The Gender Refugee0
An Essay about Transgender Women and Land
1. Queer Zion
I have thought it well here to utter a provisional warning against the lamentable error of proposing (just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom.
~ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Garrett T. Frasier Graham was, by 2007, a successful lawyer, businessman, homosexual, and landlord almost fifty years of age. In March of that year he released a deranged little tract titled The Quest for an Independent Gay Nation-State, advancing his cause for “our own Gay homeland,” “free from the utter despair that the Straight majority imposes upon us.” For the location of this homeland he advised “a Caribbean archipelago” or “land currently in Brazil” – two already common sites of gay sex tourism – with caveats that gay nationalists must remain open to any nation with pitiful enough GDP to admit affordable mass land purchase. Queer settler-colonialism could then proceed in two parts: the “Homotannia Land Company,” handling practical matters of land acquisition and real estate development, and the “Society of Gays,” handling political and cultural affairs such as allocation of funds.
Absurd and fantastic as these visions of homosexual sovereignty may seem, they are utterly banal1 as the mere gay iteration of nationalizing impulses expressed, to varying degrees, by every internationally oppressed group of people under global capitalism. It is not even unfair to speculate such nationalist responses to the international hatred of faggotry are Zionist in essence, plastering the homosexual over the Jew. Garrett directly claimed he was channeling the spirit of “my Teddy” [Theodor Herzl], “whose writings on Zionism and the concept of a Jewish State have transcended time,” further rhapsodizing that Theodor may have been homosexual himself. The very first FAQ on the website of Gay Homeland Foundation, another gay nationalist pipe dream, asks “What is your position on Israel?” and responds “We fully acknowledge the right of Israel to exist.” Various historic gay liberation projects are connected to Zionism more tentatively. Garrett’s gay nation implicates lesbian separatism when he claims it would contain an auxiliary state, Sappho Island, as an “internationally renowned womyn’s territory.” The lesbian separatist statement from the Jewish Feminist Conference of 1982 declared “You might find a lot of similarities between lesbian separatism and Zionism”; lesbian memoir-propagandist Andrea Dworkin’s Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, published in 2000, offered full-throated support for both Jewish colonization and female colonization of Indigenous lands.2 Camp gay liberation gestures, such as The Gay Kingdom of Coral Sea (2004), an Australian micronation declared in protest against the denial of same-sex marriage, or Stonewall Nation (1970), a mostly theatrical proposed takeover of rural Alpine County, California by gay radicals, are routinely cited as post-ironic ancestors to this quixotic movement towards queer Zion.
Even the most Zionist of queer nationalists, however, never went so far as to claim they had literally already found their gay state in Israel. Their silence on this possibility for a country in which same-sex marriage is illegal is unsurprising. Israel is a homophobic state. Yet this truth has not stopped Israeli officials from, with the paternalism typical of advanced homophobia,3 declaring Israel queer, for the queer, only whenever queerness can be used and abused to their profit. In solidarity with Palestinian activists living under Israeli apartheid we name this behavior “pinkwashing.”4 Izzy Mustafa, a diasporic Palestinian activist and transgender man living in New York City, defines it so:
“Pinkwashing, in the context of LGBT rights, is used to describe a variety of different marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting products, countries, and people: for instance, the New York Police Department marching at Pride even though they are violent toward queer people on a daily basis. The same goes for how we use it in the context of Palestine. The mainstream definition is, ‘A propaganda tactic used by Israel to falsely portray the country as progressive while presenting the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim societies as backwards and intolerant.’”
On no Israeli city has the designation of gay been so willfully branded as Tel Aviv. The first major attempt to “turn the white city pink,” as is said, occurred in 2010, with the opening of the Tel Aviv Gay Vibe campaign targeting France and Germany. “Fun, Free, and Fabulous” was its slogan; the Tel Aviv LGBT community lodged complaints upon realizing their government spent on the order of 10 to 200 times more money on gay tourism than gay locals (11 to 340 million shekels against 1.5).5
Gay Vibe began after the tenth annual Herzliya Conference on national policy reaffirming Israeli investments in “city branding” focusing on “personality and attraction.” “Personality and attraction” are deliberately not exclusive to homosexuality, and the more general Brand Israel campaign actually has a heterosexual orientation – Kinsey scale one, I might suggest.6 “Israel’s image among New York men aged 18-38 is lacking,” head of media affairs at the Israeli Consulate General David Saranga said, and so the July 2007 issue of Maxim magazine ran “Girls of Maxim: Israeli Defense Forces,” featuring nubile veterans dressed in softcore pastiche of military regalia spouting lines like “I loved shooting the M-16.” Such pornography is not thematically out of place next to Israeli gay tourism advertisement until we decide to indulge our preferences and masturbate.
Tel Aviv advertised itself gay within this militarized heterosexualist regime by use of the city brand. “We made a switch,” said Yaniv Waizman, advisor to the mayor on LGBT issues and chairman of the city’s Tourism Committee, “We no longer talked about Israel, but Tel Aviv.” The unique sexuality of Tel Aviv has reached the extent that the city is sometimes referred to as הבועה [HaBuah/The Bubble]7 to signify its sexual isolation within the Israeli world; Tel Aviv even gets called the Middle East’s “gay mecca”8 – a painfully ironic phrase, given the context. While displaced Palestinians live distributed all across historic Palestine at varying levels of disenfranchisement from the Israeli state,9 queer Palestinians inside Israel are more often redisplaced into The Bubble,10 while those immobilized in Gaza Strip or West Bank’s Area A and B contend with human rights violations from both Israeli and Palestinian society. Thus Haneen Maikey, former director of Palestinian queer organization القوس للتعددية الجنسية والجندرية في المجتمع الفلسطيني [AlQaws/Rainbow for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society] adds, “The framework of propaganda is not accurate enough to describe the colonial nature of pinkwashing.”
“[The narrative of pinkwashing] says something different to queer Palestinians. It says inside Palestine, once the colonial dynamic that we’re used to is about sexuality, there is no colonizer and colonized… it’s saying your society, your friends, will never accept you, because we all suffer from this horrible disease called homophobia that has no cure. So the only place you can exist as queer is outside your society. Pinkwashing is pushing a lot of queer Palestinians, especially youth, to really remove themselves, psychologically or emotionally if not physically, from their society… It’s building this myth.”
AlQaws recognizes this myth in Palestinian consciousness as إسقاط [isqat/downfall]: a “pervasive linking of non-normative sexuality and Palestinian collaboration [with Israel]… [which] works to substantiate a very specific kind of homophobic fear within Palestine.” Belief in queer Zion religiously produces straight Palestinian homophobia, the creation story of gay colonization, and the impossibility of the Palestinian queer, a doubly abject figure perpetually enduring blame on both sides of their oppression for want of the other.
“Once you forgo your Palestinian identity then they would have won,” says Jana Dalia, a trans woman sheltering in Amman, Jordan. “Zionists would have successfully erased you from Palestine completely. So you must hold onto your identity so that one day you will return to your homeland.” Like her and her family, most Palestinians are already outside Palestine, removed by force. Queer Palestinians inside Israel lacking citizenship or work papers, especially young trans women, have been recorded resorting to survival sex work for their colonizers.11 Meanwhile news sources of the Global North report on those in Gaza and the West Bank almost exclusively as victims of Palestinian anti-queer violence, their bodies pictured with minimal quotation or platform. Of the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli militants, our culture manufactures silence.
A number of elisions undergird this failed conjunction of Zionism and queer nationalism, which I have here called into being as queer Zion. Central of these will always be the Israeli subject in place of the Palestinian, or more generally, the colonizer in place of the colonized. It is enough to note that Brazil, the commonest recommendation for gay colonization, has one of the highest murder rates of trans women per capita, to recognize that any actually existing queer Zion would also be ruled by cisgender masculine interests. But queer Zion does not exist. There is no such thing as a queer nation-State.12
2. Shit Land
The reservation where I live is a harsh place, situated on a high plateau valley in the west. Most people wonder why anyone would want to live here.
~ M. Owlfeather, Children of the Grandmother Moon
Rio Grande Western Railway Company, subsidized as Utah division of the transcontinental railroad, published in 1896 a map of Palestine, rotated to mimic the topography of what would become the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area. “The Promised Land!,” they wrote, “A Striking Comparison! The New State of Utah, ‘Deseret,’ and the Holy Land.” Utah’s Mormon pioneers made routine use of this Zion metaphor: they named their greatest river the Jordan; they called Salt Lake hot springs Pools of Siloam; they even, in confused native minstrelcy inspired by British Israelists, claimed both they and the Ute peoples they colonized shared Hebraic bloodlines. To their Church of Latter-Day Saints, Zion was not just a myth of autochthony13 or matter of inner spirit, but a place to be made. By true American theology, Zion’s place was in the settling of the Wild West.
