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III Gender, art, memory, and the migrant

Mobile reorientations Trans-agency and the queering of the Italian politics of migrant reception in Henrique Goldman’s Princesa

Elena Dalia Torre

"Do refugees with different sexual orientation or gender identities have the right to a specific space that preserve their privacy and defend them from persecution and bullying?”1 With this question, LGBTQI activist Amani Zreba posits the necessity for a discrete space that shelters refugees and asylum seekers based on the specificity of their sexual and gender identity. Zreba, who sought refugee status in Italy due to sexual persecutions in Lybia, has been active in reclaiming and creating alternative spaces for queer refugees and migrants. It has been almost 40 years since the Convention Directive for the Status of Refugees deemed sexuality a fundamental aspect of an individual worth international protection. Since 2011, gender identity has become ground for protection, and in 2013 the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that sexual minority members belong to a particular social group for purposes of asylum. Despite these interventions, most queer petitions in the European Union are not captured, argues Johannes Lukas Gartner in his 2015 “In-credibly Queer: Sexuality-based Asylum in the EU.” According to Gartner, many queer asylum seekers become invisible, which legitimizes State omission while calling into question the hetero-centricity of human rights standards.

While little research exists on queer refugees and migrants in Europe, the sexuality of migration has recently emerged as a compelling area of debate urging scholars and activists to take a stance and reeducate people against the hetero-centric frame of humanitarian intervention. Sociologists, such as Nicola Mai, also warn us about the fact that "gender and sexuality have increasingly become humanitarian repertoires through which racialized barriers to mobility are inscribed on migrants” (Mai vii). In Mobile Orientations (2018), Mai coins the term "sexual humanitarianism” to refer to "the global emergence of a neo-abo-listionist epistemology that legitimizes forms of control and protection of social groups defined as vulnerable in relation to their sexual orientation and behavior” (Mai vii). Sexual humanitarianism allows governments, NGOs, and media to play the protective heroes, while “neglect[ing] the complexity of the libidinal, socioeconomic, and intersubjective dynamics” (Mai 3) of migrants, and especially the group of migrant sex workers. Mai also criticizes the way in which sexual humanitarianism functions in cinematic representation where a wave of “new global sentimentality” contributes to the erasure of migrants’ agency and opportunity for self-representation (Mai 4).

A different direction was taken by Brazilian director Henrique Goldman, who in 2001 adapted to screen, with the title of Princesa, the testimony of Fernanda Farias de Albuquerque, an Afro-Brazilian transgender sex worker. The testimony -transcribed and published in 1995 by Maurizio Jannelli - recaptures Fernanda’s youth years in Brazil when she first identified as transvestite. It follows her in the early 1980s to Sao Paulo, where she prostituted as a transsexual taking hormones and getting breast implants. In those years of dictatorship, explains sociologist Julieta Vartabedian, Brazil “declared travestis as enemies of ‘Brazilian family morals’,” starting “an era of great persecution and violence against those who embodie[d] a more feminine appearance” (Vartabdian 5). In order to flee state persecution and the shame experienced within the family, Fernanda left Brazil to be a sex worker first in Madrid and then in Milan. She dreamed of finding in Europe a place of fortune and freedom, a dream that soon Wined into a nightmare of heroin addiction, disease, and prison. When Jannelli met Fernanda in jail, she had been sentenced for attempted homicide to six years of prison. After leaving jail, she worked briefly for an editorial and she then reWmed to the street. Expelled from Italy, she went back to Brazil where she took her life.

In his screen adaptation Goldman made a few changes to the original testimony, avoiding the tragic epilogue, and distancing himself from the sexual humanitarian frame of some migrant cinema. Instead, he focused on the complexity of Fernanda's borderscape and the border struggles that she experienced at the intersection of sex work, gender, racial, and migrant identity. He also foregrounded Fernanda’s agency in moving within the constraints that neoliberalism put upon her body and dreams. In this chapter, I claim that while prefiguring current Italian and European politics of queer migrant reception, the movie also stresses migrant agency and the many different and productive struggles that the border enables. After providing a brief overview of queer asylum procedures in the European Union, I analyze the ways in which the director questions the hetero-centric frames of Italian nationals (police, family, clients) by positing Fernanda’s agency vis-à-vis hetero-centricity. Building on the notions of mobile orientation, differential inclusion, and migrant governance that Nicola Mai and Sandro Mezzadra theorize in their work, I link Fernanda’s struggles for agency to forms of queer migrant self-organizing at the border.

