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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Women’s rights, gay rights and anti-Muslim racism in Europe

Click to link to resource: https://queermigration.com/resources/haritaworn-intro/ ‎


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“Homosexual Agenda,” Intersectionality & Immigrant Rights

By: Karma R. Chávez © 2011

Recently, a number of commentators have had some things to say about what LGBTQ and immigrant rights advocates can learn from each other. A comment by David Jacobsen argued that there are significant “elements” of the LGBT movement that may be informative for the immigrant rights movement. These elements include claiming selves as the subject of a movement, refining grassroots operations, and identifying key allies. Tucson’s Luke Whitman built on Jacobsen’s analysis, suggesting the importance of such alliance work in Tucson. These articles follow other recent events, including a September meeting in Chicago that brought issues pertaining to LGBT immigrant rights to the table in a forum that included Illinois Congress members, Luis Gutierrez and Mike Quigley.

Such events and comments are truly exciting, and point to what some groups have been saying for a long time (see, e.g., this statement, this one and this one). While I can easily quibble with some of the ways in which these most recent connections between LGBTQ and immigration issues are being framed, I am more interested in how these connections have been noticed by some who appear to be made very nervous by them. A recent article in the California Catholic Daily takes issue with the creation of such connections. In reporting on an Orange County forum which was to address, among other issues, the intersections between LGBTQ and undocumented communities, the article argues, “The concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a growing tactic being used by homosexual activists to co-opt the immigrants’ rights movement.” The article does nothing to explain “intersectionality,” and seems to function mostly as a warning to Catholics who might be uncomfortable with another “sneaky” tactic used by conniving “homosexual” activists. The comments on this article suggest as much, as one commenter remarked, “’Intersectionality’ (who made up this word?) is a way for sodomite activists to equate Hispanics with homosexuals, as co-victims (incidentally oppressed by the Catholic Church)…” Another quipped, “Intersectionality????? JimAroo Rule Number One: When someone makes up a new word or phrase to describe an old situation or reality, they are always trying to deceive you.”

Of course “intersectionality” is not a made up term. Black feminist legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the concept two decades ago in a legal note arguing for the importance of thinking not just in terms of singular categories of race or gender, but about how gender is racialized and race is gendered. Crenshaw’s ideas were not original, as she drew upon an enormous body of intellectual work by woman of color and lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, bell hooks, Nellie Wong, Naomi Littlebear, Mitsuye Yamada, Angela Davis, Chrystos, María Lugones and many, many more. These activists, writers and thinkers articulated the importance of understanding oppression as interlocking and intermeshing. In other words, systems of power like race, class, gender, nation, ability, and sexuality must be understood as interwoven with each other, unable to be separated out through what Elizabeth Spelman calls “pop-bead metaphysics.”

The reality is that every one of us is a compilation of all these different dimensions of ourselves and that we are able to maneuver the world in disparate ways as a result. The intersections between trans and queer identities and immigration have only been considered in a serious way by scholars and activists in the past two decades. Such work is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that the many experiences and obstacles faced by queer migrants have become much more visible and therefore able to be addressed. An intersectional or interlocking-oppressions approach to scholarship and activism has certainly been central in understanding the experiences of queer migrants, and also the ways in which gender, sexuality, race, class and nation impact how immigration law and policy are constructed and promoted. So, it seems as if the Catholics have it right, in part. Intersectionality is in fact the mechanism through which we understand LGBTQ issues and immigration issues to be imbricated. What’s highly problematic of course is the way in which this article implies that the communities are not connected, and that any such suggestion is merely another example of the over-reach of the “homosexual agenda.”

It seems to me that this is an opportunity for progressive scholars and activists to take control of the rhetoric of such debates, especially when theoretical terms born in academia find their way into non-academic vernacular spaces. Certainly scholar/activists like Yasmin Nair have been doing this kind of work for a very long time. Others of us need to take on some of this labor. I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church will necessarily be persuaded by our explanations of intersectionality or any other terms for that matter, but perhaps, the presence of more competing discourse would be fruitful.


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

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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

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Violence, Intersectionality, and the Erasure of Queer Migrants

By: Karma R. Chávez © 2010

In early October, the brutal beatings and torture of one man and two 17-year olds in the Bronx, presumed to either be gay or to have had gay sex shocked and angered many of us in the LGBT and queer community, as well as the U.S. national community at large. This happened as the question of LGBT suicides also flooded the national news. The New York Times reports that one of the survivors in the Bronx attack, described as a 30-year old gay man known to neighbors as “La Reina,” is also an Ecuadoran immigrant. I have found little else that has indicated the citizenship or migration status of any others involved either as perpetrators or survivors. I have found many images of young, tattooed Latino “thugs” and “gang members” in custody, and white men holding pictures of young men of color suspected of taking part in these brutal attacks. These images couple with the descriptions of the victimized immigrant, “La Reina,” as “like a woman,” and “a good person” you could go to if you needed anything. All of these depictions intermingle to create a complicated depiction of a local, if not national, tragedy.