Two queer sexual practices distinguished these Mormon settlers from their urban Eastern compatriots. One of these was a greater willingness to marry Indigenous women; the infamous other, not unrelated, was polygamy. The Mormon doctrine of plural marriage was possible only in undeveloped country, where European morality could not be so effectively sanctioned. This was a common appeal, often necessity, of America’s first great western migrations.14
Mormons had suffered a series of small massacres, consistent denial of land ownership, and Executive Order 44 from Lilburn Boggs, governor of Missouri, that “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” For queer settlers whose sexual politics were less heterosexual and anti-woman, push factors westward were more extreme. Sodomy and (to a less punitive yet more public extent) crossdressing were already illegal through state rulings in not just Missouri but every eastern settlement. All practicing gay and trans Americans risked a felony conviction, so long as they remained in settled territory.15 “Homosexuality was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men… groups that are considered virile,”16 Alfred Kinsey’s immensely popular 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male disclosed to a shocked reading public. Yet without protection from an organized church or community such queer settlement was infinitely less coherent than Mormon coloniality. In one case 15-year-old transgender “M” was told by father in 1867 that “if I were seen in girls clothes again he would cripple me… I soon became despondent… and made my way to the then far west, landing in Grand Island, Nebraska.” In a second case, fifty years later and further west, a nameless transgender “monomaniac” escaped brutal lashings from mother for the “queer actions” of bathing in women’s clothing, only to be imprisoned in Livingston, Montana for the same crime. Ever further west: “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals,” Carl Wittman introduced his 1970 Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto, “We have fled here from every part of the nation, and like refugees elsewhere, we came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there.” Thus western American colonizers – whose opposite is not refugees but Native refugees17 – have, relative to the east, an unhappy quality of queer refuge.
The great western migrations were settler-ordained but not settler-specific. Native peoples, whose pre-colonial gender and sexual practices also often broke from European mores, were forced west via so-called “Indian removal,” most horribly official in the Trail of Tears, but also unofficially, by countless intentional plagues, child abductions, and murders amounting to genocide. Today, because of these forced migrations, states which grant Native tribes legal recognition do not always contain their ancestral homelands.18 When there was no more west to push Indigenous Americans into, their extermination became more deliberate;19 in California it was most severe. Its Native population remains the largest.20
All these migratory patterns and population distributions live on today in the hints of laughably speculative Indigenous and queer US demography. Indigenous peoples, we hear, are relatively greatest in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and the Dakotas. Queer populations, meanwhile, are largest along the border, particularly the coasts, particularly the west coast – with a single additional outlier of, yes, Utah’s Salt Lake City.21 In 1970, 2 of the only 3 existing gay pride parades were in San Francisco and Los Angeles (the other, New York City). A 2009 sample of Craigslist advertisements published in Original Plumbing magazine has three times more gay trans men searching for hookups in San Francisco than the next most popular, Portland. Of queer Indigenous peoples fewer numbers are known. Before colonization gender variance was most heavily venerated on the western plains.22 Many today, for at least a time, rank among the half of all Indigenous Americans who live in settler cities.23 Gay American Indians, a queer Native liberation organization, was founded in San Francisco, 1975. But a Native “can be gay and still live there [on the reservation],” lesbian Navajo Erna Pahe said in interview with GAI, “If you’re way secluded, like in Snake Flats or Chinle, it isn’t going to make any difference to anybody.”
Given these varying degrees of westward displacement for the oppressed, then, it should not surprise us that western land is worse. This is a brash judgment. No land is inherently worse than other land, but the American west became worse than the east, under the colonial rubric that quality of land is the measure of its agricultural production, just as quality of a person’s sexuality is the measure of their human reproduction. To make western land more productive required over a century of deeply unsustainable colonial water and energy projects from the United States Bureau of Reclamation and Society of Civil Engineers.25 Pre-colonial American population statistics are fiercely debated, mostly by settler racists, but Natives and animals had been mainly bound in size by sustainable water sources, of which the west has fewer. The vicious “digger”26 slur for western Natives, which pictured Indigenous Americans scuttling around the desert digging up root vegetables and insects, arose from the settler imaginary of this ecology. Here the “Indian” became “the lowest dregs of humanity”; “All they are fit for is slaves,” wrote Thomas Bullock, Mormon pioneer. Atop this bigotry is the fact that Native peoples, much moreso than queer settlers, have been under the reservation system continually redisplaced onto the least habitable of this least habitable land. “We have taken their acorns, grasshoppers, fisheries, and hunting grounds,” California’s first senator William Gwin reported to congress in 1852. Later that decade Konkow leader Tome-ya-nem interviewed with newspapers about his people’s displacement from Feather River 300 miles west to Mendocino reservation, itself 200 miles northwest of San Francisco: “We were very hungry and did not know where to get enough to eat… [We] began to die very fast.” Native unemployment rates in the area today are almost 25%. Many move to the city for survival.
If such stories of queer and Indigenous migration, which truly do range across half a continent, must be foreclosed to one city, we choose San Francisco. Coastal California experiences temperate conditions and seasonal rainfall entirely unlike the rest of America’s western desert. Yerba Buena, the original Spanish colony around which San Francisco formed, was elegantly situated within this rare greenery as a seaside trading post, securing the future city as a growth machine. The first Indigenous San Franciscans were “Mission Indians,” “domesticated,” as settlers say, Christianized and enslaved by Spanish colonists. An 1846 carrier of Mormons doubled its population by 240. As the big city of the southernmost free state, Black Americans streamed in westward to escape slavery; Chinese immigrants arrived by port to satisfy demands for cheap railroad labor; in fact nearly every kind of migrant filtered through San Francisco, and many chose to stay. Any rational population constraint vanished the moment prospectors found gold in the hills.
The irrational population constraint of western migration was called woman drought. It corresponded to real drought. “The great excess of males in newly settled territories illustrates the influence of immigration on the disparity of the sexes,” reports Joseph Kennedy, superintendent of the Eighth American Census, 1864. Male-to-female ratio of California was recorded 3:2; San Francisco, 4:1; Colorado, 20:1; across all “foreign-born,” 5:4. Undeniably there was high demand and minimal oversight, a sociosexual formation in which trans women could drink our first twisted drops of settler acceptance. In San Francisco you could walk into a bar and purchase gay sex for a dollar. A sex worker could really make a life for herself back then.
Frontiersmen visiting the city tossed out marriage proposals left and right, often at first sight. Traveling trans pianist Helen Manley (her name an early drag joke, perhaps) was said to have turned down countless men before being wooed and discovered the night of consummation; one Mrs. Nash really did marry, three soldiers in a row, before news of her penis was broadcast after death. Where there were few or no women, such as goldminer’s camps, men carried a stock of gay dresses to doll up one another and dance together. All manner of bed tricks were concocted, many of such farcical quality that even the most aggressively transgender of historians must admit a few were men in skirts. One nameless “Chinese who at one time was a female impersonator” was selected by a white huckster for a sex slave grift; after money had swapped hands the fooled slavebuyers were sent hurtling in a carriage down the 1800s equivalent of a parkway until they dove from the vehicle in fear of a crash. Such incidents teach us everything was sexualized out west, not least race. Drag shows were often performed alongside blackface. Many Indigenous cultures prized long braids, even or especially in men; Native men in Native dress could be jailed on similar travesty charges to settler trans women. Boté, trans feminine people in the Crow culture,27 were incarcerated and forced to shave their heads by Bureau of Indian Affairs in the late 1890s. But it was Asian minority, particularly Chinese, who settler racists most despised through feminization. Early male-to-female ratio of Chinese immigrants in California was over 1000:1, leading to an American myth Asian men were all homosexual (therefore criminal, killable, fuckable). As sex ratios evened up, 85% of Chinese women in San Francisco became sex workers. Famous drag bar Finocchio’s advertised “cute, Oriental Li-Kar”;28 in Chinatown, nightclub Forbidden City sold “a bevy of Oriental cookies.” If such conditions for trans women and sex workers were miserable and painful (and they often were), they are at least survival, independence, self-affiliation hugely preferable to the government-mandated executions and arrests staining so many of our previous histories. Or, at least, they had been preferable.
Westward incursion of the federal government was the cause of westward migration seeking to escape it. In this sense western refuge was futile. Already in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act (heavily influenced by associations between Chinese women and sex work) decimated the burgeoning Chinese underground of San Francisco, as white colonizers’ projected fears of being colonized encouraged senseless massacres of Chinese workers in Oregon and Wyoming. Come 1890, the Mormon church finally relinquished their practice of polygamy in order that Utah receive admittance into the United States. The White-Slavery Traffic Act of 1910 gave western police full legal backing of eastern politicos to arrest sex workers, interracial couples, transvestites, adulterers, sodomists. Cops increased shakedowns of gay bars. New loitering laws in the ‘40s and ‘50s encouraged San Francisco pigs to pick up trans women on spurious charges, molest them, and dump them off in the Tenderloin, Barbery Coast, the “vice district” miles away from home – yet another tiny displacement.
