Toward a queer epistemology of forced migration studies

SAMUEL RITHOLTZ  |  29 MAY 2020  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2020

The phenomenon of sexual/gender minorities’ internal migration from homophobic to safe areas in the US is well documented in popular culture. Indeed, it’s in the narratives of many contestants of the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race [1]. This migration is often reduced to a rural-urban story, the young queer/trans ingénue ready to take on the big city. But these narratives introduce an interesting tension. Cut off from their communities and facing discrimination, queer/trans people leave home, but can their departure be considered forced migration?

 

In an upcoming paper, I explore the assumptions in the discipline of forced migration studies that result in this internal migration of queer/trans people in the United States being overlooked by the field’s scholars. Analyzing a case study of the queer/trans youth experiencing homelessness in New York, I posit that present in the field is an epistemological cis-heteronormativity that informs the theory of knowledge of the discipline. In other words, I argue that sexuality and gender-based biases prevent us from asking the right questions about queer/trans migration that would not only render their displacement visible, but also reveal subtle coercive dynamics currently effaced in academic discussion. The implications of this academic project are political. The work produced by scholars of forced migration studies has an impact on who becomes a humanitarian subject, worthy of policy support. In other words, academics act as gatekeepers to what issues gain legitimacy in both the academic and policy realms.

 

With an estimated 80% of queer/trans people in America living in cities, it is often presumed that there are significant pull factors to urban areas [2]. This presumption infers that the ‘city’ has a more tolerant community; Kath Weston labels this belief ‘the sexual imaginary’ of the city [3]. Some aid providers believe that queer/trans people move to cities because there are more resources for them, especially if they are experiencing health issues or homelessness. 

 

Queer/trans youth homelessness is a crisis that the US is failing to handle. Currently it is estimated that 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the US each year. Despite being only 7% of the US youth population, over 40% of the youth experiencing homelessness population identify as queer/trans [4]. According to a 2012 study by the Williams Institute, 46% of those youth ran away because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity, 43% were forced out by parents, and 32% faced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home [5]. Throughout the country, there are only 4,000 shelter beds, mostly in urban areas, designated for youth experiencing homelessness and of those, only 350 specifically for queer/trans youth. Yet, these numbers only reflect the youth experiencing homelessness who are making themselves visible to public officials and aid workers. There’s an unknown number of youth experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’, who are temporarily staying with friends (or strangers) without accessing resources that make them visible to the State [6].

 

Though impossible to determine the exact reason for why scholars overlook the topic, a fair question to ask would be, drawing on the work of Polzer and Hammond, whether this type of displacement is visible to scholars of the discipline [7]. Queer/trans persecution, and the resultant migration, is precarious in how private it can be. As mentioned earlier, much of the persecution experienced by queer/trans people is intrafamilial and happens ‘behind closed doors’. Many queer/trans migrants experience persecution while not being out [8] and still flee their homes. Not coming out can be a protection mechanism to avoid discrimination, but it also obviates others from witnessing the subsequent displacement. A move from a homophobic town to a more accepting location can be validated by a new job – refashioning displacement as personal choice. As such, queer/trans displacement experiences are rendered invisible as read by others. 

 

Many queer/trans people, however, cannot pass [9] and thus their sexual/gender identity is imputed, putting them at risk of violence. Still, the persecution can be so personal that it is rendered invisible. As an example, hate crimes against queer/trans people are extremely underreported because of strained relations with authorities as well as the trauma associated with prejudicial violence [10]. Thus, the violence, threats, and discrimination experienced by queer/trans people go ignored unless the person affected speaks out (and is heard). Because their displacement and its related coercion are obscured, queer/trans internal migrants in the US become silent sufferers who do not fit into the ontological categories of forced migrants as deemed by government bureaucrats, academics, or general society [11]. They are then denied consideration by academics or policymakers.

 

When it comes to queer/trans displacement in the US, there is a lack of accountability that leads to a more subtle form of injustice, a gaslighting that makes persecution appear legitimate. Though unsaid, an underlying logic assumed is that with no one to blame, the displacement of the queer/trans youth experiencing homelessness is their own burden. In the US, there appears to be a contradiction at play: growing support for the queer/trans community affirms their right to a life free of persecution but many of these youth are displaced from their homes because they are queer/trans. The violence they have all experienced, coupled with the neglect of the State to protect them, encourages queer/trans people to either stay in the closet or relocate. By not combatting this persecution or ameliorating this suffering, State authorities are condoning this phenomenon – even if they are not driving it.

 

These tensions reveal gaps in the discipline’s epistemology in relation to how more elusive processes of forced displacement are understood and how, or even whether, they come to our attention. The discussion of queer/trans internal migration in the US brings up key questions about a western-liberal state’s commitments to its citizens and its own complicity in subtle forms of violence and displacement. The current invisibility of queer/trans displacement in the US in conversations about forced migration has the unintended consequence of contributing to the depoliticization of the phenomenon and thus, removes all culpability from those responsible for this displacement. With no discourse that challenges this displacement, an illegitimate and coercive system is reinforced.

Notes and references

[1] Daw, Stephen. 2018. ‘“RuPaul’s Drag Race:” Dusty Ray Bottoms Details Coming Out Story & Getting Exorcised of “Gay Demon”’. Billboard, 4 June 2018 (accessed on 8 June 2018).

[2] Fadel, Leila. 2019. New Study: LGBT People A ‘Fundamental Part of the Fabric of Rural Communities’. Washington, DC: NPR, 4 April 2019.

[3] Weston, Kath. 1995. ‘Get thee to a big city: Sexual imaginary and the great gay migration’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 2, 253-277.

[4] Seaton, Jaimie. 2017. ‘Homeless rates for LGBT teens are alarming, but parents can make a difference’. The Washington Post, 29 March 2017

[5] Durso, Laura E., and Gates, Gary G. 2012. ‘Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless’. University of California Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund & The Palette Fund.

[6] ‘Left Behind: LGBT Homeless Youth Struggle to Survive on the Streets’. NBC News, 3 August 2014.

[7] Polzer, Tara, and Hammond, Laura. 2008. ‘Invisible displacement’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 21(4), 417-31.

[8] ‘Out’ meaning to reveal oneself to be queer/trans.

[9] ‘To pass’ means to appear as straight/cis to other straight/cis people. It’s a privilege because one is not read as the other and thus avoids any overt violence by discriminatory forces.

[10] Keith, Emma, and Gagliano, Katie. 2018. ‘Lack of Trust in Law Enforcement Hinders Reporting of LGBTQ Crimes’. San Francisco: The Center for Public Integrity, 24 August 2018.

[11] Polzer, Tara. 2008. ‘Invisible integration: How bureaucratic, academic and social categories obscure integrated refugees’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 21(4), 476-97.

Sam Ritholtz

Sam Ritholtz is a DPhil candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, where they study queer theories of civil war. Sam’s broader research interests include political violence, forced migration, gender/sexuality, and epistemology. Outside of academia, Sam has worked on human rights and gender issues for a range of institutions, including the United Nations’ Executive Office of the Secretary General as well as the Women in the World Foundation. Sam has an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and a BSc in International Agriculture and Rural Development from Cornell University.

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