Sexual Nationalisms: Notes on Queer Migration and Asylum Politics in Canada

By: Melissa Autumn White, PhD © 2011 [1]

In the fall of 2006, Alex and Sam wedded at Toronto’s City Hall. Dressed in cheap new suits with slick ties and holding beautiful flowers, they looked absolutely fabulous.  The guests—genderqueers and radical fairies of all persuasions—looked good too. But the wedding was an address to a different future than the one that might have been imagined by anyone not familiar with the struggles that the couple had been weathering over the last several years.

A self-described polyamorous genderqueer trans-fag couple, Alex and Sam had maintained a Canada-US cross-borders relationship for many years.  When Sam decided that he wanted to make Toronto his “home” base, he and Alex began the process of putting together a family class immigration sponsorship claim.  Partway into the process, the couple realized that they were going to have tremendous difficulty documenting their relationship in such a way as to render it intelligible—“legitimately” so—according to the guidelines set out by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. So, these radical anti-capitalist queers endeavored to bring their relationship into some frame of apprehendability vis-à-vis a very queer wedding that, on its face, might have been read as a thoroughly “homonormative” affair.  The attendees took and posed for photos with the couple and celebrated the subversive potentials (after all!) of gay marriage.  Some of these photos were carefully included along with other forms of documentation in the comprehensive “proof-of-relationship” dossier Alex and Sam subsequently created as a crucial aspect of their sponsorship application.  Within a year, Sam’s immigration application came through on the basis of her recognizable relationship to Alex. Representing themselves to the state as a respectable “lesbian” couple, Sam and Alex are now able to continue to plot and live out queer(er) futures on nationalized ground.

Perhaps this seems like a celebratory beginning.  After all, Sam and Alex couldn’t have done this in the United States, for example.  As states in the US repeal domestic partnership recognition and the national lobby group Immigration Equality lobbies Congress for immigration reforms that would allow so-called “same-sex” couples to be eligible for sponsorship, Canada’s extension of formal relationship recognition to queer couples in immigration law, policy and practice appears to be, and is often uncritically heralded as relatively, and merely, progressive.  But, this vignette of Alex and Sam aims to gesture toward the symbolic and actual violence that is at the heart of the immigration process—and not only for those whose bodies, feelings, thoughts and lives do not neatly align with dominant norms.  This is a form of violence, I argue, that affects all who apply for immigration recognition, but that most profoundly affects those of us rendered vulnerable by the very distance of our lived realities from these regulatory norms (cf. Butler 2004).

For anyone who has crossed the “borders” of sexual, sexed, and gendered intelligibility, the crossing of other territorialized borders, such as those that demarcate the boundaries of the nation-state, only intensify those experiences of potential social abjection, unevenly and in tandem with other dynamic registers of social difference, like race, disability, and nationality. The highly selective inclusion of some queer migrants into the fold of the nation through immigration recognition is inextricably tied up with the refusal of recognition to others who are framed as undesirable or as less deserving of permanent residency privileges, most strikingly of course in the context of queer asylum claims, where applicants for protected person status must demonstrate that they are “gay enough” to be deserving of protection from the “barbarism” of their home country. Those who cannot secure recognition in the immigration context are “left to die” both in the figurative sense of being cast out of the bounds of national sociality, a sociality that fundamentally rests upon citizenship status and formalized belonging, as well as in the literal sense, as in the case of failed asylum seekers who are subject to torture and death in their “home” countries, or those who are refused residency rights in Canada because of HIV/AIDS status and are thus denied access to “public”—i.e. national,  health care.

What interests me, then, in Alex and Sam’s story is not so much the possibility or optimism of the potential for the reversibility of power—of how the law can be turned against itself in some instances by some individuals in certain contexts. Rather, I find interesting the simultaneously emotional and political stakes in nationalized LGBTQ struggles for state recognition, and specifically, what stories of queer migration might tell us about the limits of framing our struggles in terms of a “desire for the state’s desire.” In Alex and Sam’s case, it is important to point out that as self-identified white trans-fag genderqueers who were working in relatively entrepreneurial if marginalized sectors of the labour economy as a carpenter and artist, the state scrutiny of their gendered and sexual comportment was much less intense than the lazer-gaze before which queer refugees are required to perform a legible “deviance” that is not only deeply gendered and hyper-sexualized, but is also fundamentally a racializing performance of otherness through which the Canadian state can re-secure itself as a tolerant, progressive and “multicultural” civilization.

