Excerpts from: Boundless Desires. Migrant Sexuality and Cultural Borders


Migrant Desires

In our society migrants seem marked by a symbolic overexposure that makes them simultaneously foreign and marginal. As foreigners they are enemies, as marginal peoples they are deviant. This dual-connotation arbitrarily simplifies (migrants are marginal), then generalizes (all marginal people are enemies), and finally naturalizes (they are this way by nature, independent of their actions).[i] Those who come from other cultures are therefore foreigners to us, they are the radical alterity, and even more so if they express other differences as well.[ii] LGBT migrants are thus a hyper-alterity and, furthermore, live the peculiar experience of being an ethno-cultural minority and a sexual minority at once: they are foreign twice over.


The migrant condition, moreover, by implying inferiority, marginalization, and racist contempt, creates a fertile ground for homophobia and genderism, and vice versa, homophobia creates a fertile ground for xenophobic discrimination. LGBT migrants could then be more exposed to discrimination because of the intersection between racist and sexist contempt.


The group I’m referring to, far from being homogeneous, is made up of a plurality of subjects. Some LGBT migrants are asylum seekers: a significant portion of migrants that arrive in Europe come, in fact, from countries where homosexuality is cause for repressive social and legal measures.[iii] But there are also economic migrants and migrants that come to study or in search of new opportunities.[iv] Thus, while the possibility to live fully one’s homo/bisexuality does not seem to represent the main push factor for migration, it goes hand in hand with the other motivations and develops along with them.[v] Migrants may even discover their LGBT status in Europe, where a higher degree of social freedom can facilitate the emersion of a repressed identity.[vi]


LGBT migrants live a difficult, peculiar condition compared to their compatriots. When, for example, they return to their society of origin to visit relatives and friends, their LGBT status, in the majority of cases, tends to disappear or remain hidden.[vii] But their relationships with their community of compatriots in Europe, with the group that is considered an extremely important resource for the individual in the migratory experience, are also complex.


Surely being migrant and LGBT often forces one to use strategies to handle the stigmatization, and, searching for a balance between these various elements can bring about a kind of identity-surfing; one is migrant or LGBT depending on the context.[viii] And many of them—especially when they come from countries with a deep-rooted homophobic culture—can adopt this identity-surfing, this complex handling of stigma, when dealing with public services, concealing their differences in fear of possible repercussions. There is no data on the experience of LGBT migrants and their journeys through integration and social insertion, but it seems evident that services for migrants are planned and provided without consideration for sexual orientation or gender identity.


The LGBT Community

Being LGBT migrants means dealing with both the host society in general and with the (often discriminatory) LGBT minority population. A useful Arcigay[1] study shows how migrants tell of the different types of receptions they have received entering the Italian LGBT network; a welcoming that is very much determined by cultural differences. In particular there are three aspects that have emerged from interviews that seem to (positively or negatively) influence their entrance into the LGBT world, and their establishing of ties with other people.


First and foremost the exoticism of foreigners can be a source of attraction that favors one’s initial contact with the networks, and can represent a tool that is consciously used by migrants to build friend circles. Some migrants, however, complain about the fact that often that initial curiosity is not followed by any intention to establish deep long lasting ties.[ix] Once the exotic curiosity passes, cultural differences become an obstacle in relationships.


There is a second aspect that seems rooted in different non-heterosexual cultural representations of desire, as in cases of discrimination (present in some segments of the network) toward bisexual behavior that is present in many of the migrants’ countries of origin.[x] This excerpt from one immigrant’s testimony speaks to the issue: “someone told me that bisexuals don’t exist and that I must be gay. That’s not right. […] In Pakistan gays don’t exist, bisexuals do.”[xi]


In general, it’s clear that the information, support, and counseling services provided by LGBT associations center around an identity-based model that developed in the West. Many migrants with homo/bisexual behaviors do not fully see themselves within this gay-lesbian model; they may even be hostile toward it. As a result, the services and politics of these organizations may not be effective for these migrants.


