On Queering Movement amid Historical Invisibility: Sexuality, Gender and Migration

The experience of queer refugees has not received much scholarly or research-based attention in migration discourse. Attention has only recently shifted toward its inclusion in both the “migration” and “queer” narratives with the emergence of the field of ‘queer migrations’ approximately two decades ago. The simple fact of the matter is that, at a time when people and governments across the globe were preoccupied with asking ‘tough questions’ on migration, asylum, and borders, the field of queer migration was simply not an intersection which they were willing to address. Historically however, gender identity and sexuality have had an impact not only on people’s decisions to migrate from their countries of origin, but also on the manner through which destination countries have received them – and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we will be able to bridge gaps across migration policy, international migration and refugee law as well as border management and human rights.


Over the past three decades, queer has fascinatingly become both an adjective and a verb, often leading to misperception outside the circles of historians of sexuality and gender studies. In her paper Queer Phenomenology, the Disruption of Heteronormativity, and Structurally Responsive Care Jennifer Searle insists that any developing definition of queer must be founded in ‘disruptions to heteronormativity’ – essentially meaning that this definition must be rooted in the social assumption that heterosexuality is the default setting for human identity and desire.[1] Thus, Searle elaborates, ‘queer’ may be used to describe individuals who fall outside the ‘normative expressions of gender and sexuality,’ while ‘to queer’ something involves focusing on aspects which undermine heteronormative cultural and state processes.[2]


By comparison, ‘migration’ seems a simpler term to define, although a universal understanding of the term, its scope and the rights surrounding its management remain in dispute around the world. In simpler terms, migration is the movement of people across geographic space. However, as experts on migration are well aware, things may quite easily become increasingly complex.[3] As the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History year put it, migration could also be a ‘transition away from an initially assigned gender position or movement between the ‘closet’ and public queerness’.[4] On another note, moving from this point, queer migration not only encompasses the history of queers who migrate, but also queers the historical study of migration and movement in itself. Queer migrations create a productive dialogue between immigration history and queer history.[5]


From as early as 2005, in the introduction to a truly revolutionary edited volume titled Queer Migrations: Sexuality, US Citizenship, and Border Crossings, Eithne Luibheid and Lionel Cantu introduce the concept of queer migration explicitly when answering questions on how sexuality shapes migration processes, how concerns about sexuality shape immigration control strategies and constructions of citizenship, and how mass migration in the past quarter century transformed queer communities, cultures and politics.[6] Luibheid and Cantu answer these questions partly through their examination of the history of immigration regulations across the United States, as well as through their argument that sexual orientation has historically constituted ‘a significant category of immigration exclusion’ in the United States and the world.[7]


In 1917 in the United States for instance, immigration laws historically excluded individuals who identified as members of the LGBTQI+ community through their prohibition of ‘persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority’, a category that, according to the US Public Health Service, included ‘persons with abnormal sexual instincts’.[8] Moving from this legal precedent, although the 1965 US Immigration Act excluded queer migrants under the language of prohibiting ‘sexual deviates,’ its reforms of racial and ethnic exclusion were extensive – and laid the foundation for more comprehensive approaches to policy and discourse.[9]Furthermore, the ban on HIV-positive immigrants was not lifted until 2009.[10] Additionally, it was only with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision which declared sections of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional that LGBTQI+ individuals were eligible to apply for immigration benefits such as green cards or citizenship through marriage.[11]


These incidents are but an excerpt from a comprehensive timeline of discrimination that highlights states’ inherent investment in heterosexuality and patriarchy as governing principles of who is allowed to cross a border. Building on this volume from 2005, scholars throughout the world have decentered the role of the United States and exposed vital connections between sexuality, migration, and citizenship on one hand, and the rise of capitalism, state bureaucracy, and foreign relations on the other.[12]However, delving into queer history comes with its own sets of trials and intersections. Significant historical ‘invisibility’ surrounding sexuality and desire means that finding archival evidence probably remains the biggest challenge for researchers and scholars in this field. Although it would be an evasion of our task as researchers to abandon the study because of these challenges, questions of how to recover the voices policies have sought to suppress, and how to make up for the overwhelming gaps in the archives, are but droplets in the pool of vagueness surrounding queer migration.



