Migration, Immigration, and Diaspora

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Until quite recently a remarkable paradox has existed at the very center of the study and writing of LGBT and queer history. For while it is nearly impossible to read even a single account of the emergence and development of LGBT identities, communities, and cultures without encountering the usually offhand reference to migration (from the rural to the urban, from the periphery to the metropolis, from the family residence to the private domicile) as the precondition for the existence of these dissident sexualities and genders, LGBT history has for the most part failed to define migration, historicize its different expressions, or theorize the relationship between this phenomenon and non-LGBT practices and identities.

To be sure, there have been significant exceptions. Colonial historians of sexuality and gender have emphasized the critical importance of cultural encounters between three migrating groups: Native American, African American, and Euro-American. John D'Emilio long ago discussed the roles that capitalism, urbanization, and migration played in the emergence of LGBT identities and communities in the late nineteenth century. George Chauncey situates his consideration of gay life in early-twentieth-century New York in the context of working-class immigrant cultures. Nayan Shah analyzes same-sex sexualities within Chinese immigrant bachelor cultures in early-twentieth-century San Francisco. Eric Garber's work on LGBT dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance underscores the importance of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. Esther Newton's study of Cherry Grove, Fire Island, analyzes the shorter distances traveled by LGB people who established the first LGB resort in the first half of the twentieth century. D'Emilio and Allan Bérubé, in their work on mass mobilization during World War II, argue that wartime migration helped precipitate a nationwide coming out experience. Manuel Castells, Kath Weston, and Marc Stein have all discussed the LGBT migration streams that created LGBT neighborhoods in many U.S. cities after World War II. Challenging the urban focus of LGBT history, John Howard's study of gay life in Mississippi argues that "circulation is as important as congregation" (p. 14). Joanne Meyerowitz and David Serlin have examined the movement of U.S. transsexuals who traveled to Europe for sex change surgeries in the 1950s and 1960s. And William Eskridge Jr. and Eithne Luibhéid, among others, have written about U.S. immigration restrictions adopted in the 1950s and 1960s to prohibit sexual psychopaths and deviants from entering the United States.

Nevertheless, much work in LGBT studies deemphasizes and de-centers migration, immigration, and diaspora. Why has this been the case? What has enabled LGBT studies to marginalize a phenomenon so intimately bound up with the emergence of homosexuality and transgenderism in the United States? And finally, what are the consequences of situating the emergence and development of perverse sexualities and genders within the political economy of migration?

Marginalizing Migration in U.S. LGBT History

The failure to theorize migration within LGBT studies is all the more remarkable when examining, in particular, U.S. LGBT history. If one considers work on LGBT issues within the domain of literary practice, one discovers that the frequently cited LGBT literati—from Herman Melville, Henry James, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein to James Baldwin, Paul Bowles, Audre Lorde, and Reinaldo Arenas—were famous for their fictional and nonfictional migrations. Indeed, the long chain of U.S. migrants and emigrants who wrote of matters relating to gender and sexuality has produced the shadow of gender and sexual dissidence behind the "expatriate" whenever that figure is summoned in the United States. And as historians of gender and sexuality have noted, the existence of dissident forms of gendered and sexualized embodiment in everyday life, including the "fairy," the "invert," the "bulldagger," the "intermediate sex," and the "homosexual," in major U.S. cities at the turn of the twentieth century, is inextricable from unprecedented international and internal labor migrations. In other words, both global and local migrations have been and continue to be the fulcrum on which U.S. LGBT genders and sexualities have been invented, sustained, and transformed. And yet much U.S. LGBT historiography and political activism disregards the centrality of migration as the material foundation for the emergence and development of LGBT genders and sexualities.

Metaphors of Migration in LGBT History and Politics

If one tendency has been to ignore the constitutive role of labor migrations in the formation and development of LGBT and queer identities and practices, another marginalizing tendency has been the metaphorizing and appropriation of terms and paradigms specific to the history of migration, immigration, and diaspora for describing LGBT identity and experience. Within academic writing, LGBT identities have often been studied and theorized as an "ethnicity," appropriating a model developed for the study of twentieth-century U.S. communities and social groups formed as a result of European labor migrations. Within popular writing, including the collection Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging (2003), the dialectic of "exile" and "belonging" has often been taken up to characterize LGBT experiences with family and natal communities. Even the most popular metaphor for organizing and narrating LGBT experience, that of "coming out of the closet," is predicated on a spatial logic of inside and outside space that is both discretely bounded and rigorously enforced, recalling and building upon the existence of national borders and spatially constituted identities.

