Of Border Gays and Trans Migrants: Where Next?

Jose Antonio Vargas is perhaps the best known border gay.

But there is much larger community of border gays and trans* migrants who don’t necessarily bask in the mainstream limelight.

Queer immigrants have been around for quite a while and involved in every civil rights struggle. The undocumented youth movement is just the latest reincarnation. From the earliest days of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) to Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) to the LGBT Caucus at DreamActivist and the March 10 Coming Out Day marked by Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), we’ve long been active and at the forefront of securing more rights for immigrant communities while not leaving our queer allegiances behind. If and when the DREAM Act is passed, it would be in large part due to the unrelenting efforts of queer youth and women.

But it has not been easy to navigate the complex world of immigration politics. Different forces have always tried to divide us. We’ve been told to leave spaces because we are queer. We’ve been left out of conversations because we speak our minds. We’ve been told to suppress or hide one part of ourselves in favor of another. We’ve been cast in the binary of good gays and bad queers by white professional anti-racists. We’ve been told to speak out against each other to protect certain heterosexual privileging. We’ve been told that our lives and truths need to be filtered and watered down for the comfort of our more privileged allies. Our gender-queer and trans* compadres have not been treated with the same love and respect. Over and over again.

More often than not and in somewhat mainstream LGBT circles, I’m told that immigration is simply not an LGBT issue. “The DREAM Act only tangentially affects gays.” That may be a fair criticism but I’d like to point out that marriage also tangentially affects gays. It certainly does nothing for those of us who are young, single and ready to mingle, who do not believe in the institution and who have no interest in coupledom. And since marriage is a hetero-normative institution, gay marriage is not even a queer issue. Yet I’ve seen millions getting poured into the movement for marriage equality and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which serves to mainly benefit those who assimilate to white, heterosexual normative assumptions of the family.

Personally, as a queer immigrant youth, marriage is a major turn-off because it is precisely what most of our own immigrant families want us to do from the moment we turn 18. They start telling us to “find a good American boy” or “find a good American girl” and the coercion continues for years till we can somehow leave our home or persuade them otherwise or succumb to their desires while hiding our own or kill ourselves. No thanks, I’d much rather pursue higher education as a way to get us out of poverty.

If we are concerned about fighting for issues that affect the largest number of queers, why isn’t the LGBT movement all about securing universal healthcare for everyone and making sure that both reproductive rights and gender re-assignment surgery is part of the package? And in case you forgot, we can still get fired for being queer and trans* because the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains a non-priority. It’s just not an issue that is on the radar of the gay white boys club and hence, not important. Gay is not the new black; it is the old white.

But I digress. The purpose of this post is not to come down hard on marriage equality proponents. It’s to talk about how to serve the interests of queer immigrant youth in an increasingly hostile environment. And I’ve come up with a small laundry list.

We need to support Nico Gonzalez as he walks across the continental United States for his dream.

We need to help our queer compadres in New York pass the New York Dream Act, to provide financial assistance for long-time New York residents.

We need to pour massive amounts of time and energy into defending the Maryland DREAM Act, which grants instate tuition for everyone who attended high school in Maryland for three or more years.

We need to win on the Child Status Protection Act. After all, it is queer immigrant youth who disproportionately need to keep their original priority date to immigrate through their parents.

We need to join IYJL in celebrating the Third Annual National Coming Out Day and making the effort truly national in character.

We need to fight against the increasing archipelago of detention that disproportionately impacts our queer and trans* compadres, ranging from immigrant detention facilities to police surveillance.

We need to connect the dots between anti-immigrant fervor and good old racism whenever possible and stop people from hiding behind the word “illegal.”

That’s just a few things we need to do immediately. And we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the right time.

Gender Boundaries

When we allow women/queer organizers to leave activist spaces and protect people whose violence provoked their departure, we are saying we value these de facto state agents who disrupt the work more than we value people whose labor builds and sustains movements.
Why Misogynists Make Great Informants

“What is your gender?”