The recognition of LGBTQ rights in the immigration context shores up nationalist discourses of a hospitable, modern nation against the backdrop of a homophobic and deeply barbaric world “out there”, and it is important to keep in mind the ways that these same discourses of heroic nationalism obscure a critical analysis of Canada’s imperialistic and highly militarized foreign policies in the so-called “Islamic World.”  While Canada’s very recent history—up until 1978—of actively excluding “homosexuals” from entering the country as visitors, let alone as migrants and permanent residents, is erased and forgotten, the links between the micropolitics of sexuality, race, gender, class and citizenship status—which are often thought of as “identity attributes” of individuals, and the macropolitics of militarization, war, imperialism and nationalism, are rendered invisible.  What does sexuality have to do with foreign policy, war and militarization? How do LGBTQ struggles reproduce the nation-state as a primary site of identification? How might LGBTQ activists, advocates and allies resist nationalist discourses that both naturalize the nation-state as a legitimate legal regime of violence, leaving unquestioned and, indeed, unquestionable the ongoing colonial relationships, for example, of the Canadian state with indigenous peoples, as well as justifying Islamophobic discourses of the terrorist and homophobic Muslim other?

While the extension of queer immigration and asylum recognition in Canada has been won through the tireless efforts of a small but growing number of highly committed people over the last two decades, beginning with the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Taskforce in Vancouver in 1991, and now by a steadily growing number of LGBT and queer organizations, including Egale, the Rainbow Refugee Committee, No One Is Illegal, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, and so on, what I hope we might reflect on further is the ways in which the gains that activists do make become possible only through some rather costly “bargains.”  For example, how do we make sense of the fact that Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, whose lack of commitment to LGBTQ rights was made abundantly clear through his highly publicized refusal to include any reference to LGBTQ issues in the most recent citizenship guide, has committed to supporting the relocation of Iranian queer refugees from Turkey to Canada through increased government sponsorships?  And, how do we make sense of Kenney’s more recent commitment to work closely with queer organizations to share the burden of sponsoring queer asylum seekers, through the “group of five” sponsorship program?

These are far from straightforward questions, and these are far from straightforward gains. Indeed, they come with many trade-offs. I think we need to be alert to the fact that the terms of immigration sponsorship privileges normative, desexualized, and “marriage-like like” relationships, in such a way that the extension of this recognition by the state also buttresses an ideal of white citizenship. Those who gain residency in Canada through the terms of family class migration are “whitenened” through the process. Queer, perhaps, but not threatening. We also need to be alert to the emergence of a hierarchy of “deserving” refugees that has just as much to do with Canadian foreign policy and the privatization of the Canadian immigration system as it does with humanitarian impulse.  While increasing numbers of Mexican and Latin American queer asylum seekers are being denied status in Canada, Iranian queers have come to figure in the media and elsewhere as the penultimate subjects deserving of protection.  I would argue that the situation for Iranian queers has become spectacularly visible in part because they can serve as justifications for Canadian imperialism and economic nationalism in the so-called “Islamic World.”

While I can’t exhaustively map all of the ways in which these examples demonstrate how the contemporary politics of queer migration and asylum are bound up with national and international economic imperialism here, what I hope to have accomplished with this blog is, at the very least, a disruption of the idealization of “Canada” as an unproblematically progressive destination for LGBTQ subjects. My work endeavors to open up critical spaces to consider, in more nuanced ways, how LGBTQ struggles are implicated in racialized nationalisms that bring some queer subjects into the fold of national life while pushing others further out towards both symbolic and literal death (cf. Puar 2007).  As LGBT and queer activists, advocates and allies, how might we articulate our struggles in such a way that we don’t continue to shore up nationalist discourses of citizenry, human rights, and protection? In other words, how might we frame our struggles in such a way that the goal is no longer constrained to one of struggle for the state’s recognition, but instead as a more just world for all, beyond an increasingly fenced and heavily bordered world? Appeals to Canadian nationalism, even through such unthinkingly continual references to gay and lesbian “citizens” (rather than all who live within the boundaries of this territorial enclosure known as “Canada”—including indigenous, non-citizen, temporary migrant workers and illegalized migrants) fail to problematize the ways that Canadian “tolerance” and the myth of Canada as a “peace keeping” nation cover over our on-going participation in colonial, imperialist and militarized operations that produce the very insecurities that put so many people on the move to begin with.

