Be You Network launched the role model campaign "Gender Shapers 2020", a worldwide series of gender+ entrepreneurs' portraits. They will share their stories, their business journey and their advice to make your idea a reality, from launch to impact.
This week, we had a talk with Debora from Queermigs. The initiative QueerMigs has evolved a lot since Debora with her two friends, Diana and Inga, started it eight years ago. The project was initially dedicated to helping queer migrants to connect with locals and with each other, enriched with a tandem tool to find a language exchange partner. In addition to the regular public meetings, QueerMigs partnered with Queeramnesty to start a Welcome Café for LGBT refugees in 2015.
We talked about her experience, how the project has grown, and the importance of being inclusive, having fun !
“Create the formats you would like to use yourself”
Hello Debora, where are you from?
I am from Germany originally, I am a foreigner but not so far from Switzerland. I grew up in a small town in Bavaria in an international patchwork family, so I used to be surrounded by people who were speaking different languages, people learning German and we used to travel a lot. I spent three months in Brazil where I learned Portuguese. I was just turning sixteen then, it was my first time in a foreign country on my own and it was a crazy time! People are usually warmer and more welcoming in the Southern countries than in German-speaking countries that can be cold as a society for them.
How did you start the QueerMigs project?
I arrived in Zurich ten years ago for my relationship at that time. I studied Psychology at the University in Zurich and this is where I started to connect with other LGBT people, especially with L-Punkt, the Lesbian, Bisexual, and queer women’s association that was founded in 2010, when I was settling in Zurich. I became later the President of L-Punkt. L-Punkt was started because women were often a minority at LGBT events. They organize events like dinners, cooked together and twenty or thirty women come together for having a good time, making friends, and getting politically active for Pride or other demonstrations.
I met Diana at one of these dinners. As I speak German, it was easier for me but Diana was from Italy and she had some trouble with people switching to Swiss German when there were group meetings and it was difficult for her to join the conversation.
Together we realized there were no groups for people like us, middle-aged LGBT adults coming to Switzerland or other Cantons for work or a relationship and who are still learning the language. We just thought it would be great to have a community and open events for people who speak different languages and make it easier to arrive in Zurich.
We found a flyer for a group called GayMigs that focused on gay migrants. It was not active anymore so we started QueerMigs to be inclusive to everyone.
The (male) gay community has usually been more visible than the lesbian scene. When you go to any big capital, the "gay village" usually has only one or two spots for women. As you mentioned the LGBTI+ organizations in Zurich were also more invested by gay men, what would you say about this phenomenon?
Historically, gay men might have been more openly discriminated against, while women were invisible (like female sexuality in general), so many of these organizations were founded by a majority of gay men and in the beginning, I assume it was probably hard for other people of the community to participate.
About the night scene, I think there are also more gay clubs and less lesbian parties because men are more likely to spend money maybe but also because of the gay pay gap: they have and earn more resources in general. That’s why lesbian entrepreneurs may face more difficulties to find an audience. Women may also be more critical about commercializing the scene, but I am just guessing. This is maybe stereotypical, but maybe another factor could be the dating behavior: women might rather meet in private and stay in long-term relationships, while gay men rather go for parties.
Anyway, it is very frustrating when there is a majority of gay men or only gay men at events. It is cool to hang out with gay men, but of course, women who love women need to meet each other, too! So it is still important to have spaces for women only. For QueerMigs we decided to make it an open group for everyone, allies are welcome too, like my straight flatmate who helped us to create our website back then when we started the project.
How did you concretely start the project? How could you finance it?
In the beginning, we did not have any budget and worked on the project in our free time so we designed an easy way to start: QueerMigs started as a free project and later became a working group of the organization HAZ that funded our activities. We had a small budget and we could use their rooms for movie nights or other events. We created a very simple website on Tumblr and we chose to start the monthly community events in random public spaces like bars or restaurants.
We had the idea to develop Tandem, a method of language learning based on mutual language exchange between tandem partners. My flatmate had the skills to program the database and the algorithm: people just need to send their application and the system automatically pairs people together.
We could not find a match for everyone because we have an imbalance with many people who want to learn German and not enough German speakers who could teach them.
How does the tandem program work for the users?
