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Lesbians and Gays Support The Migrants

Courtesy of Michael Segalov

“The idea for Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants really started this summer,” explains Morton Thaysen, a founding member of the London-based group. He greets me by metal barriers erected in front of the Home Office on a cold Saturday morning, as crowds gather in preparation for a protest they’ve arranged.

“After a spring watching people drowning in the Mediterranean, the whole discourse around migration was getting worse. The bigotry in the media, and outright racism in Parliament... it was worrying. We needed something to happen, and fast.”

Thaysen and I stand looking at a crowd of what must be close to 100 people, bracing the wintery weather to make a stand at this grey, Westminster scene. This is the first public rally to be held by LGSM, a group of queer activists fed up with the demonisation of migrants and refugees.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, right-wing parties and publications wasted no time in taking advantage of the tragic act of human cruelty. A Syrian passport was found at the scene, it was fake, but no matter, soon Syrian refugees were being pigeonholed as potential terrorists on social media and beyond. The reality, of course, is that those seeking refuge in Europe from Syria are often escaping attacks just like these.
Courtesy of Michael Segalov
A few months previous to the Paris attacks, during the summer, a handful of people arrived one evening at Central Station, a gay bar by London’s Kings Cross. The group of 15 or so people sat down to talk and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants quickly formed.

“From the first meeting we split into groups,” explains Vicki Baars, another campaigner who’s been active since the inception. “We were working out what we wanted to do, before an open meeting in East London, where over 50 people came along to set our course.”

One of the plans drawn up was to target the Home Office, as Baars puts it, the “epicentre of immigration”, with a determination to bring theatrics together with direct action. “It’s what us queers do well,” joked Baars.

Many people are keen to draw distinctions between the “migrant” and the “refugee”: a refugee escapes persecution and danger, while migrants may just be fleeing a life of poverty. LGSM prefer not to engage with these definitions; both migrants and refugees arrive wanting the chance to make a new start.

LGSM believe that, if you want to be here, you should be welcomed – that this small drizzly island can be your home if you really wish to stay.
At the Saturday protest, a drag queen dressed as Theresa May pretended to lay into the “the illegals”, and an barrier was erected to represent a border wall, while protesters signed it with messages of support for migrants travelling from Syria and beyond.

I ask Thaysen how his LGBT identity acts as part of the impetus for his campaigning against injustice towards migrants. “We know all too well what it means to be labelled illegal”, he tells me, “As queers we are aware how it feels to be demonised.”

It wasn’t until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain – before that, being gay could see you jailed for years at a time. Many men alive today will have served time for acting on consensual sexual desires. Seeing yourself turn into a subject of hate, simply for being who you are, is an experience shared by migrants and gays alike.

“We’ve seen this situation where one group is taking on the role of “illegals” from another one”, argues Thaysen, “and it’s not something we can see and just sit by idly.”
As the cardboard borders are knocked down in a dramatic show of protest, Baars points out how the gradual assimilation of Britain’s LGBT community into broader society relates to the struggles facing migrants today.

“Gay rights are essentially conservative in the UK, it’s the right to buy a home, find employment and to get married.” If you’re white, gay, male and earning a nice salary, then liberation is ready and waiting. If you don’t fall into these boundaries, Baars argues, you are left exposed.

If you look at the high number of suicides in the trans community, stories of gay misogyny, and the “no blacks or Asians” requirements adorning Grindr profiles, it's clear that not all types of LGBT people are accepted today.

This unpleasant reality can be seen in the British approach to migration too; UK borders seem to be no barrier for wealthy white businessmen, with resources and power, welcomed to this country with open arms. Refugees and migrants fleeing persecution and poverty however, are seemingly less attractive to the state.

This is intersectionality in action; a term coined by US professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the interactions between various types of oppression. We don’t all simply fit into neat categories; our various characteristics mean that each of us face different barriers and types of discrimination in life.

It’s an understanding of this intersectionality that has historically lead to unexpected allegiances between various minority groups. For example, the overwhelming support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement from queer-defining groups and individuals in the United States.

LGSMigrants take their name and inspiration from a movement called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Now immortalised in the film Pride, these original LGSM campaigners supported striking miners in the 1980s, whose jobs were destroyed when Margaret Thatcher decided to close the pits.

Standing amongst the rows of colourful protestors at the Home Office is Gethin Roberts, a founding member of the original LGSMiners. Reflecting on the group’s support of the miners in 1984, he says: “It was obvious to us as gay activists that we needed to stand up for that community and do what we could to support them,”

The LGBT campaigners who Roberts name checks as inspiration were people who similarly saw the interconnectedness between groups facing social and political oppression. “Going back to the early 1900s, you had people like Edward Carpenter, a socialist, feminist, anti-war campaigner and environmentalist, who also kicked off the modern lesbian and gay movement in the UK.”

Similarly, in the United States, people point to the likes of Harry Hay, who was a communist, campaigner for native American rights and an environmentalist, as well as setting up the first US lesbian and gay movement, the Mattachine Society, born in 1950.

Roberts says that the original LGSM’s decision to fundraise for miners on picket lines wasn’t an idea pulled out from thin air: “Back then, we were building on a tradition, and it’s so great that 30-something years later, a bunch of young queers are stood out here doing the same thing.”

These connections are relationships founded on solidarity, a term that fundamentally boils down to the expression of shared struggle. As long as there is sexism, racism, homophobia and all manners of oppression, minority groups will be standing together side by side.

“Until we’re no longer discriminated against, we’ll keep on taking action,” says Morton Thaysen as the protestors head home for the day. He and the rest of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants promise me there are plenty more protests and theatrics to come.