In honour of Sarah: A call to recognise the complexity of queerness in exile
On June 13, 2020, Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian LGBT activist, died by suicide while exiled in Canada. By all accounts, Sarah was a caregiver, a leader, and an inspiration. Sarah was also a refugee, forced to seek asylum in Canada after being persecuted in Egypt. In October 2017, Sarah attended a concert by the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila, in Cairo. Mashrou’ Leila is famously led by Hamed Sinno, an openly gay man who unfurled a rainbow flag onstage at the August 2010 Byblos Festival in Lebanon. The night of the concert in Cairo, Sarah’s picture was taken holding her own rainbow flag, smiling with a radiance that emanated pure, hard-fought joy.
Sarah said she raised the flag in ‘an act of support and solidarity…for everyone who is oppressed’. The Egyptian government, however, said she was ‘promoting sexual deviancy and debauchery’, and arrested her at home a week later on these and other charges. After her arrest, Sarah was kept in a women’s prison for three months, tortured by the guards and assaulted by her fellow inmates because of her queerness. After her release, she was diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD, and she began experiencing hallucinations. In her words, ‘Prison killed me. It destroyed me.’
Soon after her release from prison, Sarah was forced to leave Egypt, so she travelled to Canada, seeking asylum. While in Canada, she continued to suffer from depression and PTSD, repeatedly telling friends of her desire to return home to Egypt. Despite her personal struggles, however, she never stopped fighting for the marginalised in her new home, or in her old one. She remained active online in Barra Alsour, an Egyptian queer feminist initiative that she helped found. She also joined Canadian organisations, like the Spring Socialist Network, and fostered relationships with Sudanese revolutionaries living near her in Toronto.
In the days since Sarah’s death, queer communities around the world have held candlelight vigils to honour her life and work. There has been an outpouring of solidarity with her on social media, led by queer Arabs and straight Arab allies. However, there has also been a social media backlash, with homophobic comments written under many of the posts about her death, including on the Barra Alsour Facebook page. The complexity of queerness in exile has been on full display.
Responding to Sarah’s death, Rasha Younes, a Lebanese researcher, asks, ‘What does it mean to arrive to “safety” in a foreign country, to sit alone with trauma and grief, robbed of any lifeline, and connected only through a computer screen?’ Rasha and many others lay the blame for Sarah’s death at the foot of the Egyptian government, which, like other governments in the Middle East, has used violent tactics to enforce hetero-patriarchal norms on their citizenry. However, many activists and researchers also recognise that the violent systems of hetero-patriarchy in LGBT refugees’ countries of origin do not simply disappear in countries of resettlement. Instead, they morph. Hetero-patriarchy is not a natural product of any one culture, but exists in various manifestations across borders, often intertwined with race and class. In many resettlement countries, intersecting systems of patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity preclude LGBT asylum seekers and refugees from receiving the full support they deserve.
Like other refugees, most LGBT refugees are concentrated in refugee camps near their countries of origin (like those in Kenya and Turkey). However, those that seek permanent resettlement are often placed in Canada, the US, Australia, or Europe. All of these resettlement countries promote themselves as ‘queer havens’. To be fair, resettlement countries do offer stronger legal protections for LGBT rights than LGBT refugees’ countries of origin. For example, resettlement countries tend to have employment protections and marriage rights guaranteed for their LGBT residents. Resettlement countries also tend to have broader (if incomplete, and sometimes geographically contingent) acceptance of LGBT people, and less state-sanctioned violence towards them. Nonetheless, legal protections and social opportunities are not evenly distributed across or within resettlement countries, and LGBT refugees and asylum seekers often experience a fractured version of the promised queer haven.
For LGBT asylum seekers, the expectation of a queer haven is perhaps first undermined by the asylum process. In the UK, a Home Office ‘culture of disbelief’ around LGBT asylum claims has meant that too often, LGBT people who are unable to narrowly tailor their narratives of identity and persecution to fit British concepts of queerness are denied on the basis of credibility. In addition to rejecting legitimate claims based on their inability to fit culturally recognisable ideas of queerness, Home Office lines of questioning can re-traumatise LGBT asylum seekers who have long been treated as suspicious and untrustworthy. In the US, LGBT asylum seekers are further traumatised by experiences in immigration detention centres. In addition to harassment from guards and other detainees, LGBT asylum seekers often receive inadequate healthcare treatment, especially if they are HIV+. With COVID-19 now present in many immigration detention centres, medically vulnerable LGBT asylum seekers in immigration detention are more endangered than ever, leading to the creation of petitions like this one.
