Queer Migration: A Dialogue about Works in Progress

Karma R. Chávez, Eithne Luibhéid, and Anne-Marie Fortier

March 2012

Jump to a question:

1. What are you working on right now?

2. In what ways are you using “queer” in this work? What theories, concepts, or models have been helpful? Is this similar to or different from the ways you’ve used “queer” in your other works?

3. In what ways are you using the concept of “migration” (or, if you don’t use that concept, what rubric do you use instead, and why)? Is this similar to or different from the way you’ve used that concept before? Are you using queer to reframe concepts and debates about migration?

4. What book did you pick up recently that grabbed your attention? Or what scholarly debates are you currently interested in further pursuing?

1. What are you working on right now?

Karma R. Chávez: My book manuscript is looking at instances when queer politics and migration politics intersect in the post-2006 US public sphere, and I am suggesting that those “coalitional moments” are instructive for understanding how national belonging gets imagined in the US and how it is being upheld and challenged. The book is comprised of a series of engagements with the rhetoric and practices LGBT or queer activists, migrant activists and queer migrant activists that each capture something different about how people are building connections and trying to better their worlds. I am also beginning work on my second book, which is going to be an examination of how early AIDS activists in the US (but also possibly the UK—not sure if there’s material there, but I’ll be there this spring to find out) addressed the issue of immigration. Prominent AIDS activist organizations like ACT UP, are largely remembered as gay and lesbian, and were, in fact, largely comprised of gays and lesbians. Yet, at least in the United States, HIV/AIDS was completely wrapped up with the issue of immigration, both in terms of the actual ban on HIV+ migration, and also in the ways in which Africans and Haitians (some migrant, some not) were stigmatized in the US as those who supposedly brought AIDS to the US. Immigrant communities more generally were among the most devastated by HIV/AIDS in the early days (and still to this day), yet HIV/AIDS as a “gay” disease remained the dominant narrative. So, I am interested in how in the early days of HIV/AIDS, largely queer activists confronted the issue of immigration and immigration politics.

Eithne Luibhéid: I’m finishing a book that explores how, in the Irish Republic between 1997 and 2005, pregnancy became the grounds for presuming that a woman was likely to be an undocumented migrant. Chapters explore several interlinked questions: how did pregnancy become constructed as “proof” of undocumented migration? What changes in law and policy were implemented as a result? How did these changes, rather than preventing undocumented migration, instead expand the grounds on which migrants became designated by the state as undocumented? How did efforts to target pregnant migrants connect with other sexuality and migration struggles such as same-sex couple reunification, marriage migration, and sex work? How did the resulting changes reconfigure nationalist sexual norms, racial hierarchies, and Ireland’s position within the European Union and globally? How do these connect with similar transformations around the world?

In pursuing these questions, the book does not try to resolve whether any migrants were “really” undocumented, nor to propose policy changes that might assist in better policing against undocumented migration. On the contrary, bringing the scholarship about the social construction of the undocumented migrant into dialogue with queer theory, the book argues that events in Ireland offer an important opportunity to denaturalize and ask critical questions about the processes through which states construct migrants as documented or not. By analyzing how pregnant migrants, specifically, became paradigmatic figures of undocumented migration, the book explores the role of sexual norms in shaping how states draw the line between documented and undocumented status, which has been greatly under-theorized in the scholarship.

Anne-Marie Fortier: My current research, which is still in its early stages, is on the citizenship naturalisation process in Britain. The process is relatively new here, as it was implemented in 2004. For this reason, there remains little research on the subject (though I keep meeting people doing research on the citizenship ceremonies), and the research that does exist tends to focus on one aspect (the citizenship test or the ceremony) and to focus on applicants alone. My study considers the process as a whole, and I will interview applicants as well as those I call ‘non-applicants’, that is, people who dispense citizenship or provide advice and guidance through the different stages of the process (local government employees, ceremonies officials, teachers of English for Students of Other Languages [ESOL], etc.). I will also be observing an ESOL class and some citizenship ceremonies. I interview applicants as well as non-applicants because I am interested in the making of citizenship in different sites and by different actors. My research can be divided in two related strands of enquiry: first, I want to document practices, techniques, artefacts and technologies involved in the process. This includes asking how Britishness is taught, learned, dispensed; looking at the kinds of interactions and relations that are staged between applicants, between applicants and non-applicants, between applicants and the state; and looking at practices of storing, copying, studying, documenting, recording, identifying, confirming, that go into the making of new citizens.

