LGBTIQ Roma and queer intersectionalities: the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma

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Lucie Fremlova University of Portsmouth, UK

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Roma of minority sexual and gender identities experience oppression and inequality as Roma and LGBTIQ. Moving past a frame of reference in Romani Studies that has often foregrounded ethnicity, this article utilises the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma in order to explore understandings of Romani identities as fluid but nonetheless informed by interlocking axes of inequality. Data were generated through participant observation, focus groups and interviews with LGBTIQ Roma, and were analysed using thematic analysis. Findings reveal that individuals who self-identify as Roma also make multiple identifications on other grounds, including sex/gender, sexuality, gender identity or class. In this article, I argue that reading intersectionality in conjunction with queer assemblages – ‘queer intersectionalities’ – benefits queer (non-normative) intersectional understandings of Romani identities as not anchored in the notion of fixed ‘groupness’ or essentialist difference while allowing us to identify and interrogate the inequitable workings of asymmetrical hegemonic power relations constitutive of binary social norm(ativitie)s.

Abstract

Roma of minority sexual and gender identities experience oppression and inequality as Roma and LGBTIQ. Moving past a frame of reference in Romani Studies that has often foregrounded ethnicity, this article utilises the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma in order to explore understandings of Romani identities as fluid but nonetheless informed by interlocking axes of inequality. Data were generated through participant observation, focus groups and interviews with LGBTIQ Roma, and were analysed using thematic analysis. Findings reveal that individuals who self-identify as Roma also make multiple identifications on other grounds, including sex/gender, sexuality, gender identity or class. In this article, I argue that reading intersectionality in conjunction with queer assemblages – ‘queer intersectionalities’ – benefits queer (non-normative) intersectional understandings of Romani identities as not anchored in the notion of fixed ‘groupness’ or essentialist difference while allowing us to identify and interrogate the inequitable workings of asymmetrical hegemonic power relations constitutive of binary social norm(ativitie)s.

Key messages

  • Romani identities (dis)assemble against the backdrop of interlocking axes of inequality.

  • Queer intersectionalities help us understand Romani identities as fluid, not fixed.

  • LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences pose a fundamental challenge to dominant conceptualisations of Romani identities.

  • LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences defy accounts of Roma as ‘anachronistic’ and ‘antithetical’ to modernity and Europeanness.

Introduction

Romani Studies scholars have theorised and conceptualised Roma as a minority ethnic group and a social group that is allegedly fundamentally distinct and essentially different from non-Roma in almost every respect. Undoubtedly, such research is important when describing the causes and forms of inequality or proposing possible policy interventions. However, foregrounding ethnicity (Tremlett, 2017) may unwittingly contribute to re-inscribing the marked essentialist ‘difference’ attributed to Roma. At the same time, there is evidence within research that individuals who self-identify (or are identified) as Roma simultaneously make other identifications, which they may experience as more important, as well as that Roma possess identities characterised by hybridity (Okely, 1994; Tremlett, 2009, 2014; Silverman, 2012), super-diversity (Tremlett, 2014; Magazzini, 2017), intersectionality (Oprea, 2004; Kóczé, 2009; Jovanović and Daróczi, 2015) and queerness (Baker, 2015; Corradi, 2017; Fremlova, 2017, 2018). There is also evidence that Roma experience Romani ethnic identity in ordinary, mundane, everyday ways (Tremlett and McGarry, 2013; Tremlett, 2017).

Roma of minority sexual and gender identities experience oppression and structural inequality both as Roma and as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and queer-identified (LGBTIQ) due to the intersectional location that they occupy in society and the negative social valuation of their non-normative ethnic/racial, sexual/gender and other identities (Fremlova, 2017). Despite an abundance of literature on Roma, in academic literature, including journals on gender, there is a dearth of information on the experiences of LGBTIQ Roma (Kurtic, 2013; Baker, 2015; Corradi, 2017; Fremlova, 2017; Fremlova and McGarry, 2018). This article intends to make up for the aforementioned lack of literature by exploring conceptualisations of Romani identities based on the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma.

In this article, first, I briefly present basic terminology, research methods and methodology. Second, I discuss dominant conceptualisations of Romani identity in Romani Studies, as well as alternative ways of understanding Romani identities offered by intersectionality and queer theorising, particularly queer assemblages (Puar, 2005). I outline how these concepts make it possible to ‘transcend the “ethnic” frame of reference’ (Stewart, 2010: 2) in Romani Studies, where ethnicity has often been foregrounded (Tremlett, 2017). Having established this conceptual framework, I then proceed to explore and analyse the empirical evidence. In this section, I consider how LGBTIQ Roma experience and navigate multiple oppression at the intersection of ethnicity/race, sex/gender, sexuality and gender identity. I discuss: LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences of antigypsyism1; the enactment (or lack thereof) of non-normative sexual and gender identities due to experiences of rejection; and the less familiar experiences of acceptance by families, communities and other kinship structures. I argue that the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma pose a fundamental challenge to one-dimensional, essentialising and homogenising conceptualisations of Romani identities. Parallel to providing these accounts, I theorise the empirical evidence by reading intersectionality in conjunction with queer assemblages: ‘queer intersectionalities’. This enables me to conceptualise Romani identities as fluid, assemblage-like ‘becoming/s beyond being/s’ (Puar, 2005: 128), which are nonetheless informed and shaped by the workings of interlocking axes of structural inequality.

