by Anil Vora
The subject of immigration reform spotlights our unresolved struggle with us vs. them syndrome. For the last three decades, “reform” has generally meant shut ‘them’ out, lock ‘them’ up, make it harder for ‘them’ to get jobs and citizenship, or send ‘them’ away so that all of ‘us’ can be safe. The LGBT community has, for the most part, watched this circus from the sidelines even though many of us have met, befriended, fucked, or loved an immigrant.
My own immigration plan was conceived in 1965. My mother won the diversity visa lottery under the Immigration Act. Her desperation to leave a failing marriage and the stifling patriarchy of India overrode any sentimental obligation to play the ideal Indian woman. I would remain in India with my father, however. Relatives gasped, “What woman leaves a child behind to carve out a new life in a foreign country?” In her absence, I would have plenty of time to ponder that question. The agreement between my parents was that I would be raised in India until I was old enough to make my own decision.
Over the next 18 years, I would learn about America through my mother’s letters. When I turned 13, she gifted a subscription to Esquire and GQ and I became better acquainted with American culture, products, and fashion. But I also watched my father suffer in quiet dignity (he never remarried) as he raised me to be an upstanding young man. As my college graduation approached, it was my turn to choose between two great countries offering completely divergent opportunities and lifestyles. My budding queer identity made the choice for me. Wrongly enticed by the homoerotic tone of GQ and knowing full well that I would soon be married off if I stayed in India, I chose the possibility of freedom to live as an out and proud queer man. I also really missed my mother. It was my Sophie’s Choice, one that haunts me with many “what ifs” to this day.
I arrived in the U.S. in 1983 with nothing more than a college degree and two suitcases full of clothes. Within months, something terrifying put the brakes on life, liberty, and my pursuit of queerness. It was a virus called HIV, unleashing fear, disease, and death among queer men. I decided to join the fight against AIDS mainly because it seemed like a good option to meet other queer people. My immigrant identity quickly took a back seat, even though I was the only South Asian in spaces dominated by Caucasians. I remember the community rarely, if ever, discussed race. We were dealing with a catastrophe strictly from a behavioral perspective: manage the modes of transmission and this virus will eventually stop spreading. We are all in this together, we said. Yet a different dynamic was playing out in the dating and mating rituals. By that I mean queers of color were ignored, feared, or fetishized.
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I kept finding myself at what the great Indian activist L. Ramakrishnan calls “the bewildering intersection of many spaces referenced by race, culture, religion, and sexuality.” The HIV/AIDS movement expected me to be all queer all the time while America’s attitude toward immigrants was changing. First, it was President Reagan who imposed a ban on anyone with HIV from entering the U.S. Even then, the debate among queer activists wasn’t how this draconian law might be deepening the sense of otherness among queer immigrants. They were angry that people with HIV, particularly experts and activists, were not able to attend AIDS conferences.
President Clinton introduced a few positive reform policies, but border security tightened, deportations increased, and penalizing immigrants (in many forms) became routine. This immigrant phobia was taken to greater heights by President George W. Bush and vigilante movements like the Minuteman Project. President Obama’s reform agenda is eerily similar to that of his predecessors and he has deported more people than any president in U.S. history. By now, marriage equality has become the LGBT community’s singular preoccupation, supplanting LGBT immigrants’ far more basic need for a safe place to live and work and be out. The irony of escaping marriage in India to face a different kind of pressure in America is not lost on me.
Of course, 9/11 completely changed the discourse around immigration. We all know that AIDS resulted in a terrible ostracism of queers from almost every facet of society. In response, there began a kind of normalization of queer culture and values that mushroomed into a desperate frenzy to never again be seen as the hyper sexualized, diseased pariahs of the AIDS generation. What we have now is a completely antiseptic portrait of queers as virtuous specimens of family values. Perhaps we were subconsciously reacting to the post-9/11 patriotic fervor, and nothing can be more patriotic than proving that we are all hard-working Americans subscribing to the same values. Sara Warner calls this homoliberalism, the rise of a conservative movement within the LGBT community, one that is more interested in assimilation than freedom and the right to autonomy.
In this process of normalization and assimilation, how many queer immigrants lost or sacrificed the richness of their cultural, political, religious, and sexual identities? I cannot recall a significant debate – on a national level – that has directly and profoundly examined the impact of 9/11 on queer immigrants. And what about LGBT leaders and organizations? Nationally, there is one organization – Immigration Equality – solely dedicated to LGBT and HIV immigration rights, with Lambda Legal, United We Dream, and Out4Immigration doing equally impressive work. The big two LGBT organizations – HRC and NGLTF – have nicely articulated positions on immigration, but avoid mentioning real numbers and demographics as proof of any impact of their programs. There is also the Center for American Progress and National Immigrant Justice Center, both of which have teams dedicated to LGBT immigration.
What does it really mean to be a queer immigrant in this country? Some of the questions I grapple with are:
- What does it feel like to be torn apart from one’s family and live in a strange place where one has to learn every little thing, from how the showerheads work and how to drive in snow, to understanding a new political system?
- How can we be open to immigrants of every race who perhaps have different expressions of their queerness?
- How do we have a candid conversation about fetishization?
- How can we be more intentional about participating in/creating accountability structures and strategies that disrupt the ways we are encouraged to participate in the racial hierarchies of this country?
- How can we confront the myth of the model minority? How do we acknowledge the stigma and challenges faced by undocumented queers and welcome them into our community without falling prey to the divisive politics of acceptable vs. unacceptable immigrants?
Since I arrived on American soil, I have heard every president say, “We are a nation of immigrants.” Queers, whether we were born here or elsewhere, should know what it feels like to be an outsider. Reform starts with understanding our feelings of displacement and rootedness, otherness and a sense of belonging. Reform starts with acknowledging our common quest to live in a nation whose greatness is measured by the freedom we allow each other to express the richness of our multiple identities.
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Anil Vora began his queer activism at the height of the AIDS epidemic with a commitment to HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues. During this time (1985-1995) he was often the only South Asian immigrant in spaces dominated by Caucasians. His service to the LGBTQ community also focuses on political organizing and the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders. Anil is a writer, artist, filmmaker, and thinker enjoying his fifties and continuing his fight for equal rights.