The second strand complements the first and attends to the imaginaries that feed into, and are supported by, the naturalisation process. This relates to fantasies, desires and other affective politics. My question here is: what kinds of imaginaries meet in the naturalisation process? For example, the migration imaginary (see question 3 below), the genealogical imaginary (think of birthright citizenship), imaginaries of the state, the national imaginary, and so on. What I am trying to get at here are the politics and economies of desire, the anxieties, the fantasies that state practices of naturalisation result from, carry and (re)produce.

Karma: Eithne, how do notions of postcolonial national identity factor into the manifestations of this rhetorical panic surrounding pregnant migrant mothers?

Eithne: Historically, postcolonial national identity was strongly expressed through claims of an Irish sexual order that was supposedly distinct and different from that of the former colonial master, Britain. To some extent, these are ideological rather than factual claims—while at another level, Irish sexualities have a somewhat different history than that in metropolitan cores, and it’s important to account for that difference, or else one is implicated in producing colonizing forms of knowledge. So how do sexuality, gender, postcolonialism, and changing structures of racialization come together in Ireland today, including in struggles over migrants? Work by scholars like Ronit Lentin, Breda Gray, Steve Garner, Ruth Fletcher, Catherine Nash, and many others have been exploring those questions, and in the process, contributing to the production of innovative racial theory scholarship that does not simply mimic UK or US work, though it certainly learns from them, but instead centrally addresses Ireland’s very complex relationship to categories of race and experiences of racialization. Their attention to specificities of Irish racialization processes have opened up new research questions in postcolonial, feminist/gender, and sexuality/queer studies, too, which help us to better understand the responses to migrants.

Karma, my question for you is, please tell us more about what you mean by “coalition” and some of what you’ve learned about the difficulties and possibilities for
diverse groups to act in coalition to address queer and migrant issues in
an anti-normative manner.

Karma: I use coalition as opposed to say, alliance, because I think it has more flexibility. Though a lot of the feminist scholarship on coalition describes a coalition as something temporary and an alliance as enduring, for me, coalition can refer to longterm or temporary political relationships. I do this following María Lugones who describes coalition created in response to intermeshing oppressions as “always the horizon that rearranges both our possibilities and the conditions of those possibilities” (Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes ix). In this way, coalition is both a thing people build, but it’s also a fraught space for engagement with others. And as feminists of color have always reminded us, coalition is hard! My research certainly affirms this. Queer and migrant activists I have worked with often try to find a space for engagement based on developing a shared understanding of the interrelated mechanisms of homophobia and xenophobia, for example. This can work well, and also lead to a flattening of differences among groups.

Anne-Marie: Karma, I’m interested in knowing more about how you put queer and intersectionality in dialogue. That is, not only what ‘intersectionality’ adds to queer, but also what queer brings to ‘intersectionality’. Put simply, intersectionality tends to emphasise the structural and the ‘identitarian’ , while queer tends to emphasise the post-structural, the anti-essentialist and the non-identitarian. So in short, my question is: how do you understand the contribution of ‘queer’ to intersectionality and do you see any potential tensions?

Karma: I am most interested in the contribution of intersectionality to queer than the other way around. I find a bit of a problem in the usual association of anti-essentialism with queer theory (or post-structuralism more generally) and not with intersectionality. I think intersectionality—and I am using this term here as a promiscuous shorthand for interlocking/intermeshing oppressions—offers a lot of the same critique as anti-essentialist positions such as those of queer theorists. I think the difference is that unlike most queer theory, intersectionality is what Moraga and Anzaldúa call a theory in the flesh, one developed from people’s lived experiences, but with full recognition of the complexity and fluidity of those experiences and the systems of power that produce them. On a basic level, intersectionality, and queer of color critique, are correctives to a queer theory that elides the significance of race, class, gender, ability, and nation and other systems of power to queer sexualities and genders, as well as to hetero- and cisgender-normativities.


2. In what ways are you using “queer” in this work? What theories, concepts, or models have been helpful? Is this similar to or different from the ways you’ve used “queer” in your other works?  