0 to 100 in a second. I stared at her, shocked at the question. I didn’t know how to respond. I never really know how to respond to such questions. I just don’t know the answer.

“What is your gender?”

I recovered enough to blurt out, “It’s on my state ID.” I bit back the “Why does that matter?” retort on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t understand what relevance my gender had to donating blood. If I chose to leave the gender box unchecked, what calamity would it do to her and the American Red Cross?

“Excuse me?” She looked closely at my id and disregarded what I had said. She wanted to hear it from me. That slow pounding headache was steadily making a comeback.

I looked down at my appearance. I was at the law school in what my lovely Dean of Students calls my “student attire” (as opposed to a suit or anything revolutionary): Plaid shirt, blue jeans, special running shoes for my feet. It wasn’t stereotypically feminine like the “F” on my state identification card but then again, what does feminine mean?

Some transgender activists tell us that gender is not socially constructed; gender roles are socially constructed. To say that gender is socially constructed is to deny and dismiss the realities that transgender persons face in their everyday negotiations with society and themselves. Claiming that gender is controlled by society isn’t subversive. It is actually cis-normative.

I agree. There has to be a gender that I feel innately. I search myself.


That didn’t feel right. But “male” would not have felt right either. I was just angry at her, angry about the question, angry that I had to put myself in a box. Does anger have a gender?

She shook her head, which aggravated me further, and then took my wrist to get a reading of my pulse.

“Your heart-rate is way too high. 104 beats a minute. Do you work-out?”

I frowned. “Yes.” I have never had this problem.

She waiting a few minutes and tried again. It was 104 again.

“We can’t take blood from you today. We need your heart-rate below 100. But we do have a coupon for a Subway sandwich just for stopping by.”

“What? I don’t want to eat Subway. I want to give blood.”

“We can’t take blood from you. Your heart rate is too high. You should work out more. Come back next time.”

I opened my mouth to protest. Then I thought better of it. I looked at her, searchingly. She avoided my gaze. I came to an understanding. I walked out.

If someone doesn’t want me to donate blood, it isn’t my loss. But society does lose as a whole when queer and transgender people of color choose to walk out of spaces we have built, spaces that could benefit from our presence and spaces that need us desperately but don’t know how to sustain us.

Alienation never happens in a vacuum.

Repealing DOMA Does Not Guarantee Same-Sex Couples Immigration Rights

There’s a lot I want to say about the white-washed Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act hearings in Capitol Hill right now, but I’d rather draw your attention to the fact that repealing DOMA  does not guarantee immigration benefits for same-sex bi-national couples. Attorney Jordanna Monston provides a small breakdown for us in this article.

This is not to say that we should not repeal DOMA. However, it does support my belief that we should have multiple strategies when advancing a rights-based agenda in our communities. When it comes to LGBTI immigration rights, we need to get rid of the one-year bar for asylum, eliminate “mandatory detention” of all immigrants,  pass the Uniting American Families Act, keep fighting to stop the deportation of same-sex bi-national couples. This list is not exhaustive.

Maybe there is a reason beyond oversight and racism for why queer people of color are not up on the Hill testifying to repeal DOMA today. Maybe it simply doesn’t affect our lives in the same way that it helps to bolster white privilege:

It is true that for some immigrants, marriage can be a path to obtaining legal status. However, not only is the process of gaining legal status through marriage contingent on the INS’s recognition of your marriage as one made in “good faith,” but this process also places a great deal of power over an immigrant in the hands of their citizen spouse. The requirement that immigrants prove to the INS that their marriages are legitimate and not just a means to legal status has meant that immigrants of color, who by virtue of the racist discourses surrounding immigration are more likely to be seen as “cheating the system,” often have a much harder time gaining legal status than white immigrants. In addition, many feminist activists within immigrant communities have drawn attention to the ways that an immigrant’s dependency on her citizen spouse for legal status in this country can produce or at least exacerbate exploitation and abuse within a relationship. As a result, in many cases, immigrant women are faced with the dilemma of having to choose between remaining in an abusive relationship or deportation. Given that domestic violence is not only a problem of the straight community, I think it is important that we take seriously the inequalities that gay marriage might produce in relationships between citizens and immigrants. It seems better to me to focus out political energies on fighting for broader changes in immigration policies that might enable immigrants in this country to live better lives regardless of their marital status.
– Priya Kandaswamy, from “Is Gay Marriage Racist? A Conversation With Marlon M. Bailey, Priya Kandaswamy, and Mattie Udora Richardson” in That’s Revolting: Resisting Queer Assimilation, 2004.

