Exploring the Intersectionalities of Gender and Sexuality in Migration Studies

Photos: Seminar photographs by Kudzai Vanyoro, ACMS Communication Intern.

“Could you tell me what the difference is between a sex worker and someone who sells sex?” asks a member of the audience. “Well, we argue that some of these migrant women do not necessarily label themselves as a sex worker. They engage in a variety of strategies to maintain their families and selling sex is one of them. They distance themselves from the label ‘sex worker’. But others, who are more politically engaged, for example through involvement in Sisonke, use the term explicitly as an identifier. We feel it’s important to stress the different relationships these women have to the term ‘sex work’” explains African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Walker.

Together with other academics from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Walker presented her work on 25 May when ACMS hosted a public seminar titled ‘Governing Morality: Sexuality, Gender and Migration’. The well-attended seminar showcased new in-depth research from South Africa and Europe on the multiple intersections of sexuality and gender within different forms of migration.

While migration studies have devoted much attention to the economic causes of migration, gender and particularly sexuality have frequently been overlooked. This seminar addressed this disjunture by firstly highlighting the role of gender and sexuality in the decision to migrate, and the ways in which gender and sexuality structure processes of migration. Secondly, the presented papers examined the contrastive representations of migrants’ sexuality in their countries of arrival. Thirdly, they demonstrated the continued involvement of state institutions, ideologies, norms and practices in delineating who belongs to a nation-state and who does not, and how these inform the construction of representations of migrants’ sexuality.

The seminar kicked off with a presentation by Walker and Elsa Oliveira who is a doctoral candidate at ACMS. Both have done research with migrant women who sell sex in South Africa. Their work stresses the need to go beyond binary debates around sex work and trafficking; whether these women are doing moral or immoral acts (‘good’ or ‘bad’) should not be the point of concern for the researcher. One example is the discrepancy between the (mis)representations of sex work, and these women’s own multidimensional and ambivalent everyday choices and lived experiences.

Based on an ethnographic research project on same-sex sexualities, transnational migration and religion in Belgium, I discussed some of the difficulties Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) asylum seekers experience in the asylum application procedure specifically and the process of migration more generally. To apply for asylum on grounds of sexual orientation, LGB asylum seekers must demonstrate to the Belgian state’s immigration apparatus that they belong to ‘a particular social group’ (of LGBs) and that ‘a fear of persecution exists’ (following the Geneva Convention and recent European Union directives). In other words, they have to prove to the authorities that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. I argued that the difficulties experienced in this process are mainly due to differences in cultural frameworks and moralities of gender, sexuality and subjecthood on the one hand, and intersectional dynamics between class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race, on the other.

The next presenter, Stanford Mahati who is also a postdoctoral research fellow at ACMS, presented a paper he wrote with Ingrid Palmary, the director of ACMS. Their work highlighted the interrelatedness between childhood, nationality, humanitarian work and the ways in which these are reproduced at the Musina border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Mahati stressed the need to unpack the victimisation and pathologisation of independent migrant children. Their gendered analysis of childhood sexualities in this context demonstrated that girls’ mobility was seen by humanitarian aid workers as risky and therefore inviting abuse, while the boys were perceived to be living up to masculine ideals of economic provision through their migratory aspirations.

Lastly, Oluwafemi Adeagbo from the Wits Reproductive Health Institute (WRHI) premiered his documentary on ‘Sexuality & Forced Migration’, with three testimonials by gay Nigerian men who migrated to South Africa because of their sexuality. Adeagbo explained that this project grew out of his doctoral research on gay interracial couples. In the Nigerian context the topic of same-sex desire remains highly sensitive, which was the reason the documentary interviewees asked to have their faces blurred in the documentary. The interviewees talked at length about their sexuality, their decision to leave Nigeria, their relationship to Christian faith, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

The seminar ended with an open discussion which further emphasised the need for migration studies to continue to include the exploration of the interrelated key issues pertaining to gender and sexuality.

This seminar was funded by the Mellon Foundation.

About Wim Peumans

Wim Peumans is a post-doctoral research fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, as part of the Andrew Mellon funded project ‘Governing Morality: Sexuality, Gender and Asylum in South Africa’. As a fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO - Vlaanderen), he obtained his PhD in social and cultural anthropology at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre (KULeuven, 2015). His dissertation was titled ‘Unlocking the Closet – Same-sex Desire among Muslim Men and Women in Belgium’. He was a visiting trainee fellow at the School of Anthropology and Conservation (University of Kent – Canterbury) in 2014 – 2015. His study on sexual migration to Belgium won the Marguerite Lefèvre Award for Genderstudies (Academische Stichting Leuven, 2010) and was published as a book (Acco Leuven, 2011, ‘Seks en Stigma over Grenzen heen’).