A last aspect is one brought about by prejudice. Even within LGBT communities, foreigners can, in fact, encounter those stereotypes and prejudices present within society.[xii] And the effect of this multiple discrimination our society produces often takes the shape of a sad war between the lower classes. The rights obtained in Europe by the LGBT population at times lead to closed-off protective behavior:


[…] In European cities with high immigration flows, xenophobic and racist discourses have emerged within a section of LGBT people. They argue that immigration from countries where there are less tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality and transsexuality should be limited because it might lead to a loss of rights of LGBT people.[xiii]


On the one hand the bans against Gay Pride or, when they do take place, the violent physical attacks perpetrated by nationalist groups have charged the countries of the Central-Eastern European Block with homophobia.[xiv] On the other hand, according to Kulpa, the West is attempting a “normalization” of homosexuality, which is carried out by offering up ethnic minorities (and Muslims in particular) as scapegoats for the widespread climate of intolerance.[xv]


The intercultural relationship between the Western LGBT community and LGBT migrants in our cities is, furthermore, influenced by the historic weight of European homosexual tourism, which is directed toward destinations like Cuba, Thailand, and Sri Lanka (where there are tolerated forms of male prostitution) or toward places like Maghreb where (because of their non-identity based conception of sexuality) young men are disposed to have sex with Europeans, perhaps in exchange for a small gift.[xvi] And, even today, much of the homosexual prostitution in our cities seems ethnically marked. According to studies, many male prostitutes are Roma, originally from Romania and Bulgaria.[xvii] Recently we have seen Nigerian male prostitution taking place in hotels and nightclubs.[xviii] But the large majority of young men come from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.[xix]


In the case of migrant prostitution clients tend to eroticize imagined characteristics like the skin color, penis size, wild voraciousness, and uncontaminated authenticity of these young men who are thus “racialized.”[xx] In my opinion, it is structured by that same exchange between exoticism and eroticism found in migrant prostitution more generally. And it is thus not by chance that the vast majority of transsexuals that work as street prostitutes are South American.[xxi]


Both in the case of sex tourism and in male prostitution we have subjects that share an LGBT status though they come from two different sides of an asymmetry. It is an instrumental exchange in which the difference enacted is an ethno-cultural one that prevails over a possible LGBT commonality. The ethno-cultural difference thus often splits an LGBT community that thus appears not monolithic by split, obviously, by economic asymmetries of power and citizenship.


In the case of male prostitution we often have the presence of a double border. Many of the migrants who prostitute themselves, in fact, do not identify as homo/bisexual[xxii] but simply have an economic need:


[…] In the case of the Maghrebi […] who are illegal during their stay in Italy, prostitution represents a last hope: the body becomes their only tool for survival […]. In other cases, prostitution is lived as a kind of “social cushion” that aids survival during times when other jobs are lost.[xxiii]


In this case we have a complex crossing of borders: the intercultural border and the one between sexualities between a client with a gay identity and a sex worker who, keeping the penetrative-ejaculative sex role, can maintain his “heterosexual” identity, according to the understanding of this identity in his culture of origin. It is not surprising that, within this multiple crossing of borders, misunderstanding, control, presumption, threats, ransom, and violence are present on both sides.


Desires and Interculture

Sexuality is heavily dictated by the culture from which it stems, and thus comes into play during intercultural contact. Engaging with LGBT migrants means using an intercultural lens to explore various forms (and cultural representations) of desire. […] Homosexualities are in fact gendered practices, as are heterosexualities: “they are sexualities organized with reference to female bodies and male bodies.”[xxiv] Thus engaging with homo/bisexuality and migration is not splitting hairs given that homosexuality plays a central role in our society: it plays a role as constituted-other in the realm of practices and discourses that regularly and molecularly incessantly restructure gender.[xxv] When sexual practices and cultural representations of migrants interact with those of natives they are the foundry in which they contribute to the forging of our future society’s models of gender and sexuality. LGBT migrants are pioneers of this “interculture of desire” and practice a complex intercultural dialogue through kisses and caresses, desires and pleasures, gestures and identities, sufferings and joys. In short, with their desire, and their loving, they practice a concrete interculture. A piece of our society’s future is entrusted to the utopia of this love that crosses borders of states and identities.







