Safe Expression: Giving Voice to LGBT Asylum Seekers amid COVID‑19 in Brazil
Mateo (pseudonym), a gay Venezuelan asylum seeker, told our research team he got COVID‑19 twice – the first time from his job at a hotel and the second from his other job as a barista. The 20-year old knew that the journey to Brazil had its associated risks. But he imagined the greatest risk was navigating dangerous ‘trochas’ (informal paths) across closed borders, not catching COVID‑19 twice. Mateo is one of the 56 LGBT Venezuelan asylum seekers we surveyed for my SSHRC Partnership Engagement Grant (PEG) on COVID-19’s impact on Venezuelan LGBT asylum seekers in Brazil (Ethics Certificate #:e2021-041).
Organized by Yvonne Su of York University and collaborators: Karen Arruda (Manifesta LGBT+), Dr. Gerson Scheidweiler (National Congress of Brazil), Tyler Valiquette (University College London) and Samuel Ritholtz (University of Oxford), this project will share findings from my PEG using photovoice, a widely endorsed means of knowledge mobilization in which people use photos to offer insights into their everyday lives (Milne and Muir, 2020). Our goal is to create a platform for LGBT asylum seekers who have felt ‘frozen’ due to COVID-19, to express themselves and share their lived realities with policymakers, NGOs, scholars, other refugees, the LGBT community, and the general public.
In collaboration with Casa Miga, the only LGBT refugee shelter in Brazil, 50 LGBT asylum seekers will be trained in photovoice and storytelling and asked to take photos of their life for a week. We will share the PEG findings with the participants and they will be invited to illustrate some of the specific themes from the PEG if it resonates with their own experiences.
We want to use photovoice to illuminate the PEG findings that during COVID-19, Venezuelan LGBT asylum seekers are 1) unable to meet their basic needs due to a lack of livelihood, 2) struggling with increased mental health issues and 3) uncertain about their legal status (Su, Valiquette, and Cowper-Smith, 2021). But we found that words are inadequate when describing trauma and violence (Wang & Burris, 1997). Surveys and interviews can fail “to capture the everyday nuances and complexities of migration” (Guruge et al., 2015: n.p.). Photovoice allows us to move beyond words, and in utilizing a medium free from the burdens of language or literacy, LGBT asylum seekers can share their world to the global community on their own terms.
We will build a digital gallery and host six in-person art exhibit events. There will be a 3-month art exhibit at the Centre for Research on Latin America and Caribbean, then one week art exhibit events at Casa Miga, the National Congress of Brazil, University College London, University of Oxford and York University. With our community partner’s large networks, we have the capacity to reach over 3.75 million people online and in-person. Of those, we aim to directly engage with over 2,000 asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants.
The potential impact of this project is far reaching. First, the project makes space for LGBT asylum seekers, who have felt frozen from the pandemic, to learn new skills and share their stories. Second, the project engages multiple stakeholders and allow for effective knowledge transfer between refugees, asylum seekers, practitioners, academics, policymakers and the general public. Third, the stories will be shared directly with policymakers at the Brazilian National Congress highlighting how to better support LGBT refugees and asylum seekers during times of crisis. Fourth, the digital and in-person aspects of the project allow it to be scalable and accessible to millions of people. Finally, the use of photovoice will help strengthen the use of images as an effective method in centering the lives of refugees.