The first comprehensive sWdy on queer asylum policies and realities in the European Union came out in Demnark in 2011. Two other major reports have been drafted: Fleeing Homophobia in 2013 and the European Agency for Fundamental Rights Report in 2017. These reports document the conditions of persecution under which certain LGBTQI individuals seek asylum as well as the regulations under which these individuals are granted asylum in European countries. According to Gartner, “over 175.000 queer individuals are estimated to live under persecutory environments” in the forms of “honour killings campaigns, blackmail, corrective rape” (Gartner, 2). ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration) "estimates that fewer than 2500 queer refugees a year are accorded

Mobile reorientations 101 protection” (Gartner 4), yet statistics are not properly maintained neither by the United Nations nor by the European Union.

The process of granting asylum is fraught with inconsistencies, problematic screening practices, and a general lack of understanding that has made individuals more vulnerable. Questions of credibility and stereotyping dominate the discussion, denounces Gartner: queer asylum seekers need “to prove sexuality” by subjecting themselves to sexual arousal tests; or they may be subjected to interrogations that reduce queer identities to anatomy and genitality; or they are asked - cases in the UK - to submit video evidence of intimate contact with individuals of the same sex. The European Union courts require refugees to play a sort of “hide and seek,” offering protection to the individuals who supposedly meet clichés or forcing them to a compliant behavior. The petitioners “more worthy of protection” are the ones “who correspond to essentialist, Western and hetero-normative stereotypes of queer individuals” (Gartner 7). Refugees end up finding in the EU courts the same persecutions they flee, but in the form of procedures that make them the subjects of pharmacopornographic capitalism, and the objects of its “potential gaudendi,” to use Paul B. Preciado’s terminology. In Testo Junkie-. Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (2008), Preciado qualifies of pharmacopornographic the postindustrial, global and mediatic regime that regulates bodies and movements of bodies via “processes of biomolecular (pharmaco) and semio-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity” (Preciado 34). Expanding on Agamben’s “naked life,” on Foucault’s “biopower” and Haraway’s “techno-bio-power,” Preciado reconfigures as corpus pornographic any subject or body deprived of the right to citizenship and the right to work such as that of the migrant, the deported, the colonized, the sex worker (Preciado 50). Preciado’s notion of the pharmacopornographic can be useful to read both the condition of the queer asylum seeker and the migrant sex worker vis-à-vis the hetero-centric screening for sexual proof.

The film Princesa came out in 2001, before the Bossi-Fini law (194/2002) introduced fingerprinting and stricter screening procedures. Unsurprisingly, screening practices also punctuate the film Princesa, hinting at the ways in which the body of the queer migrant may be both exposed for credibility and made to comply at times. Since the first sequences, Fernanda (Ingrid de Souza) is looked upon by train passengers for her “strangely” feminine looks. Later, when retained at the police station, she is asked to show her breasts and perform oral sex on the police agent in exchange for being released. Half-way through the movie, Fernanda is again subjected to the scrutinizing gaze of an Italian woman who silently wants to probe Fernand’s gender. Screening practices do not cease even within the group of sex workers that Fernanda joins. Karin (Lulu Pecorari), her protector, a transgender woman herself, and Charlo (Biba Lerhue), a Brazilian transvestite, both keep Fernanda on check and suggest to her what facilitates sex work. Charlo, for instance, tells her that “[her] tropical dick” is highly marketable to Italian clients. Both Karin and Charlo take care of Fernanda, and Karin embodies, to some extent, the figure of the “maes/madrinhas,” who see themselves as theagents of sex work in the Brazilian sex work community in Europe. Like a mae/ madrinha, Karin also provides a home for Fernanda.

It is worth mentioning that when the film came out, Silvio Berlusconi was then the prime minister of Italy, and he was later incriminated in a sex gate scandal involving prostitution. During his mandates, years of public debate ensued over the regulation of sex work, an ambiguous terrain of legislation in Italy.2 Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, several provisions were made to the penal code in order to eradicate sex trafficking and to protect the Italian family. These provisions had the unfortunate consequence to conflate sex work and trafficking, which caused in turn the protest of the Italian Committee of Sex Workers and NGOs.