A solution among scholars and practitioners alike for decades has essentially been to ‘queer the archive’ which, according to Lizeth Zepeda, encompasses analysis of institutional records and documentation to look for what ‘is not said’ or taking a step further in looking for alternate sources of evidence such as ephemera, imagery, or even material objects.[13] In her paper Queering the Archive: Transforming the Archival Process, she highlights how queer stories have been there ‘all along’ but have never been interpreted as such through the eyes of traditional and patriarchal research.[14] Similarly, in her book The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, Margot Canaday analyzes the well-perused records of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service at Ellis Island and makes the finding that immigration officials were often tasked with watching for signs of ‘striking peculiarities in dress, talkativeness, witticism, facetiousness, flightiness, unnatural actions, mannerisms, and other eccentricities’ in order to identify immigrants who might be sexually ‘degenerate’ or ‘perverse’ and thus could be excluded as likely to become public charges.[15]


Closing this gap in the archive requires that queering migration in the classroom be taught through an intersectional lens, because sources on this intersection are very scarce. Teachers are tasked with asking their students about the ‘assumption of heterosexuality’ in readily available works, as well as throughout narratives that depict immigrants’ identities and journeys. Asking students how the picture would look ‘different’ if one were to introduce the experiences of LGBTQI+ individuals assists in directing students’ focus to more complex aspects of what they are reading – mostly the intersections between sexuality, gender, and migration.


These obstacles to discourse need to be seen as opportunities. The field is still ‘fresh enough’ for researchers and scholars to have significant influence within it and towards its legacy. With advances in LGBTQI+ rights and a global refugee crisis[16] both at the center of international human rights debates, urgent questions about the contextual and highly specific challenges queer migrants face serve as an opportunity for people working in this field. Canada has recently announced that its plans for Syrian refugees will privilege family reunifications and exclude ‘unaccompanied men’.[17] Canada plans to make exceptions for men who identify as homosexuals but has yet to explicitly describe just how it will confirm a refugee’s sexuality.[18] Based on precedence and widely reported mistreatments of queer migrants, experts would be right to be concerned that similar policies – even if intended to be a step in the right direction – would not only privilege heterosexual families, but further put pressure on LGBTQI+ individuals to conform to popular stereotypes of what it means to ‘look gay’ to be believable amid heterosexual individuals attempting to use false claims of homosexuality as a means to make it across borders.[19]


An intersectional approach that looks at race and gender in addition to sexuality when studying migration today is pivotal when attempting to develop truly comprehensive policies in line with human rights principles, as well as to align with the particular challenges of sub-groups within this pool that are even more vulnerable such as queer migrants of color or transgender migrants for instance. As politicians and government officials across the globe loudly voice a predominantly anti- or selective immigration rhetoric, it is important for experts in this field to interrupt the latest wave of xenophobia and fear through ensuring that that the histories and concerns of queer migrants are not forgotten in the process.



