Researching Queer Mobilities in Europe: An Interview with Andrew Shield
As both a historian and social scientist, Andrew Shield thinks critically about the relationship between sexuality, race, and migration in Europe since WWII. He focuses in particular on the outsized role that the specter of Muslim and Middle Eastern migrants play in the sexual politics of the Netherlands and Scandinavia. His first book, Immigrants in the Sexual Revolution: Perceptions and Participation in Northwestern Europe (Springer, 2017), focuses on the latter half of the twentieth century, when Northwestern Europe witnessed the simultaneous arrival of (post-)colonial migrants and a series of interlocking feminist and sexual liberation movements. Contrary to twenty-first century homonationalist discourses that frame immigrants—particularly those from Muslim majority regions—as illiberal and foreign to European sexual politics, Shield argues that migrants actually played a formative role in the complex assemblage of movements that has come to be known as the “sexual revolution.” Shield’s second book, Immigrants on Grindr: Race, Sexuality, and Belonging Online (Springer, 2019), fast-forwards to the greater Copenhagen area in the twenty-first century, exploring how a gay dating application functions as an ambivalent site of exclusion and inclusion for predominantly Muslim migrants in a country renowned for its supposed tolerance. Running throughout Shield’s work is a careful attention to the tensions and ambiguities that continue to plague European attempts to mediate race and sexuality in the defiles of liberalism. His choice to work across national and cultural boundaries poses interesting questions about the relationship between liberal tolerance and shifting understandings of “Europeanness.” In this interview, we discuss several conceptual and methodological strands running throughout his work, including homonationalism, the promises and perils of portable concepts for diagnosing subtle forms of raced and sexed violence, and the future of social science work on queer migration in the EU.
—Luke Forrester Johnson for EuropeNow
EuropeNow I hear that you have been working on an exciting interdisciplinary project on queer migration. How does this project build on existing research on queer mobilities in Europe, and what makes it methodologically different from prevailing approaches?
Andrew DJ Shield I am halfway through an interdisciplinary project on queer migration that brings together historians and social scientists across Europe—namely Italy, France, Greece, and the Netherlands—with researchers outside of Europe—specifically, Morocco, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, and Jordan. We are collecting narratives of migration broadly construed in the general Mediterranean area to build a large archive. For example, as part of this project I was able to hire a PhD student, Jamel Buhari, who is working on sub-Saharan queer migrants in the Netherlands—their reasons for immigrations, their pathways, their experiences in the Netherlands, their understandings of belonging, and so on. He is also exploring the experiences of people who decided not to leave, and how queer activism in West Africa is being shaped by emigration.
A large part of this project, and what makes it exciting in my mind, is that we are putting the focus on stories that are already out there. When many people start working on queer migration, they think they have to start from scratch. But they overlook the fact that many LGBTQ asylum seekers, and many queer people of color in Europe have already, very bravely, shared very intimate details of their experiences—their childhoods, their journeys, their understandings of sexuality. The recent exhibit in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe, called Habibi, les révolutions de l’amour, provided a great example of the narratives of queer of color experiences that are already circulating in Europe. Queer migrants have been so generous with their time and their personal lives, and there is so much great content out there.
And focusing on what is already there means that new scholars working on this topic do not have to put the burden on queer migrants who are currently going through so much. Even once they have finished the process of migration, it can be very taxing for them to rehash all they have been through. Many researchers also reach out to NGOs to try to set up interviews, but these NGOs have so much to do. Also of concern is the fact that migrants and asylum seekers may think that researchers can actually help get them their papers—which is of course problematic from both an ethical and a methodological perspective. So, in general, the hope with this project is to move toward a more ethical way of doing research on queer migration in Europe, a way that is more attuned to the conditions on the ground.
EuropeNow Many have worked on queer refugees. What you add is a longer view—focusing on queer migration and not just queer asylum. Why is that important?
