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Telling a Different Story: On the Politics of Representing African LGBTQ Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Collage referring to African LGBTQ Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Tuesday, June 21, 2022, 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm

Popular accounts of LGBTQ displacement tend to reduce their subjects’ lives to a singular narrative of victimhood and desperation. Those coming from African countries are particularly susceptible to this treatment due to the pervasiveness of the ‘homophobic continent’ trope in the Western imagination. In presenting LGBTQ asylum seekers as simultaneously helpless and heroic – that is, as innocent yet courageous victims whose survival depends on outside intervention – mainstream portrayals reinforce a geopolitical dichotomy that imagines ‘savage’ Africa in opposition to the ‘progressive’ West. While tactically useful in certain advocacy contexts, this single story undermines efforts to track the social and political conditions that drive LGBTQ displacement. Drawing on an intensive zine-making project conducted in Johannesburg, South Africa, this paper challenges scholars to rethink how we represent and theorize LGBTQ Africans who move. The creative materials that emerged from the project suggest that LGBTQ asylum seekers are eager to counter assumptions about their identities and experiences. Such depictions do not diminish the horrors of homo/transphobia, the arduous journeys that LGBTQ people make, or the deplorable living conditions they often find themselves in. Rather, they remind those who engage them that LGBTQ asylum seekers are multifaceted individuals with complex histories, needs and desires. More broadly, the paper investigates the ethical and methodological tensions associated with arts-based research and reflects on the benefits and challenges of collaborative knowledge production. 

John Marnell (he/him) is a PhD candidate at the African Centre for Migration and Society and is the co-coordinator of the African LGBTQI+ Migration Research Network. His most recent book, Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith and Migration, was published by Wits University Press in 2021. He is also the co-editor of Queer and Trans African Mobilities: Migration, Asylum and Diaspora (ZED Books, 2022)


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