Q&A with Karma Chavez, author of Queer Migration Politics

Karma R. Chávez is an assistant professor of Communication Arts and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the cofounder of the Queer Migration Research Network and the author of the UIP title Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. She answered some questions about her book.

Q: Do queer rights and immigration rights naturally intersect?

Chávez: Yes and no. Queer politics and immigration politics naturally intersect as some queers are migrants and vice versa. Queer migrants have an intersecting identity that likely makes their experiences and needs different from queer non-migrants and non-queer migrants. Queer migrants have long been excluded from US immigration laws in a variety of ways (for possessing “psychopathic inferiority” [1917 law] or “psychopathic personality” [1952 law], for being “sexual deviants” [1965 law], for committing crimes of moral turpitude [still exists today], or for having HIV [until 2010]), and these are just a few modes of exclusion. Immigration laws have always excluded and included based on gender and sexuality norms.

Contemporarily, queer people are among the strongest and most vocal leaders in the current immigration rights and justice movement. I hope the book shows many other ways that what I call “queer migration politics” are important social and political phenomena and sets of meanings to understand. Of course, in most people’s minds, these two issues remain completely distinct.

Q: Do these coalitional possibility between LGBT rights groups and immigration rights groups match up uniquely?  Are there other groups which struggle with marginalization (based upon ethnicity, color, disability or age for example) that do not offer the same opportunity for coalition?

Chávez: Coalition is almost always possible in an abstract sense. The question is whether it is necessary, desirable and/or possible in a particular time and place.

The people I write about in my book are not solely members of queer and migrant justice communities. They participate in many other movements and justice struggles (many are prison abolitionists, anti-capitalists, anti-racists, anti-border advocates, feminists, and disability justice activists among others). While queer migration politics present an interesting and unique instance of coalitional possibility due to the contemporary state of US politics, the related logics that constitute queer/migrant communities, and a variety of other reasons, queers, migrants, and queers migrants are creating and sharing coalitional moments in many ways.

Q: You write in the introduction about the law of U.S. “homosexual exclusion.”  How did this get put into law and when did it end?

Chávez: As the scholar Eithne Luibhéid writes in her influential and foundational book, Entry Denied (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), sexuality has always been a way that the US government has chosen to exclude people.

The 1875 Page Law banned the immigration of Chinese prostitutes (and ended up essentially banning all women of Asian descent), and the 1917 Immigration Act banned people with “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” which was understood at least in part to refer to homosexuality. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which still forms the foundation of US immigration law, excluded the immigration of those with “psychopathic personalities,” a designation that did in fact refer to homosexuals. The actual word “homosexual” was not included for a number of historically-debatable reasons, but it wasn’t needed. This designation was probably more expansive anyway. This provision excluded those who were deemed to have the status of homosexuals, but those who engaged in homosexual conduct were also excluded through provisions against crimes of “moral turpitude,” a category that included homosexual sex.

The scholar Margot Canaday has a wonderful discussion of this history in her book The Straight State (Princeton University Press, 2009). The 1990 Immigration Act, under the leadership of former Rep. Barney Frank, simply left out the language that had long excluded homosexuals based on their status. To this day, there are still several ways that queer people (among others) can be and are excluded under the moral turpitude provisions in US immigration law.

Q: Is there a problem with “inclusionary politics” that offer acceptance of immigrants or the queer community without necessarily changing the public rhetoric of citizenry or human rights?

Chávez: For more “mainstream” organizations and individuals who easily conform to ideals of “good citizenship” due to their lifestyle, wealth, race, gender expression and identity, romantic relationships, education, language, police record, type of job, physical and mental ability, and/or citizenship status, inclusionary politics of the liberal kind that queer theorists critique may be logical and unproblematic.

But, what happens if you can’t or don’t conform to the ideals of good citizenship based on one of those aforementioned categories? Will you be included in the demands of those who argue that they should be included on the basis of the existing understandings of who gets to belong to citizenship or human rights? Many liberals make the case that we have to get inclusion for those who will be most easily included first, and then we can come back for the rest. History shows that the rest are usually forgotten. And in fact, that the reasons given to exclude the rest in the first place have been strengthened because those who got their inclusion conformed so much to the ideals of inclusion that they showed that inclusion should only be given to those who can and do conform.

The simple answer is this: no, there is no problem with inclusionary politics for those who can and do conform to the ideals that must be met in order to be included, but if you want to achieve justice in a more expansive sense, inclusionary politics can never cut it. I should also add that inclusionary politics don’t have to be completely rejected; as my book shows, sometimes they become a basis or entry point for coalitional possibility.

Q: Your book outlines the coalitional possibilities between activist groups, but you also acknowledge there are ideological differences. What are some of the differences that might hinder coalition?

Chávez: If the basis upon which you are asking for inclusion is also the basis by which a group with whom you want to coalesce is excluded, then this makes it hard to build a coalition.

For example, historically, immigrant advocates have asked for immigrant inclusion in the US nation because of immigrants’ good family values; even today, a primary argument for a pathway to citizenship is about keeping families together. Queer people have historically been excluded from national belonging because queers are said to threaten family values. Rick Santorum once called gay marriage the greatest threat to homeland security, for example, and as the scholar Janet Jakobsen has famously shown, homosexuals may very well end Western civilization as we know it, in part because of the social values that undergird Western civilization (i.e., heterosexuality, nuclear family, Christianity). Gays and lesbians who want “marriage equality” have worked very hard to prove that they too have family values, but these beliefs about queer threat to family continue to exist.

Undoubtedly, immigrant rights and justice advocates, often prompted by their queer friends and allies or because they are themselves queer, have realized that they have to be careful how they use “family values” rhetoric because they may inadvertently exclude queers. Similarly, queers have often asked for inclusion because they are citizens and don’t deserve to be treated as “second class citizens.” This can inadvertently suggest that only citizens deserve to be included, which makes it hard to build coalition with non-citizens, even other queers.

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