Andrew DJ Shield Many queer refugees in Europe get asylum because they already have certain privileges, such as being able to come to Europe with an invitation letter or a student visa. Money, passports, connections. These are all really important. So, refugees are often much more privileged than Europeans realize. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, these privileges were not available to refugees. The people who were able to leave their country of origin had to get jobs, or get married, or become students, etc. I have interviewed many people who tell me interesting stories about how their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status related to their decisions to leave during this period, before sexual orientation or gender identity were possible or probable grounds for asylum. I am exploring the physical and legal pathways they took to the Netherlands. On paper, they are not queer refugees. But their experiences provide a very important historical background to queer asylum proper in Europe, and it is vital that we document their experiences while this generation is still around to share them.
For example, one of my interviewees planned to attend the International AIDS Society’s 8th International conference in Boston in 1992, but right before the conference, the US passed a new law saying that HIV positive people could be turned away. So, at the last minute the conference organizers decided to move it to Amsterdam. And when this participant, who came from rural, conservative America, came to the Netherlands, he was for the first time in his life surrounded by queer, HIV-positive, and HIV-literate people. Right away, he met a person who would become his boyfriend and eventually moved to the Netherlands to be with him. He even was able to get on his partner’s health insurance by leveraging what he calls “gay family.” In this instance, that meant attempting to apply to be on his partner’s insurance—and succeeding—only by working with an employee they could tell was part of the gay community.
In short, my focus is on the subtle, unofficial ways that queer migrants have made starting life anew possible before official channels opened up. It is too simplistic to approach these migrants by assuming they move to more gay-friendly places, like this American expatriate who said, “I moved to the Netherlands because it was more gay-friendly;” I am interested in unveiling the way in which the Netherlands fits into his identity and the way that informal networks of “gay family” allowed him to integrate.
EuropeNow You touch here on an important notion—the often taken for granted assumption that migrants move to Western European countries because people there are more tolerant, more gay friendly, freer, etc. And this is a recurring theme in your research. How do these discourses fit into the broader problematics that animate your research?
Andrew DJ Shield I situate all of my research in relation to European debates and discourse about immigration and sexuality. Very often, these two topics are framed as being in conflict with one another. The Netherlands has more or less served as the archetype for how the notion of “gay rights” can be mobilized against “Islam.” The right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn is of course an important point of reference here. In 2007, Jasbir Puar coined the term “homonationalism” in Terrorist Assemblages to explain the ways in which neoliberal and capitalist ideology coopt pro-gay and lesbian discourses in order to justify racism, xenophobia, and militarism, particularly in their Islamophobic and anti-Arab forms. Fortuyn was a prime example of this trend. Today, much has changed since the publication of Terrorist Assemblages, and not necessarily in the way I predicted. But I still see my research as responding to any claims that purport to naturalize the attitudes of immigrants toward homosexuality, gender equality, and sexual liberation as fundamentally at odds with so-called “European” cultures.
EuropeNow What has changed since Puar coined the term homonationalism? Do you think the term is still an apt concept?
Andrew DJ Shield When I started my research in 2010, I was certain that right-wing politicians across Europe would follow the Dutch example and strategically use gender and sexuality to ostracize immigrants and Europeans of immigrant backgrounds. Pim Fortuyn was in many ways the first example of this trend. He was this flamboyant politician who claimed that his Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics were justified because he was a gay man. But to my surprise, this move has not really become the norm in EU right-wing politics. Certainly, when we look at Poland or Hungary, currents have gone in the opposite direction. Poland and Hungary, both of which have right-wing anti-immigrant parties, have firmly anti-LGBTQ stances.
We have seen some homonationalist politics in Scandinavia. My last book focused specifically on Denmark, and I touched on the fact that several right-wing politicians who had never previously bothered to address gay rights suddenly began talking about these issues, directly in relation to anti-immigration measures. That said, this rhetoric was diffused more at the local, Copenhagen level, and these questions did not become a central talking point for right-wing Danish parties such as Dansk Folkeparti or Nye Borgerlige. In some ways, the new right wing in both the Netherlands and Denmark has moved away from this homonationalist framing and begun criticizing transgender rights as non-European, foreign impositions.