Karma R. Chávez: I think early on, and to a degree this remains today, I was using it in three simple ways: 1) as an umbrella term for LGBTQ et al. and other “sexual deviants” who get pushed out like prostitutes and HIV+ people, 2) as a rough synonym for gay and lesbian, but with anti-normative political meanings, 3) as a mode of critique that challenged heteronormativity. I’ve always been a bit vexed by queer theory’s, or some of its’, disregard for intersectionality. So, now I play with terms like “Queer feminist intersectional approach” to describe what I do, but it’s all very clunky. And I’ve also become much more invested in the need for a materialist critique to be a part of my queer feminist intersectional approach, as a result of conversations with friends like Yasmin Nair. I might describe this as a deepening of my understanding of what queer is and what it can do, which is to get at the normative logics of these complicated, interlocking systems of oppression. In some ways, then, for me, the queer critique or the work of queer theory is very similar to the work of the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, María Lugones, and Gloria Anzaldúa. I will say by way of closing, that one of the places I am really moving right now is to investigate cisgender normativity in my life and in my work. Through reading trans theory and spending time in conversation with trans friends and allies, I am rethinking the blindspots of queer, in light of what Susan Stryker calls “homonormativity”—not to be confused with Lisa Duggan’s more popular definition—as in the gender normativity of gay and lesbian communities.

Eithne Luibhéid: Siobhan Somerville’s work describes that queer is often used in two seemingly contradictory ways: as a synonym for LGBT, and as a term that calls into question the stability of any identity categories based on sexual orientation. This book follows the second usage, as well as queer of color scholarship, by using queer as a framework to question essential sexual identities; explore the production of the distinction between normative and non-normative sexualities; attend to the ways that sexualities articulate other social hierarchies; and call for transformation rather than assimilation. The book is also greatly influenced by Cathy Cohen’s formulation (in “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens”) of “queer coalitions” as something that does not mean equating different histories or struggles but rather, finding common cause in one’s “shared marginal relationship to dominant power that normalizes, legitimizes, and privileges.” Bringing these strands of queer theory together provided me with the tools to name the targeting of pregnant migrants as a struggle over sexual norms; link that struggle with other important issues such same-sex couples’ migration and sex work; and argue that these struggles were transforming but not abolishing the dominant sexual norm. This last point resonates with current debates on hegemony, heteronormativity, and queer possibilities.

Anne-Marie Fortier: I don’t explicitly use the term queer very much in my work, while my work is very inspired by queer theory and research in queer studies. I have used queer as a descriptive term referring to LGBTI and other ‘sexual deviants’, and as an critical analytical tool that challenges heteronormativity and normative familial arrangements (kinship, family, coupledom, etc.). At the same time, I don’t want to assume that queer is necessarily ‘deviant’: we need to consider the different hierarchies that are reproduced in queer politics: sexual, gender, racial, class, generational. Jasbir Puar’s work on homonationalism in the US is an example of this critique of the assumed ‘deviance’ and progressive character of queer politics. In addition, while my use of queer as a critical tool that challenges the normative can imply that non-LGBT individuals could be queer (the single person, the non-reproductive heterosexual woman, etc.), I am wary of the risks involved in extending the term’s meanings so much that everybody can potentially be cast as queer. I do not want LGBTIs to be erased – they too often are in the political and the academic realms. So I think that I will always use the term to signify the anti-normative, but with a specifically LGBTI lens on what that means. Even more specifically, in my current work, I am thinking of using it to refer to lesbians and gay men who are going through the naturalization process. But that may change depending on who I meet and interview in the process, as I am not preselecting respondents on the basis of their sexuality or gender.

Eithne: Anne-Marie, your concluding comments about “queer” suggest that the term’s meanings and possible usefulness are not already fully determined in advance (though they are conditioned by the histories that attach to it); instead, meanings and usefulness partly emerge unexpectedly during the term’s deployment to analyze specific research questions. This requires researchers to be very reflexive, which is both challenging and exciting. Does this resonate at all with your experiences?

Anne-Marie: I think so. I’ve been thinking about this question since we began this dialogue. I am aware that I might sound like suggesting a kind of policing of legitimate usages of ‘queer’! Which is not what I have in mind! I agree that a concept like ‘queer’ is conditioned by the histories that attach to it, but I suppose that I worry about that history being forgotten – particularly the history of erasure of ‘sexual deviants’ in political and theoretical discourses. But I also see how queer is a very productive heuristic device that allows for analyses such as the one you develop in your book, Eithne. At the same time yes, I think that we should track how we use the term and be reflexive about the implications of that usage.

Eithne, I really like how you formulate your use of queer. But I am left wondering what’s specifically queer about it? How is it different to feminist critiques of motherhood, for example?