You just need to fill a registration form mentioning which language you can teach and which one you would like to learn. If your language constellation matches with another user we send you a notification. After the user who registered first confirmed they are still interested, both users will receive the contact details of their respective tandem partner, so they can start practicing together. As for every first time meeting we recommend our users to meet in public to be safe.
You might need to be patient, it can take a while before we find a match, even if sometimes it is not a perfect one, the tandem can be in another town for example.
I can say it is quite easy to register and I cannot wait for the system to find my partner! I feel what you say about isolation when you arrive in a new country, it took me a while to make friends here too, so I get your project impact. I also think about refugees who come not only for work or love but to save their lives, escaping dangerous situations, for example in one of the 72 countries still criminalizing homosexuality. How do you address their specific situations with QueerMigs?
When we started we did not focus on refugees. The majority of migrants in Switzerland come from other European countries for studies, a career, or a relationship. Queeramnesty is another organization with a specific program for refugees and the knowledge and ability to help people who come from very difficult situations and backgrounds. We took care of people like ourselves who might be more privileged, so to say, but still need to connect to face a really hard time when arriving in Zürich, a lonely time that can last years sometimes.
After a couple of years, around 2015, when the refugee crisis was at its first climax, we received more and more requests from people looking for counseling services so Hannes, the manager of HAZ, came up with the idea of a new event format for refugees. We worked together with Queeramnesty to create the Welcome Café for LGBT refugees. The pilot was such a big success that it became a regular thing every month.
We welcome people from different countries, for example in Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, it is very mixed, in terms of languages as well, some speak African languages or Arabic but most of them learn German or speak English or French. Wherever they come from, whatever their language, the importance is that they have a safe space to connect with other LGBT people.
Does QueerMigs organize other activities apart from these Welcome Café meetings?
We still have the Tandem for language exchanges, Queer & Beer at varying locations or movie nights. We also had some political activities, for example, we campaigned for the urge to the city parliament of Zürich to create separate housing for LGBTI* refugees, as they face specific discriminations and dangers sometimes in collective housing.
We also responded to the horrible SVP/UDC campaign poster with a white sheep kicking out a black sheep of the country. We were really afraid that Swiss people might accept this referendum. We decided to use humor to stand against this campaign and created parodic versions of the infamous poster. We used positive stereotypes that are ironically considered as crimes. Our initiative, Rainbow Sheep, buzzed as far as Germany, they interviewed us and it was played in the Sunday news on the public television.
What can you tell us about the key success factors and what challenges you have faced?
For the Welcome Café project, the collaboration with Queeramnesty was fundamental. They are in contact with refugees and have experience in working with refugees. Our partner also paid for the traveling costs, as we hosted people coming from other cities or other cantons, like Ticino or Bern. On our side, we provided the infrastructure and volunteers.
Welcome Café is now on stand-by because of the Corona crisis, but how do you see the future for QueerMigs?
We hope we will survive and keep organizing the Welcome Café, as well as other events like the Movies Nights, and this year we were thinking of launching an arts project. As a warm-up, we recently contributed to the Zukunftsarchiv project, an artistic-political platform on which ideas and methods for activism are exchanged.
“Show your sock-shoeal diversity” – QueerMigs contributed their “shoe” artwork to the Zukunftsarchiv project.
What advice would you give to people who also want to launch a project as you did with QueerMigs?
We are not a powerful association, our contribution is small but it is not always about playing big. I think you need to engage people. It depends on very few people: two or three people who are motivated are enough to start something. It is probably even easier than onboarding ten people.
It is okay to be kind of selfish! Don’t try to help other people before you helped yourself and develop an idea or a service that you would like to use yourself, because if you detect a need that is shared, it will work. Try to make it as much fun as possible and keep it simple: this is how you can commit for a longer time and make it last.
One last word about your view on refugees and queer rights future in Switzerland?
The situation for refugees is not getting easier, people are blocked in the camps and they even cannot arrive in Switzerland to apply for Asylum. Officials are getting more sensitive to LGBTIQ+ issues but on the other hand, they changed the asylum system and the process is now much faster. These shorter time limits will make it harder for refugees to even get in touch with organizations like Queeramnesty before they are either accepted or sent back.
Politically I see some progress for queer people in Switzerland, which makes me carefully optimistic: the vote against hate speech is an important step for the community, although intersex and transgender people were unfortunately excluded from the law. Another progress is the marriage for all, that finally seems to have good chances now, it was not like that three years ago!