(image from Windy City Times)
Queer Activists And Immigrant Activists: Finding Intersections and Working Together
Posted by: Xiomara Corpeno . Monday, Aug 18, 2008
Cross-issue work between queer and immigrant communities is possible. What are the connections that bring these communities together? And how does a struggle for liberation connect us all?
I started as an activist/organizer while I was getting my bachelor's degree at UC Riverside. I worked on a lot of different issues at that time. Although most of my activism focused on issues most directly affecting people of color, I also spent a lot of my time at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Resource Center after I re-connected with an old high school friend who had since come out of the closet. While my current work focuses on organizing for immigrants rights, I am struck by the similarities of the struggle between queer youth and immigrant youth and the intersections of the systems of oppression which seek to marginalize and divide queer, poor and people of color communities.
When I was in college, hanging out at the LGBT Center eventually turned into being an ally; I worked with the Center and other Student Program offices on joint activities, trying to promote solidarity and understanding between groups. Two successful, albeit sad events, that brought together a wide coalition of campus and community groups were the vigil for Matthew Shepard, as well as the march and memorial services for Tyisha Miller, both victims of hate crimes. Matthew was a young white gay man in Wyoming who was beaten to death by two men he had just met. Tyisha was a young Black woman who was shot and killed by the police while she was passed out in her car in Riverside. At the time, these incidents made it crystal clear for me how homophobia, sexism, and racism were all inevitably intertwined.
While there have been significant gains for the queer movement over the years, many youth remain silent about their identity for fear of violence and/or rejection. And the threat is real. Theresa is a 2008 college graduate who was confronted by her parents about her sexual orientation and over night was cut off from any financial assistance from her parents. Lawrence King, a fifteen year old boy, was murdered earlier this year because of his sexual orientation and gender expression.
Fear of violence is also pervasive in immigrant communities. Incidents like the 2000 beating of two immigrant men in Farmingville, NY are a reminder that hate and racism are still prevalent in the United States. In 2007, plots to attack immigrants with grenades and semi-automatic weapons by white supremacists were uncovered in Alabama, Maryland and Washington, D.C by federal authorities. Of course, the threat of a knock on your door in the middle of the night by ICE agents as well as raids in the workplace make these fears more palpable.
Undocumented youth, like their queer counterparts, live a closeted lifestyle. Even in Los Angeles, one of the largest immigrant cities, there is a clear line (including amongst Latinos) that there is some inherent difference between Latinos on the basis of immigration status. "Wetback, Chunt(aro) and FOB" are still popular insults on the playground. My friend Anita had to endure years of threats from her younger sister who would pick up the phone to call immigration when they would get into petty teenage arguments.
Undocumented students also face depression and feelings of isolation and rejection, as they try to navigate a system that wants them to stay in the 'undocumented closet.' Some student leaders have admitted that they have endured jobs with low-pay and other exploitative conditions because they felt they had few prospects for finding a better job. Others have faced deep depression after graduating from college still unable to find work. Undocumented youth, like queer youth that are in the early stages of coming out to themselves, sometimes reject other undocumented people as a way to negotiate their identity. Sometimes they blame their parents, arguing that they were brought to the United States through no fault of their own. Sometimes we encounter families who will emphasize how their immigrant child deserves a college education for their hard-pressed effort, but they are reluctant to be "tossed" in with the immigrant rights movement.
In response to these struggles, students have developed on-campus clubs in order to form support groups. Like their queer counterparts, these students face the challenge of attracting other undocumented students, without necessarily outing themselves or others because of some of the repercussions that might bring. On some campuses, like Cal-State Dominguez Hills, organizations like these have blossomed, but on other campuses, like Bakersfield Community College, there are just two friends who hope to be able to transfer soon. Our biggest success is in the California DREAM Network, made up of over 25 campus groups who have joined together in the fight for access to higher education.
Over 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from high school every year with little means to attend college. When we talk about undocumented youth, we mostly focus on the top students who are trying to make it against the odds. But this figure does not account for all undocumented young people, because just as many drop out of high school when they figure out there are few options for them upon graduation.
While we should also recognize the unique struggles faced by both groups, we must be clear that both of these communities have been marginalized as part of the same system of oppression that took land away from Native Americans, legalized slavery, and placed U.S. Citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps. Cross-issue work is difficult in the United States. For many organizations, their funding relies on being an "expert" in their field. Cross-issue work is a process and there are gains and misunderstandings along the way. But the first step is to start open, honest and respectful dialogue to bridge understanding, instead of avoiding topics that can be construed as sticky or controversial.
CHIRLA, in conjunction with Mobilize the Immigrant Vote first began with conversations about how "wedge" issues are created and who benefits from the divisions they create. The next steps have included educational workshops for our members on Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender definitions and issues, as well as workshops on the historical context of oppression in the United States. Our conversations are far from over because the struggle for liberation of all peoples is on-going.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is credited for being one of the first gay rights activists and in the 1860s he began to promote the idea of coming out as a means of liberation. Ulrichs understood that while people remained in hiding, ashamed or fearful of embracing their identity, it would be impossible to challenge and eventually change the dominant world view about being gay. As activists and organizers in these or other struggles, the concept of liberation should ring true for all communities. My hope is that this piece inspires queer activists and immigrant justice activists to find ways to get together and work for liberation together.
Xiomara Corpeno is the Director of Organizing with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). She is also a 2008 Taproots Fellow. Read her bio here.