Crooked cops and imperialist robber barons had long delighted in the same lack of government oversight and market regulation that made San Francisco’s queer underground possible.29 With the dot-com bubble and explosion of the Californian tech industry in the late 1990s, their supremacy entered new heights, as did their simultaneous collaboration, competition, and complicity with the US government. “Neoliberalism,” an often misused term, describes this financial relationship, where US tax dollars buoy major market failures of the ever-expanding private sector, while the American proletariat and global colonized are coerced into covering the losses. Technology capitalists, seeking to expand their free reign, will accept liberal social policies, such as out queer employees, but push conservative economics, the absolute unchecked tyranny over city life by big business. In doing so, they actively overwrite queer consciousness. New gay media representations, such as Patrick Murray, the main character in HBO’s gay 2014 drama Looking, work as video game designers. Ex-Google vice president and Chief Technology Officer for the Obama administration Megan Smith married her wife in the Bay Area before sponsoring countless tech diversity initiatives. The highest-paid female CEO in the world, Martine Rothblatt, changed her sex at the age of forty, but more importantly has career-long ties out of Silicon Valley to the US military.30 Of course, the mark of old transgender western life is still visible, most plainly in Nevada’s exceptional partial legal acceptance of brothels. Yet it is precisely these criminal avenues of historical transness such as sex work, incarceration, right to the city, and racial minority which are suppressed or abused by this new round of so-called assimilation.
Today San Francisco sex workers are priced out of house and home by their own clients. Fag queen Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore recalls how her background for oral sex shifted, from sucking men off “in cars for 30$… but it was so convenient – Capp Street was literally a block away from the house,” to “the Mission… giving blow jobs in plush, off-white hotel beds while the TV flashed stock prices behind me.” Rent had ballooned from a 150$ backroom squat shared with a friend to 1,200$ condos, forcing a string of historic gay bars to close. Drag mainstay Finocchio’s shuttered in 1999, after sixty-odd years; working class Latinx bar Esta Noche followed in 2014 after almost thirty. “Esta Noche – that was our social, political place for brown boys and girls,” remembered northern Paiute Randy Burns, co-founder of Gay American Indians, “That was where GAI partied.” “As Silicon Valley transforms the Bay Area into a boundless Google campus,” Lil’wat Nation descendant Julian Brave NoiseCat writes, “the urban Native population is shrinking, down by 19 percent from 2000 to 2010.”
Homebrew radical queer holdouts such as Gay Shame, working alongside local activists like Anarchist People of Color, publish critiques on “The Terror of Gay Capitalism” and wheatpaste around the city appropriate slogans such as “Queers Hate Techies.” “One of the most troubling features of ‘Tech’,” says Gay Shame member Mary Radclyffe, “is its deep entanglement with values that will be remembered one day as ‘progressive’… No amount of neoliberal workplace diversification will drive back down the real estate values it inflates, or undo the US military application of its big ‘disruptive’ ideas.” She points out Twitter, “one of the biggest displacers of public Black life in the Tenderloin,” commissioned a Black Lives Matter mural in its lunchroom.
This modern gentrification scheme is not so modern; it is the ongoing capitalist elaboration of bigoted policies which pushed and push queer people and other minorities westward, creating a shit land with precarious employment over a century ago. Sexual reactionaries even today demand the displacement of American faggots; “Give them [homosexuals] an island,” Albany County legislator George Langdon IV orated on April 2021, “They’ll be gone [dead] in forty years.” On the contrary: overwrought ‘70s queer liberation writing constantly referred to San Francisco as a gay ghetto, even gay reservation; about forty years later, the city was promoted as “gay Israel,” a “gay mecca.”31 This is an attempt at spatial recuperation in a sexual economy which does not encourage queer people as queer everywhere. This is replication of the ghetto, domesticated.32
San Franciscans responded to first calls for an international queer-Palestinian solidarity network earlier than any other North American city. Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT), founded in 2001, still lives, mostly as a pressure group against local LGBT film festivals accepting funds from the Israeli Consulate. Its solidarity network (which had other major nodes in New York and Toronto), according to queer Palestine scholar Sa’ed Atshan, “reached a plateau in 2012.” Queer solidarity is unnaturally limited by our ability to recognize queer oppression as one among oppressed peoples. In this it actually is appropriate to compare against the history of San Francisco Jewry. Before the second World War even San Francisco’s Jewish elite were anti-Zionist. Less informed by Palestinian struggle than QUIT (which was founded by a non-elite Jewish lesbian), wealthy anti-Zionist Jews in San Francisco then nonetheless faced related economic pressures. Julius Kahn, a Jewish lawmaker representing the 4th district in 1919, admitted before congress, “For me the United States is my Zion and San Francisco is my Jerusalem.”
3. The Gender Refugee
Not me sold out my people but they me. So yes, though “home” permeates every sinew and cartilage in my body, I too am afraid of going home.
~ Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
This essay is an attempt to hold myself to account. I am a Jewish transgender woman who migrated westward to California. My great-great-grandfather was a poor Lithuanian Jew who lived in a mass ghetto we call the Pale of Settlement. That kind of ancestry doesn’t matter so much in America now; sometimes in the house my mother managed a word of Yiddish for flavor. I was alienated from this family, culture, and religion very early in life. This was less because they were abusive as such, than simply because they had reared me into communal forms in which trans girls had no place. So I left. In one month I will drive a few hours north to San Francisco, home of the best facial feminization surgeons in the world, where a man will cut my face for five hours. Then that city will be carved into my skull.
I am pained when someone reprimands me for choosing a migratory option, because it did not feel like a choice. Philosopher and internet meme Slavoj Žižek, for example, asserts “transgenderism goes together with the general tendency in today’s predominant ideology to reject any particular ‘belonging’… it is an utter obscenity to put together elite ‘nomads’ flying around the world and refugees desperately searching for a safe place where they would belong.” He insinuates trans people are these elite nomads: “self-proclaimed rootless universalists” and “‘cosmopolitan’ anti-nationalist intellectuals.” This rootless cosmopolitan slur is a classic trope of antisemitism.
“A nomadic existence,” una existencia nómada,33 is exactly how elite transgender writer Paul Preciado describes his own life. He claims, “The status of trans people is in political terms similar to the migrant, the exile, and the refugee.” Crispin Long critiques, “He [Paul] likens himself, a successful Western European academic who chooses to travel, to people risking their lives to flee their countries”; “Misleading in scale,” Maxi Wallenhorst graciously understates. These published critiques are importantly different from Slavoj’s because they are particular to one man,34 who actually is quite annoying, and whose critics are other trans people familiar with intra-trans class dynamics. As Maxi writes, “When we say Black trans lives matter we mean that they matter to relatively niche autotheory, too, to the world of middlingly interesting Middle European art fair discourse, and to what style is. Refugee trans lives matter.”
In thoughtless speech I have been a refugee. I live 2,500 miles away from where I was born because it offers me more safety and richer life. In this sense I may fall under the category of economic refugee, whose cause of displacement is so universal to asylum seeking it is perversely regarded as insufficient. Really, however, this label is an attempt to metonymize an obvious refugee oppression, poverty, in place of its primary cause: my transness, my gender.
The gender refugee35 is not recognized in such a universal cause of displacement. There are strong reasons I should be denied the title. For one, my persecution is not so severe. My country, the United States, sits with western Europe at the head of an imperial economy of refugee life and death in which global transgender survival is constantly being readjudicated. Yet in March 2017 New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal did grant Englishborn trans woman “A.L.” permanent residence on humanitarian grounds resembling refugee law,36 for trauma resembling my own. According to Deportation Decision #502911, A. “bec[ame] reclusive” in childhood despite strong academic performance, “increasingly withdrawn” into adolescence, eventually growing “too depressed to function.” There was “overt hostility and verbal abuse as a ‘freak’… she was target of strangers coming up and asking, ‘What are you?’”
A therefore clearer reason to deny I am a gender refugee is that I have not crossed an international border. I was born on one coast of the United States and live on the other. This required many new forms of identification, but I never lost citizenship. Thus in law I am neither gender refugee nor even gender migrant; gender has merely perplexed my relationship to homeland. Importantly, I have never been stateless.
The same cannot be said for Eliana Rubashkyn. In 2013 they37 were detained and sexually abused by the Immigration Department of Chek Lap Kok airport for gender mismatched identification papers, which they had flown to Hong Kong specifically to change. In order to maintain refugee protections against deportation, they renounced their birthright citizenship to Colombia (which no longer would have accepted their passport anyway). “I became stateless,” they recalled, “I lost my country.”