Terminology

This article uses ‘Roma’, ‘Gypsy’, ‘Traveller’ and ‘LGBTIQ’ in keeping with the self-identifications made by the research participants. The umbrella term ‘Roma’2 is an endonym, whose adoption marks a significant milestone in the emancipation of Roma, though its usage is not unproblematic. For instance, communities who ascribe as ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’ in the UK feel that the term ‘Roma’ has been imposed on them by Continental European structures. By contrast, many Central and Eastern European Roma consider the word ‘Gypsy’ a racial slur, an exonym historically imposed on Roma by majority non-Romani societies and associated with racial persecution, the Romani Holocaust (Porrajmos) and antigypsyism. The abbreviation ‘LGBTIQ’ is not without problems either. In the field of LGBTIQ equality and rights, ‘queer’ is sometimes used as an umbrella term. This particular usage has been critiqued as yet another way of essentialising and stabilising identity, antithetical to queer theorising’s understanding of ‘queer’: a ‘positionality vis-à-vis the normative’ (Halperin, 1995: 62). In this article, I use ‘queer’ to unpack LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences of how ‘marked’ essentialist identity categories such as ‘Roma’, ‘woman’, ‘gay/lesbian/bi’ or ‘trans’ put at a structural disadvantage individuals who self-identify (or are identified) as such, as opposed to ‘unmarked’ or neutral identity categories such as ‘non-Roma/white’, ‘man’, ‘straight/heteronormative’ or ‘cis’.

Methods and theoretically informed methodology

Participants and procedure

The qualitative, ethnography-informed research (Fremlova, 2017) involved 24 participants aged between 18 and 47 from North America, Northern, Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. I recruited them through my existing contacts with LGBTIQ Roma, with whom I had cooperated for over five years as an ally-identified, non-Romani, queer researcher doing research with LGBTIQ Roma (Fremlova, 2018). For reasons related to the participants’ safety, they were given pseudonyms and references to specific places were removed so that the participants could not be identified. The data were generated through two focus groups and participant observation at the first and second international Roma LGBT conferences, at a number of conference events and at two Prague Pride marches in the Czech Republic in August 2015 and 2016. The first focus group involved five Romani gay men and one Romani lesbian woman; the second one involved three Romani lesbian women. Between September 2015 and November 2016, I conducted 14 in-depth semi-structured interviews with 15 participants: three Romani lesbian women; one Romani bi woman; one Romani queer-identified, straight woman; two Romani trans men; one Romani intersex person; two Romani/Traveller bi men; one Romani queer-identified man; and four Romani gay men. The first focus group and 11 interviews were conducted in English. Only three participants were native speakers. The rest were non-native speakers of English, hence the very specific, and at times colloquial, wording of the individual quotes that I have kept. The second focus group and three interviews were conducted with Czech-speaking participants in Czech (my mother tongue). Most of the participants came from more privileged backgrounds, spoke multiple languages, had access to the Internet and were able to travel abroad, which is an important limitation that needs to be acknowledged, as well as an important aspect of their intersectional positioning within society in terms of class. I recorded and transcribed the focus groups and interviews, kept a research diary, and took field notes.

Data analysis

I used thematic, theory-driven analysis (Braun and Clark, 2006: 13) at a latent level, sensitive to queer assemblages and intersectionality (for a discussion regarding the conceptual framework, see later). Latent thematic analysis looks beyond individual themes by examining the underlying ideas and assumptions. This approach to data analysis enabled me to develop a theoretically informed methodology – ‘socially located, positional knowledge that can be deepened and marshaled for theory construction’ (Timmermans and Tavory, 2012: 172) – attuned to my positionality and reflexivity as a non-Romani queer researcher (Fremlova, 2018). It is a way of conducting qualitative research that ‘nurtures theory formation without locking it into predefined conceptual boxes’ (Tavory and Timmermans, 2014: 4) and allows the researcher not to succumb to producing overly descriptive accounts without thinking theoretically about the data. The more I kept engaging with the data, the more it became obvious that the participants’ experiences of the workings of interlocking axes of inequality shaped their fluid identities in a queer (non-normative) manner. As part of this two-way, reiterative process, the data helped me to rethink theory, particularly in terms of the relationship between intersectionality and queer assemblages. This eventually resulted in the decision to read them as one concept: ‘queer intersectionalities’. The theoretical insight allowed me to see empirical phenomena from the social world that I may have otherwise glossed over. At the same time, the empirical account pushed the theorising in new, unexpected directions.