For resettled LGBT refugees, the concept of the queer haven is further destabilised by the resettlement state’s definition of the normative queer. As Jasbir Puar points out, during the War on Terror, liberal states began to embrace a specific, narrowly-defined homosexual subject as worthy of state protection. This normative queer was socially and culturally constructed as a white, cisgendered, secular gay man who would contribute to the capitalist economy both via the purchasing power of his ‘pink dollar/euro/pound’ and by becoming commodified himself. A nationally-specific construct, the normative queer was established as antithetical to Orientalist ideas of ‘Muslim sexuality’, and excluded queer people who could not or would not participate in secular, capitalist identity-formation. As a result, LGBT people who are closeted, those who are religious, and those do not go to typical ‘gay’ spaces (such as gay bars) have often been excluded from the liberal state’s queer body politic. Considering the narrowness of recognisable/acceptable queerness in resettlement states, and the depth of psychological scars inflicted on LGBT refugees in their countries of origin, it is hardly surprising that many LGBT refugees continue to struggle with mental health long after their initial resettlement.
Far too little has been written about LGBT refugee mental health in the resettlement context. From the little that has been published, we know that LGBT refugees face multiple specific stressors upon arrival in their new country – stressors that may cause them to have more mental health challenges than either LGBT citizens or non-LGBT refugees. For example, many LGBT refugees face social isolation from other refugees and members of the diaspora, while also feeling disconnected from established LGBT groups in their new country. As a result of both pre-flight and post-flight trauma, LGBT refugees may experience PTSD, depression, and anxiety. However, they may also be hesitant to seek support from mental health services because of previous experiences with ‘conversion therapy’ or being told their sexuality or gender identity made them ‘ill’ or ‘not normal’. Even when they do seek support, it can be difficult to find mental health professionals who have experience working with both immigrants and LGBT individuals. In addition, LGBT refugees are not immune to the psychosocial factors that cause LGBT citizens of resettlement countries to be at much higher risk for mental illness and suicide. As a result, organisations that provide psycho-social support to LGBT refugees and asylum seekers are extremely important parts of any country’s resettlement infrastructure .
Responding to the news of Sarah Hegazy’s death, Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, declared:
‘Mental illness does not exist in a void. It is a product of structural violence. The power of heteropatriarchal capitalism is the way it inhabits the body. We are born into trauma, and we carry it with us wherever we go...The thought that someone can leave a society that keeps trying to kill them, and still carry that society inside them, still be moved to taking their own lives, chills me to the bone, as I reflect on my own exile, and the exile of the people I love. We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.’
The trauma held by LGBT refugees must be recognised for what it is: a product of systemic oppression. From violence in their home countries to isolation in exile, LGBT refugees are too often caught in webs of mental and spiritual violence. Resettlement organisations, LGBT initiatives, and cultural groups have a responsibility to work together to ensure LGBT refugees are fully supported upon arrival in their new country, not just economically and politically, but mentally and spiritually .
In honour of Sarah, her work and her life, we must work to make the resettlement system more inclusive of LGBT refugees. LGBT refugees cannot leave their trauma at the border. Their wounds do not close just because they arrive in a new country. Resettlement countries may not be able to offer LGBT refugees ‘new lungs’, but they can at least do a better job of helping LGBT refugees breathe.
Notes and references
 The Rainbow Welcome Initiative by Heartland Alliance has created a practical guide for LGBT refugee resettlement to help with this process, and ORAM has a dictionary of respectful LGBT terms that can be used in multiple languages.
Emilia Truluck holds a MA in Gender and Law from SOAS (University of London) and a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. During her graduate studies, she conducted research on the adjudication of LGBTI asylum claims in the UK and US immigration systems. Beyond the ivory tower, she has worked in various capacities with refugees and asylum seekers in the US, the UK, and the Middle East. She is currently pursuing a JD at the University of Michigan Law School.