This was not the Rubashkyn’s first experience of forced migration. Eliana’s mother had fled the USSR; their grandmother had been a Holocaust survivor. Their immense vulnerability in travel and transition is in part an inheritance of diaspora. Growing up in Colombia, “I always felt I was not the person [my family] were trying to force me to be. In my adolescence things became difficult.” By the age of 18 they had fully developed breasts (which their mother forced them to bind) and an estrogenic profile “three times higher than a woman.” “I was targeted as a trans person,” they said, “Social cleansing groups attacked me several times in my back. To me and other trans friends.” Out of fear of disclosing to their family, they could not access effective health care for their stab wounds. “I still have those scars… Even though I wasn’t a trans woman, I was representing something they hate.” “And I understood that my place was not a place for me to be. In any sense. Because my family didn’t understand, my community didn’t understand… So I decided to escape.” In Taiwan they learned they were intersex condition ovotestis 46,XX/46,XY. For this reason their estrogen therapy was especially transformative and their fear of returning to Colombia especially rationalized. They said, “My mom is a refugee, my great-grandmother was a refugee. I am a refugee. I’m running away from hate and discrimination and a lack of understanding of gender diversity. My mom ran away from antisemitism, my great grandmother ran away from antisemitism.” Their application for assistance from the Israeli embassy was rejected on three separate occasions.38
At a refugee center in Yuen Long they were placed in a shipping container because authorities could not decide to house them with men or women. In this precarious isolation they were gang raped by several male refugees, hospitalized for weeks in the aftermath, still requiring reparative surgery in New Zealand where they were finally granted citizenship. “I made history by being the first trans person… to be recognized as a woman under international law, something the United Nations did to enable my protection.”
Eliana’s case has many unfamiliar aspects, even within the already unfamiliar category of gender refugee. They are of partly European ancestry, highly educated, rather well-spoken, a polyglot, and had already been living in a foreign country. The sense of disoriented horror in their voice is palpable. “No one can imagine what is being a refugee,” they waver, “what is being a refugee when you’re never even expecting that.” There were no refugees like Eliana in Hong Kong, where displaced person camps were mostly composed of Southeast Asians and Africans. For that reason they call themself “a refugee among refugees.” “Everywhere I go I’m the first or one of the first,” Eliana says, “That’s how I find out we trans people are the most vulnerable segments of society. That’s how I find out I’m privileged [among displaced trans people]… to have the financial means to seek asylum… to move out of the cities.”39
Most gender refugees are, unlike Eliana, expected – by which we mean only that they are part of a more familiar exodus. In population transfer and ethnic cleansing gender minorities have never once been excepted. Việt Kiều who filled Eliana’s Hong Kong refugee camp two decades before them created substantial communities in California’s Bay Area; Loan Nguyen, who arrived as Vietnamese refugee to Orange County by boat in 1975, raised her trans daughter between there and Montreal. Uyghar Muslims, currently undergoing a brutal ethnocide from the Chinese government, include transgender women; Shashana was placed in a concentration camp on government suspicion because she traveled to Thailand for vaginoplasty and held gender mismatched documentation. “According to Thailand,” she agrees with an interviewer, “I went there and disappeared for two years.” Palestinians, queer or not, have been in diaspora since the establishment of Israel in 1948; Sara, a Palestinian trans woman living in Lebanon, cannot even make new home in exile. “I felt like I would rather die,” she said about her sexual assault during wrongful imprisonment in one cell with eighteen men. Syrian trans women refugees living in Lebanon have reported a similar detention.
These are all gender refugees in a loose sense, in that their trans minority is parsed within named, respected, and deeply studied cis majority refugee crises: Vietnam’s Thuyền nhân, or Boat People; Palestine’s النكبة [AlNakba], or The Catastrophe; Europe’s שארית הפליטה [Sh’erit haPletah], or the Surviving Remnant. For United States citizens, who are not main hosts to any such mass refugee crisis, there belongs its close cousin of the economic migrant and our transgender undocumented.
Jennicet Gutiérrez,40 for example, immigrated to Los Angeles County at the age of fifteen not because she was transgender but because her single mother was searching for better means to raise a family of nine children. In 2015 she obtained national infamy for interrupting then-President Barack Obama during his White House LGBTQ Pride reception. “President Obama,” she intervened, “stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centers! President Obama, I am a trans woman. I’m tired of the abuse.” As she was escorted out, she began chanting, “Not One More Deportation! ¡Ni una mas deportación!” For an undocumented trans woman to proclaim this on national television was in fact a risk, and revealed several political splits on the cross-section of identities where Jennicet seats her politics. “Seeing the reaction from my community I really felt very devastated,” she recalled, “The reaction was clear. They wanted to silence my voice.”
Several major LGBT publications framed Jennicet’s protest as a question of “rudeness,” rather than refocusing post-Pride commentary on the US-sanctioned torture of transgender migrants. The migrant rights movement has, meanwhile, routinely supported norms of gender and law, skipping out on the reality of queer and youth migrants who reach the border without family supports. When Barack Obama declared his immigration policy would deport “felons, not families,” Yesenia Valdez, an organizer at Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, where Jennicet works as Community Advocate, responded:
“As a community, we know that we do not fit the normal definition of families that continue to dominate public discourse. Many LGBTQ undocumented immigrants do not have families that are US citizens or permanent residents that could allow them to qualify for the program. Additionally, we know that our community, especially trans women of color, is unfairly targeted by law enforcement through racial discrimination or for engaging in survival sex work. These daily realities mean that many members of our LGBTQ community will be left out of the president’s plan.”
The Not One More Deportation campaign, in which trans and queer migrant organizers figured prominently, was a response to these realities. While deportations decreased under the Trump administration, length of detainment increased; the 2018 death by dehydration of 33-year-old HIV-positive trans woman Roxsana Hernández under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody reminded the transgender public of such a campaign’s necessity. Roxsana’s 2,000-mile path out the impoverished “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador destroys our common portrait of undocumented migrants as merely voluntary, merely economic. “I’m making this trip out of necessity,” said Nikolle Contreras, another trans female member of Roxsana’s 1,200-strong migrant caravan. “Discrimination because of my sexuality, lack of work, discrimination within my own family for being gay and worse, for being a trans person. It’s very, very difficult.” “Lack of work”: in 2009 a US-backed military coup in Honduras suppressed wages for its poor workers, 80% of the population. “Discrimination because of my sexuality”: in an effort to appeal to tourists, before and during their coup US-backed Honduran security forces murdered and allowed murders of thousands of street vagrants, presumed criminal, including roughly 200 gay and trans sex workers. The past decade, every major migrant caravan has begun in Honduras.
That more immigrants have begun filing for legal asylum before entry was a main reason the Trump administration, against promises, lowered US deportation rate. In response president Trump assaulted the entire asylum seeking apparatus. His “Remain in Mexico” policy converted the Mexico-US border into virtual purgatory where asylum seekers wait years in deprived border towns without any access to legal assistance, in vague hopes their case might turn up refugee. The Biden administration has maintained the core of this policy.
This refugee purgatory of Mexican border towns has a global sequel in the satellite cities of Turkey. Here the gender refugee concept begins to crystallize, such that queer migrants awaiting permanent resettlement can sensibly refer to a local “LGBTI refugee community.” Most queer asylum seekers in their given Turkish transit city are housed near each other; in Kayseri they rent out rooms from the same apartment complex. Yet Turkey, a country whose social prejudice actively generates gender refugees out of its own trans woman citizens, is not where gender refugee community can easily thrive. Resettled queer refugees leave behind clothes, bedding, and make-up for new arrivals. It is like making friends in an especially cruel airport.
This refugee community is Iranian: between 2010 and 2013, 471 of 537 Turkish asylum applications specifically for gender and sexuality discrimination were from Iranians,41 whose government criminalizes gay sex acts and transness without genital reassignment. Many such refugees’ first relocation was an attempt to retain citizenship, at young ages to Tehran.42 Iran’s capital is actually quite gay, in its underground way. There are real cruising grounds, actual gay nightlife; men even use Grindr through a VPN. Yet work can be scarce, thanks in part to decades of anti-citizen US and EU trade sanctions (which, on a personal note, have previously prevented me from sending cash to my trans Iranian friends). “The way this [economic situation in Iran] is going,” gay refugee Pejman asserted, “all 70 million Iranians have legitimate cases to become refugees!” Yet the desirability of asylum seeking in the words of most queer refugees remains insistently fused to sexuality. Only after murders of her two trans sex working friends did Aynaz, for instance, hop the border to Turkey. She said, “If we had a government that defended us, that let us study, that let us get a degree, and didn’t bother us, then I would have become an educated person. And my life would have been different.”
In depatriation, queer Iranians develop new vulnerabilities out of their original dispossession. Many are in employment. “I am applying [for work],” a trans woman states, “They look at me for five to ten minutes, laughing.” Because Turkey ironically respects international refugee law only for Europeans, much paid refugee labor is done without protections of a work permit. This exploitation also prevents refugee trans women, alongside trans male and especially HIV-positive counterparts, from accessing vital health care. One stated simply, “I have no money to buy my medicine.”
