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Queering Immigration

Julio Salgado

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

The hardships of being an undocumented immigrant go beyond the threats of deportation, xenphobic racism, or economic exploitation. Those issues are undoubtedly pervasive, but a more subtle undercurrent of the struggle is the constant feeling that you’re not free to just be, the unrelenting pressure to hide. And for many immigrants, the indignity of having to live underground is compounded by other forms of alienation, especially at the intersection of queerness and undocumented status.

CultureStrike’s Julio Salgado, an undocuqueer artist who’s come out twice–as undocumented and gay–has made a point of exposing the cross-cutting barriers he’s encountered. And he uses art to break through them with his incisive poster art and mini-dramas at Dreamers Adrift, a media project for and by immigrant youth.

The challenges facing LGBT immigrant activists tie into discrimination within immigrant communities as well as in “mainstream” U.S. culture and politics. So how do you deal with a fellow activist who’s progressive on immigrant rights but regressive on queer issues? As Dreamers Adrift explains, it can be pretty damn awkward.

The dilemma has spawned an offshoot of immigrant youth activism, the Undocuqueer Project. At America’s Voice, project co-founder Alex Aldana reflected on revelations he experienced on the 3000-mile Campaign for the American Dream Walk:

On this journey, one thing has become clear to me: queer immigrants are everywhere. They’re the dishwasher at the restaurant, picking fruit on the farm field, doing mining work, attending church or going to high school. They’re all over this country.

However, many of them are still in the shadows, waiting to meet others like me: compassionate human beings who demand justice, dignity, and respect.

Jonathan Perez blogged at Huffington Post about his experience with these entangled oppressions when interacting with other men  in detention:

One day, I began to think that I maybe I could tell the guys the truth — that they wouldn’t see a problem, since I had gotten to know them and they trusted me. I was wrong! Dead wrong. As we walked back to our pod after lunch, I noticed two other men just like me on the other side of the fence. I felt relief, and I was glad to know that I was not alone. But then the taunting began. They were mocked, whistled at, and harassed by the other detainees. They were called names like, “putitas,” ‘maricones,” “jotitas,” etc., pretty much different ways of saying faggots. I was shocked at first, and then I became sad. It took me to a place I had not been to in a long time. It felt like I was in elementary school or middle school again. I was forced to mask my identity with a tough exterior, and had to be careful of what I said and did….

A few days later, I was transferred to “Wolf 2,” an adjacent pod where the two queer men, along with seventy other men were housed. I was afraid. For all of the times I claimed to be undocumented and unafraid, I was out of my element. But I saw one of the Queer guys walk by 70 beds with his head held up high, with such energy and pride, and it made me feel so ashamed. Ashamed that I could not do what he did, to be out and proud in a place where everyday there was someone harassing you and trying to put you down.

A testimony by Mohammad at shows the global dimension of the problem. While LGBT communities face rampant oppression, violence and discrimination in the U.S., immigrants from countries where being queer can get you killed know that deportation could be a death sentence:

My mom often says, “why stay here, just go back home and we will figure something out?” Of course, she doesn’t know that I also happen to be gay and so returning home to a country that has publicly killed people for being gay is just NOT an option. Whenever my legal gay friends talk about their current living situations and the types of things they have to deal with at home I can certainly empathize with them but in the back of my head I can’t help but think “at least you have a choice in the matter, at least you CAN legally get a job and move out if need be,” I don’t even have that option.

My only option at this point is the DREAM Act, without it I am forced to live in a constant state of limbo.

But navigating the political intersection of LGBT rights and immigrant rights can be tricky; the struggles complement each other, but may involve different legal and ethical claims. Immigration Equality, a group that advocates for LGBT binational couples, takes a nuanced stance on the claim of persecution that some LGBT immigrants may use to petition for asylum. Fundamentally, the group wants binational couples to be legally recognized on the basis of civil rights and respect for their relationships–not only in extreme cases when an individual would face extreme danger if deported. That doesn’t discount the importance of the global scope of struggles for equality. But it does complicate the question of framing immigration politics, and reflects a fact that’s self-evident but often obscured: that immigrants are themselves just as complicated as anyone else in the world.

Understanding the universality of certain rights and freedoms doesn’t mean aligning every social movement on a uniform agenda; it means connecting between communities and across social divides while simultaneously recognizing the persistence of those differences. And being aware of ignorance within activism–underlying racial tensions, unspoken gender oppression, subsurface heterosexism–can help people confront internal contradictions and strengthen the integrity of a movement. It might also mean wrestling with frustrations about political compatriots who won’t accept your queer identity, or owning up to your internalized discomfort with empowered individuals who are of a different gender or color.

These rifts are always being readjusted and blurred, but the one through-line is that everyone wants to be recognized in the full complexity of being human. We can start building that consciousness by talking honestly about where difference is located, and how to find common ground in that space.

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