Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Monograph

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

Geography

Collaborative Specialization

Migration and Ethnic Relations

Supervisor

Dodson, Belinda

Abstract

This dissertation explores how and where lesbian migrant women living in South Africa feel a sense of belonging. Despite South Africa having legal and constitutional protections for sexual minorities and refugees, both groups of individuals face high amounts of homophobic and xenophobically motivated persecution. Little work has explored the unique challenges that migrants who are also sexual minorities can face as a result of their intersecting identities, and this is particularly true for work that looks at the lives of lesbian migrants.

With principles of narrative inquiry serving as methodological guidelines, this study uses interviews and solicited sketch maps from fourteen self-identified lesbian and bisexual migrants to examine where in the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg these women live, work, relax, and form relationships. It explores how structural barriers rooted in homophobia and xenophobia intersect to exclude them from establishing livelihoods and everyday routines, and from finding spaces of belonging. It also looks at where they feel safe (or not) and what their levels of comfort in different places can tell us about the emotional aspects of belonging. Lesbian migrants’ levels of comfort in different spaces are rooted in the comfort of others, and so this thesis lastly analyzes how they manage other people’s perceptions of their identity to create spaces of inclusion. Findings show that lesbian migrants experience oppression and discrimination at intersecting, multiscalar levels, thus rendering microscopic the sites and spaces in which they feel they belong. The difficulties they face in accessing and sustaining economic livelihoods, finding places where they can feel wholly safe, and the constant need to be mindful of the emotions of others produces a landscape of exclusion and unsafety, and renders lesbian migrant women as perennial outsiders.

The findings contribute to existing work on queer migration studies. A focus on the (South) African context demonstrates the plurality of sexualities and how different identities can lead to different levels of social acceptance. They also add to literatures on migration studies in South Africa by highlighting how sexuality itself can impact migrants’ senses of belonging, as well as their identity formation, levels of safety, and means of emotional management and expression.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation explores how and where lesbian international migrant women living in South Africa feel a sense of belonging. Despite South Africa having protections in place for both refugees and gays and lesbians, these individuals still face a high threat of violence because of their identities. To date, research has looked at how migrants in the country fare and how lesbians in the country fare, but little has been done with migrants who also identify as lesbians.

The study’s fourteen participants self-identified as lesbian or bisexual migrants and lived in the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg. I conducted multiple interviews with them and had them draw sketch maps of their day-to-day lives. This served as a way to explore how forces like homophobia and xenophobia work in tandem to exclude them from establishing livelihoods and everyday routines, and from finding spaces of belonging. It also offered a means to look at where these women feel safe (or not) and what their levels of comfort in different places can tell us about the emotional aspects of belonging, along with how they manage other people’s perceptions of their identity to create spaces where they feel they belong. Findings show that lesbian migrants experience oppression and discrimination at across different levels and at scales large and small, thus severely limiting the sites and spaces in which they feel they belong. The difficulties they face in accessing and maintaining livelihoods, finding places where they can feel wholly safe, and the constant need to be mindful of the emotions of others leads to frequent exclusion and puts their lives in danger, and also makes them feel like they are always outsiders.

A focus on the (South) African setting demonstrates how there are many different ways that sexuality can be expressed as well as how different identities can lead to different levels of social acceptance. It also adds to work on South African migration by highlighting how sexuality itself can impact migrants’ senses of belonging, as well as their identity formation, levels of safety, and means of emotional management and expression.

Available for download on Thursday, August 25, 2022

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