In the following section, I outline dominant conceptualisations of Romani identity in Romani Studies, which I use as a springboard to a theoretical discussion about the application of intersectionality and queer assemblages. These concepts take into account and cross-cut categories of identification such as ethnicity/race, sex/gender, sexuality, gender identity, class, social status, age and so on, thus facilitating alternative understandings of Romani identities.

From essentialising to queer intersectional understandings of Romani identities

In Romani Studies, academics have leaned towards two distinctive, divisive, though not mutually exclusive, conceptualisations of Romani identity. The essentialist approach has tended to define Roma as a historical ethnic diaspora, an unassimilated ethnic group that shares a common origin, language, history and culture (Vermeersch, 2006). This Orientalist fabrication of ‘Gypsies’ as a non-European (Okely, 1983) anachronism – a separate ethnicity in the 18th century (Willems, 1997) – has perpetuated the archetype of ‘the truest and purest Gypsies who never left India’ (Le Bas, 2010: 67–8). The social-constructionist conceptualisation has focused on lifestyle and behaviour (Lucassen et al, 1998), common ‘culture’, practices and values, or Romanipe(n), defining Roma as an interest group rather than a minority ethnic group. A number of highly controversial scholars have drawn conclusions about Roma and kinship that have serious implications for those who ethnically identify (or are identified) as Roma, reinforcing anti-Romani stereotypes under the guise of academia. For example, Budilová and Jakoubek (2007: 38, 65, 67) have claimed that Roma have ‘a significant preference for endogamous marriage’ while making explicit references to consanguineous marriages, which they believe to be a characteristic trait of Romani ‘culture’.

This binary approach has trapped Romani Studies scholarship in culturally essentialist ways of understanding Roma (Willems, 1997; Lemon, 2000; Tremlett, 2009, 2014, 2017; McGarry, 2010, 2017; Van Baar, 2010, 2014; Brooks, 2015). As Tremlett (2014: 831, 840) remarks:

these debates, whilst appearing to be arguing different positions, actually end up in a similar ideological place … a heterogeneous approach to diversity that still keeps the notion of an overall ‘group’.… [W]e need to re-think simplistic ethnicity-focused approaches that fall into the danger of reifying ethnicity as an essentialised, fixed-group concept [that misses] out on the inclusion of a range of other types of diversities, for example: gender, socio-economic positioning (or class contexts), generation, sexuality, legal status, local and national contexts.

In a similar vein, Stewart (2010: 2) posed a constructive challenge to Romani Studies by claiming that ‘rich and honest analysis of Roman[i] lives demands that authors transcend the “ethnic” frame of reference’. Political scientists have conceptualised Roma in the context of contemporary political and socio-economic conditions as, for example: a separate, non-territorial nation without a kin state; a (trans)national minority with citizenship rights within nation-states (McGarry, 2010); and an ‘ethnoclass’3 (Vermeersch, 2006: 166). They have come to understand Romani identities as ‘contested’, not ‘cohesive’, being part of the process of identification, as well as ethnicity as ‘a unifying agent’ uniting Roma who are otherwise not united across religious, cultural, occupational and linguistic lines (McGarry, 2010: 42, 141). More recently, European policy has been associating Roma with negative social phenomena and ills such as mass unemployment, poverty, ill health, discrimination and social exclusion. These conceptualisations are not dissimilar to Rahman’s (2010: 944) description of Muslim identities as ‘antithetical to a wide range of western values, including democracy, secularization, gender equality and sexual diversity’.

Hybridity, super-diversity, intersectionality and queer assemblages

Tremlett (2009: 24) suggests the concept of hybridity to account for the multifacetedness of Romani identities, ‘effectively mov[ing] away from homogenising terms’, and ‘super-diversity’ as the much-needed shift ‘beyond ethnicity’ (Vertovec, 2007) without losing sight of ethnicity, which has a ‘potential to engage more deeply with the diverse life experiences and structural positionings of people’ (Tremlett, 2014: 831, 838). Thus, Tremlett echoes Hall’s (1996b: 447) notion of ‘new ethnicities’ as a conception of ethnicity, predicated on difference and a non/anti-essentialist and non/anti-identitarian approach to identities. These are central tenets of queer theorising, which highlights the relational, fluid nature of identities while disrupting socially constructed binary hierarchies, normativities and fixed identity categories. Queer theorising takes norms ‘beyond the heterosexual/homosexual binary to a usage of queer theory as an approach that critiques the class, race and gender specific dimensions … that does not simply describe and reify the spaces of sexual “others”’ (Oswin, 2008: 96). Queer theoretical concepts therefore have a unique potential to take apart the Roma–non-Roma binary social orthodoxy.

Intersectionality has a long history, particularly in the US (for example, Truth, 1850; Combahee River Collective, 1982 [1977]; Crenshaw, 1989; 1991). In Romani Studies, intersectionality has been used predominantly by Romani feminist scholars to theorise the multidimensional, interlocking power relations impacting on the experiences of Romani women (Oprea, 2004; Kóczé, 2009; Brooks, 2012) and men (Jovanović and Daróczi, 2015). This has included ‘race’ (Emigh and Szelényi, 2001; Kóczé, 2009) as a double disadvantage is created for Romani women at the intersection of gender and race.

