Queering Migration: Anti-Normative Time and Space, by Tommasina Domel

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Queering Migration: Anti-Normative Time and Space

The interaction of migration and queerness is critical to migratory studies; it is central to understanding the patterns, behavior, and particular marginalization of LGBTQIA+ individuals who migrate from their nation of origin. But there is perhaps another consequence to the “queering” of migration: moving beyond the colloquial use of the word as connected to sexuality, and into the realm of queer theory. Queer theory is a discipline whose origins lie in poststructural gay, lesbian, and feminist studies, but whose deconstructionist methodology can scale into epistemologies broader and deeper than sexuality or gender studies. “Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the term ‘queer’ (as queer theorists articulate it) is that it is not a synonym for LGBT identities or a reference to non-heterosexuality. Instead, queer is a critique of all things oppressively normal” (Archer Mann and Patterson, 2016, p. 305).

Anti-normativity is central within the field of queer studies: “More broadly, queer theory is interested in critiquing, destabilizing, subverting, and challenging normativity” (McCann and Monaghan, 2020, p. 13). If queerness is situated in anti-normativity—in opposition to the stability of traditional social patterns—then there can be found an immediate connection to migration, which is by its very nature an anti-normative act. For an individual to leave their nation of birth, the environment and culture in which they were raised, in order to inhabit a destination country wherein that migrant is often unsettled for any number of reasons—this can inevitably challenge certain conventions of societally defined, pre-established normalcy. In particular, the concepts of “queer time” and “queer places” are useful to understanding migration in this context:

“Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification. If we try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices, we detach queerness from sexual identity and come closer to understanding Foucault’s comment in ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’ that ‘homosexuality threatens people as way of life rather than as a way of having sex’” (Halberstam, 2005, p. 1).

It can be said, then, that queer time is an anti-normative temporality, and queer space is an anti-normative location. Both of these concepts are readily evident within the context of migration, so to “queer” migration in this way offers another angle by which it is possible to understand the migratory experience and its consequences.

In regard to queer time, there are a number of ways in which this concept can manifest for migrants. One of the most widespread manifestations is in the temporality associated with legal status. For the migrant who moves between legal and illegal status, time is closely connected to the machinations of bureaucracy, putting the functions of migrant life in government and institutional hands, rather than solely within the bounds of their own agency. In ethnographic research completed by Melanie Griffiths with asylum seekers in the UK, Griffiths discusses the unique relationship migrant subjects had to time: “[D]eportable migrants suffer from the instability and precarity created by living with a dual uncertainty of time, one that is simultaneously endless and unpredictable… distinguishe[d] between frenzied, indefinite, and suspended temporal guises” (Griffiths 2014, p. 1991). Griffith’s subjects described their daily life as characterized by uncertainty, and their concept of time as characterized by volatility and contradiction. Griffiths discusses four categories of time as described by her subjects: slow, stagnated, chaotic, and ruptured (Griffiths, 2014).

This is a prime example of the queering of time, where time is neither normative in the sense that it resembles the migrant’s experience before migration, nor in the sense that it resembles the experience of one who is not a migrant. Migrants in such a situation have stepped into queer time, whereby the passing of their days becomes something altogether different than what it was before migration, and highly dependent upon forces outside of themselves over which they have little to no control. They embody an anti-normative temporality; they do not experience time as a direct and coherent march forward, but as frantic and unstable, as inconsistent and askew.

Fieldwork done by Ana Gutiérrez Garza describes a similar phenomenon. From 2009 to 2011, Gutiérrez Garza worked with Latin American women who had migrated on their own to London and had lived there for approximately a decade. Gutiérrez Garza notes the migrant’s distinct experience associated with waiting—namely, how it was charged with hope, while also being rife with risk. One particular way of acquiring legality for Gutiérrez Garza’s subjects was to remain in the UK without discovery for a period of 14 years (later changed to 20 years) and to then prove that fact to the government: “Indeed, the undocumented lives of my informants were marked by the temporality of their status, in which they could accumulate ‘illegal’ time, wait, and hope that they might eventually become eligible to apply for a resident visa” (Gutiérrez Garza, 2018, p. 93). The concept of “accumulating illegal time” is of particular interest, given the way it endows this period of waiting with meaning; the time becomes valuable as a means to an end, while simultaneously representing a period of intense vulnerability—once again embodying the duality and the uniquely non-normative nature of queer time within the context of migration.

Another way in which the migrant experiences a queering of time is in how migration can inevitably force anti-normative life paths. Migrants’ personal, professional, and domestic development can be stunted, disrupted, or altogether prevented by the way they experience familial separation, financial concerns, and legal violence. Parents are away from their children and spouses from their partners, or alternatively they live constantly under the threat of being separated via deportation. Leisy Abrego and Cecilia Menjívar draw on a number of ethnographic studies they conducted with a range of Latin American migrant women from 1998 to 2010; they unpack the ways in which mothers are affected by their precarious immigration status. One of the most significant ways is in their long-term inability to raise and care for their children day-to-day, due to their separation from them. They have to embody other ways to be a mother who provides care, such as remittances. What it means to be a mother must adapt to the challenges of migration, which once again situates them in queer time: they spend those years of their lives—the years in which they would have been with their children—apart from them.