The appropriation and metaphorizing of paradigms specific to migration and immigration to characterize a predominantly white U.S. experience of LGBT desire and social life have only further displaced the historical experience of those people whose genders and sexualities were and continue to be formed through and intertwined with the historical experience of migration. The use of the ethnicity model for talking about LGBT identity has contributed little to discussions about ethnic working-class communities and the forms of LGBT embodiment and desire that circulate within and through those communities. LGBT studies scholars who use the ethnicity model rarely turn to an analysis of the institutions that generated, regulated, and cemented ethnic working-class culture, such as labor unions, religious organizations, and immigration law. They tend to rely instead on the study of institutions such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which, comparatively speaking had little influence on working-class ethnic lives (though, to be sure, many influential psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were themselves immigrants). Similarly, the metaphorizing of "exile" in LGBT popular culture to describe the experience of LGBT life outside of traditional kinship and heterosexual community networks has had the concomitant effect of eschewing knowledge about the sexual and gendered lives of actual modern political and (post) colonial exiles.

The Politics of Migration in LGBT Politics

Only in more recent work in LGBT studies have the circumstances and contexts of migration been theorized and engaged on a more consistent basis. This work, historical, legal, literary, and political in scope, has had the effect of disrupting and pluralizing the LGBT moniker and the organization and meanings of desire that this moniker has tended to stabilize and homogenize. Most centrally, this work has moved to the foreground the centrality of race and class as defining elements within a European capitalist settler-colonial society such as the United States. Most simply, at the core of the work examining questions of migration, immigration, and diaspora in U.S. LGBT historical and contemporary life has been an interrogation of the racialized and classed constraints that form LGBT identities. Twentieth-century U.S. LGBT culture figures the "urban" as the origin point for its historical emergence. And yet, the racialized labor migrations through which U.S. urbanization occurred have supported more heterogeneous "perverse desires" than allowed for by many urban-focused narratives.

Migration, Spatialization, and Alternative Genders and Sexualities

The beginning of the twentieth century was marked in the United States by unprecedented labor migrations. In the decades between 1880 and 1920, between eight and nine million migrants arrived per decade, transforming U.S. life. Along with the industrialization of agriculture and the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S. South, these migrations helped to transform the United States into a majority urban country for the first time. Indeed not only did cities hold the majority of the U.S. population by the beginning of the twentieth century, but also port cities such as New York, whose industries relied heavily on immigrant labor, soon found themselves with immigrant populations that comprised up to 40 percent of their total population. In addition, African American migration to cities in the South and the North, which would later be called the Great Migration, transformed U.S. urban space and public culture, generating racially codified responses from the white urban elite. Within this context the city became a complex field of conflict and contestation between an immigrant and nonwhite laboring class and a mostly native white middle-class bourgeoisie that sought to organize and control the new migrants.

Sexuality and gender figured centrally within elite tactics, often producing a racialized geography that spatially organized sexualized and gendered cultures and practices. Red-light districts, commercial sex resorts, and dance halls and bars within which working-class immigrants and black and other nonwhite migrants invented cultures of embodied pleasure were some of the mainstays of these geographies. Mapped by the activities of reformers, journalists, and vice squads and concentrated within working-class sectors of the city, these geographies, or what Kevin Mumford terms "interzones," contained forms of same-sex and transgender desire that were minimally defined by or produced through dominant cultural groups. As George Chauncey suggests in Gay New York, "The institutions and social forms of the gay subculture were patterned in many respects on those of the [immigrant] working class culture in which it took shape: the saloons, small social clubs, and large fancy-dress balls around which fairy life revolved were all typical elements of working-class life" (p. 41). Coinciding with the rise of a white middle-class LGB culture in U.S. urban life, then, was the persistence, within racialized working-class space, of other forms of LGBT desire and embodiment. The "fairy," the "wolf," the "bulldagger," and the "male impersonator" all found expression and legibility within the constraints of the sexualized, gendered, and racialized spaces produced by the intersection of racialized labor migrations and urban reform and policing.

The Sexualization of Citizenship

If the sexualized and gendered spatial organization of urban life operated as one means by which both LGBT and non-LGBT perverse formations emerged simultaneously, immigration policy functioned similarly to expand non-LGBT sexual perversities while simultaneously regulating homosexuality and transgenderism.

As a settler society, the United States relied heavily on international migration as a means for reproducing and increasing its domestic labor force. Yet as a nation-state it maintained a compelling interest in defining its population through citizenship. Immigration law and policy became a powerful apparatus that addressed the differing needs of the economy and the state in defining the national population. And immigration law and policy, in turn, deployed discourses and practices of sexuality and gender, functioning as a means for the state to regulate the sexualities and genders of immigrants, especially immigrants of color. On the one hand, non-"heterosexual" and non-gender-normative immigrants were constituted as an excludable population; on the other hand, racially excludable populations (such as Asian immigrants) were constituted as nonheterosexual and non-gender-normative.

In a series of immigration laws passed in the late nineteenth century, the U.S. government began to incorporate the regulation of sexual and gender difference into the functions of immigration policy. As early as 1875, the U.S. Congress passed the Page Act, which restricted the immigration of both contract workers from Asia and women suspected of engaging in prostitution. Designed to restrict Chinese migration and settlement through gendered and sexualized exclusion, this act and subsequent laws transformed Chinese immigration into a primarily male migration stream from the 1870s to the 1940s. In turn, the predominantly single-sex composition of Chinese immigrant communities, especially in highly visible "Chinatowns," became the object of racist discourses that justified the continued disenfranchisement of Chinese immigrants in part based upon their status as single, unmarried, presumptive sexual deviants. Hence, since the late nineteenth century, immigration policy has functioned to expand both the representations and conditions of sexual and gender variance beyond the modern "homo/hetero" binary naturalized by heterosexual culture. At various moments in the twentieth century, racial discrimination in immigration policy operated through the sexualized and gendered exclusion of female immigrants of color and the unequal right of "white" immigrants to petition for the admission of kin or to have sanctioned sexual relations within the nation.