In the movie, the world of sex workers and the Italian family are contiguous yet separate spaces that Fernanda navigates, especially after meeting Gianni (Cesare Bocci), an Italian man recently separated from his wife. Unlike other clients, Gianni wants to know Fernanda as a person, and not merely as commodity, and ends up falling in love with her. After a few encounters, Fernanda and Gianni develop a relationship, which leads her to think that she has finally met the man of her dreams. Fernanda leaves Karin, who had initially offered her “home,” and goes on to live with Gianni. Determined to build a life with him and to undergo surgical reassignment, she starts hormonal treatment under the supervision of a psychiatrist. The movie section portraying Fernanda's transition into Gianni’s life is particularly significant. The director amplifies - via cinematic techniques - the hetero-centric and sentimental frame of Fernanda’s new life. For instance, during a visit with the gynecologist, a sequence of grotesque images depicts Fernanda, performing the chores of a desperate and bored housewife.

As the visual repertoire of domesticity unfolds before the viewers, the psychiatrist - in voice-over - interrogates Fernanda about her masturbatory practices and her sexual feelings. Although the psychiatrist’s questions may seem to mimic the invasive questionnaires of authorities with queer migrants, Fernanda’s answers and the shots tell us a different story. By superimposing Fernanda’s answers about her feelings over the images of domestic chores, the director mocks the way Fernanda is expected to comply with the housewife role and with a hetero-centric, let alone oppressive, way of life. Fernanda ends up feeling more confined and estranged than liberated - “I feel strange,” she notes. To complicate matters, Gianni's wife (Alessandra Acciai) comes back to visit Fernanda when she is alone in the new apartment she now shares with Gianni. The viewers soon learn that Gianni’s wife is back only to announce that she is pregnant and to beg Fernanda to let Gianni go in the name of the child to be born. The wife’s return marks the triumph of biological and social reproduction of the Italian family over a potential for social transformation, which Fernanda embodies. However, it is evident that the director is not complicit with the hetero-centric imperative. By letting us feel the constraints put upon Fernanda’s body and sense of self - her estrangement vis-à-vis the Italian family and the domestic space - the director critically engages the regime of hetero-centric compliance to which queer migrants - and here transgender migrants - are subjected.

Although Gianni refuses to let go of Fernanda, she eventually decides to leave him and goes back to her family of sex workers and to Karin's home. In a way, Fernanda's journey represents that of many Brazilian sex workers - travesties, transgender, and cisgender - whose search for normality informs their choice of Europe for sex work. As Vartabedian and Piscitelli point out, Brazilian sex work in Europe is sustained through a network of cross-border activities and practices such as receiving money for travel and accommodation, and sending money to families of origin that help sex workers gain a certain level of respect (Vartabedian 198; Piscitelli 6). Fernanda’s choice has a somewhat similar value. While it signals the failure of the Italian family and of capitalism in general in giving her the promised freedom, it stresses nonetheless Fernanda’s agency or rather “agencing decision” - to use Nicola Mai’s term. In Mobile Orientations, Mai explores the complicity between sexual humanitarianism and neoliberalism; he also highlights, via the method of auto-ethnographies, how sex migrant workers choose sex work to circumvent forms of exploitation and other constraints. Mai frames agency “as the capacity to act within ... the contradictory constraints and opportunities for subjectivation engendered by the globalization of neoliberal policies and politics” (Mai 10). This capacity, which reflects migrants’ priorities and needs, is what Mai, drawing from Sara Ahmed, calls “mobile orientation.” Fernanda's final choice to join the family of street workers may be read as a form of mobile orientation. In Goldman’s depiction, Fernanda reorients her life, away from the traditional Italian family who failed her, in order to reroute and reroot herself into a new community. The film closes on a scene where Fernanda sits on a client’s car, looking out the window, letting the night breeze blow her hair as the sound of Italian bossanova cuddles her. While the bossanova is reminiscent of Fernanda’s Brazilian roots, the choice of Italian lyrics signifies the complexity and the struggle of Fernanda’s self-translation within Italian culture and society. It also signifies her transition as a woman from an enclosed life of housework labor to that of street sex work, in other words from solid to liquid capitalism.