Migrant men also embody these consequences in their own way. In his studies on the relationship between U.S. migration and marriage for men who ultimately reside in western Mexico, Emilio Parado discusses marriage as a critical coming-of-age moment: “Marriage is a central life course event. It implies a change in legal status and the assumption of new roles and responsibilities. In most cases marriage signals the formation an independent household, and … also marks the transformation into reproductive adulthood” (Parado, 2004, p. 51).

Here Parado perfectly summarizes the importance that marriage, and the children that subsequently result from it, can have to the heterosexual, cisgender man, as part of a normative life path. But this event is likely to be interrupted for those men who undertake transnational migration, delaying marriages during the period of migration, for reasons related to economics as well as proximity to their home and its women. Later in life, Parado found, this trend reverses, with more men who migrated for a period increasing their likelihood of eventual marriage (once again, for economic reasons and the financial security they have gained); but nonetheless, the timeline of their lives are indelibly affected by their migration (Parado, 2004).

Notably, the ethnographic examples explored above are closely tied to heteronormative social patterns, centered around presumably heterosexual and cisgender individuals. Migrants who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community have their own experience at the intersection of migration, gender, and sexuality, but the queering of migration (as made possible by broader applications of queer theory) allows for a conceptual framework relevant to migrants of all genders and sexualities, including those which are considered normative.

In particular, understanding the migrant’s experience as trapped in a queer, liminal temporality provides significant illumination about what it means to occupy such an identity. To recognize and acknowledge the migrant’s specific experience of time is to further understand the particular marginalization they face. Time is a resource that is distinctly non-renewable, and it is among the numerous things that migrants sacrifice to the goals of their migration. There are many elements commonly associated with the personal costs of migration: social status, careers, families, cultural identities, and so much more—but time, too, is crucial to consider in any analysis of migrant oppression. This is not to say that the surrender of time is a phenomenon specific to migrants, but instead that bureaucratic institutions, and their constructions of illegality, create a method of subjugation in how they force migrants to experience the passing of time.

Beyond queer time, queer space is another relevant concept to the queering of migration, and it is worth mentioning as well. If queer theory can be used to define queer time as an anti-normative temporality, then queer space can be defined as anti-normative location. There is an obvious, surface-level interpretation of queer space as it relates to migration: the destination country, foreign in its location and in its culture, can be anti-normative to those whose nation of origin is elsewhere—particularly for individuals who migrate later in life, who migrate to a place with significantly different values and ways of living, or who migrate somewhere without a strong local community of other migrants.

But perhaps a more interesting and more useful interpretation of migratory queer space lies elsewhere. To “queer” location can mean going beyond the bounds of corporeal spaces to imagine places that exist on another plane: namely, virtual locations. Digital space provides an avenue through which migrants who are geographically separated from their families can remain emotionally connected, during a time in which physical connection is not an option. Technology can enable immediate communication and a sense of togetherness in a way that was once impossible for those separated by such distance.

Other online spaces, especially social media networks, provide a place in which migrants can connect, find community, share knowledge, and maintain a link to their nations and cultures of origin. In 2012, Pedro Oiarzabal studied the function of Facebook groups within the Basque diaspora. Basque migrants and diaspora communities preferred Facebook as a way to not only find kinship online, but also to connect with local Basque organizations in person, as a member; 76% of the individuals in Oiarzabal’s study believed that Facebook was a highly efficient way of facilitating that connection (Oiarzabal, 2012). The queering of space had valuable advantages for these migrants, creating a community that occupied both the physical and cyber worlds.

Once again, the queering of space, like the queering of time, offers helpful insight into the migrant experience. In particular it illustrates the sense of alienation that migrants can feel, separated from their families and their homes, and looking for ways to relieve that isolation. But another significant advantage of queering migrant space via technology is the opportunity it creates for visibility, advocacy, and activism. It gives migrant communities the chance to reach collective consciousness, the possibility of their voices being heard not only amongst themselves but also by a wider audience, and the ability to organize against the legal, institutional, and temporal marginalization they face. And it is specifically through approaching migratory studies via the lens of queer theory, of queer time and queer space, that it becomes possible to gain a more profound understanding of the challenges migrants face, and to develop stronger strategies for alleviating them.

Works Cited

Abrego, L. J., and Menjívar, C. (2011) “Immigrant Latina mothers as targets of legal violence,” International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 37(1), 9-26.

Archer Mann, S. and Patterson, A. (2016) Reading feminist theory: from modernity to postmodernity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gutiérrez Garza, Ana (2018) “The temporality of illegality: experiences of undocumented Latin

American migrants in London,” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, 2018 (81), pp. 86-98.

Griffiths, M.B.E. (2014) “Out of time: The temporal uncertainties of refused asylum seekers and immigration detainees,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40(12), pp. 1991-2009.

Halberstam, J. (2005) In a queer time and place: Transgender Bodies, subcultural lives. New York: New York University Press.

McCann, H. and Monaghan, W. (2020) Queer theory now: From foundations to futures. London: Macmillan Education UK.

Oiarzabal, P.J. (2012) “Diaspora Basques and online social networks: an analysis of users of Basque institutional diaspora groups on Facebook,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38:9, pp. 1469-1485.

Parrado, E. A. (2004). “International migration and men’s marriage in Western Mexico,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 35(1), pp. 51-71.

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.