However, intersectionality may become ‘a structural container … relying on the logic of equivalence and analogy between various axes of identity’ (Puar 2007: 212). Puar advocates a move from intersectionality to assemblage (agencement in French), first introduced by Deleuze and Guattari (1988). They employ the term to ‘highlight the way in which material content (bodies, actions, passions) … are linked rhizomatically … emphasis[ing] both temporality and spatiality: elements are drawn together at a particular conjuncture only to disperse or realign’ (Li, 2007a: 265). A queer assemblage allows for ‘becoming/s beyond being/s’ (Puar, 2005: 128), characterising links and relationships between constitutive categories of identification that do not assume either an overarching system, structure, ‘groupness’ or common set of roots. Applying this analytic to conceptualisations of Romani identities helps to facilitate an understanding of identities as rhizomatic, intuitive and fluid, as opposed to fixed, stabilised and anchored in the essentialised groupness of Romani ethnicity.

Both intersectionality and queer theorising have been critiqued. Intersectionality has been critiqued for omitting to interrogate power relations around class (Skeggs, 1997), disability, transgender and the nature and extent of white normativity’s investment in how hegemonic oppressions and social hierarchies mutually reinforce each other (Erel et al, 2008). Queer theorising has been critiqued by lesbians of colour (for example, Combahee River Collective, 1982; Lorde, 1984; Anzaldúa, 1987), queers of colour and trans theorists. They dissected ‘the ways in which discourses of sexuality are inextricable from prior and continuing histories of colonialism, nationalism, racism, and migration’ (Gopinath, 2005: 3), and critiqued the predominantly white queer theorising for glossing over the analysis of the workings of asymmetrical hegemonic power relations and its lack of inclusion of non-white, bisexual, trans and working-class people. However, both provide a unique analytic: queer theorising explores the fluid, relational nature of identity construction, while intersectionality identifies the workings of asymmetrical power relations that contribute to identity construction.

Queer intersectionalities

Employing the theoretical perspectives offered by intersectionality and queer assemblages benefits understandings of the ongoing process of identification (Hall, 1996a: 2) and identity construction as a ‘complex process of labelling, categorisation and self categorisation’ (Vermeersch, 2006: 3) in the surrounding cultural systems and scripts. Given the aforementioned benefits of both analytics, it is useful to consider how they can be made to work together. Previously, Muñoz (1999) used both queer theorising and intersectionality in his conceptualisations of disidentification by ‘minoritarian subjects’: the notion that queers of colour rework and reconfigure majority society’s hostile and exclusionary cultural scripts and values in order to survive. More recently: Erel et al (2008: 271) proposed an ‘intersectionality perspective’ for critical queer theorising and research practice; Rahman (2010: 956) suggested that ‘queer intersectionality is simply the necessary tautology: intersectionality is inevitably disruptively queer, and queer must be analytically intersectional’; Browne et al (2017) argued in favour of feminist queer research and research methodologies; and Yekani et al (2010: 79–80, emphasis in original) argued in favour of employing the concept of ‘queer interdependencies’ in the hope of ‘emphasis[ing] that each category such as gender or race is always already intertwined in multiple frameworks of inequality … [which] allows us to address the conflicting racialising and sexualising processes within a category … without assuming a hierarchy of inequality or an essentialist understanding of these categories’. In my use of queer intersectionalities, changing the singular form to ‘intersectionalities’ in line with Yekani et al’s ‘interdependencies’ helps to account for the variety of asymmetrical hegemonic power relations. I maintain the term ‘queer’ in its non/counter-normative, anti/non-essentialist, anti/non-identitarian and fluid sense. Queer intersectionalities thus make it possible to speak to the workings of interlocking axes of inequality and all the categories of identification participating in, and contributing to, the ‘process of becoming/s beyond being/s’ (Puar, 2005: 128) while not assuming the supremacy of one axis of inequality over another, and thus not re-inscribing marked essentialist differences embedded within and constitutive of social norms, orthodoxies and binaries.

Findings and discussion: navigating multiple oppression at the intersection of ethnicity/race, sex/gender, sexuality, gender identity and class

In this section, I discuss some of the insights emanating from analysing the lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma through the conceptual lens of queer intersectionalities. The findings are divided into three thematic sections: antigypsyism; at a queer (non-normative) intersection; and kinship, community, social class and the enactment of non-normative sexual and gender identities. As I develop the different thematic aspects of queer intersectionalities in my analysis, I draw on various elements of the data as examples of my theoretical arguments.

