Posts Tagged Julia Kristeva
Seventy or so years ago, homosexuals were arrested across Nazi Europe – around 100,000 of whom between 5 and 15 thousand were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them are believed to have been killed. Their place in the Holocaust was not recognised officially for many years – after all, survivors could not tell their stories openly in societies where their sexuality was still criminalised and stigmatised.
Today in Uganda the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apparently withdrawn under intense international pressure, has been reintroduced to parliament. It would broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations by creating two categories: aggravated homosexuality (e.g. acts committed by someone who is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, a repeat offender, commits acts on a minor or using intoxicating substances),which would attract the death penalty, or the offense of homosexuality punishable merely by life imprisonment. This legislation extends to those who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, and includes penalties for supporting gay people or LGBT rights. Uganda is not alone – homosexuality is punishable by death in a number of other countries, and criminalised across much of the globe. In these countries, not only are LGBT people subject to judicial punishments but to unofficial violence, against which they can have no hope of redress or protection.
Despite this, for a long time in UK asylum law, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could be grounds for seeking refugee status was not accepted. As a result, even where people could show that they had faced persecution because of their sexuality, and that their home country criminalised homosexuality, they were told to go home, and be discreet. Two years ago this was overturned by the UK Supreme Court.
‘The Home Office argument paralleled the idea that if Anne Frank could have avoided persecution by hiding forever in the attic, then she wouldn’t have qualified as a refugee. Sir John Dyson calls this argument “absurd and unreal”. The test essentially creates two parallel persecutions – the objective risk from the state or society one comes from, and the living lie required to hide from it. Moreover, the court holds that there is no possible yardstick for measuring when suppressing ones sexuality is “reasonably tolerable”. The question the court of appeal posed regarding what is “reasonably tolerable” is fundamentally unanswerable. As Lord Rodger points out, in the final analysis, “there is no relevant standard since it is something which no one should have to endure”.’ (Bernard Keenan, ‘Milestone victory for gay refugees’, Guardian, 7 July 2o10)
This was obviously a huge step forward. And the refugee organisations who helped to bring about this change also lobbied for improved training for UKBA staff, to enable them to deal with these issues more sensitively, and with a greater cultural understanding (see Stonewall’s report for the background to this). Things may well have improved in this area too, but the number of cases where gay asylum seekers are currently threatened with deportation suggests there is some way to go.
Julia Kristeva argued that the stranger/refugee multiplies masks and false selves. In their homeland the refugee may have had to ‘pass’, as conforming to whatever set of beliefs and behaviours will make them acceptable. In their place of sanctuary, the immediate threat may have been removed, but they still need to keep themselves as inconspicuous as possible, given that the very fact of being a stranger makes them vulnerable. And if the reason for their exile is their sexuality, their claim for refugee status is dependent upon their ability to be open about something that has been a source of shame and fear, something that may still expose them to violence. A new report from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration says that ‘LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm despite being among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world. Moreover, they are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy.’
So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality. If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile. Double jeopardy.
Stonewall, No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People and the Asylum System, 2010
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
It’s Refugee Week. Every year a time to consider what drives people to leave everything behind and throw themselves on the mercy of a world that is often indifferent, suspicious and hostile. Every year a time to consider what our culture has gained from those who’ve sought sanctuary here, and what it’s lost in those who never made it.
Two very different refugee stories that I came across in the last few days:
Occursus told the story of Pauline, whose family came to Sheffield from Ukraine, and were part of the Jewish community in the slums around Scotland Street. There’s a multiple loss here – of the original home in Novograd-Volynsk, of the area where the 19th century Jewish emigrants settled, and the family home on Allen Street, but also of the connections to that past, and those lost places. Pauline was discouraged from exploring her family history, and now pieces together what she can from fragments and guesses, and sensory memories – smells and sounds. And the Guardian featured Carmen Bugan‘s memories of her father, a dissident in Ceausescu’s Romania, and the family’s escape from oppression. Carmen’s memories have been enhanced in an unexpected way – by the secret police files which she’s now been able to access and which shed a weird light on the years of surveillance and suspicion, imprisonment and torture, but also gave her back a story she’d written as a child and the endorsement of her father’s love for his children in the words of an anonymous watcher.