As of late, LGBT rights and immigrant rights have been featured together more than ever before as Democrats attempted to add both the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the passage of the DREAM Act to a defense spending authorization bill last month. Young activist “DREAMers”—undocumented migrant youth who would benefit from the passage of the DREAM Act –came out in support for the repeal of DADT and in solidarity with LGBT rights on blogs [1]. These same young activists also came out to condemn both LGBT and undocumented suicides [2]. Similarly, mainstream organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have also come out in support of immigration reform, especially the DREAM Act [3]. These connections between immigrant rights and LGBT rights, and the plight of LGBTQs and immigrants are crucial to the broad-based coalition building that will be needed for promoting LGBTQ and migrant human rights. My own research investigates the way that migrant rights and queer rights intersect in the public sphere in ways that both challenge and uphold accepted imaginaries of the United States.

This brings me back to La Reina, and how the attack on her/him (we don’t know La Reina’s pronoun preference) is framed much like LGBT support for immigrant rights, and immigrant support for LGBT rights—through erasure of LGBT immigrants. Few reports or blogs have called attention to the gendered, racialized or national complexities of the Bronx attacks, instead reducing it to “gay-bashing” or “anti-gay beating.” Notably, friends of the attackers have indicated that most of these guys weren’t really “homophobic.” Putting aside the questionable logic of such a statement in light of this brutality, if we push harder on such a claim, it points to the necessity of thinking intersectionally about what has happened. The attackers’ race, class, masculinity, legal status, and presumed sexuality undoubtedly come together to create both the conditions that make such brutality possible, and the nature of this particular attack. La Reina’s trans-gender performances, race, class and sexual object choice no doubt all featured into this attack.

It is hard to say how La Reina’s immigrant status “matters” in this scenario as little has been said about this point. One might presume that being an immigrant impacted La Reina’s choice of neighborhood, and one might further argue that being an immigrant was, in part at least, what led to La Reina’s social circles and interactions. The acceptance La Reina received, or seems to have received from certain members of his/her neighborhood and social circle may have also had something to do with her/his immigrant and/or Latino/a identity. In fact, it is quite possible that La Reina’s ability to perform gender in the way she/he performed it was influenced by immigration status and culture. It is also possible that, as an immigrant, La Reina was perceived as an easy target by her/his perpetrators.

Whatever the answers to the above conjectures, this attack should not be reduced to “gay-bashing” even as sexuality and gender clearly featured centrally in the perpetrators’ motivation. Moreover, this attack should not be used as an example of the importance of “hate-crimes laws,” which continue to disproportionately put people of color and the poor behind bars, expanding the prison-industrial complex. Finally, this attack should not be reduced to inner-city violence among communities of color, or “gang taboos” about gender and sexuality taken to the extreme. Instead, the brutality of this attack should point us in a number of possible directions. First, queer activism and scholarship continues to need a robust critique of and challenge to the violence of heteronormativity, especially as it pertains to racialized, classed and gendered norms. Only in a nation-state as firmly invested in heteronormativity as ours can such violence persist. Second, the mainstream LGBT rights and immigrant rights movements’ emphasis on palatable and potentially “winnable” issues like marriage, military and even the Uniting American Families Act are taking vital attention and resources away from, what I would argue, are more serious problems facing LGBTQ and migrant communities: violence, poverty, and the possibility for a livable life for more than just the privileged few. Finally, as scholars and activists we must refuse to think only of single-issues, single-identities, or singular explanations of phenomena. For those of us who work with queer migrant communities or on queer migration issues, we must work on and against the consistent erasure of queer migrant identities, needs, issues, and experiences.

As of this writing, I have not been able to find any reports about how La Reina is doing, whether she/he’s recovering from the physical injuries, and even in a space to consider moving beyond the emotional ones. Moreover, with the exception of a few blogs focusing specifically on LGBTQ issues in communities of color, few people are talking about the necessity of centering queers of color, and violence they suffer [4]. I hope the Queer Migration Research Network will lead the charge in promoting an alternative queer vision, one that accounts for and contributes to transforming the reality facing queers of color, migrants, and queer migrants.


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

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