[1] Translator’s Note: Arcigay is a non-for-profit LGBT organization geared toward providing information, advocacy, and discrimination prevention for LGBT communities throughout Italy. See: http://www.arcigay.it/who-we-are/

[i] Alberto Burgio, Senza democrazia. Un’analisi della crisi (Rome: Derive Approdi, 2009), 228-229.

[ii] Porpora Marcasciano, “Avimma magnà. La questione transessuale nell’Italia Contemporanea,” in Vite clandestine. Frammenti racconti e altro sulla prostituzione e la tratta di esseri umani in provincial di Napoli, ed. Andrea Morniroli (Naples: Gesco, 2010), 91-91.

[iii] Gerard Coll-Planas, ed. Combating Homophobia. Local Policies for Equality on the grounds of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. A European White Paper (Turin: City of Turin, 2011) 50.

[iv] Laura Pozzoli, “La montagna e la catena. Essere migrant omosessuali oggi in Italia,” in Io, immigrazioni e omosessualità. Tracce per volontarie e volontari. ed. Miles Gualdi, and GiorgioDell’Amico (n.p.: Arcigay, 2008).

[v] Ibid., 38.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 39.

[viii] Ibid., 50.

[ix] Ibid., 51.

[x] Ibid., 52.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Coll-Planas, 51.

[xiv] Roberto Kulpa, “L’Est visto dall’Ovest. Dei discorsi occidental sull’omofobia nell’Europa centro-orientale. in Alterazioni, ed. Cirus Rinaldi (Milan: Mimesis, 2012) 361.

[xv] Ibid., 382.

[xvi] Vincenzo Patanè, Arabi e noi. Amori gay nel Maghreb (Rome: Derive Approdi, 2002), 15-16.

[xvii] Luca Oliviero, Carlo Russo, and Abdel Fattah Zaami, “Vite ai margini: sex workers al maschile,” in Vite Clandestine. Frammenti, racconti e altro sulla prostituzione e la tratta di esseri umani in provincial di Napoli, ed. Andrea Morniroli (Naples: Gesco, 2010), 50.

[xviii] Enrica Di Nanni, Annunziata Cipolla, Fathima Ehikhebolo, Carmen Faranan, Andrea Morniroli, “La descrizione del fenomeno,” in Vite Clandestine, 20.

[xix] Ibid., 22.

[xx] Cirus Rinaldi, “Razza, genere e sessualità nelle arene del sex working maschile. Implicazioni auto-etnografiche,” in Razzismi, discriminazioni e confinamenti. ed. Mario Grasso (Rome: Ediesse, 2013), 186.

[xxi] Ministry of the Interior – Osservatorio sulla prostituzione e sui fenomeni delittuosi ad essa connessi, Relazione sulle attività svolte. 1 semestre 2007. 13. http://www.osservatoriopedofilia.gov.it/dpo/resources/cms/documents/141.Osser- vatorio_prostituzione.pdf

[xxii] I am speaking of identity and leaving aside desire, as desire would require its own separate analyses.

[xxiii] Luca Oliviero, Carlo Russo, and Abdel Fattah Zaami, “Vite ai margini: sex workers al maschile,” 64.

[xxiv] R.W. Connell, The Men and the Boys. Cambridge: Polity, 2000: 27.

[xxv] Nicola Mai, “Mascolinità albanesi, sex work e migrazione,” in Io, immigrazioni e omosessualità, 11.


Giuseppe Burgio PhD, is a researcher in Intercultural Education at the University of Enna "Kore." He graduated as SYLFF fellow at the Nippon Foundation of Tokyo, and is the deputy director of CIRQUE - the Inter-University Center of Queer Research. In addition to having published various scientific articles in Italy, Spain, France and the United States, he published five books, one of which won the prestigious national SIPED prize from the Italian Pedagogical Society.
Julia Heim is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. She is the cofounder of the Queer Studies Caucus of the American Association of Italian Studies and a founder and project team member of QuIR, an Italian Queer Network founded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. As a freelance translator Julia primarily translates queer theory, art criticism, philosophy, and the children's book series Geronimo Stilton.

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