These stories chimed for me with reflections on Storying Sheffield’s 2012 exhibition, from Matthew Cheeseman’s Einekleine blog, talking about the sensibility of loss, the fragmentary past, memory appearing as traces. He says that the work in the exhibition ‘makes one marvel at all that is not there, at all that is truly gone, erased forever.’ It offers ‘a field of stories so deep, so potentially endless, it induces vertigo, a sense of terror at what has gone before and what will be left behind. … Within this vertigo is a response to the finality of Derrida’s traces: more will come, more will happen. Traces will be replaced by traces, all dying, all corroding, but giving into others, in a protean, quantum-field of experience which is not only filled with loss but also, seemingly at least, a generative, life-affirming push. Speech and stories may be fragile and delicate, but they are replaced and revived by their own action. ‘
There are many, many lines of flight from here. Reading history in the gaps, the absences, the lacunae. Ghosts and revenants, walking the streets of our cities. Themes for future blogs – but in this specific context, a reminder of the field of stories from those who, like Pauline’s parents, and Carmen’s, left behind lives that are unrecoverable now, and made new lives in unfamiliar places. Every refugee has these two narratives – the life before and the life since. And the former interweaves itself with the latter, consciously or unconsciously – Carmen lives on the border between France and Switzerland, where her husband works at CERN: ‘I think I belong on the border. I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’. Another line of flight – borders, frontiers, liminal space…
The refugee story is our story too. Not just in the sense that it could be any of us, though of course it could be – but because how we, our community, our city, our homeland, respond to the strangers who turn to us for sanctuary is a compelling story too, on every level from the most personal to the global political. The refugee story told by some of our newspapers is a travesty of the truth, a mean-spirited, mendacious, xenophobic narrative of a Britain already full up, being taken for a ride by workshy foreigners with sob stories about persecution and spurious appeals to human rights. I would be fairly startled if anyone reading this blog subscribed to that set of views. But because it’s so pervasive, the counter-narrative needs to be robust, and to establish both facts (the laws around asylum, the benefits and entitlements of those seeking it, the numbers involved) and principles.
For Derrida, ‘ethics is hospitality’:
‘Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others. Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality’. (Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness, p. 16-17)
He goes beyond this assertion to recognise the possibility that hospitality can entail appropriation, control and mastery, and to explore therefore the idea of cities of refuge, an idea that goes back centuries, but raises issues of state sovereignty and law which he acknowledges are obscure and difficult. There’s no simple way of enshrining that simple principle at national and international level, but without that, the fate of the exiled will always be precarious. Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s study of cosmopolitanism, subtitled ‘Ethics in a world of strangers’, defines it as ‘ universality plus difference”. Based on this, we should offer hospitality to the stranger because of the former – because what we share is more important than what we don’t. That difference may be the first thing that strikes us, and Julia Kristeva sets out a shockingly stark polarity of responses: ‘I’m at least as peculiar as this other, and so I love him/her’, says the observer , or ‘I prefer my own peculiarity, and so I kill the other’ – more recognisably, fascination or rejection. Kristeva’s analysis is complex and problematic on many levels and certainly doesn’t offer – any more than Derrida or Appiah – a programme of change. But it offers some powerful images of what it is to be a stranger – in a state of permanent transience, one’s space ‘a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping’, torn between here and elsewhere, belonging nowhere. The stranger loses their language and their place in the community – they count for no one, no one hears them.
W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz came to Britain on the kindertransport. Sebald explores the “effects political persecution produces in people 50 years down the line, and the complicated workings of remembering and forgetting that go with that”. He is interested in the long-term effects on émigrés who “may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages to people’s inner lives that can never be rectified.” In The Emigrants too, he explores the ‘great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms you’.
Derrida rejects the option of giving examples of individual refugees in his text, ‘for there are too many; and to cite the best known would risk sending the anonymous others back into the darkness (mal) from which they find it hard to escape’ (p. 6). There’s truth in this – but the refugee risks losing past, history, identity and language when they uproot themselves to find safety amongst strangers, and every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.
Refugee Week is obviously about more than telling the stories. It’s about campaigning, to end destitution for refused asylum seekers (Still Human, Still Here), to change practice on the treatment of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. It’s about fundraising to provide resources and support for refugees. It’s about raising awareness and understanding, refuting and challenging prejudices and misconceptions. There are many organisations working in this field, at the local and national level, some of which are listed below. I choose to support Refugee Action, for which my brother has worked for a number of years, and for whom I will be fundraising by participating in the Great Yorkshire Run in September.
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers a nous-memes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness (NY, Routledge, 2001)
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London: Allen Lane, 2006)