Antigypsyism

During the process of data collection, the participants repeatedly mentioned their lifelong experiences of anti-Romani prejudice and attitudes. Antigypsyism emerged as a significant part of the data: LGBTIQ Roma experience antigypsyism in ways that are very similar to non-LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences as evidenced through research on antigypsyism (McGarry, 2010, 2017; Van Baar, 2010; 2014; Agarin, 2014; Vrabiescu, 2014). Indeed, some LGBTIQ Roma’s experiences of antigypsyism are such that they eclipse all their other experiences of oppressions, as illustrated by the following quotes:

‘My LGBT friends say: “We like you, you’re not shy, you’re not ashamed that you are Roma.” And I ask: “Should I be ashamed because I’m Roma?” But they clearly thought that Roma must be ashamed of this ethnic origin.’ (Ana)

‘I found the gay club manager’s refusal to let us in discriminatory and unacceptable. However, as a Roma person, I have become used to not being let into gay clubs, as well as to other expressions of antigypsyism by non-Romani gays.’ (Lada)

‘Paradoxically, the people whom I used to know as a child are more shocked by me living with a Romani woman than by the fact that I’ve transitioned. [People] regard homosexuality with a more positive outlook, or they don’t see it as such a big issue as opposed to Romani identity. And the kind of questions [I get] because she’s Romani, whether she works at all. [Until I met my girlfriend,] I’d simply never been discriminated against based on my Romani identity, I’d never experienced being told by someone that something isn’t possible because I’m Roma but because I’m trans.’ (Dominik)

These narratives illustrate that LGBTIQ Roma experience antigypsyism in a variety of non-Romani settings, including LGBTIQ ones. While Ana’s narrative points to stereotypical views of Roma held by her non-Roma LGBTIQ friends, Lada’s account describes a more serious case of racial/ethnic discrimination in accessing goods and services. In Dominik’s narrative, the experience of being accepted as a trans man is juxtaposed with being condemned for his relationship with a Romani woman. His account indicates the presence of some problems around his being trans; however, in his mind, these problems have been overshadowed by issues relating to Romani ethnic identity. Dominik believes that being LGBTIQ has become less stigmatising and more acceptable than being Roma. This notion is echoed by his partner:

‘As a Romani woman, I experienced my classmates at primary school wanting to pour bleach over me and all manner of other things. And today, [gestures inverted commas with her index fingers] “thanks” to me, my boyfriend is undergoing exactly the same. For instance, the last time, a driver almost hit us with his car at the crossroads. That was our last experience. All of a sudden, he is starting to see it. He also said that he simply either didn’t want to admit [the existence of antigypsyism] or he wasn’t aware of it, but now, with me, he’s experiencing all of these things.’ (Jolana)

Jolana’s account of the horrifying experience at primary school illustrates the degree of anti-Romani racist hate that some non-Roma, including children and teenagers, feel towards Roma. It captures a key essence of antigypsyism that operates through Romani ethnic visibility, with a specific reference to skin complexion. Dominik’s and Jolana’s experiences as a Romani trans man and a Romani straight woman who are in a straight, albeit ‘queer’, relationship illustrate the benefit of employing queer intersectionalities. The fluid, assemblage-like becomings of both Dominik’s and Jolana’s ethnic, sexual and gender identities unfold against the backdrop of interlocking axes of oppression (transphobia, antigypsyism) and the workings of binary social normativities such as white normativity, heteronormativity and cis normativity.

At a queer (non-normative) intersection

While Roma are marginalised in European societies (FRA, 2018), Romani women, and Romani queer women in particular, get pushed to the margins of some Romani communities, as illustrated in the following:

‘Roma lesbian must behave as a Roma woman. Freedom is not something that she’s got, she’s not educated, she’ll be stuck in her house in the Roma community. It is so much harder to find a partner if you’re Roma lesbian in the settlement; [you live] a life of solitude, loneliness. Roma lesbians don’t want to have a partner in the Roma community because everyone will know [they’re lesbian]. This applies also to Roma gays but they can do whatever they want, go out and find another guy. Some Romani lesbian women are forced to marry. Violence against women is present; it’s not a “Roma thing”, but it exists in Roma communities as well. Lesbians get beaten up because of sexual identity. Because of invisibility, lesbian Roma women’s lives are hidden. They don’t want to show themselves as lesbians; therefore gay men are more visible. [T]his is a male world; it is alike in the majority [and] in the Roma community, it’s no different. It is easier to be a gay man because of power.… [Lesbians and gays] don’t have the same experiences. We have such a different life because gay men have [male] privilege.’ (Ana)

Romani lesbians are underprivileged by virtue of being sexed, gendered and invisibilised as non-heteronormative women. The sex/gender disadvantage that Romani lesbian women are subjected to under patriarchy and heteronormativity is key to their experiences. According to Ana, societal expectations of Romani women, which underpin the specificity of Romani women’s gender role (discussed, for instance, by Oprea, 2004; Kóczé, 2009, 2011; Brooks, 2012; Schultz, 2012; Jovanović and Daróczi, 2015) within the respective South-eastern European Romani community that Ana comes from, may restrict their access to education and a career. If a Romani woman is perceived to trespass the patriarchal, heteronormative social norm, means of social control, which, as Ana emphasises, are not Roma-specific, may be used. Romani lesbian women’s existence becomes hidden and invisible, resulting in different treatment afforded to Romani (lesbian) women as opposed to some Romani (gay) men.