Immigration regimes are, after all, a primary technology through which state sovereignty is secured and national imaginaries are reproduced. As such, the very notions of immigration policy and related border controls are rarely brought into foundational question, even though it could be said that immigration controls are fundamentally an attempt to manage sexuality and desire in that their institutionalized histories in the North American context and beyond have been explicitly yoked to concerns over social reproduction and the production of governable populations.  However, rather than the “problem” being understood primarily as one of unjust border controls and the role of immigration regimes in maintaining a particular configuration of wealth and power in geopolitical place, the “problem” has generally been articulated by advocates as (and drastically reduced to) the “heterosexism” or “homophobia” of particular aspects of immigration and border control policies. The goal thus becomes framed as one of changing “problematic policies” as though a teleological progression of immigration policy in service of a more truly realized ideal of freedom could be achieved (cf. Duggan 2003).  What if the “problem” of queer migration and asylum were otherwise posed, to illuminate the roles that territorialized identities, identifications, residency rights and citizenships, in tandem with the governance of intimacy, play in biopolitical distributions (i.e. political economies) of life and death?

Works Consulted

Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

Duggan, Lisa. 2002. “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.” In Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, edited by Russ Castronovo and Dana Nelson, 175-194. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Duggan, Lisa. 2003. The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990 [1978].  History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. 2003 [1976]. “Society Must Be Defended” Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador Press.

Luibhéid, Eithne. 2002. Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

White, Melissa Autumn. 2010. Intimate Archives, Migrant Negotiations: Affective Governance and the Recognition of “Same-Sex” Family Class Migration in Canada. Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate Program in Women’s Studies, York University, Toronto, ON.

White, Melissa Autumn. 2011. “Approaching Queer(er) Futures.” Paper presented at “We Demand”: History/Sex/Activism. Vancouver, British Columbia, 26 August 2011.

White, Melissa Autumn. 2011. “Sexual Nationalism: A Reflection on Queer Migration and Asylum in Canada.” Invited paper presented as part of the MUN Student’s Union/Pride on Campus Speakers’ Series. Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland. 23 July 2011.

White, Melissa Autumn. (n.d.). “Ambivalent Homonationalisms: Transnational Queer Intimacies and Territorialized Belongings.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (special issue: “Postcolonial Intimacies,” edited by Phanuel Antwi, Sarah Brophy, Helene Strauss, and Y-Dang Troeng; under final stages of review).

White, Melissa Autumn. (n.d.). “Governing Queer Intimacies at the U.S.-Canada ‘Border’.” Forthcoming in Feminist (Im)Mobilities in Fortress North America: Rights, Citizenships and Identities in Transnational Context, edited by Anne Sisson Runyan, Amy Lind, Marianne H. Marchand, and Patricia McDermott (Ashgate; forthcoming).


[1] I’ve presented versions of this blog as an invited speaker at the MUN Pride Speakers’ Series (Memorial University, Newfoundland, 23 July 2011) and at the recent “‘We Demand’: History/Sex/Activism” conference commemorating the 40-year anniversary of homophile and gay liberationist struggles in Canada (Vancouver, 26 – 28 August 2011).  I thank those who attended those talks for their questions and feedback on this work in progress, which will appear in expanded form in a special issue of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (“Postcolonial Intimacies,” edited by Phanuel Antwi, Sarah Brophy, Helene Strauss, and Y-Dang Troeung; under final stages of review) and in Feminist (Im)Mobilities in Fortress North America: Rights, Identities and Citizenships in Transnational Context (edited by Anne Sisson Runyan, Amy Lind, Marianne H. Marchand and Patricia McDermott; Ashgate, forthcoming 2012).  It is also part of a forthcoming manuscript, tentatively titled Archives of Desire: Affective Governance and the Recognition of Queer Family Class Migration in Canada, which has been selected as a finalist in the NWSA/University of Illinois First Book Prize Competition (results TBA in late fall 2011). Thanks to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding support and to the members of my dissertation committee and my many comrades, including Karma Chávez and Eithne Luibhéid, for their generous engagements with my work.


*Views on the QMRN blog reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the QMRN or its individual members

Tagged with: , , , ,