Queer Disorientation: The Loss of the East
This month's article on queerness and therapy comes from Ronete Cohen. It is a longer article than some of our other offerings have been but incredibly interesting and we hope you enjoy it.
Ronete Cohen (she/her) is a psychotherapist who works with individuals and relationships. She is a Pink Therapy Clinical Associate and specialises in the intersections of GSRD (Gender, Sex and Relationship Diversities), race, culture, neurodiversity and disability. She has specialist training in trauma, PTSD and CPTSD, and dissociation. Her website is www.rainbowcouch.com and she's @rainbowcouch on Twitter.
Queer Disorientation: The Loss of the East
I picked a subject close to my heart – queer migration from the east to the west. It’s the experience of many of my clients and in a much lesser way mine too. It’s the experience of the queer migrants we’re likely to see in our practices. I’m using my privilege and the voice I’ve been given to speak on their behalf. It’s really scary. It’s such a diverse group that I’m constantly picturing each and every one of them jumping up in turn and crying: But this isn’t my experience! And they’ll all be right.
“Disorientation is the loss of the east. Ask any navigator: the east is what you sail by. Lose the east and you lose your bearings, your certainties, your knowledge of what is and what may be, perhaps even your life. Where was that star you followed to the manger? That’s right. The east orients.” - Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Queer migration is a process where both east and west are distorted. It’s one where the migrant’s identity is reshaped and then lost in translation. It’s a process of disorientation brought on by complex transformations. It’s a complex process of trauma; the traumas of the past collide with new traumas. It’s hard to find help that can contain such complexity.
I’ve used composite stories and I’m not going to name countries. I’ve assigned random names except in one case where I’ve borrowed my grandmother’s given name, Nadra, to honour her, a Yemeni Arab-Jew and a migrant. I don’t know what her sexual orientation was – she died when I was ten – but one of her sons, my uncle, was queer.
Distortion through eastern eyes
“Before I came here, everything negative was so huge and overwhelming. It eclipsed everything else. It was all I could see. It was what home looked like to me. London seemed like the Promised Land. Now that I’ve had a reality check I’m able to see what I couldn’t see when I was back home.” - Samira
Migration involves leaving some of your past behind and hoping for a better future. Leaving the people and places you love and moving to a place full of strangers is scary. Migrants use distortion to make it easier. They magnify the negative in their country of origin and erase the positive. It’s self-soothing. They idealise their destination to reduce their fear of the unknown. Then, when the migrant reaches their destination, a reciprocal distortion begins.
Distortion through western eyes
Distortion happens through ignorance and applying a western context to eastern experiences. A common western distortion is to view queer migration as a move from “repression” to “liberation”. There are inequalities as well as opportunities everywhere. They are simply restructured during the process of migration. Ignorance of this is a distortion of both the east and the west.
"A white saviour is a western person going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of colour without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs". - Urban Dictionary
Ignorance of the east leads some to apply a western context to the east. This distortion is at the basis of white saviourism and of many microaggressions. Many queer migrants find themselves distorted in spaces where they had hoped to be safe. White saviour distortions of the east can make it possible for them to show support for oppressors of queer communities. These groups are often oppressors the migrants have personally escaped.
Migrants don’t need white saviours: they are capable of liberating themselves. The Middle East alone has dozens of LGBT organisations active in the region. They need allies rather than people who infantilise them by fighting their battles on their behalf.
Western feminist groups can overwhelmingly focus on white feminism. This distorts expressions of feminism and the lived experiences of eastern women. Queer groups ignore context and distort lived experiences of queerness that don’t match their definitions.
Eastern queer identities
Queer identities are formed in a context of location and culture. In the west, many don’t consider the privilege that shaped their queer identities and lived queer experiences. Context matters; without it, everything becomes distorted.
Eastern queer identities can’t always be translated into western ones. For instance, in many countries, identities will resist the binary and be more fluid. Queer communities can be small and therefore not segregated into their components. You’ll find queer people mixing with straight or hetero-flexible allies. Judging or trying to force labels on this fluidity is a distortion.
