Dany Carnassale is a socio-cultural anthropologist and Ph.D. student in Social Sciences at the University of Padua (Italy). His research interests are the construction of non-heteronormative genders and sexualities in West Africa and the migration trajectories of queer African migrants towards Italy.
The construction of a ‘proper’ masculinity at the asylum court. Cultural misunderstandings about queer asylum seekers in Italy.
According to a comparative research (Jansen and Spijkerboer 2011), the number of asylum applications based on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI claims” in technical jargon, editor’s note) is constantly rising in Europe. In 2015 Italy reached the 3rd position in the ranking of European countries that receive more asylum applications (Eurostat 2015).
Recently some social scientists (Kobelinsky 2012; Akin 2015; Fassin and Salcedo 2015; Giametta 2017) showed that the practices enacted by representatives of immigration authorities and asylum courts demonstrate most of the times bias towards the ‘credibility of SOGI claims’ and stereotypes about how a queer individual should look like. For this reason it is urgent to look at the phenomenon of “SOGI claims” from an interdisciplinary standpoint and especially in countries where the situation is overlooked, as in the case of Italy.
The paper looks at the experiences of some male asylum seekers and refugees from West Africa (Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal) who applied for asylum in Italy for reasons related to their sexual orientation. The research explores their efforts to describe and legitimate a narrative about their male gay identity and the potential/occurred persecutions undergone in their countries because of their sexual behaviours. During the asylum process – that usually lasts 1 year – they are in touch with social workers in shelters, representatives of the immigration authorities and LGBTIQ associations and finally they are convened in front of the Italian court for asylum. In that final step, they have to talk about intimate issues in front of a interviewer (speaking Italian and perceived as a representative of the government) and an interpreter (usually of the his/her same nationality).
During the hearing, the commission evaluates the story of the asylum claimer, that is usually assessed also on the basis of performance and credibility criteria. As a consequence the asylum seekers who conform themselves to a stereotypical image of a ‘proper’ gay masculinity (feminine,weak, love- finding and committed to gay activism/spaces) have more chance to grant asylum, while those who express differently their maleness (being muscled, strong and straight-acting/dressing) are rejected and considered ‘fake claimers’ or ‘not gay enough’.
The paper shows that the assessment procedure is influenced by cultural misunderstandings and reveals the practices of control enacted by asylum courts. However, queer asylum seekers can alternately use their agency strategically acting more feminine than usual or react against hetero/homonormative labelling practices, legitimating at the same time different models of masculinity and queer identity.