Designed as refugee waystation, Turkey does not facilitate adaptation necessary to overcome culture shock. No refugee network for learning Turkish exists beyond immersion. Nonprofits teach English classes to those bound for resettlement, but “we would not attend,” noted one gay Iranian, “because we are scared of other refugees from our country.” Cisgender heterosexual populations still dominate extremely limited refugee space, even moreso under a Trump administration which banned Muslim immigration to the United States. Having incompletely escaped their native country’s persecution, queer Iranian refugees must then survive within the six small cities Turkish government habitually places them,43 many more socially conservative than Iran’s capital. “I was the first trans person in Nevşehir,” one female asylee reported, “Police told me about the conditions here, how to live, how to fit in… They told me be careful. They told me wear men’s clothes. They told me walk like a man.” Mere legality, it turns out, only roughly maps to the quality of queer life.
Gender refugees survive in abeyance to such arrangements of national power and sexual hegemony. “I can’t even get out of the house,” says one trans woman who had previously sought work as a hairdresser. Said another, “Too many men see me and know I’m trans. Two young ones pulled a knife on me… since then, I don’t go out on evenings.” Such forced interiority in a rented apartment is a familiar condition of womanhood.44 Many queer refugees are similarly unable to leave the whole of Turkey, stuck in transit, permanently in temporary asylum. Beyond Trump’s Muslim ban, since 2011 mass influx of over three million Syrian civil war refugees (a small portion of whom are, of course, also LGBTI45) has utterly deprioritized Iranian resettlement.
“I’ve stopped counting the years since I came here,” said Ali, a gay Iranian asylee who has forgotten his own age. Sarah, a lesbian living through Trump’s Muslim ban, recounted her refuge interview being postponed by three months, receiving a call to reschedule, followed by a cancellation two days later. Human rights flicker in time before her, lost to the blink of an eye. The hope, of course, is that life will improve elsewhere, usually United States or Canada. “Before I came to Turkey,” said one queer asylee, “I had wanted to stay here. But I don’t want [that] anymore.”
For transgender refugees on the African continent there is less this time of rights than a space of transition, which for many is South Africa. Eshe, for example, migrated to South Africa not only so that her “community was legalized,” but because “I also had an idea of male to female transitioning.” Her idea was unrealizable in her neighboring country of origin. Unlike much to its north, South Africa neither endorses new anti-queer legislation nor retains the old imposed by colonial rule before the gay liberation movement.46 Unlike Turkey, South Africa does follow international refugee law, granting permanent asylum to those outside Europe. Unlike Palestine, the apartheid of South Africa is over; the country has an Indigenous president, with majority Indigenous, Black citizenry, so neocolonial logics of pinkwashing have lost their severity. When Cape Town brands itself a “Pink Capital,” as Tel Aviv did, we understand their pursuit of moneyed white men as merely par for the course of gay tourism.47
Virtually all gender refugees in South Africa are, of course, Black. Exactly unlike tourists, they begin their time in the least sightly locales: a line outside the Johannesburg or Cape Town Refugee Reception Offices, which constantly relocate across high-crime neighborhoods. These offices have binary queuing systems; most trans refugees simply stand in line with whichever sex finds them least bullied. “I dress differently [at the RRO],” says Kelly, “… because I don’t want trouble with people… I put on big jeans, a big t-shirt… I stand in the men’s queue. There’s nothing you can do, my dear.” Refugees who transition throughout the asylum process strategically swap lines to avoid further abuse from security and other refugees; Stella, migrating from east Africa, switched during her office’s relocation. These are the unwelcoming beginnings to attempted resolution of what has been a functionally stateless life.
African queer refugees tell origin stories which fit to queer refuge narratives across all borders. Having usually lost family, local inheritance, and physical security, they first move to a big city within state borders (should they not already live there). Thus Victor Mukasa, a trans man famous for successfully suing the Ugandan state after their illegal raid on his house, hails from Kampala; Azu Udogu, underground drag winner of Miss Nigeria and the first known trans African to ever file a refuge claim for sexual oppression, arrived from Lagos. Many resist leaving home or cannot; Beyonce Karungi “moved to Kampala with my friends who introduced me to sex work,” but has remained there building power as director of Transgender Equality Uganda despite multiple attempts on her life.
Once the decision to escape local prejudice is made or forced, it always incomplete. “We are all the time feeling like we are still running away from the same country we ran away from,” gay refugee Kabenge Festo asserts. Queer refugees in his Block 13 of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya have been subject to over 50 attacks in the past year, including rape and murder by fire, some even carried out by other refugees from their country of origin. This degree of brutality is, in the words of lead Block 13 spokesman Gilbert Kagarura, “unprecedented.” Block 13, composed of some 200 queer African refugees, continually plans for a “long trek” escape out of Kakuma into its desert, but the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, rather than bringing them to safety, kennels them into their open-air prison with tear gas. Within the borders of Kakuma this is queer genocide; because queer refugee crises are small, numerous, and dispersed, few answer their constant demands for relocation, reparation, and aid. “We are hostages,” Gilbert says. “Do you know who is persecuting us? It is no longer the community that rejected us. It’s those who have brought us to their doorsteps.” In solidarity Ola Osaze, a queer trans masculine refugee from Nigeria and project director of Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project, said “For me the Free Block 13 Campaign is about the liberation of all Black people.” “It enrages me that we still live in this context that, especially for Black LGBTQ folks, around the world, nowhere is safe for us. Even when we seek asylum, that is not even a safe situation. Seeking asylum in the U.S. is a scary and contentious situation.” For trans people, refugees, Black trans refugees, no country is “safe.” There is only a global distribution of danger, uneven and irregular, channeling our and their movement.
Every queer African narrative of refuge has its specificity. Many fit no consensus. Tiwonge Chimbalanga was raised by her uncle, a Malawian village chief, with such local acceptance that she was not even transgender. Only upon encountering the Malawian state, which regards her as a gay man and criminalizes homosexuality, did human rights frameworks of “gay” or “transgender” begin to cohere around her. This encounter reminds a postcolonial situation of many African nations, where national identity arose to fit the state, rather than state from nationalism. “The first time I heard the word ‘gay,’” Tiwonge said, “I saw it next to my photograph in the newspaper” unceremoniously publicizing her engagement. When homophobic crowds stormed her wedding, she was in tears. Due mainly to international pressure, her incarceration of 14 years was pardoned; she has since sought refuge in South Africa, in a Malawian émigré community where everyone calls her “Aunty.”
Other queer Africans experience South Africa as refuge in other than legal sense. Those in bordering countries often retain vital connections to homeland, even leaving for South Africa at specific request from their supportive families. “Home is the best,” said Bobbie, an undocumented trans woman, recalling the healing process after a sex work client broke her knee, “I just phoned my mother and she send the money… I went home for nine months.” Such trans people retain clear national bonds outside South Africa, even traveling back and forth across the border. Queer refugees striving for documentation often first develop a private mythology of South Africa, discovering it online, but it is closer to a collective imaginary in bordering nations. The country idealized is a kind of queer utopia, another gay fantasy – the only one. “You don’t need an ID,” Tricia offers a spot of magical thinking, “they [South African border security] just understand you are gay.” One trans man, Arthur, distilled the dream to this: before arriving, to him South Africa was “freedom, freedom, freedom.”
One last story. In 2017, Uganda’s largest intersex advocacy organization, SIPD, released a report on “intersex realities” of 120 Ugandans, 1 Kenyan, and 1 Rwandan. The Rwandan describes seeking refuge in an Nyamirambo LGBTI camp. Sydney from Kenya describes, “When one [intersex child] reaches teenage, they will ask you to leave the homestead and go far away.” Local activist group Transgender Advocacy and Education works to ensure all intersex children are registered at birth regardless of genitalia. Despite this, in all three countries intersex people report a profound “sense of statelessness.”48
It is this sense of statelessness I believe so many queers of every nationality inherit, though not remotely in equal measure. To sense statelessness is not the same as building an account of our sensations, a recognition of who is actually stateless, who is near to it, and who affords metaphors. This account of difference in conditions alongside similarity in feeling is my start to international solidarity: an affirmation of which calls for statehood and citizenship reduce suffering, and a negation of which ones increase it. This must be inter-national in the literal sense, a care for every thing states choke out, unless we should reach the fictive global utopia where states choke out nothing. It is not fair, of course, how such solidarity work falls on queers, exactly because queerness brings our nationality and national belonging closer to jeopardy. But it does fall on us, and will continue to for however long states are sexual, and differentiate themselves from one another sexually. That is, until our system of nation-States at last collapses in upon itself, head first, brought down by the weight of its own obscene violence.
0Thanks are in order to some preliminary readers and editors of this essay, my friends Ignatz (@iskra_maria), Snow Girl (@miss_barfin), Confused (@IamConfused404) and Asa (@asaseresin). Their commentary and conversation was invaluable. A bibliography for general readers is supplied below:
Queer Palestine: In general I prefer the work of activist groups to academics. This is especially true of Palestine. Thus the digital writings of Haneen Maikey and the AlQaws group have been central. Rawan and Fathi’s work on the Decolonize Palestine website is the best digital Palestinian activism I have encountered in years. The work of Aswat has also been helpful, though less so. I think Leslie Feinberg’s solidarity statement at their first public conference in 2007 is a quality model for how a queer Jew like myself can begin to speak on these issues. There is a great deal of worth in Sa’ed Atshan’s book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique but I oppose a tendency in some of its chapters I would describe as “too forgiving.” I would say the same of Sarah Schulman’s Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. Edward Said’s humanist refusal to accept east/west distinctions as given has been an inspiration to me; read Orientalism if you have not.
