The author of a new study about undocumented queer immigrants explains the exhaustion and fear many feel.
Undocumented queer immigrants march at San Francisco Pride. Photo via Flickr user Jason Riedy
There are approximately 11 million undocumented people in the US. According to the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ legal think tank, an estimated 267,000 of them are LGBTQ-identified. For queer undocumented immigrants, straddling two stigmatized communities can be an emotionally exhausting and marginalizing experience. But those who identify as "undocuqueer" have also been instrumental to the immigrant rights movement, playing prominent roles in mass protests and in bringing the stories of undocumented people to mass audiences.
Jesus Cisneros, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, has devoted a good chunk of his academic career to studying the lives of people who've wrestled with this "hybridized" identity. He's watched the broader DREAMer movement come to fully embrace its LGBTQ subset, where in the past, he said, "individuals who identified as LGBTQ [within the movement] were told not to share their identities, and to rely on talking points instead"—essentially pushing them back into the closet. Under Trump, he continued, the pattern is repeating itself.
In a study released last month, Cisneros interviewed 31 undocuqueer immigrants to unearth how they navigate being both undocumented and LGBTQ; many said they didn't feel fully embraced by either community, meaning they've had to create their own communities and define their identities for themselves. VICE spoke with Cisneros about what it's like having to come out as both undocumented and gay, why queer spaces aren't always welcoming to those without papers, and what it means to "deserve" citizenship when you're queer.
VICE: Tell me more about how the rush to portray DREAMers as "deserving" of citizenship affected the lives of undocumented queer people.
Jesus Cisneros: There's long been this focus on what it means to be a DREAMer and who is a DREAMer. It was all about subscribing to this idea of exceptionalism—they're the valedictorians, the people with high GPAs, and they came here through no fault of their own and all these other narratives that were problematic for individuals who did not fit the stereotypical DREAMer identity.
But that created other forms of oppression for folks who didn't fit that all-American mold. So when people began subscribing to these ideas, individuals who identified as LGBTQ were told not to share their identities. Those who were facing homelessness, bullying, and family acceptance—those issues weren't talked about. That oppression, within a movement meant to combat oppression, brought people together.
Watch Eddie Huang discuss immigration issues:
Is that why there are so many undocumented queer people in leadership positions in the DREAMer movement?
I think so. When we had a congress with United We Dream [an immigrant youth rights organization], one of the speakers said, "If you identify as LGBTQ, join me on stage." And to the surprise of many people, there were a lot of people who walked onto the stage. We were like, "Woah." We realized our movement is led by women, first and foremost, as well as LGBTQ people. This was an awakening.
What makes the immigration process harder for queer people?
As undocuqueer people began advocating for immigration reform—for the DREAM Act and DACA—they discovered that, in each, there was no specific way in which they were included. This legislation has very strict yet arbitrary criteria, like "have good moral character." If you look at how moral character is defined within federal forms, the question becomes, "have you engaged in sex work?" That form of labor is a reality for many of us within the LGBTQ community, especially those confronted by homelessness, poverty or family rejection. And so if you participate in sex work, then you don't qualify for state ID or driver's license. If you're trying to get into a homeless shelter, they'll reject you because you don't have that ID or Social Security number. Same goes for healthcare. All these dynamics and situations make the undocuqueer experience harder to navigate.
Do you see similarities between the process of coming out as queer and coming out as undocumented?
Initially when I did my study, that was my question: What do you come out as first, and why, and what shapes that coming out process? I've found that it depends. Several participants talked to me about not being able to talk about their LGBTQ identities in their homes. They were embraced more within the movement, but didn't come out to family and friends until after becoming activists.
In a study I haven't published yet, the participants I spoke to said they knew they were queer and trans from a very young age but, because they were undocumented, they forestalled coming out to their parents until after they made it to college. They knew that as undocumented people, they had to make it to college and get a scholarship, they had to put their queer identities to the side.
You write about how LGBTQ environments are not always the most welcoming to undocumented people. Do undocuqueer people experience prejudice at gay clubs? How does their immigration status come up in conversations within the queer community?
The people I've interviewed struggle with the question, "When do I come out as undocumented?" Is it on the first date? When you're about to have sex? After you have sex? They compare it to revealing your HIV status. There's a lot of anxiety and stress related to it because it's a constant education process—many of my participants talk about the exhaustion of having to come out as undocumented and educating people about what they can and can't do. If it's a date's first exposure to someone who's undocumented, that can require a lot of work. For that reason, some of the people I talked to describe feeling more at ease with other Latinos because of our proximity to immigration processes. When you go into Latinx spaces, you don't have to have your guard up for even more rejection, or to be confronted by someone whose politics doesn't include liberation for you.
Are you hopeful that more queer people will be included in the undocumented movement in the future?
Right now, as we're trying to push for the DREAM act, LGBTQ people are going to be pushed aside again. Why? Because we have a Republican-led House and Senate, and a Republican in the White House. That means Christian values are undergirding these decisions and votes, and different gender identities and sexualities are just not accepted or embraced. Again, we're seeing this discourse of exceptionalism, Americanism, and Christian values. That's the language you need to speak to gain a captive audience. It is not currently in the best interests of the immigrant community to put LGBTQ identities at the forefront because that's going to distance individuals whose support we need to pass legislation to replace DACA or supply some kind of relief.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.