refugee, Asylee, Asylum, Identity, Identification, Diaspora, Globalism, Migration, Human rights, International communication, Interpersonal communication, Communication, Mediated communication, Media, English, Computer literacy, NGO, Middle East, San Francisco

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