Another good read is “How Gays Stay White.”

Unlike Priya, I don’t think “gay marriage” is racist per se. I just think it helps to bolster white privilege and entrench existing problems of race, gender and class. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that people need to be in monogamous life-long relationships to have basic rights.

P.S. I don’t need apologetic white people lining up to tell me how repealing DOMA helps somewhat or how it opens doors. This isn’t your space. It is my space.

America Deports Gay People

If you tuned into Colbert Robert last night, you heard the new face of the DREAM Act and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Jose Antonio Vargas, declare that “we live in a great country that doesn’t deport gay people, so I’m very very happy about that.”

Colbert is satire and I want to believe that Jose meant that as satire (and Jose did confirm this after witnessing the anger of certain young immigrants) but he doesn’t expound on it enough for it to come across well. Many people probably did not blink an eye because gayness is so intrinsically tied to whiteness in America. I’d love to see Jose use his platform more to deconstruct notions of whiteness and queerness, especially while I’m sitting at the NLG office on a late Thursday evening pouring over queer asylum declarations from clients who are fighting to stay in this country because they will be raped, tortured and murdered if they go back to the home(land).

Here’s a truth: queer young adult immigrants are disproportionately more likely to be in removal proceedings than their straight counterparts.

Wrap your head around that for a second.

It is a trend or reality that I have noticed while observing immigration court proceedings in San Francisco. I have run across several queer young undocumented immigrants who are in removal proceedings for the sole reason that they aged-out on family petitions. Most of the peers I came across were also strikingly accomplished. Then again, survival is an accomplishment in this brutal system but I mean accomplished in the sense that they were in graduate school or had finished graduate school. Some are working as lawyers after passing the California State Bar. But of course, these are the lucky queer immigrants actually getting due process. Many don’t even make it to American shores and languish as refugees for years, separated from their homes, families and partners.

For those who do make it to America, the consequences of being a queer immigrant are immense and not limited to deportation or death. Unlike their straight siblings, young queer immigrants cannot adjust their status through marriage. Oftentimes families try to force their adult children into a heterosexual marriage in order to get papers. It’s something that I’ve had to fight for a long time. And quite often, queer immigrant youth find themselves abused and thrown out of their homes, with nowhere to go. Left to a system with literally nowhere to turn, some of us try to kill ourselves. And many of us are at this very moment, in deportation proceedings.

Then we have the humongous problem of American citizens and legal residents who cannot sponsor their partners and spouses to stay in the United States. Just read the story of how the United States is trying to separate Frances and Takako and sign this petition. Even if you think that bi-national couples is a privileged white-gay centric issue, I think we can all agree at some point that separating two people who love each other is simply not okay.

America does deport gay people. Immigrants can be gay. Jose Antonio Vargas is one of many queer immigrants. Lets not forget that. This isn’t satire. It is our lives.

My Email to the Homophobic Health Minister, Ghulam Azad

I think I just got banned from India too.

Note of caution: Homophobia in India is mostly a relic of British colonial rule. We wrote the Kama Sutra, which is full of queer portrayals of sex. Hijras — what is seen as India’s third gender — are considered auspicious for many occasions. The last thing I want or need to see is a bunch of Westerners touting their exceptional “progress” in institutionalizing gay rights at the expense of “Third World” backwardness on the issue. Seriously, don’t let me see this.

I’m left wondering what part of the gay non-profit industrial complex is going to build its email list from the Azad homophobia first.