Queer Tel Aviv: “The ‘Gayification’ of Tel Aviv” by Satchie Snellings is a quality bit of research as a starting point. “‘Even a Freak Like You Would Be Safe in Tel Aviv’: Transgender Subjects, Wounded Attachments, and the Zionist Economy of Gratitude” by Saffo Papantonopoulou is a good and interesting essay, although what exactly it does is unclear to me. Neuriel Shore’s thesis Brand Israel: An Analysis of Nation Branding Concepts is a quality general overview of Israeli public relations.
Queer Mormonism: Make Yourself Gods is a fun if didactic queer theoretic analysis of Mormonism (in fact really the only one). Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount is a strong general text on early Mormonism, with provocative comments regarding their attempted autoindigenization.
Queer San Francisco: A superlative text on trans settlers in the American west is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag. The remainder of this list will concern San Francisco specifically. Tallie Ben Daniel’s Branding Israel: Queer Markets and Politics in San Francisco and Tel Aviv is the closest text I found to already addressing what I am trying to, and I am in great debt to it. Clare Sears’s Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and and Fascination in Nineteenth Century San Francisco is excellent; as I am upfront about taking trans femininity as my center, I would recommend this text particularly for its focus on trans masculinity. Season 2 Episode 2 “Disorderly Establishment” of Mattachine Podcast by Devlyn Camp is a wonderful listen. It pulls from two important texts: Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd and Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area by Susan Stryker and Jim Van Bushkirk. Finally, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast is a classic, fun, somewhat apocryphal romp through the San Francisco underground.
Queer Amerindians: Two pieces have been essential to my approach here. Although old the compilation Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology is easily my favorite queer Indigenous text. Unfortunately Will Roscoe’s grimy editorial mitts can be felt weighing down various parts of it, but the queer Native history and autobiographies still shine through. The other essential piece is Desiring the Tribe by Lou Cornum for Pinko Magazine. Non-Natives have also written some helpful works for me to understand what it means to take responsibility for the fact queer American activity is always taking place on Native land. These would be Emily Hobson’s account of Alpine County in Lavender and Red, Asa Seresin’s article “This Land is Your Land” for Cabinet Magazine, and Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Finally Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide is an important history of the California holocaust against Natives, containing many primary sources.
Queer Undocumented U.S. Migrants: A great deal is written in English about queer migrants on the U.S. border, likely because of the availability of such research locations to U.S. academics. However, little of this has been trans. But I would point to the writings of Karma R. Chávez (Queer Migration Politics) and Eithne Luibhéid (Entry Denied, Pregnant on Arrival) as most helpful to me. Together they edited the vital collection Queer and Trans Migrations.
Queer Iranians (in Turkey): Resources on the Iranian LGBTI refugee community in Turkey are small enough I can cite most of it in this paragraph. Foremost is easily Sima Shakhsari’s excellent “The Queer Time of Death: Temporality, Geopolitics, and Refugee Rights.” The previously mentioned Queer and Trans Migrations has two essays, “Resettlement as Securitization” by Fadi Saleh and “Unsafe Present, Uncertain Future” by Elif Sari. I liked Elif’s piece very much. Otherwise we have work from humanitarian agencies. These are: ORAM’s “Unsafe Heaven,” Kaos GL’s “Waiting to be ‘Safe and Sound,’” Kaos GL’s “Sığınmacı.” There is a significantly more among journalism; the only piece I used was (for better or worse) Masha Gessen’s “The LGBT Refugees in Turkey who Refuse to be Forgotten.”
Queer Africa (as refugees): Rahul Rao’s Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality takes Uganda as its subject in attempted discovery of authentic homosexuality and homophobia for postcolonies. It is a very good book. B Camminga’s Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa is also very good; its research and original interviews compose most of my writing on South Africa here. On Kenya’s Kakuma Camp I am stunned and inspired by Victor Mukasa’s tireless effort on the Victor Mukasa Show, as I am of each Block 13 refugee’s tireless determination not to fall silent before the enraging dehumanization the world has assigned them.
1The first paragraph of this essay is indebted to Rahul Rao’s essay “The State of ‘Queer IR’” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2018, vol. 24, Nr. 1), which begins similarly. The phrase “utterly banal” is his exactly.
2Andrea Dworkin’s Scapegoat begins “I am an enemy of nationalism,” but soon states “[T]hey [Jews] took the land; but they had to. I continue to believe that they (we) had to.” She also asserts “Women need land and guns or other armament and defense.” Veronica Ouma in Palestinian Solidarity Review is right to assert Andrea “proposes a female state” and speaks “ultimately as a liberal Zionist.”
3In this essay I have staked myself on a belief that internationally oppressed groups necessarily contain an anti-national contingent. Rather than use Jasbir Puar’s notorious language of “homonormative nationalism,” or homonationalism, which I feel cultivates victim-blaming and obscures the actually existing queer nationalism movement, I have used the phrase advanced homophobia, in virtue with the selectivity of a given nation’s homophobia for gay anti-nationalism. The most advanced homophobia possible is queer nationalism; the most advanced antisemitism possible is Zionism.
4“Pinkwashing” in this usage is modeled after another pinkwashing, for companies that use the pink ribbon of breast cancer awareness while manufacturing products which cause breast cancer. There is also “greenwashing,” for companies and countries which pretend to environmental conservation while depleting natural resources. Less commonly “purplewashing” is used in a feminist context, while “bluewashing” and “redwashing” are both used for a leftist one (Democrat and communist, respectively). All are derivations of “whitewashing” as a general term.
5Said tongue in cheek with akshay khanna’s “us evolved, English-speaking, urban, etc. people who have, inter alia, heard of the Kinsey Report” in mind. From “Us ‘Sexuality Types’: A Critical Engagement with the Postcoloniality of Sexuality” in The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India (2007).
6Sarah Schulman in Israel/Palestine and the Queer International asserts “Three hundred forty million shekels (about $88 million) was spent on an international marketing campaign to brand Tel Aviv as an international gay vacation destination.” Compare: Satchie Snellings in “The ‘Gayification’ of Tel Aviv” reports, “In 2016 the Israeli Ministry of Tourism announced a plan to invest 11 million Shekels to promote gay tourism to Israel overseas. This plan quickly came under fire by Israel’s own LGBT community because the government had only allocated 1.5 million Shekels in funding to actual Israeli LGBT groups for the year.”
7The main cultural export of this “Bubble” metaphor has been Eytan Fox’s 2006 film The Bubble. However, it is used some by locals. See “Explosive: Scenes from Israel’s Gay Occupation” by Rebecca L. Stein: “In Fox’s rendition, the Israeli checkpoint also functions as an erotic contact zone, the interface between Jewish Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians carrying a sexual charge… For many Israeli audiences, the figure of the gay Palestinian from the territories was already legible and indeed permissible within the terms of a popular Israeli discourse about the persecution of homosexuals within Palestinian society and their efforts to seek refuge within the tolerant context that Israel provides — a salvation discourse advanced by both state agencies and gay activist organizations alike. Within most variants of this narrative, little mention is made of the Israeli military occupation, a context obscured by the story of Israel-as-refuge.”
8A helpful overview of references to Tel Aviv as gay mecca appears in fn. 37 of Katherine Franke’s “Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights” in Columbia Human Rights Law Review 44:1.
10In 2019, a Palestinian trans teen fled from Tamra to Tel Aviv. They were found and stabbed by their brothers outside Beit Dror shelter in Tel Aviv. In response the Palestinian queer community held a protest in Haifa for “liberation without restraints”: freedom from both occupation and patriarchy.
11This will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the relationship between coloniality and sex work. The exemplar of this is writing on Shaul Ganon, a member of queer Israeli organization Agudah who provides condoms and supplies to some young undocumented Palestinians in Tel Aviv while calling them “my children” and “sweethearts.” This writing begins with the article “Refugee Status” in The New Republic, August 20, 2002, by Yossi Klien Halevi. This article has been responded to be Sa’ed Atshan in Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (2020), pg. 104, and importantly by Jason Ritchie in “Black Skin Splits: The Birth (and Death) of the Queer Palestinian” in Queer Necropolitics (2014). See also Sa’ed Atshan’s Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (2020), pg. 38: “[T]he few from the West Bank who are able to relocate to Tel Aviv often have difficulties there. One such example is ‘Basil,’ who worked as a prostitute, sleeping with gay Israeli men for money, and was sent back to his village in the West Bank by the Israeli authorities. He was then outed as gay, as a former prostitute, and as someone who had sex with the ‘colonists.’ I never heard back from him ultimately, but it is safe to assume that his situation did not end well, particularly given the threats of violence from his family.” Finally see Aswat’s Waqfet Banat (2010), pg. 71-72: “There is one sentence that she [my shrink] said that I will never forget: ‘Be a girl, but don’t be a whore.’”
