“Our Dreams Have Become So Small”: A Review of Queer Migration Politics

“Our dreams have become so small.” Karma Chávez concludes her book with this quote from trans activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Chávez’s Queer Migration Politics, is an attempt to widen the horizons of our current possibilities when it comes to both LGBTQ activism and migration politics. Chávez begins by outlining a brief history of the American political climate towards both members of the LGBTQ community and migrant populations. She points out that in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, George H. W. Bush signed “what was known as ‘homosexual exclusion’” which essentially meant that those who were HIV/AIDS positive, were not permitted to migrate into the U.S.[1] At the same time that this multitude of issues was bubbling up in the American consciousness, so was the movement of LGBTQ activists to try and bring attention to the AIDS epidemic, and in doing so, gave “greater significance in defining a national gay and lesbian political agenda focused on rights and inclusion.”[2] As Deborah B. Gould points out, the AIDS epidemic shaped the “emotional habitus of the LGBTQ community and essentially led activists of the time to, “suppress more confrontational rhetoric and activism that it might compromise their social acceptability.” [3] Thus, the LGBTQ activists of the early nineties were forced to work within existing American frameworks. In the same way that queer activism became centered around “respectability” of members of the LGBTQ community, migration politics in the United States has also become centered around who is “worthy” of citizenship. Chávez in her work, points out how legislation like the DREAM Act, excludes migrants who do not fall into these categories of exceptionalism. Furthermore, so much of migration politics rhetoric has centered around upholding familial values, standards that could only be upheld by heterosexual couples. So as both groups attempt to grapple with standards of respectability and the current discriminatory climate in America, Chávez offers unique perspectives on how these two groups may be able to coalesce to overturn current power dynamics, and create a higher standard of living for everyone.

Before we dig into the content of Chávez’s argument, it is important to have some understanding of the author. Karma R. Chávez is a former assistant professor of Communication Arts and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and now teaches at the University of Texas- Austin. In her introduction, she notes her sense that queerness, “not only refers to a kind of critique and to non- or anti- normative genders and sexualities, but it also implies what is possible for making lives livable.”[4]  One of the reasons I really loved this book is Chávez’s acknowledgment of multiple identities that people can assumed, particularly of those she observes in her work. Also, how these intermeshed identities take shape in the form of politics and experience. Chávez employs a mainly qualitative approach. This is evident by her accounts in Arizona and the comparison she draws between CDH and Wingspan- two different activist organizations. She also makes many references to laws and different activist responses in this piece, signifying her knowledge of legal frameworks and the social push back to these laws.

In order to understand her argument fully, we must understand where this book falls in the greater scholarly conversation. Her work is grounded in the larger field of migration studies, which expands on the important thinking done by feminist scholars on gender and migration. She points towards scholars such as Oliva Espín, Mary Romero, Pierette Hondagneu- Sotelo and Lynn Fujiwara, who shifted the focus from the male migrant experience, to the experiences of women, “negotiating the US immigration system.” [5] However, their work still left out the experiences of queer migrants. Eithne Luibhéid, she notes, tries to bring to light the experiences of queer migrant populations, and many other scholars expand on this work in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[6] Chávez notes that even with the increasing scholarship around the aforementioned issues,  few scholars have really investigated “how migration politics and activism are connected to queer politics and activism.”[7] However, scholars such as Dean Spade, Jasbir K. Puar, and Lisa Duggan, who all examine queerness in a more global context, have contributed greatly to Chávez’s theory and thinking.[8] Chávez’s studies also pay homage to the scholarship of Monisha Das Gupta and Amy L. Brandzel, whose work is dedicated to rethinking the notion of belonging and citizenship for queer migrants. [9]

It is drawing on the work of other scholars and her own observations, that Chávez makes a compelling argument about queer migration policies.  She comes out boldly stating that we need to redraw the lines of the groups we belong to, and create more space for difference in the groups that make up our identity. She states that by rethinking belonging, “individuals reveal that the divisions upheld and promoted within hegemonic constructions of belonging that put, for example, racialized minorities against sexual minorities are not natural.” [10] Essentially, Chávez uses the majority of this book to express that as humans we exist within a set of interlocking oppressions. Thus, oppression that exists in one group should be the concern of another group of oppressed people. She explains that LGBTQ migrants “are invisible within both movements because the migrant rights movement places undue emphasis on heteronormative family relationships and the LGBTQ movement focuses on partners of US citizens.” [11] Thus, it becomes crucial to rethink affiliation with either group, unless these two groups can coalesce to make life better for all. Chávez uses the majority of the second chapter to highlight one particular activist, Yasmin Nair, who is a queer, migrant, woman of color theorist. She works to expose discriminatory measures towards migrants based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the how the economic system in America exploits the immigrant population. [12]  Nair rejects the idea of promoting individual stories from both the LGBTQ and migrant community, and argues that putting one LGBTQ migrant’s personal story on display in a sense exploits the human and becomes a question of, “whose story can be melodramatically effective?”[13]  Chávez uses Nair as a prime example of an activist who is attempting to rewrite the boundaries of identity and create more expansive areas of belonging.

