Abstract: (Ir)Reconcilable Identities: Stories of Religion and Faith for Sexual and Gender Minority Refugees Who Fled from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia to the European Union (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

(Ir)Reconcilable Identities: Stories of Religion and Faith for Sexual and Gender Minority Refugees Who Fled from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia to the European Union

Friday, January 17, 2020
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Brett Greenfield, MSW/MDiv, Ph.D. student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Edward Alessi, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Sarilee Kahn, PhD, Assistant Professor, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Background and Purpose: Religion has been considered an essential “sanctuary and space of relief” for vulnerable populations, especially refugees (Horstmann & Jung, 2015, p. 1). One reason for this is that religion can provide refugees hope for the future and a sense of meaning in their lives (Abraham, Lien, & Hanssen, 2018). Another reason is that refugees depend on religious sites for concrete support and community affiliation to help them manage the exigencies of resettlement (Mallett & Hagen-Zanker, 2018). However, the experiences for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) refugees may be more complex, as religion has often been used to oppress them in their countries of origin. Guided by intersectionality, this study sought to understand how 34 LGBTQ refugees who fled to Austria and the Netherlands from Islamic societies described and understood experiences arising from the intersection of their religious and LGBTQ identities.

Methods: Participants originated from the Middle East (n = 25), North Africa (n = 4), and Central and South Asia (n = 5). They resided in Austria (n = 19) or the Netherlands (n =14), and ages ranged from 18-53 years old (M = 30). Twenty identified as gay, 5 as transgender female, 3 as lesbian, 3 as bisexual, 2 as queer or gender nonconforming, and 1 as transgender male. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to examine participants’ religious experiences before, during, and after migration. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). To enhance methodological rigor, we engaged in memoing to monitor our biases, participated in peer debriefings to refine and refute themes, and used negative case analysis to identify unexpected patterns in the data (Padgett, 2017).

Results: We identified the following four themes: Internalizing religious messaging: shame, self-blame, and suicidality; ‘I only had God’: drawing strength and solace from one’s faith; reclaiming Islam in one’s own way; and rejecting organized religion. Participants struggled to reconcile the conflict between their religious and LGBTQ identities in their countries of origin; however, understanding of their intersecting identities in the host country differed. For some, religion supported them through the difficulties of migration and resettlement; they were able to reconcile their faith and sexual orientation or gender identity by adapting their religious practices. Others outright rejected their religious backgrounds and identities.

Conclusions and Implications: To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate how refugees’ intersecting sexual, gender, and religious identities shaped their experiences of faith in their countries of origin as well as in the European Union. Accounting for sexual orientation/gender identity, migration status, and how LGBTQ refugees experience their religious identities in host countries allows for a more nuanced perspective of their lived realities. This study demonstrates how leveraging religion as a source of support for LGBTQ refugees may be beneficial. However, findings also show that providers must first understand the dynamics surrounding religion for each individual before assuming that all LGBTQ refugees still practice their faith or practice in the same way that they did in their countries of origin.