12I would contrast the idea of queer nation-State to activist group Queer Nation, which resisted nationalism, or the idea queer nationality could be of State at all. (“We are everywhere. We want everything.”) See Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman’s “Queer Nationality” in boundary 2, Vol. 19 Nr. 1 (1992), in particular fn. 1.
13“Autochthony” is preferable to “indigeniety” here for many reasons, one that Jewish diaspora took place before the modern colonial period through which today’s Indigenous frameworks set themselves against colonizers. The word is also used in reference to Daniel & Jonathan Boyarin’s “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity” in Critical Inquiry 19.4 (1993): “[T]hat living Jews may have a particular contribution to make to that general effort [“to let come a community that is free from myth”], especially in the experience of Diaspora that has constrained Jews to create forms of community that do not rely on one of the most potent and dangerous myths – the myth of autochony.”
14“Great western migrations” is a phrase used by Maurice Kenny in “Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality.” I believe this refers to what settlers more often call “the closing of the frontier.” I do not believe it has anything to do with the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South in the first half of the 20th century.
15Beyond mere illegality of sodomy and crossdressing, non-Native queers were also barred from typical American colonization through laws which penalized queer qualities. For instance, the Homestead Acts rewarded (straight) family settlements in the west with double the land of bachelors; moreover, the Acts were primarily abused for corporate graft with a few primary shareholders. (This is all similar to South Africa’s laws against gay colonization, see fn. 46.) Tallie Ben Daniel’s assertion of the Acts as foundational to gay settler citizenship in Branding Israel is thus a misreading. Gay men, trans women, and sex workers were particularly at risk of criminalization by the patriarchal state due to the implementation of anti-sodomy, anti-prostitution, and anti-travesty laws. The situation of gay and trans settler-colonists in North America may (very) loosely remind us here of the Australian penal colony; See Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (1986).
16Kinsey’s own study lacked an even population distribution across the US, focusing on northeastern America. He thus reproduced various urban bigotries. I depart from Kinsey by analyzing the sexuality of western cities as continuous with the sexuality of the western frontier. Full quotation, pg. 457: “There is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in Western rural areas. It is a type of homosexuality which was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men in general. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general – among groups that are virile, physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner with whom the relation is had. Sexual relations are had with women when they are available, or with other males when outdoor routines bring men together into exclusively male groups.” The sexual politics of which rural men fuck and get fucked here is intriguingly absent.
17My opposite of “native” is “immigrant,” two morally neutral terms. I believe immigration becomes settler-colonialism once it forces upon the native a refugee status.
18Just one example of this is the Yuchi peoples, who lived in Tennessee and now reside primarily in Oklahoma. There are many others. Outside the Trail of Tears there is the Nome Cult Walk; descendants of this tragedy retrace this forced displacement annually to never forget. Peoples whose territory spans the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Tohono O’odham, to this day intimately experience the very existence of America as constant fracturing and displacement.
19From Daily Alta California, Jan. 14 1851: “To the People of California, residing in the vicinity of the Indian Troubles… As there is now no farther west, to which they can be removed, the General Government and the people of California appear to have left but one alternative in relation to these remnants of once numerous and powerful tribes, viz: extermination or domestication.”
20This history makes the figure of the Gay Mormon a very engaging one. The supreme gay Mormon representative in gay canon is Joe Pitt from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Joe’s Mormon identity is in many ways an all-American stand-in for Tony’s American Jewish identity. (American Jewishness is hardly referenced directly except the introduction and one throwaway line: “Not literally in Jerusalem, I mean we don't want to have sort of Zionist implications.”) In this sense through Joe Tony suggests a tension between gayness and Judaism (or Mormonism) which is resolved through neither Zionism nor Deseret but a kind of multicultural American citizenship which still is problematized by Indigenous Americans. Nearly the only use of “queer Zion” before this article is by fringe groups of liberal Mormons online. There is also a paper in Ecumenica 13.1 (2020), “Queering Zion: Liberalism and Coalitional Care in Mormon Drama” by Kristin Perkins.
21This is unsurprising given the size and population density of California as a whole. However, of the continental US it still ranks 15th in relative native population. All 14 before it are western. California experienced more settler migration, and more native genocide, than any other western state. Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe (2016) is a good text to learn more.
22Maurice Kenny, “Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality” from Living the Spirit (1988) writes “The cult of the berdache was more known on the western plains within the Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne tribes west of the Mississippi than in other areas of America. There is no particularly good reason why this should be true other than the possibility that these were large and powerful tribes before the white man decimated their numbers. Within such large groups a social-religious use could be found for the berdache.” I am unsatisfied by Maurice’s nonexplanation, which calls for further investigation into how ecology before settler-colonialism may encourage queer social formations. This is neither my question to ask nor the purpose of this essay.
23From Gay American Indian’s Living the Spirit (1988): “As Indians, our cultural and economic survival is threatened by poverty, poor education, and unemployment. Many American Indians have left reservations for urban areas (where nearly 50 percent of Indians live today).” Today the amount of urban Indians is closer to 70%.
24 [Note: This footnote belongs to a piece of supplemental media.] Trans and LGBT population data here actually come from two Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy studies in 2016 which only provide relative values. The Indigenous population data comes from a 2010 U.S. Census Brief. Female population data and normalizing general state population data come directly from the 2010 U.S. Census. I admit to getting lazy messing with Excel and climate data is hell to deal with, so rainfall data came from a random website. The Williams Institute studies are especially laughable and have almost certainly overestimated values for trans people in every state. U.S. census data will typically underestimate urban Indians. If we remove the six outlier states we will see the west still dominates the east in Indigenous population metrics more generally.
25A standard popular history of western American ecology is Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (1993). I feel the text could have named colonialism as the problem rather more clearly.
26See “The Digger Stereotype in California” by Allan Lönnberg in Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology Vol. 3 Nr. 2 (1981). The slur was used primarily for Natives of central California.
27I am aware there is much controversy around application of neologisms “gay,” “trans,” “queer,” “two-spirit,” and “gender-variant” to Native histories coeval with none of these terms. (Actually, there is much controversy around their application to settler histories as well.) I have referred to boté as trans feminine because I could find no instances of them regularly assuming masculine roles within their culture, although Will Roscoe, a non-Native anthropologist heavily involved in coining the term “two-spirit,” claims Crow people also had “female berdaches” in “That Is My Road”: The Life and Times of a Crow Berdache (1990). Osh-Tisch, the most referenced boté within English literature, was known as a great warrior, but this was the case with several Crow women and her role in Crow religious ceremonies was typically feminine. I have also not used “two-spirit,” a modern pan-Indian term, because I believe using the term “boté” already specifies indigeneity and otherwise clarifies meaning for Indigenous, specifically Crow peoples. I am concerned the ambiguity of “two-spirit” without a “trans” or “feminine” modifier and its (deliberate) lack of purchase within settler cultures and languages will cause confusion for general readers. (Relatedly, the literal meaning of “two-spirit” conflicts with contemporary description of Osh-Tisch provided by Pretty Shield: “[S]he had the heart of a woman.”) I have referred to boté as “trans feminine people in the Crow culture” because I believe this is the shortest phrase to translate rough meaning of the boté role into today’s English for the context of this essay. I agree with Michel Foucault that discourse, insofar as it matters at all, is a violence we do on things. With Indigenous history rendered in English, I believe this violence is inextricable from coloniality. I have tried my best to make my English rendering less violent than my silence.
28I can find very little information about Li-Kar, including his ethnicity. From Aleshia Brevard’s interview with Susan Stryker (1997): “My take on him was that, I think, this is what one has to look forward to. Lee had worked there in drag I think, had outlived his – well… a woman is allowed to have some imperfections, but a drag queen is not. So, I sort of saw the same thing with Lee. Lee was not all that old, but had outlived that bloom, flush of youth, and was therefore living in some little place stitching together costumes for the drag queens at Finocchio’s, who treated this poor soul just terrible.”
29I do not want to engage the myth San Francisco has been “ruined” by gentrification when the city was, of course, a settler-colony, always ruled by the profit motive. San Francisco was always bad; see Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin (1999). Its racial diversity and sizable chunk of queers, dykes, and faggots were generally one of its good bits, especially when they contributed to anti-colonial work. The city is now the fastest gentrifying place in America. Basically queers either have to transform themselves into coders and maybe get fucked or resist techie imperialism and definitely get fucked.