In addition to these episodes of immigration policymaking during which racial exclusion was effected through sexual exclusion and legitimated through the dissemination of sexualized ideologies, in the 1950s the United States incorporated homophobia as a more explicit orientation of that policy. Earlier immigration laws had excluded those who had been convicted of "crimes of moral turpitude" and those marked by "constitutional psychopathic inferiority." In 1952, the Walter-McCarren Act excluded those "afflicted with psychopathic personality," a phrase generally understood to refer to homosexuality. In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment to the Walter-McCarren Act, adding "sexual deviation" to the list of grounds for exclusion. The ban on "homosexual" immigration lasted until 1990, at which point new laws were passed to exclude people with AIDS. While there may be no way of accurately gauging the entire spectrum of effects that the formal exclusion of homosexuality has had on the immigration process, it appears that these regulations, even after their repeal in 1990, constituted the border as a heteronormative space and disproportionately affected in particular the mobility of transgender migrants of color.

Globalization and Diasporic Politics

By 1990, following the modification of racialized immigration restrictions in the 1960s, immigration to the United States had again reached historic proportions. Outpacing the levels reached at the beginning of the century, immigrant arrivals to the United States spiked to ten million people per year for the decades between 1980 and 2000. Even more significant than the sheer size of this migration stream was its composition. Unlike the situation at the turn of the twentieth century, when non-Western migration was racially restricted by legislation, the "new" immigration of the 1980s and 1990s was composed primarily of Latino, Asian, and Caribbean migrants. Concentrated in specific urban cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Houston, and Chicago, the new immigration of the late twentieth century has been critical in the formation of new transnational economic and cultural spaces in the United States. If turn-of-the-century migration to the United States facilitated the rise of cities within a national economy, "new" immigration has contributed to the rise of the city within a "global" economy. Sutured to the national political economies from which they immigrated—aided by the rise of new media, modes of transportation, and methods of capital transfer—while at the same time marginalized from dominant U.S. culture, new migrants to U.S. cities formed diasporic cultural communities that have intensified connections worldwide.

The effects of the Asian, Latino, and black diasporas of the 1980s and 1990s on LGBT urban politics and culture were numerous and substantive. Within the political sphere there emerged local diasporic LGBT groups such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) and the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association (COLEGA) in New York City, which maintained political and organizing ties with other groups in the Asian and Latino diaspora and LGBT organizations in their homelands. In addition, pan-diasporic and people of color groups formed coalitional organizations such as the Audre Lorde Project in New York and the Esperanza Project in Texas, which developed specific "Queers of Color" political platforms that distinguished the specificities of racialized homophobia for immigrant, diasporic, and people of color communities. Within the terrain of culture, through the work of diasporic and immigrant of color artists such as Luis Alfaro, Margo Gomez, Brian Freeman, Alina Troyana (a.k.a. Carmelita Tropicana), Richard Fung, Isaac Julian, Shani Mootoo, and many others, a broader expression of LGBT cultural politics developed within the U.S. public sphere. Within these diasporic cultural politics, or what queer black diasporic theorist Kobena Mercer calls "cultures of hybridity, "terms such as "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," "transgender," and even "queer" tend less to refer to a U.S. notion or referent and operate instead like life "rough sketches" that outline the point of imbrication between unevenly mixed cultural systems of non-LGBT desire (Gopinath, 1998). The rise of late-twentieth-century black, Asian, and Latino diasporas within the United States has radically pluralized the referent of non-LGBT desire, while tying U.S. immigrant of color sexual politics and practices to cultural spaces and mediascapes that exceed the limits of the nation-state.

In the ordinary lives of queer diasporics living in the United States, the narratives and logics that organize U.S. LGBT identities have been denaturalized. In his book Global Divas (2003), the queer Filipino anthropologist Martin Manalansan has shown how a U.S. LGBT popular culture that continues to center the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 in New York City as the origin point of a "global gay" movement—commemorated annually across U.S. cities in LGBT pride parades—has encountered its limit with diasporic LGBT migrants who, in the very same city, do not identify with that event as the "origin" of their cultural emergence. Instead the emergence of queer diasporic cultural and political formations at the end of the twentieth century continues to be another instance in which U.S. national LGBT identities have been de-centered as the locus of perverse desires within the context of international labor migrations.


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Chandan Reddy

see alsoafrican americans; arab americans; asian americans and pacific islanders; class and class oppression; jews and judaism; latinas and latinos; native americans; race and racism; urban, suburban, and rural geographies.

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