Complementing Ana’s reference to instances of forced marriage as a means of social control employed to limit the lesbian woman’s freedom is a similar narrative by a Romani gay man:

‘I was married very young because my family was traditional. They know from their parents and then it goes to the next generation. That was normal for my family. It was very difficult for me to live this life that my parents wanted to give me. I know it’s very important to know who you are. In my situation, my family [gave] me a different identity, the identity of a husband, a father, traditional Roma man, but that is not my identity. I’m a gay man; I want to live a gay life only in the relationship with my husband and with my child.’ (Antonio)

Forced/arranged marriage is a global phenomenon that affects non-Romani and Romani communities (Oprea, 2004, Kóczé, 2009, Bošnjak and Acton, 2013). The role that the nexus of sex/gender and sexuality plays under heteronormativity and patriarchy is further developed by Antonio’s account. His narrative shows that gay men can also be underprivileged by virtue of their sex/gender and sexuality, thus making them vulnerable to forced/arranged marriage as a means of social control. Dominant social scripts are most often associated with opposite-sex marriage, producing very specific effects for gay men too. Here, theorising the experiences of Ana and Antonio through the prism of queer intersectionalities enables us to interrogate the intersectional workings of heteronormativity and patriarchy that operate through social control, as well as their impact on the queer identifications made over time by the Romani lesbian woman and the Romani gay man.

Dominik’s account of acceptance of his gender transition (see earlier) is complemented by Markus’s narrative:

‘My passing is pretty good. I see what different positions, gender roles there are in the Roma community and that my voice counts as more and has more weight suddenly.… [By contrast], I had to pick up a paper from my old school; for my final test, I needed a signed copy. I went there and the woman behind the desk looked at me from the foot to the head and said: “What do you want?” I said: “I called several times. I need this paper otherwise I can’t do my exam.” “Out of here, I’m not doing anything for you.” I didn’t understand at all, she said she will call the cops if I’m not leaving the building. It was super-racist. I didn’t understand it and then I met [a] friend of mine. They said to me: “Well, it’s easy honey, you are not a white trans guy. So, you changed from the eroticised, fetishised Southern woman to the bad guy with a lot of hair and dark huge eyebrows and maybe a terrorist, so they are afraid of you.”’ (Markus)

Markus’s experience shows that the intersections of different social normativities produce qualitatively different experiences of being gendered and racialised as a Romani trans man. His passing and visibility as a Romani cis man has been a privileging factor in Romani spaces. However, ethnicity/race and sex/gender intersect in ways that put him as a Romani trans person at a disadvantage in white-normative environments where his ethnicised/racialised masculinity is seen as a threat. Markus was ethnicised/racialised and gendered differently depending on the social settings he navigated and also in comparison with his own pre-transition experiences.

Kinship, community, social class and the enactment of non-normative sexual and gender identities

Family, kinship structures and community are key social safety nets (San Román, 1975; Okely, 1975; Stewart, 1997; Gay y Blasco, 1999; Martin and Gamella, 2005; Cahn, 2009; Tesăr, 2012). Many Roma depend upon them for safety, livelihood, survival and protection from antigypsyism. The need for protection from antigypsyism produces a particular vulnerability for LGBTIQ Roma within both Romani and non-Romani communities, as discussed by Ana and Antonio:

‘[LGBTIQ Roma] are really poor. They live in fear because they depend on their parents or they’re in marriages or from social welfare and they cannot be what they are. They don’t feel secure in this world, in or out of the settlement. [T]hey don’t have money, clothes, information or even passports. Roma community is really in a bad situation but LGBTIQ Roma are in deep shit. Being LGBTIQ Roma makes you totally vulnerable to everything.’ (Ana)

‘The problem is when you live in this Roma system, you don’t have much possibility to go out of this life, and when you go out of your family, you don’t have anything anywhere to rescue you. It’s very important that young people know that when you live in such a difficult system, in the Roma system, it’s very hard to find the right way in the other system of the Gadje, the non-Roma.’ (Antonio)

In the face of persisting antigypsyism and the social marginalisation and socio-economic poverty of Roma in majority societies (FRA, 2018), both nuclear and extended family relationships play a crucial role in terms of material and economic security, as well as LGBTIQ Roma’s relational experiences with them. Therefore, these relationships impact fundamentally on LGBTIQ Roma’s ability – or lack thereof – to enact their non-heteronormative (queer) sexual and gender identities. As a result, ‘coming out’ of the Western ethnocentric, privileged closet (Tucker, 2009) is not always an option available to LGBTIQ Roma:

‘I don’t say that [I’m lesbian/queer]; part of my family is still asking me “When are you going to get married?” I would of course prefer to be out of the closet, definitely, like “I’m out, I’m proud” and talk to them about it. But with the family, it’s really different. [A]t 15 or 16, I was really afraid that my parents would find out. They wanted me to get married, and for me, this was like “no way”. [T]hen my mother suddenly wanted to speak with me. A neighbour saw me and my girlfriend kissing on the street and told my mother. She was asking me if this is true and I replied: “Yes, and what if it were true?” She said: “Then you’re not my daughter anymore because it’s nothing to do in our community; this is big shame.” And I said: “Ok, then I’m not your daughter anymore.” I took my stuff, left and ended up on the street. It took many years before I started to talk to them again. I’m pretty, like, lucky that now my family kind of know but we don’t talk about it.’ (Teresa)