There have been moral panics around immigrant sexualities in Germany as well, but as far as I am aware, many of these panics have rather been focused on constructing the straight Arab/Muslim man as a danger to women—particularly when it comes to Alternative für Deutschland—whereas Scandinavian right-wing politicians have been very focused on the notion of the oppressed Muslim woman. In any case, both of these approaches are very different from the notion of the gay European subject being endangered by illiberal foreigners.
EuropeNow This is interesting because it suggests that there was something very particular about the Dutch discursive landscape at the time that Puar was writing that gave homonationalist politics momentum. What allowed this to happen?
Andrew DJ Shield The gay rights movement radicalized in the 70s in many European countries, as well as North America and Australia, but middle-class white gay men in the Netherlands in particular were able to garner broad appeal with the government. The COC (Cultuur en Ontspanningscentrum, or Center for Culture and Leisure—a euphemistic name) managed to make significant gains in forming policy during the 80s, a time when the AIDS crisis meant other countries were really trying to distance themselves from LGBTQ movements. There were some comparable gains in Denmark, but the gains made by white gay men in the Netherlands in the 80s and 90s were really unprecedented when we compare the Netherlands to other so-called progressive states like France, the UK, or the US.
EuropeNow Another important dimension here is the “nationalism” in homonationalism. How do you feel about the frame of the nation-state, since you work across countries? You take “Northwestern Europe,” rather than say, Denmark or the Netherlands, as your research frame. That said, for example, the anthropologist Don Kulick has shown how vastly sexual cultures can vary, say between Denmark and Sweden.
Andrew DJ Shield I try to walk a thin line between those afraid to do comparative work and those who scale up and outwards too quickly. The research on which my last book is based provides an example of where the national or cultural frame becomes less relevant. I focus on Grindr users in the greater Copenhagen area, which includes Malmö, Sweden, lying just across the Øresund bridge. Most people in Malmö would certainly not want to be called part of the greater Copenhagen area, but there are actually important reasons for thinking about the Øresund sound region (which includes both cities) as my research site. While the cultural and legal contexts are very different in these two countries, and while there are different immigration patterns in both, I found that my interlocutors as refugees, people of color, and students from Muslim majority countries had remarkably similar experiences on both sides of the bridge. Moreover, my immigrant interlocutors described certain dynamics in the LGBTQ communities on each side of the bridge in similar ways. For example, gay men often came to Copenhagen, seeing it as a better place for parties, drinking, sex, friends, and so on, whereas my sober and gender non-binary subjects largely gravitated toward the Malmö side. So, whereas we do see a boundary being drawn here along the lines of culture, it is drawn by a community, sharing similar experiences, that spans that very boundary.
That said, the border here is also crucial to think about when it comes to immigration politics in both countries, because both use passport checks to prevent refugees from crossing back and forth, even though this border was an open border long before the Schengen Zone was established. In general, I am shocked by how few studies have compared the Netherlands with Scandinavia. There have been studies that group together the countries that make up the Benelux region, or the Nordic region (i.e. Scandinavia with Finland), but rarely have studies focused on the Netherlands and Scandinavia together. A number of European social scientists are still very fixated on the nation-state as a methodological frame.
EuropeNow Nationalism is indeed very firmly anchored in European Studies. Along with my colleagues, I have actually been working to push back against this framing in my own work on race in France—particularly given the ways in which powerful French actors appeal to nationalist exceptionalisms to suggest that race does not exist in France, or that it is merely an American issue. White French people often argue that, because “republican universalism” is “colorblind” and “race” is not a biologically legitimate category, to even speak of race is to be racist. Of course, this does not stop them from casually making distinctions between “whites” (blancs) and “blacks” (noirs/renois/blacks)— categories that have no national, cultural, linguistic, or ethnic coherence whatsoever. These categories, in short, are fundamentally racial. So, I have found the frame of former French empire to be much more helpful in thinking about the contemporary legacies of coloniality and race in “Europe,” given that we understand Europe to include its former colonies.