Since the majority of Chávez’s book is how to effectively build these coalitions across difference, Chávez takes a more in depth look at coalitions around migrant and LGBTQ rights that have already been established. Chávez asserts an interesting analysis of “coming out of the closet” and “coming out of the shadows”- the rhetoric that is normally associated with LGBTQ rights and migrant rights, respectively. She notes that many migrant rights groups have employed the tactic of “coming out as undocumented” not only as an act of empowerment, but also as a rhetorical reference to many LGBTQ activists, who have pronounced their unapologetic pride in their identities. However, as Chávez points out, this idea “reduces the work of challenging marginalization to the private individual.”[14] In essence, the work of individuals, while rhetorically effective in many cases isn’t enough.

She then turns her focus towards examining the relationship between two Arizona groups, Wingspan and Coalición de Derechos Humanos (CDH), an LGBTQ activist organization and a migration rights organization respectively. She highlights the challenges and benefits of forming this coalition across difference. For one, these organizations can pool their resources together to increase the effect of each group. However, Chávez notes the natural challenges of coalescing two seemingly disparate efforts. Wingspan is described as predominantly white whereas CDH is predominantly Latino. Chávez comes to realize that the CDH ends up doing the majority of grassroots organizing in this coalition, citing Geovanna (Wingspan’s breast health educator at the time) who noted, “white people in her organization use large words but neglect action.” Moreover, Chávez contends that CDH doing more grass roots organizing is a matter of race and class.[15] Chávez further highlights the challenges of coalescing across difference by noting the CDH’s alignment with the Catholic Church in Arizona. The Catholic Church is in partnership with CDH because of the Christian belief to welcome the stranger and help the poor. However, the Catholic Church is also very outspoken about their beliefs towards homosexual couples. The pre-existing alignment presents challenges for the tenuous alliance between CDH and Wingspan.[16] Although this coalition is a good start towards rethinking the boundaries of belonging, Chávez indicates that it is obviously flawed.  Furthermore, she mentions that the coalition barely exists now or only when it is politically expedient, saying, “the existence of a relationship with Wingspan is simply assumed… when it is necessary to respond to something or to take action.” [17]

Overall, I appreciate the contents and arguments of the book. Chávez is certainly a dreamer. The biggest strength of her argument is her dedication to seeing possibilities instead of barriers, in the face of difference. As she puts it, “Dissonance fosters acute awareness, though sometimes without clear direction for movement from the awkward tension.”[18] However, one major weakness I see in her argument is the precariousness of the coalition she seeks to build. Her research is focused on the work of two organizations, who in three years after she completed her research in 2007, were no longer in a working relationship. Moreover, when these two organizations were working together, there was debate about whether or not they were a coalition in “name only.” [19] Chávez does a great job of pointing out the problems within this seemingly flimsy coalition, but does not offer other examples of how to coalesce more effectively.  This book is mainly meant to be read by other scholars and activists, who strive to make universal human rights a reality for all people. It should be read by activists that are looking to expand their platforms; but since there is no example of effective coalition building, her utopian thinking does not seem to lend itself to practical solutions.

Overall, I was a huge fan of this book and the lengths Chavez went to write it. While I remain frustrated by the lack of concrete examples of effective coalitions in this realm, I believe that this ineffectiveness is more likely due to the current political climate in America. Yes, most of her argument is impractical and requires utopian thinking, but Chávez’s bold declaration that we can be much more than we have been, and that our boundaries of belonging can be more expansive is an inspiring thought. Queer Migration Politics is a proud pronouncement of ways the oppressed can reclaim their power, in an American culture that demands “respectability” and “worthiness” to access. However, the beginning of this pronouncement must begin in the grass- “the dirt and concrete where people live, work, and play.” [20] As she puts it, “I hope Queer Migrations can be part of what changes the size of our dreams.” [21] I do too.

[1] Karma R. Chávez, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2013), 1

[2] ibid, 2

[3] Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 63-64

[4] Karma R. Chavez, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2013), 6

[5] ibid, 10

[6] ibid, 11

[7] ibid, 12

[8] ibid, 12

[9] ibid, 13

[10] ibid, 27

[11] ibid, 45

[12] ibid, 52-54

[13] ibid, 62

[14] ibid, 96

[15] ibid, 139

[16] ibid, 136

[17] ibid, 143

[18] ibid, 136

[19] ibid, 140

[20] ibid, 7

[21] ibid, 150