As in Teresa’s case, some LGBTIQ Roma may choose to ‘stay in the closet’ fully or partially in order not to sever vital social bonds and relationships. Teresa’s family’s conservative views on lesbianism being ‘un-Romani’ and ‘shameful’ played a crucial role in her mother disowning her for a period of time. Her narrative also points to the co-option of heteronormativity into what constitutes ‘authentic’ Romani ethnic identity. Teresa’s narrative indicates that her family’s views have changed over time: they eventually came to take her back and accept her lesbianism as Romani. However, leaving the family for a period of time as a result of rejection is a traumatic experience in and of itself. It may also come at the expense of being left alone in an unknown and hostile society, particularly in situations of material deprivation, unemployment or homelessness.

Within the cultural script of majority societies, some Romani families may reproduce the workings of heteronormativity and patriarchy, and impose them on LGBTIQ Roma, as in Teresa’s case. However, others may not abide by these social norms, or they may simply enable and validate the existence of LGBTIQ family members: “In my family, there are a couple of gays and I know of two lesbians. I remember my mum had gay friends” (Jolana); “My mum had sexual contact with women; she has a tattoo of a woman on her lower back” (Gabriela). Simultaneously, some conservative families may perceive non-heteronormative sexual identities (that is, being lesbian, gay or bi) as socially ‘unacceptable’ or ‘unnatural’ while they may view transitioning from one gender identity to another more favourably:

‘My mum was terrified because she didn’t know how my Roma dad’s side of the family would take it. They see being gay as something bad. But they took it really well because they wanted me to be ok, healthy and happy, irrespective of who I would become. This helped me tremendously in terms of deciding to transition, this kind of family support. The Romani part of my family takes it as if I’ve been cured. For them, this alternative is better than me being a homosexual. At least for my grandparents and the Roma side of the family. All over the world, man means more than woman, so I’ve been improved, or upgraded in their eyes, as it were [laughter]. I don’t try to talk them out of it if it’s better for them this way. They treat me normally, so I accept it.’ (Dominik)

In Dominik’s case, transitioning from female to male in this patriarchal world may be understood not only as having been ‘cured’ from a stigmatised sexual identity (lesbianism), but also as a privileging ‘upgrade’, enabling positive experiences.

LGBTIQ Roma and their families are located within the broader fabric of communities. Planted within the dominant social fabric of the majority ethnic group, the distinct function of communities is to oversee moral and social norms and local power relations. Communities often reproduce and preserve hegemonic power relations, for instance, the workings of patriarchy critiqued by Romani intersectional feminists. Communities can also be a source of social control, especially where individuals, families and groups are ostracised or excommunicated due to being deemed in breach of the heteronormative social conventions (Fremlova and Georgescu, 2014; Baker, 2015; Jovanović and Daróczi, 2015), as illustrated by the following quotes:

‘I have many gay Roma friends who are kind of role models in their own community. When they go back to their community, I mean the Gypsy camp or settlement, they say it’s always better to look as a real man than to look feminine; if they look feminine, they can no longer be a role model to the children or the Roma settlement. So, this is also interesting because the community guesses or knows that they’re gay but the male has to look male. He has to have a beard, muscles and nice clothes. So, if you dress up like a queer, say, then you can lose your position as a role model in the Roma community.’ (Balint)

‘In our community, many people know I’m gay. No one talks about it. My boyfriend also came from a Muslim community. His sisters asked him: “Are you receiver or giver?” He said: “I’m a giver”, which was well accepted. But if you’re a receiver, it’s really a problem. A guy [committed] suicide … when the community knew that he’s gay, often you can hear people joking about him, saying “Look, the guy who sleeps with guys.” Maybe there are rumours [about me] but I never heard, neither did my parents. That’s something to do with my social status ’cos, more or less, I’m a key person with knowledge in my community. It’s a small community [which] relies on its key people. [T]here’s a Roma guy who’s “passive”. His daughter is a social worker and he’s recognised as one of the leaders in the community. Actually, the position you get in the majority society helps a lot for the perception in your own community.’ (Aleko)

As Balint’s narrative shows, social class and social status play an important role impacting on the community acceptance – or lack thereof – of a person who does not conform to heteronormative sexual and gender norms. In the case of Romani gay men, this concerns particularly those perceived as ‘passive’, whereby their gender is associated with femininity and deemed female/feminine/effeminate. The risk consists in the gay man’s potential loss of his social status. While metropolitan urban environments enable visibly non-heteronormative, gay existence, to escape the stigma associated with ‘looking feminine’ in heteronormative environments, some Romani gay men feel that they have to ‘butch up’ their masculinity in order not to lose their social standing. This is complemented by Aleko’s accounts of the ‘passive’ gay man with a low social status, who was ridiculed and shamed as a result, and the two ‘passive’ Romani gay men whom the communities accepted since they were considered indispensable. Their acceptance was impacted positively by their social class and status within non-Romani communities; the intersectional nexus of local power relations, class, social status, ethnicity, sexuality and gender played a vital role.