Eithne: I believe that “queer” has to be continually made and remade as a tool that serves the ends of whatever project in which one is engaged. In this project, I don’t claim that pregnant migrants are queer, because I agree with your concern that not anyone and everything can be queer or else the term risks losing its analytic purchase. Rather, I argue that struggles over pregnant migrants provide a lens for understanding and asking critical questions about a larger heteronormative order in which migration control is embedded and that it upholds. Those kinds of questions are generally completely absent from the discussions of conflicts over pregnant migrants—which is precisely why it seems necessary to reconceptualize the conflicts through a queer lens. The reconceptualization also suggests how concerns about pregnant migrants connect with concerns about lesbian and gay migrants, sex workers, domestic workers, marriage migrants, and other issues—that are usually treated in isolation from one another, but should be analyzed together. Framing the book’s material in this way is also my attempt to further strengthen the dialogue between feminist and queer migration research.


3.  In what ways are you using the concept of “migration” (or, if you don’t use that concept, what rubric do you use instead, and why)? Is this similar to or different from the way you’ve used that concept before? Are you using queer to reframe concepts and debates about migration?

Karma R. Chávez: I use the concept migration in quite a fixed sense to describe crossing over an international border, and like Anne-Marie, this does not include for reasons of travel or tourism. I generally follow what Eithne says in her intro to Queer Migrations in preferring migration and migrant to immigration and immigrant in order to highlight the slipperiness among those terms. Migration has some possibility to be used in much more metaphorical ways, but for me, I am especially interested in the rhetorical practices of migrant groups in a given country, usually the US, and also the ways in which international migrants are talked about, imagined, scapegoated and positioned in the public sphere, usually the US public sphere. I think putting queer in conversation with migration though is very important, both to highlight the blind spots of heteronormative migration studies, but also to challenge the way in which the “queer” can reify the nation-state and various logics of neoliberalism when not productively thought of in terms of the transnational.

Eithne Luibhéid: I use different terms depending on my audience, geographic location, and the problem at hand. But I generally follow the argument I made in Queer Migrations, and use the term “migrant” to refer to anyone who has crossed an international border. I use “migrant” that way so as to deliberately refuse to participate in the state’s regimes for differentiating among migrants through categories like legal migrant, worker, refugee, and so on. These categories don’t reflect empirical differences among people but rather, the power of the state to name and thereby circumscribe people’s rights and possibilities. Such operations of power are shown by the fact that the Irish state used panics over pregnancies to transform many legally resident migrants into people without legal status, by first claiming that they were “illegal” even when the vast majority had legal status, and then introducing changes that ensured many migrants became undocumented. This clearly shows how states produce the categories that they claim to merely name objectively, and that’s why I want to treat the state’s categories with extreme caution. Yet I also need terms and concepts to trace out the impact of the state’s changing categorizations of migrants, even if we don’t treat these categories as positivist, and to situate these changes in historical and political context. So there are times when “migrant,” used in the way that I described, reaches its limit, and other terms become important.

Anne-Marie Fortier: I use the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ to refer to transnational border crossings for reasons other than travel and tourism. This includes not only individuals who change their usual place of residence, but also those who undertake weekly or daily international cross-border journeys (usually for work), as well as undocumented migrants.

This being said, I do not want to lose sight of the ways in which migration cannot be separated from ‘staying put’. Avtar Brah coined the concept of ‘diaspora space’ to capture the entangled genealogies of movement and staying put and to foreground the politics of differentiation between ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ subjects. I think that we need to look at migration in ‘diaspora spaces’ that are inhabited by migrants and non-migrants alike and to consider how ‘migration’ is also about non-migrants. I have recently been using the phrase ‘migration imaginary’ to approach migration not simply as a fact – as the physical movement of people, resulting from global capitalism, political forces and conflicts, or climactic disasters – but as an imaginary which is mobilised and deployed in ways that are structured by desires and anxieties. Put simply, the migration imaginary is one of several social imaginaries that shape and are shaped by public cultures of assumptions, (affective) dispositions, and actions that influence and are (re)produced by migrants and non-migrants alike.

Finally yes, I use queer to reframe debates and concepts in migration studies which, despite the growing scholarship on queer migration, still work predominantly within heteronormative frames of reference. ‘Queer’ forces attention to how sexuality and sexual politics are as significant as gender, class and racial politics in migration practices, policies and imaginaries. In my current work on migration and citizenship, queer is useful to denaturalize and challenge assumptions in the scholarship about kinship and birthright citizenship (Somerville’s work is a noteworthy contribution in that direction). And recent developments on homonationalism and sexual nationalism are also useful to critically consider how queer politics are mobilised in anti-immigration politics.

