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Challenges for Progressive Activists to Countering Far-Right Populist Representations of Citizenship

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Nicole Doerr, University of Copenhagen, Denmark | 12 February 2020

Images of immigrants or ‘others’ have been recently used in the case of Brexit and in national referendum campaigns in different European Union member states to construct and legitimate an ethno-nationalist and homogeneous representation of sexual citizenship and national identity. By the use of infamous images representing foreign nationals as a ‘threat’ to the nation, right-wing and neoconservative activists, publishers and political parties have turned immigration into one of the most controversial political issues in both Europe and the United States. In mobilizing a “politics of fear” (Wodak 2015), far right-wing populist political parties have used provocative visual posters demonizing immigrants in caricatures reproducing historic fascist symbols and slogans.

The Alternative for Germany (AfP) has constructed provocative posters in some contexts conflating the image of male, Muslim migrants with that of ‘homophobics’. People who are gay, refugees, and come from majority Muslim countries do not fit into the stereotypical boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ spread in visual and digital images of right-wing parties. In increasingly nationalist mainstream media debates, their subjective experiences and their voices cannot be heard—and for that reason, their claims to asylum cannot be seen as legitimate.

Not long ago, the figure of the queer immigrant has been part of the positive symbolic core of grassroots campaigns by left-wing global justice activists constructing a trans-nationalist vision of solidarity between immigrants and precarious activists in Europe (Doerr 2017). However, the mainstreaming of far right wing populist and ethno-nationalist imaginaries of citizenship has made it increasingly challenging for left-wing and progressive social movements to challenge familiar, gendered norms of citizenship and sexual identity.

As an impact of the current polarized discursive context, LGBT refugees face higher restrictions trying to translate their experiences of sexual identity, belonging, and their political activism into expectations of host societies’ asylum systems (Doerr 2019). International NGOs and numerous research studies document the increasing institutional hurdles for LGBT asylum seekers from non-western and Muslim countries to access claims to asylum (See, for example, Lewis and Naples 2014; Luibheid 2019).

My research indicates that the place-specific introduction of visual propaganda during election or referendum campaigns depicting minorities as a threat to the nation and as homophobics (as in the case of the AfD) has even made it harder for queer asylum seekers to be granted asylum on behalf of their sexual identity. During interviews, asylum officers refuse to believe that someone can be gay or lesbian if the asylum seeker sitting in front of them do not confirm stereotypical role expectations, voices, and images of homosexuality. LGBT refugees have to translate their experiences of sexual identity, belonging, and/or their political activism into the rules, terms, and procedures accepted by particular national or subnational state bureaucracies for decision-making on asylum.

They also often have to convince individual local jury members as well as asylum officers in an institutional setting shaped by heteronormative and conservative cultural expectation of sexual practices and family life. Even for those queer asylum seekers whose cases get accepted, the need for self-translation never ends (Doerr 2019). This highlights the challenges of progressive activists’ attempts to translate cosmopolitan images of citizenship in place-specific local arenas, digital and mainstream media, and across different institutional and national contexts, in countering the right wing’s rapid and effective diffusion of denigrating images of minorities in multicultural, transnational public spaces.


Nicole Doerr is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. Doerr’s research investigates how and under what conditions increased linguistic and cultural diversity fosters democratic innovation in the areas of social movements, coalitions on climate change and migration, and political participation by poor people, refugees, and minorities. Doerr’s research has been awarded the EU Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship, the EU IPODI Fellowship, as well as the Harvard Ash Center Democracy Fellowship.


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