Dr. Cathy Hannabach
May 1, 2013
Queer Asylum in Unveiling and Seeking Asylum
Although they present themselves as progressive and altruistic societies, the films Unveiling (2005) and Seeking Asylum (2013) portray the harsh realities faced by those seeking queer asylum in Western countries. The stories of these queer men and women reveal that despite leaving behind homes where they were severely persecuted, Germany and Great Britain are far from being the utopic havens they imagined. Through their sexual expression, Fariba, Bisi, Skye, and Uche challenge Western perceptions of sexuality; they are often faced with deportation when they fail to conform to monolithic lesbian and gay “ideals”. When Fariba fails to tell an immigration agent why she fled from Iran, she addresses the different conceptualizations that exist in the West between the personal and the political, “I didn’t flee the country for political reasons… The real reason is that I was with a woman” (Maccarone, Unveiled). It seems difficult for Western audiences to understand why it is that Fariba lied yet as Gaytri Devi explains, Farida did not see herself the way the immigration agent saw her; “Is gender a process of consolidation or is it a process of divestment and dissolution- or is it something else that may defy identity?” (Ginsberg and Mensch 176). Through the actions of Farida, Maccarone forces audiences to question the Western-centric biases regarding sexuality and its expressions. In Seeking Asylum, the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and migration are explored through the experiences of queer Africans seeking asylum in London. Both of these films criticize a system that is supposed to provide aid but instead further victimizes and disenfranchises those that are already vulnerable.
In both films, individuals are continuously asked to provide “proof” of their sexuality and persecution as a condition to attain safety. Yet as Rachel Lewis explains, presentations of what it means to be lesbian, and for that fact queer, does not apply from border to border, “Because race, religion, nationality, and political opinion are understood to be characteristics so fundamental to one’s identity that they cannot be changed, in order for homosexuality to be recognized within international refugee law as ‘membership of a particular social group,’ gays and lesbians must similarly express their sexuality in language connoting immutability” (Lewis 429). Especially for lesbians requesting asylum, providing evidence of abuse, which may often be psychological and done by a non-state actor, proves to be extremely difficult. As Fariba later explains to Ann, she did not have the proof of her attraction towards women and the abuse she had experienced. The narratives of queer individuals thus must convey an essentialism of their sexual orientation that emphasizes this aspect of their identity above all else. For Fariba, her well-being and safety in Iran had depended upon quieting this aspect of her identity yet she was expected to reveal this about herself instantly upon entering Frankfurt. In Seeking Asylum, Uche Nnabuife, a Nigerian man that immigrated to London illegally after being brutally beaten because of his sexuality, is having difficulty proving to the British government his gay identity, “So I don’t know if they want to see me sleep with a man naked or if they want a picture of that. They should just tell me but I have tried all my best” (Seeking Asylum). Uche’s experience as well as Fariba’s emphasize that for the West, there is a preferred and acceptable expression of sexuality; those that do not conform to such confines are further marginalized. Because of such delimiting portrayals of sexuality and identity, Martin Manalansan refutes the Eurocentric presentation of the home states of those seeking queer asylum as being the only, or primary sights of repression, “Manalansan thus challenges the dominant, ethnocentric model that views queer migration as a movement from ‘repression’ to ‘liberation’, instead highlighting the fact that migrants experience ‘restructured’ inequalities and opportunities through migration” (Luibheid 170). Neither Germany nor Great Britain reflect the liberal values that they are meant to uphold; instead, the detention center in which Fariba and many seeking asylum find themselves is a physical manifestation of the new set of repressions that exist in the receiving state. Each of the individuals that are portrayed in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum attempt to leave behind brutality and repression yet upon arrivals to a new state, they discover a new set of parameters that attempt to contain the queer experience.