Andrew DJ Shield Racial and trans politics face similar uphill battles in the Netherlands. They are often framed, as in France, as “US imports,” which is ironic because the Netherlands has a lively tradition of home-grown critiques of white supremacy and racism. For example, the concept of “everyday racism,” which has now become popular across the world, was coined by the Dutch Black feminist anthropologist Philomena Essed in her PhD dissertation at the University of Amsterdam in 1990, in which she specifically focused on the Dutch context. She shifted conversations on racism in the Netherlands away from intentionality, spectacular violence, hate speech, and so on, toward subtler manifestations of racism. And I think this has made an impact on the work of scholars in the US.
EuropeNow I am glad you mentioned Essed’s notion of “everyday racism,” because I’ve been wondering how directly her concept influenced a term that has become popular in leftist circles in France. Even though conservative French voices frame anti-racist discourses as largely American impositions, French anti-racists tend to use the term “racisme ordinaire” (or ordinary racism) rather than the American “microaggression.” French people in the 1980s were already using the term “racisme banal,” but the term “racisme ordinaire” sounds even closer to “everyday racism,” and I wonder whether it was a translation of Essed’s phrase. Of course, I need to do more research on this, but if this is indeed the case, we would not be talking about an American imposition at all, but rather a strategic adaptation from the Dutch context.
Andrew DJ Shield You are right. I would also like to note that in White Innocence, the Surinamese-Dutch Black feminist scholar Gloria Wekker mentions how during a visit from Audre Lorde in the Netherlands, Lorde was shocked to learn that that despite the Dutch Black women’s movement being of a relatively smaller size there (compared for example to the Black women’s movement in Germany at the same time), it was much better organized. More recently, I have had a great number of Dutch BA and MA students working on the perspectives of queers of color in the larger Dutch feminist landscape. So, there is much important intersectional thinking on the horizon that is coming out of the Netherlands. That said, it is true that the US has a hegemony on race theory. So, when I teach my courses here at Leiden, I work hard to not rely too much on US American theorists. But if my students are any indication, there is a lot of exciting work on the horizon here. Keep an eye out!
Andrew DJ Shield is Assistant Professor of Migration History and affiliated with the interdisciplinary research project “Social Citizenship & Migration.” Shield is PI of the Leiden University unit of the “Horizon2020 project ITHACA: Interconnecting Histories and Archives for Migrant Agency.” He is the chair of Leiden’s LGBT+ Network and specializes in sexuality, race, and diversity in Europe since 1945. He holds two PhD degrees: in history (CUNY Graduate Center, 2015) and communication (Roskilde University, 2018). He is the author of Immigrants in the Sexual Revolution: Perceptions and Participation in Northwest Europe (2017), and Immigrants on Grindr: Race, Sexuality and Belonging Online (2019). Shield received his BA from Brown University (2007), where he studied Arabic and immigration in Europe.
Luke Forrester Johnson is a PhD Candidate in anthropology and the interdisciplinary humanities at Princeton University and research editor at EuropeNow. His dissertation wagers that France constitutes a privileged site at which to understand the relationship between Enlightenment thought and the tenacity of race amidst secular liberalism. It ethnographically explore the lives of white, French, self-avowed racial fetishists and primitivists. Johnson’s work has appeared in SubStance and Symplokē.
Essed, Philomena. 1990. Everyday Racism: Reports from Women of Two Cultures. Clarement, CA: Hunter House. (Revised and extended English translation of book based on dissertation.)
Puar, Jasbir K. 2017. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Shield, Andrew. 2017. Immigrants in the Sexual Revolution: Perceptions and Participation in Northwestern Europe. New York, NY: Springer.
Shield, Andrew. 2019. Immigrants on Grindr: Race, Sexuality, and Belonging Online. New York, NY: Springer.
Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Published on November 21, 2023.