Karma: Anne-Marie, in what ways would your concept “migration imaginaries” be useful in explaining the sorts of anxieties perpetuated in popular media related to immigrant belonging? In what ways are migration imaginaries connected to migrant imaginaries (and I can think of a number of ways that could be defined) and what does putting migrant/migration and imaginary together productively do for the ways we have often been asked to think of the concept of an imaginary as one connected to a community or a “people”?

Anne-Marie: Migration imaginaries are related to migrant imaginaries in several ways. The first resonates with Berlant’s point about loving the migrant who loves us, but also the anxieties that this raises, such as ‘there are too many potential migrants who desire us’, which supports arguments for tighter immigration control.

Second, the migration imaginaries are routinely condensed in various ‘figurations’ of migrants – utopian (e.g. the good, integrated, ‘mixed race’ child) or dystopian (the excessively patriarchal, polygamous, etc.).  Such figurations, like imaginaries, work through particularizations that serve to discipline and normalize the population as a whole (not only migrants).

Third, states continuously establish new distinctions between immigrant-citizens who are welcome into the national fold and cast against undesirable immigrants (and not-yet citizens). In short, the migration imaginary connects to the migrant imaginary in producing a new hierarchy of desirability among migrants, and that hierarchy is founded in part on ideas of settlement and integration.


4. What book did you pick up recently that grabbed your attention? Or what scholarly debates are you currently interested in further pursuing?

Karma R. Chávez: I’m so serious in my reading, generally speaking, so I have to say that reading Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was sort of a guilty pleasure. I really like what Halberstam was doing with “low theory,” and this literal question of failure. I’m not sure how/if I’ll use it in my work, but it was sure a joy to read. Otherwise, I’ve actually been reading some older stuff like Cynthia Enloe’s Does Khaki Become You? as I’ve been thinking of new ways to get at the problem of militarization in queer/migrant lives.

Eithne Luibhéid: The book began with a focus on sexualities, but over time I started to integrate questions of intimacies. By including intimacies, I could bring a wider range of everyday phenomena into the analysis and perhaps open up new possibilities for challenge. I am particularly interested in the fact that citizens often protest immigration bills that they feel unduly infringe on their everyday social ties and networks. An example is that in 2006, many citizens in the US protested harsh immigration bills that they felt that it unduly criminalized routine interactions like sharing food, offering a ride, or dropping by someone’s house. This raises questions about how everyday relations of care and exchange between people—including people who are not immediate family or co-workers or friends—are being redefined and criminalized through immigration laws, and when this mobilizes citizens to protest. Now, there are some huge problems with privileging citizens’ intimacies when trying to challenge migration regimes, including because this strategy reinscribes dominant logic that privileges citizens’ concerns over those of migrants, and also because in these scenarios, citizens often effectively use migrants to claim rights for themselves rather than to challenge unjust migration systems. Nonetheless, I am interested in thinking about how we can broaden our notions of valued intimacies, and conceive other forms of sociality that may become a basis for challenging immigration law. This interest intersects with the scholarship on affect, intimacy, and affective citizenship. There are important queer “takes” on these issues—but can we link this work to the critique and advocacy around migration?

Anne-Marie Fortier: Like Eithne, I’m interested in debates about intimacy and affect which I have found useful to think about citizenship and migration. I am particularly interested in how practices of intimacy or affective politics become the ‘thing’ of migration and citizenship experience, but also of state policies and practices of governance. How affect, for example, circulates in ways that produce social relations of differentiation and hierarchies, and how it produces differentiated subjects.

I am also interested in imaginaries, fantasies and I’ve returned to some ‘classics’, like Jacqueline Rose’s States of Fantasy to think about the ways in which fantasies about the omnipotent state are sustained through various state practices. In my research, I’m interested in how the naturalisation process stages particular kinds of relationships with the state – how the state is cast as that which we always seek for approval and for inclusion. But also how state practices themselves work in ways that conceal its very fragility and its potential failures – its incapacity to actually be omnipotent.

Contributor Biographies

Karma R. Chávez is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and an affiliate faculty in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. Learn more at http://commarts.wisc.edu/directory/?person=krchavez

Eithne Luibhéid is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, USA. Learn more at http://gws.arizona.edu/eithne

Anne-Marie Fortier is Reader in Social and Cultural Studies in the Sociology Department at the University of Lancaster, UK. Learn more at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/profiles/24/


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