The queer individuals in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum obviously suffered from abuse and persecution in their country of origin. More surprising however, was the abuse that they sustained in their receiving country. Through Fariba’s experience in Unveiled, Angelina Maccarone juxtaposes the urban furor of Tehran to the vast desolation present in the German countryside. Initially we are convinced that Fariba will find salvation when she leaves Tehran since we perceive her condition as being extremely repressed, “In some sense, it is impossible for us living in the West to conceptualize personal freedom if that freedom does not also include free expressions of the fullest potential of our gender identity, including our sexual orientation” (Ginsberg and Mensch 175). Of course, the situation that Fariba and other lesbian women experience in Tehran is harrowing yet as Eurocentric viewers, the demonization of Iran occurs as a result of what we conceive to be a repressed sexuality. At times it is difficult to distinguish if the life that she leads while working in a sauerkraut factory is preferable to her life in Tehran as a teacher. While the theocratic Iranian government enforces the chador and hijab as a means to censor the female body, Fariba completely loses her identity once she moves to Germany and she becomes an anonymous immigrant. Forced to take up the male identity of Siamak, her identity as an individual is completely erased by the German countryside.
Likewise, Skye recounts her experience as a queer asylum applicant as being extremely traumatic. She was held illegally in a detention center in London for 24 hours without any idea of what could happen to her, “I was taken away in the middle of the night by a police car… In that moment I felt really scare and very uncertain about my tomorrow. I didn’t know whether I would be beat up or whether I would be raped” (Seeking Asylum). The situation that this young woman describes would not be expected to occur in the country that was supposed to be providing her with protection. Very quickly, Skye and the other individuals that were requesting asylum realized that the demonization of their home countries served as a mask for the hardships they would face as queer individuals in their new countries. Portraying themselves as heroes, the current Eurocentric model of queer politics creates a set of “good” and “bad” states; “In another global flow, the corporate media use rights rhetoric to smear countries that are out of our favor: when news media report only certain ‘human rights violations’, they implicitly valorize, as points of comparison, the supposedly humane countries” (Malave and Manalansan 200). Such a universalist approach to the conditions of queer communities outside of the West creates unrealistic and even false dichotomies that at times overlook the homophobia and violence that is perpetrated against queer individuals in the West. In Seeking Asylum, Bisi, one of the first openly gay men in Nigeria, describes the hope that he has for his country and all of Africa to create better conditions for queer communities. While he affirms that he is much safer in the United Kingdom, he also states the less than ideal conditions he faces by being separated from his home country; as a person that has received asylum, it is illegal to return to one’s country of origin. Despite the tremendous love he feels for his country, he must live in exile.
The experiences portrayed in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum attempt to undo the myths of “heroes” versus “bad” countries. Those seeking queer asylum have not only had to endure persecution in their countries of origin but also prejudices from Eurocentric perceptions of what it is the correct way of being a gay or lesbian individual. Essentialism in this situation limited the identity if Fariba, Skye, Bisi, and Uche simply to their sexuality. There is extreme error in applying a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the complexity of individuals’ sexuality, gender, and culture;
“As avant-garde as queer politics in the West imagines itself to be, it must stay anti-universalist. Other queers are not a local deviation of a Queer” (Malave and Manalansan 199). It is when attempting to delimit the expressions of sexuality and queerness that the “savior” that the West sets out to be becomes a persecutor as guilty as those that queer asylum applicants have attempted to leave behind in their home countries.
Devi, Gayatri. “No Happily Ever After: Disembodying Gender, Destabilizing Nation in Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled.” A Companion to German Cinema. By Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. N. pag. Print.
Lewis, Rachel. “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12.3 (2010): 424-33. Print.
Lewis, Rachel. “Towards a Transnational Lesbian Cinema.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 16.3 (2012): 273-90.
Luibheid, E. “QUEER/MIGRATION: An Unruly Body of Scholarship.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 169-90.
Patton, Cindy. “Stealth Bombers of Desire.” Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism. By Arnaldo Cruz and Martin F. Manalansan. New York: New York UP, 2002. N. pag. Print.
Seeking Asylum- PBS.org. None On Record, 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
Unveiled. Dir. Angelina Maccarone. Perf. Jasmine Tabatabai. MMM Film Zimmerman &Company, 2005. DVD.