30I have chosen these three examples carefully. Cis gay billionaire venture capitalist and conservative libertarian Peter Thiel is the most obvious example not included. Policing of racial and sexual difference of course massively privileges whiteness, cisness, and masculinity in this reformation of queer identity, but Gay Shame’s later comments on “neoliberal workplace diversification” are in no sense limited to white cis gay men. They also comment on gentrification by a white woman minority of “Beckys who techie.” It is difficult to effectively cite the digital culture of white trans woman programmers on Reddit and elsewhere online, but it is substantial. Meanwhile San Francisco tech pulls from a highly skilled Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern immigrant pool. (Nearly anyone who has been, as I have, in a Cali computer science grad program can verify this from personal experience.) Angelica Ross’s wonderful TransTech Social shows that even Black trans women, the classic subaltern of U.S. American trans studies, are not all inherently absolved of individual responsibility as skilled tech workers who have ability to displace locals. And so on.
31San Francisco was called a “gay Israel” in Francis Fitzgerald’s Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures (1987). Meanwhile Lonely Planet refers to Tel Aviv as “a kind of San Francisco of the Middle East.”
32Readers should refer to the first chapter of Emily Hobson’s Lavender and Red on the gay ghetto: “The radicals who rejected the Alpine project held that gay nationalism stood in conflict with Third World solidarity and that it replicated the gay ghetto.” See also Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg: “Israel has reinvented the ghetto, and embedded itself in the irrational exaltation of a mythical past. It perceives its future only in the intoxication of its strength, its proud isolation defended by tanks and fighter planes. Yes, it has indeed reinvented Masada.”
33This kind of thought (which I would tend to call misappropriation) among overfunded European intellectuals is very much not isolated to Paul Preciado. Actually Paul cites Rosi Braidotti as inspiration (“incluso el lenguaje de la identidad estratégica como quiere Spivak o de la identidad nómada como pide Rosi Braidocci”); see Rosi’s Nomadic Subjects (1994). Of course these nomads are not nomads; they are simply bougie European-based academics enjoying its post-Holocaust era of European Union. That is their location.
34Is Paul Preciado a man? He writes, “Con la decisión de construir mi subjetividad con la testosterona, como el chamán construye la suya con la planta, asumo la negatividad de mi tiempo, una negatividad que me veo forzado a representar, y contra la cual puedo luchar desde esca encarnación paradójica que es ser un hombre trans en el siglo XXI, un feminista con nombre de varón en el movimiento #NiUnaMenos, un ateo del sistema sexo-género convertido en consumidor de la industria farmacopornográfica. Mi in-existente existencia como hombre trans es al mismo tiempo el clímax del antiguo régi men sexual y el principio de su colapso, el término de una progresión normativa y el comienzo de una proliferación futura.” At numerous points Paul even hints he is not a real person who can be referred to, e.g. “Sería tan absurdo reducir la vida a la vigilia como considerar que la realidad está hecha de bloques lisos y perceptibles en lugar de ser un enjambre cambiante de partículas de energía y materia vibrátil.” In the main, however, the autotheory form commits him to preserving his selfhood for himself, if not his readers. In queer theoretic writings deliberate cultivation of ambiguity is sometimes a vehicle to deflect responsibility for misrepresentation. Therefore if I am misgendering (or mispersoning) Paul we should recognize it is benign, lacking all capacity to harm the act is condemnable for.
35I invented the phrase “gender refugee” to describe a class of people I felt was underrecognized in popular queer writing. I was very pleased to discover in research it had already been invented by B Camminga in 2016; see “Bodies over Borders and Borders over Bodies: The ‘Gender Refugee’ and the Imagined South Africa,” their PhD thesis for University of Cape Town, later published as Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa.
36“Refugee” actually has very strict meaning in international law. In this legalist frame a “refugee” did not exist before 1951 and is originally defined by that year’s Refugee Convention. An “asylum seeker” is one awaiting resolution to legal claims for refugee status. A “would-be asylum seeker” (following the phrase of B Camminga) is one who would produce legal claims for refugee status had they the resources. All three categories are displaced persons. Because so many major questions of access for the displaced today depends on legal status, this legalist trichotomy is unusually persuasive for narrating modern displacement. I have therefore mostly tried to maintain it, specifying whenever these terms become more literary, abstract, or casual. I do occasionally allow “refugee” to stand in for “displaced person.” I do not extend such legalism to my use of “stateless” or “genocide,” for many reasons.
37Although every publication refers to Eliana with she/her pronouns, they prefer they/them. Eliana: “I am they them all my life. People just don’t use them.” Personal correspondence. They have still referred to themselves as a trans woman at various points. Language is a strategy.
38Eliana told me “I tried in 3 occasions to get assistance from the Israeli embassy but they required documents from my grandmother only available in Ukraine that was at war with Russia at that time.” Private correspondence. Their Yemenite husband made yerida, leaving Israel to live with them in New Zealand. Their marriage had to be filed under Eliana’s masculine birth name, against the couple’s wishes.
39Eliana’s comments here to me raise the possibility of a refugee who cannot find the refuge they need. Such a refugee dies. Some queer theorists call the theory of this refugee queer necropolitics. I hope to write on these refugees more directly in a future essay about trans women and death. As idiom: immobility with citizenship is preferable to forced migration; forced migration is preferable to immobility without.
40Jennicet has received a degree of spotlight for trans undocumented issues after her interruption of President Obama. The best interview I have found is by Andrea Jenkins with Renata Gracia through the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project.
41UNHCR does not make LGBTI refugee statistics readily accessible. This statistic (Jan 1 2010 – July 1 2013) is from a quite excellent essay “The Queer Time of Death: Temporality, Geopolitics, and Refugee Rights” by Sima Shakhsari, who reports (without a clear source) “439 ‘homosexuals’ (gay men), 48 lesbians, 25 FTMs, and 25 MTFs.” In this time period there were roughly 12,000 asylum applications from Iran overall, meaning perhaps 4% of Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey are rainbow refugees, according to UNHCR’s online Refugee Data Finder. Compare to Roxsana Hernández, part of a 1,200-person migrant caravan with roughly 25 queer members, whom she traveled with.
42Regarding Iranian refugees initially moving to or living in Tehran, one of my trans Iranian friends (not in Tehran) wrote me this: “Only middle to upper class people can move. That’s why most [Iranian refugee] stories are from Tehran. They are lucky people who have the money and power to go to a better place.” Having read many accounts of Iranian refugees in Turkey, several from sex workers, I cannot entirely agree with this, but there is a ring of truth to it in what refugee cases I would describe as most successful. My friend desires to leave Iran but suspects she will die there. She agreed with Pejman that all Iranians could have justifiable refugee cases if they wanted them, yet when I asked if her transness influenced the direness of her situation and her desires to escape it, she said “Absolutely” without hesitation. I find this all similar to Eliana Rubashkyn’s assessment of her own privilege (see fn. 39), but expressed more from the perspective of immobility without citizenship than forced migration.
43These cities are in order of significance Kayseri, Denizli, Eskişehir, Adana, Mersin, and Nevsehir. The Turkish government makes use of over 50 satellite cities for Iranian refugees but overwhelming makes use of these rural locations for LGBTI Iranians refugees. Some make their way to Ankara or Istanbul for work purposes, usually illegally.
44In fact (cis) lesbian Iranian refugees report a substantially similar experience of domestic confinement: “Lezbiyen olduğumuz için cinsel obje oluyoruz. En büyük problemimiz bu. Eve hapsoluyoruz; ama alışığız İran buradan daha kötüydü… Bana erkek kadın arası bir şey deyip gülüyorlar.” Gay men report it as well; in this view we may understand queerness as feminizing regardless of gender. In my reading trans women seem to report this most, likely because we/they are the most visible.
45One gay Syrian does appear on the Kaos GL report mostly dedicated to queer Iranian refugees: “Burada çok yalnızım hiç eşcinsel tanıdığım yok. Kimseyle konuşamıyorum. Diğer mülteciler benimle dalga geçiyorlar, halk küfür ediyor. Sadece imzaya gitmek için dışarı çıkıyorum… Suriye’ye dönemem. Amcam ve kardeşim beni öldürmek istiyor. Suriye’deyken polise gittim, ‘beni öldürmek istiyorlar’ dedim, polis bana küfür etti; öldürsünler, dedi. Gey olduğum için hapse girdim, kırbaç cezası aldım.”
46They are encoded in its constitution. As with the United States, there were specific laws in South Africa designed to bar sodomites from colonizing; this was primarily the Immigrants Regulation Act and Admission of Persons to the Union Regulations Act, both 1913. Today South Africa’s legal (if not social) protections for queer people are substantially better than the United States and most Western powers.
47Relative to tourism elsewhere in the world, tourism to Africa is (for obvious reasons) exceptionally Black. Discussions of African diaspora tourism are not of this essay, although I assure you from laws of African countries travel magazines specify as best for Black people it is profoundly heterosexual. All tourist sites I find calling Cape Town a “Pink Capital” feature images of white men.
48I was alerted to this study and phrase by Thomas McGee’s excellent “‘Rainbow Statelessness’: Between Sexual Citizenship and Legal Theory: Exploring the Statelessness-LGBTIQ+ Nexus” in Statelessness & Citizenship Rev. 2 (2020). Thomas writes “Further research is needed to map out the nuances relating to this persistent ‘sense of statelessness.’” I hope I have begun to provide this.