Rerouting and relocation have been a central focus in recent migration scholarship and activism (Ahmed, Fassin, Nossem, Fellner) that brought attention to the ways migrants and citizens have come together to form coalitional spaces and reconceive experiences of home. Relocation has also become important in the public response to reception of queer migrants in Italy. When thought through Mai's “mobile orientation,” “relocation” may be reconsidered also in terms of "reorientation,” especially when it comes to queer migrations. According to the 2017 EU Report on queer asylum seekers, between 2012 and 2017 Italy had 80 requests of LGBTQI seekers. As article 10 of the Italian Constitution recites, in Italy, the right of asylum is guaranteed to those “who are prevented from the exercise of their democratic liberties”3 in their home country. The government response to asylum requests can take up to two years. During that time and as a result of that delay, asylum seekers are hosted in a variety of reception centers, awaiting the government response. Governmental delays are part and parcel of the creation and proliferation of migrant spaces. In Border as Method, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson argue that waiting, withdrawal, and delay are among the disciplinary strategies that governments enact at borders in order to filter and govern labor mobilities (Mezzadra and Neilsonl32).

However, those borderscapes for queer migrants and refugees may also be filled with homophobic and transphobic tensions. As far as the reception of queerrefugees is concerned, the Italian National Queer Association, Arcygay, points to two main issues: the assumption that all migrants are heterosexual and the binary construction of gay-man/lesbian-woman, which fail to account for different forms of gender/sexual identification. In 2008, Arcigay organized the first seminar to sensitize and train people to the care of queer migrants, including sex workers. Over the years, as the phenomenon has become more complex so have the spaces and the practices acquiring even an online dimension. In 2016, Lybian refugee Amani Zreba denounced the lack of training of officers and staff in Italian reception centers via the website of II grande colibri, an LGBTQI activism project in Italy. Zreba writes:

The seekers find themselves to face episodes of homophonia, transphobia, bullying and in many cases violence on the guests who live with them within the structures of reception. This situation forces them to look for other places, outside of the reception centers or even to escape from the country in which they requested asylum, as it happened to two Armenian transsexuals.4

At times, fear and discrimination among queer migrants may come not merely from Italian officers, but also from their fellow nationals. An asylum seeker, Zreba explains, “encounters some fellow nationals and s/he is often forced to re-live the pain until s/he obtains the permit and the approval of asylum”5 To counter the spread of sexual bullying and gendered violence, new spaces of reception have been created to meet temporarily the needs of LGBTQI migrants and asylum seekers.6 Among them is “Omosessualita e Immigrazioni,” which was founded by the same Amani Zreba.7 We can also find Migra LGB-Cooperativa Ruah, Sportello Migrant! LGBT Milano, Certi diritti, Movimento Identita Trans, and II grande colibri, which all provide free services, legal support to migrants, and training for volunteers.

Another key example of infrastructure is the Clinic for the Rights of Immigration and Citizenship,8 a project birthed in 2010 by the Department of Law at the University of Rome III, under the super-vision of Enrica Rigo. The clinic is an experimental laboratory aimed at combining jurisprudence theory and the practice and application of migrant rights. The clinic has a “sportello legale” (a front desk), operative all year long, from which students offer orientation on rights to migrants and asylum seekers, under the supervision of attorneys who are leading experts in the immigration field. The clinic is particularly active in promoting the application of the Istanbul Convention, which insists on the protection of individuals from gendered violence.9 All these new platforms, equipped with a rich online dimension for the dissemination of information, are signs of the many productive tensions that the border enables. They also represent forms of migrant governance and of autonomous infrastructures, which Mezzadra references as “ciudades refugio” in an interview to the Revista Contexto y Acción (2018). Like autonomous infrastructures, these new (queer) migrant centers and platforms, organized by the efforts of migrants and citizens together, emerge as forms of intersectional and transitional governance. They also function as modes of differential inclusion, a concept borrowed by Mezzadra and Neilson from feminism and race studies to signify borderscapes in which migrants cease to be the marginal inhabitants of borderscapes in order to become the “central protagonists in the drama of composing the space, time and materiality of the social itself’ (Mezzadra and Neilson 73).