Conclusion

The lived experiences of LGBTIQ Roma provide evidence that LGBTIQ Roma are part of the wider Roma kinship and community structures. LGBTIQ Roma’s relationships with families and communities, which often protect them from majority society’s antigypsyism, impact fundamentally on their ability to enact their non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities. The identities of LGBTIQ Roma are constructed in an assemblage-like way against the backdrop of the interlocking axes of oppression, inequality and social normativities. The material, relational and contextual properties of queer intersectionalities bring the specific experiences of LGBTIQ Roma into effect.

The empirical findings have shown that individuals who ethnically self-identify as Roma make other identifications on the basis of multiple categories, including sex/gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion and class. Within both mainstream and Romani communities, structural inequalities and the workings of sex/gender result in Romani queer women’s multiple invisibility. Simultaneously, some Romani gay men’s experiences are also impacted by social normativities, particularly with respect to mechanisms of social control enforcing heteronormative and patriarchal social paradigms. In heteronormative and cis-normative settings, sex/gender, sexuality and gender identity intersect with ethnicity/race, creating conceptions of what constitutes ‘authentic’ Romani ethnic identity. What is perceived as femininity in some ‘passive’ gay men sometimes results in shaming and the attendant loss of social status. Simultaneously, high social status may be seen as a mitigating factor enabling acceptance. Thus, certain intersections of queer identities are enabled and validated while others are made hard or impossible. In the case of some Romani trans men, ethnicity/race is sexed/gendered while sex/gender is ethnicised/racialised in either unfavourable or favourable ways, depending on the environments that they navigate. At times, queer intersectionalities enable positive lived experiences despite the often-presumed notion that intersectionalities entail negative, challenging experiences of asymmetrical power relations.

The narratives presented in this article challenge dominant white-normative, heteronormative and cis-normative accounts of Roma identity, kinship and community structures as anachronistic and antithetical to modernity and Europeanness. The notion that non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities are part of Romani ethnicity means that even Romanipe(n) can be seen as a fluid ‘becoming beyond being’. Thus, the findings not only dispel claims and myths about the presumed ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, ‘homophobia’ and ‘sexual backwardness’ of Roma, but also pose a fundamental challenge to stereotypical, one-dimensional and essentialising misrepresentations of Roma.

Employing the lens of queer intersectionalities is a plausible answer to the question of whether it is possible to theorise Romani identities as non-essentialist, unstable and fluid while accounting for the notion that Romani identities are lived, experienced within, constructed through and impacted by the discursive practices of the social world’s interlocking power relations and structural inequalities. To paraphrase Tremlett (2014, 2017): investigating categories of identification such as sexual and gender identity helps us understand the complexity of the everyday lives of individuals who self-identify or are identified as LGBTIQ Roma without reifying ethnicity as an essentialised, fixed-group concept. Simultaneously, attending to the underlying power relations, social binaries and cultural scripts of the majority societies in which LGBTIQ Roma live helps us to ‘look beyond ethnicity’ at structural issues such as homo/lesbo/transphobia and misogyny, which are common to both Roma and non-Roma, while acknowledging and being able to investigate the specific effects that their intersections with antigypsyism produce for LGBTIQ Roma. At the same time, as demonstrated in this article, this commonality with, or relatability to, others has the potential to speak to the lives and experiences of other non-normative (queer) intersectional people.

Funding

This work was supported in 2018 by the Central European University Foundation of Budapest under Grant BFP 2017/18, and in 2019 by the Economic and Social Research Council under Grant ES/S011234/1.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank my primary mentor, Dr Annabel Tremlett (University of Portsmouth), for the invaluable comments and support that she provided on multiple occasions when developing the argument. I would also like to thank my secondary mentor, Dr Olu Jenzen (University of Brighton), and my former PhD supervisor, Dr Aidan McGarry (University of Loughborough), for their support at pivotal stages of writing the text.

Notes

1

I use the term ‘antigypsyism’ to signify ‘a historically constructed, persistent complex of customary racism against social groups identified under the stigma “gypsy” or other related terms…. The term antigypsyism – in citing the majority’s projections of an imagined out-group of “gypsies” which simultaneously constructs an imagined in-group – is analytically more accurate and makes clear that other groups – Sinti, Travellers, manouches [sic], Egyptians – are equally affected’ (Alliance Against Antigypsyism, 2016: 5–6).

2

The term ‘Roma’, which was adopted by the first World Romani Congress in 1971, encompasses numerous groups and subgroups: ‘Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups (Dom and Lom), and … Gypsies’ (Council of Europe, 2012: 4).

3

Csepeli and Simon (2004) previously noted the various constructions of Romani identity, including as an ethnic group, a cultural group and a social class.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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Lucie Fremlova University of Portsmouth, UK

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