Nadra had a long-term girlfriend back home. Her girlfriend is married and has children. Because of the strict segregation between the sexes in their culture, when Nadra was around, her girlfriend’s husband would leave them alone. She would even stay overnight and they’d have sex. Nadra now identifies as bisexual but didn’t label her sexuality back then. Her girlfriend doesn’t label herself.
There are of course many people who do use labels we’re familiar with: LGBTQ+, kinky, poly. They tend to be a minority and often middle class and educated. Their freedom is conditional and limited.
Living in a hostile culture means existing in bubbles of acceptance and compartmentalising your queer identity. There can be total freedom within those bubbles but also a constant fear of discovery by outsiders. Queer physical appearance can make you more vulnerable to attack. In some countries, your neighbours could report you to the police if you’re careless enough to have loud sex.
Coming out is complex. In many countries, queer people aren’t free to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity. They could be out to their friends and an even wider queer network of acquaintances. They could even be out to strangers (in queer or queer-friendly venues) but not to their family. They could be out to their immediate family but not to their extended family.
Even when family members know, social stigma prevents a more public coming out. A very small minority do come out publicly and live lives dominated by their queerness. In many countries, legal status and active persecution by the state do not play as big a part in this process as people in the west imagine.
Samir still uses his deadname with his parents. He’s had top surgery and is on testosterone. He hasn’t video called his parents in a very long time because his appearance is now undeniably masculine. He even avoids phone calls and uses text instead because his voice has deepened, but he’s running out of excuses.
It’s important to understand that the east doesn’t completely disappear as a context when you move to the west. Your behaviour can have consequences for your life here, for contact with your family, and for how safe it is to visit the east.
Dalia Alfaghal, a lesbian activist living in the United States and co-founder of Solidarity with Egypt LGBTQ+, was out on her personal Facebook page. The page was public, but she thought only her friends read it. Then one of her posts went viral and was picked up by Egyptian media. She received many death threats and hate messages.
Identity is complex. When your environment has never changed, it’s easy to believe that identity is only influenced by internal processes. But context distorts. When migrants are subjected to distortion, it transforms their identity. It slowly changes towards the distorted image in other people’s eyes.
Identity can be viewed as a construct grouped into external identifiers, internal identifier and hidden identifiers. The external identifiers are the ones your community uses to identify you. The internal ones are the ones you use to identify yourself. And then there are hidden ones: either ones you don’t feel safe publicly identifying as, ones you find no longer apply to you, or ones that have become obsolete.
The following example illustrates how identity can transform along the lines of this construct. Back in the east, Marwa is assigned an identity according to their class, religious/sectarian and professional identifiers. At the same time, they identify primarily as an activist and a feminist. They are also bisexual and trans but can’t express this publicly. Then they migrate to the west.
The early days are about leaving behind the constraints of their community and the freedom to choose. Their external identifiers include two of the hidden ones: bisexual and trans. Activist has been “downgraded” to an internal identifier because the context has changed: the groups from back east don’t exist in the west, the causes are different. Class also changes with context: they feel the same class but are different from their class peers in the west – migration downgrades class. Writer may still be relevant in the east but not accessible to western eyes because of language barriers. Being a Christian is no longer relevant. It was more of a family and sectarian thing back home and they weren’t a practising Christian or a believer.
The transformation is completed after quite some time has passed. Now western eyes view them as an Arab, which is ironically seen as synonymous with being a Muslim. A major part of their identity has been transformed and distorted. They’ve gained a new identity: migrant. They still identity as bisexual, trans and feminist. They have even found their way back into activism, very often in groups where mostly migrants fight causes in the east or those of migrants in the west (and where there are fewer or no white saviours). There has been a loss of another major identifier, that of writer. The loss of language leads to a loss of meaning. They are no longer able to make sense in the same way they did before or come across as articulate. It’s as if their intelligence and power of expression have vanished.
|In the East||Transformation early days||Transformation completed|
Arab = Muslim
The migrant’s identity transformations can gradually transform the relationships with those left behind. In the west, they’re freer to express themselves in a way that was dangerous in the east. This can lead to disapproval or even rejection by families. The west distorts: subtle transformations can be almost imperceptible here. They feel safe. But the east distorts too: every nuance is magnified. It’s hard to hide on a Zoom call.