Border-crossing has over the years represented a preoccupying image for governments and media alerting people to images of rescued boats, floating bodies, intrusive strangers, and the Mediterranean crisis. Against those technologies of media control, it is useful to look instead at these new spaces of political reorganization as differently preoccupied spaces. Here I am using “preoccupied” with the connotation that literary scholar of migration Teresa Fiore deploys in her book Pre-Occupied Spaces. Fiore urges us to look at spaces occupied by migrants for the transformative potential they hold toward the cultural discourse itself. As all forms of inclusion, those spaces may lend themselves to discipline and control. However, and more importantly, they also point to the emergence of new forms of political action and coalitional politics that ultimately disrupt the politics of the nation-state to look beyond it.


  • 1 Translated from Italian: “i rifugiati con diversi orientamenti sessuali o identitá di genere hanno diritto a un posto particolare per preservare la loro privacy e difend-erli dalle persecuzioni e dallo scheme?” See ccoglienza-lgbt/. Last access 1/19/2020.
  • 2 Since 1958, with the Merlin Law, named after the Venetian socialist senator, Lina Merlin, prostitution is legal. But it is illegal for it to be instigated, or for exploiting or procuring sexual services. See titution.
  • 3 “Lo straniero, al quale sia impedito nel suo paese l’effettivo esercizio delle liberta democratiche garantite dalla Costituzione italiana, ha diritto d’asilo nel territorio della Repubblica, secondo le condizioni stabilite dalla legge.” in it/temi/immigrazione-e-asilo/protezione-internazionale.
  • 4 Translation is mine from the webpage: “Episodi di omofobia, transfobia, bullismo e in molti casi violenza da parte degli ospiti che vivono con loro all’interno delle strutture di accoglienza. Questo li costringe a cercare altri posti, esterni ai centri di accoglienza, o a fuggire dal paese in cui hanno chiesto asilo, come é successo a due transessuali armene.”
  • 5 Translation is mine from the webpage: “[I]ncontra dei paesani e spesso é costretto a vivere di nuovo la sofferenza fino a quando ottiene il permesso e 1’approvazione della domanda d’asilo.”
  • 6 “Persecuted Beyond Borders: Why Italy needs LGBT refugee shelters.”
  • 7
  • 8 “Clínica dei Diritti dell’Immigrazione e della Cittadinanza,” see https://clinicalegale
  • 9 See mmigrazione-e-della-cittadinanza/. Last access: 1/19/2020.

Works cited

Farias de Albuquerque, Fernanda. “Princesa.” Mediterranean Crossroads. Ed. Graziella Parati. Trans. María Ponce de León. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999. 130-145.

Fiore, Teresa. Pre-occupied Spaces. Remapping Italy's Transnational Migrations and Colonial Legacies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Gartner, Johannes Lukas. “Xn-credibly Queer: Sexuality-based Asylum in the EU.” Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity, Ed. Anthony Chase. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2015, 39-66. owledge_detail/incredibly-queer-sexuality-based-asylum-in-the-european-union/. Last access: 1/19/2020.

Mai, Nicola. Sexual Humanitarianism: An Intimate Auto-Ethnography, Sex Work and Humanitarian Borders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Mezzadra, Sandro and Brett Neilson. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Piscitelli, Adriana. “Transits: Brazilian Women Migration in the Context of the Transnationalization of the Sex and Marriage Markets.” Horizontes Antropológicos. 2008. Vol. 4. Last access 1/19/2020.

Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie. Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: Feminist Press, 2013.

Torrisi, Claudia. “Persecuted Beyond Borders: Why Italy needs LGBT Refugee Shelters”. September 2017. -italy-lgbt-refugees/. Last access 1/19/2020.

Vartabedian, Julieta. Brazilian Travestí Migrations. Gender, Sexualities and Embodiment Experiences. London: Palgrave McMillan, 2018.

Zreba, Amani. “Centri per richiedenti asilo LGBT: privilegio o protezione.” Blog in II grande colobrí. October 31,2016. -IgbtZ. Last access: 1/19/2020.


Princesa.2001. 94 minutes.

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