Jasmin Diab is a Canadian-Lebanese researcher, writer, editor, reviewer, instructor and consultant in the areas of Forced Migration, Gender and Conflict. She is the Refugee Health Program Coordinator at the American University of Beirut's Global Health Institute, as well as a Research Associate on the Political Economy of Health in Conflict under its Conflict Medicine Program. Jasmin is a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University (Canada), an Adjunct Professor in Gender and Migration at the Fatima Al-Fihri Open University (Morocco) and a Junior Fellow at the 'War, Conflict and Global Migration' Think Tank of the Global Research Network (UK). In other roles, she serves as the MENA Regional Focal Point on Migration of the United Nations General Assembly-mandated UN Major Group for Children and Youth (USA), and as a Senior Consultant on Forced Migration and Gender at Cambridge Consulting Services (UK). Jasmin is a Founding Member of the 'Migration and International Law in Africa, Middle East and Turkey International Network', dedicated to the research of Migration through the Global South (2018 to present), and has served as a Reviewer to the Journal of Internal Displacement (Canada), a Reviewer and Copy-Editor to the journal 'Refugee Review' (Canada), and as an Editorial Board Member of the Journal of Applied Professional Studies at Marywood University (USA) since 2020. She is completing a PhD in International Relations and Diplomacy with an emphasis on Asylum, Refugees and Security at the esteemed Centre d'Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, INSEEC U. in France, and is the author of two books and over sixty academic and para-academic publications on intersectional issues across Migration, Gender, Conflict, Human Rights, International Relations and International Law.


References: [1] Searle, J. (2019), Queer Phenomenology, the Disruption of Heteronormativity, and Structurally Responsive Care, Advances in Nursing Science: April/June 2019, Volume 42, Issue 2, Retrieved at: https://journals.lww.com/advancesinnursingscience/Fulltext/2019/04000/Queer_Phenomenology,_the_Disruption_of.3.aspx [2] Ibid [3] Bivand Erdal, M., Carling, J., Horst, C. & Talleraas, C. (2018), Defining Sustainable Migration, Peace Research Institute Oslo, Retrieved at: https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/59c035d6145c48a59d834ce1969f33cb/emn-norway-occasional-papers-defining-sustainable-migration-prio-2018.pdf [4] Syrett, N. (2015), CLGBTH CFP for 2016 AHA: Queer Migrations, Humanities and Social Sciences Online, Retrieved at: https://networks.h-net.org/node/6056/discussions/56883/clgbth-cfp-2016-aha-queer-migrations [5] Stein, M. (2010), All the Immigrants Are Straight, All the Homosexuals Are Citizens, But Some of Us Are Queer Aliens, Journal of American Ethnic History, Volume 29, Number 4, pp. 46-70 [6] Cantu, L. & Luibheid, E. (2005), Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship, and Border Crossings, University of Minnesota Press, Retrieved at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt4g7 [7] Ibid [8] Kinney, R. L. (2015), Homosexuality and scientific evidence: On suspect anecdotes, antiquated data, and broad generalizations, The Linacre Quarterly, Volume 82, Number 4, pp. 364-390 [9] Ibid [10] Human Rights Watch (2009), US: Obama Announces End to HIV Travel Ban, Retrieved at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2009/10/30/us-obama-announces-end-hiv-travel-ban [11] Gruberg, S. (2013), What the DOMA Decision Means for LGBT Binational Couples, Center for American Progress, Retrieved at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2013/06/26/68033/what-the-doma-decision-means-for-lgbt-binational-couples/ [12] Gewinner, I. (2020), Gender Norms, Sexuality and Post-socialist Identity: Does Migration Matter?, Sexuality and Culture, Volume 24, pp. 465-484 [13] Zepeda, L. (2018), Queering the Archive: Transforming the Archival Process, Disclosure: A Journal of Social Theory, Volume 27, pp. 94-102 [14] Ibid [15] Canaday, M. (2009), The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, Princeton University Press, Retrieved at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t3vw [16] Refugee crisis can refer to difficulties and dangerous situations in the reception of large groups of forcibly displaced persons. These could be either internally displaced, refugees, asylum seekers or any other huge groups of migrants. [17] Sleiman-Haidar, R. (2016), The Long-Term Challenges of Forced Migration: Perspectives from Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, LSE Middle East Centre Collected Papers, Retrieved at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/67728/2/ForcedDisplacement.pdf [18] Ibid [19] Jones, J. (2018), Federal government fears refugees may pretend to be gay to seek asylum, Star Observer, Retrieved at: https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/national-news/federal-government-fears-refugees-may-pretend-gay-seek-asylum/169148