Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.