There is further disorientation. Engaging in activism here could endanger families and friends back home. Being forced to keep so much secret from them means they don’t know who you really are and can’t celebrate your achievements.
Waleed is an accomplished and highly respected expert specialising in eastern queer human rights. They’re not out to their family about their gender and sexuality or their work. Their many public appearances are done without them being named and with no cameras. This is done to protect them and their family who are still in the east. Their family views them as a failure because they’ve only spoken in very vague terms about their work; and also because they aren’t married and don’t have kids.
Waking up from the distortion of the west is another disorientation. The migrant is confronted with the reality of the west. The hoped-for homecoming and sense of belonging are shattered. The migrant is once again an outsider, distorted by western eyes. They are defined by their otherness.
Migrants who can visit home face another disorientation. They return transformed in a way their friends and families sometimes can’t relate to. They feel like strangers in their own home: out of touch, in a place that has transformed during their absence just like they have. They’re strangers, alienated. They’ve lost the east.
Queer migrant trauma is complex. There are traumas related to the past that we expect to find in people who’ve left their homeland for a reason. But they are wrapped up in the trauma of disorientation which is ongoing: there’s the trauma of racism and micro-aggressions and that of the gaslighting around them, the trauma of othering, alienation, isolation, transformation, disorientation.
Sarah Hegazi, an Egyptian lesbian, committed an act of extreme bravery: she waved a pride flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo in 2017. Mashrou’ Leila is a Lebanese band whose singer is openly gay. Sarah was imprisoned and tortured. She was later granted asylum in Canada. Deeply traumatised, she felt alienated and isolated in exile but couldn’t return to Egypt for fear of being arrested. She took her own life in 2020, aged 30.
There’s also the trauma of witnessing and experiencing traumas still happening back home. Experiencing trauma from afar can be more devastating than when you’re there because of isolation, because of not being in the same space with people experiencing the same trauma together. In countries where trauma is not unusual, it becomes part of the culture. This shared context is holding. There’s collective trauma, collective defences (healthy or not), collective grief and collective healing. Disorientation means being excluded from that.
There’s the trauma of having suffered queerphobia. It doesn’t go away just because the real danger has been left behind. The hypervigilance remains but its source isn’t always immediately obvious. The experience of safety in the west can be overwhelming and scary. It can make hypervigilance go into overdrive because there are so many things that register as dangers.
There’s the trauma of internalised queerphobia. It can be deeply hidden under layers of a confident and outgoing queer identity; it still leads to shame, fear and guilt.
The trauma we as therapists find hardest to talk about is trauma caused by therapists. Therapists who make assumptions about your context or about you based on their own distortions of the east. Therapists who encourage you to come out because they can’t see the context in which coming out is the wrong choice. Therapists who gaslight you when you try to talk about microaggressions, who try and help you change the way you frame things instead of validating and addressing racial trauma.
“When I was experiencing an acute mental health crisis due to the trauma I suffered back home, I was referred to an Asian women’s domestic violence support organisation. I’m queer and single and had never experienced domestic violence. No one could hear or see me.”
Queer disorientation in therapy
How do we meet our migrant clients’ complex needs in therapy? We must challenge our misconceptions so that we truly see them. If we’re not migrants, we need to check our privilege. We need to be curious about the experience of disorientation. We need to challenge our own distortions. We need to explore our clients’ queer migrant trauma.
We must take care not to force our own context on them. We should respect their boundaries even if we consider them harmful. We need to ask ourselves why we see them as harmful. Are we making assumptions? Are we using our own privileged position to judge them? Are we distorting the context? We must remember that coming out isn’t the holy grail. We need to believe our clients and take great care not to gaslight them.
We should take great care not to be white saviours trying to help the queer migrant move from repression to liberation. We’re all repressed and liberated in our own ways. If we meet our client where they are and hear them and see them without distortion, we can help them reduce their sense of disorientation.