Expat identities: a queer migrant’s reinvention abroad

By Elsa Court

Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates the experiences of a French woman in the UK and, in previous parts, a British woman in Hong Kong.

Isabel Waidner is a German-born writer and teacher of creative writing at the University of Roehampton in south London who identifies as gender queer and prefers to be referred to by a non-binary pronoun (“they”). Unlike me or most of the expats I know, they did not move to the UK in their early twenties to study or start a career. They moved here in the mid-1990s because of London’s queer culture and community.

“London and, I guess by extension, British culture has always represented a level of queer freedom that was unavailable to me at home,” they say. “I come from the Black Forest, a rural part of southern Germany, and I was longing to escape my traditional upbringing.

“Incidentally, I had a gay uncle whose partner was a very camp English man and, to me, at a young age, I had a strong feeling that I would be freer as a queer person in the UK.”

A quarter of a century on, judging by Waidner’s recent decision to apply for British citizenship by naturalisation, it seems at least on that front, UK culture did not disappoint.

When we speak, Waidner refers to their second novel, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, as their one, and hopefully only, “Brexit novel”. In the book, a 36-year-old queer immigrant working in various precarious jobs in the UK, mostly in hotels and restaurant kitchens, applies for — but fails to secure — British citizenship.

“This would have been me six years ago,” they tell me. “Had I applied then, without a secure permanent job like the one I have now, I am pretty sure I would not have obtained citizenship.”

Citizenship was never part of Waidner’s plan, but they say Brexit has introduced a new level of uncertainty to their and their partner’s life. “I mostly applied to get citizenship in order to secure my relationship with my partner, who is British,” they say.

In Waidner’s view, queer relationships are already precarious, and settling their status as a UK resident and citizen felt necessary. Through this experience, they have written a novel telling a story that will be familiar to many queer migrants: that of not belonging in the country that initially gave them the freedom to live their life authentically.

Isabel Waidner wrote their novel in English rather than their native German

Given Waidner’s choice of pronoun to refer to themselves in English, I wonder to what extent the freedom they found in the UK can be connected to linguistic differences. French, for example, has less scope for gender-neutral pronouns. Even verb participles are marked by their grammatical subject’s gender.

I ask Waidner if it is the same in German. It is similar, they say, while confessing that they do not know, for instance, if there is an option for a non-binary pronoun in their first language. “I’ve never been part of Germany’s queer culture,” they say. “As an adult, I’ve always been a Londoner.”

Of course, Berlin, like other big German cities, has its own queer culture, which is far from negligible. In an essay for The White Review last year, British writer Julia Bell, who lectures in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, wrote about the Berlin techno club Berghain, which as a historically gay venue remains a space of queer emancipation despite its increasing popularity outside the queer community. She presents Berlin as offering room for queer sexual liberation from the constraints of British culture.

Berlin’s Berghain techno club, increasingly popular with a non-queer crowd

Waidner is aware of this view of Berlin, but in both their and Bell’s case, it is the departure to a foreign city that has been liberating. The conclusion Waidner and I seem to have reached is that sometimes you need more of a reinvention than your own country can offer.

“In moving country, I lost some of the homophobia and prejudices I had internalised since childhood,” Waidner says.

This, they believe, is at play in their writing, which in turn, they feel, is adding to contemporary British literature. Though it is too early to tell how a wave of naturalised citizens might inform UK culture in the long run, Waidner thinks Britishness, in the context of Brexit, should be discussed anew to recognise the cultural diversity in British society.

At an event in January organised by the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre at the University of London, Waidner spoke with Spanish author Agustín Fernández Mallo about European literature and identity. While Fernández Mallo’s novel was coming out in English translation, Waidner’s latest work was written in English.

Asked to what extent their continental European origin informed their writing, Waidner joked that their recent naturalisation as a British citizen was equally important to understand their work from a cultural point of view. In a gesture that made me smile in the audience, they grabbed their jumper with two fingers and said: “This is the new British.”

You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here

Photographs: Alamy; Jacob Love; Getty Images


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