Interrogating Queer Identity: The Use of Art as Resistance and Stories from the Margins

by Colin Gill

In this moment in history we are witnessing several ultra-right movements across the globe. The most recent example of this is the election of president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Bolsonaro has been speaking out and actively working against indigenous land sovereignty, making racist claims against Afro-Brazilians, hindering LGBTQ+ rights, and is willing to sacrifice the Amazon Rainforest for economic gains – also known as the “lungs of the earth”. This list of Bolsonaro’s problematic politics is not exhaustive.

Political change and movements shape how a society functions at various levels. Ultra-right and fascist movements have the most profound effects on individuals who do not fit the rigid and hegemonic norms of society, whether it is in regards to class, religion, sexuality, race, ability, language, citizenship status, and so on. Minoritised groups are victimised the most from brutal regimes, and any progress that has been made is gravely threatened. In the United States, life for undocumented people has come under greater scrutiny with the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. His campaign was built around the promise to “Make America Great Again” (or as some have argued could be read as “Make America White and Straight Again”) and the construction of a $5 billion wall between the US and Mexico. This rhetoric relies upon a mythical figure of the brown “Other” as a dangerous threat to the United States, a peril that can be contained only by dividing people and closing borders.

One group interrupting and resisting Trump’s politics and hegemonic norms is called Undocuqueer. Undocuqueer, an activist group was started by artist and journalist Julio Salgado, an undocumented and queer person born in Mexico and raised the United States. Salgado began the movement to highlight and elevate the voices of undocumented LGBTQ+ people of colour in the US. Art is deployed as a form of activism to re-frame the narrativesof LGBTQ+ migrants who simultanously straddle lines of being non-heteronormative, non-white, and living in a society that does not fully accept them.

As a queer migrant, Salgado understands the precarious lives that LGBTQ+ migrants embody. He states that many LGBTQ+ migrants flee countries where they were not welcome, hoping to find solace in a new country, only to find new barriers due to language, racism, and being held in detention centres if they are deemed “illegal”. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum:

“In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.”

This is especially troubling for transgender women who are placed in all-male detention centres and face threat of sexual violence and death – and are often sent back to the countries they escaped from.

In Salgado’s words:


For many years, when I started doing a lot of these artworks, my message—and the message for a lot of us—was to show this country that we’re good immigrants…Now, I think the art that I create is for us. And by “for us,” I mean for other queer people, other undocumented people, other people of color, because I want to make art that other people can see themselves in.  I continue to make art that challenges people who might not know about the immigration experience, but I also think it’s important that, as artists, we don’t just create art that is victimizing. I want to change the narrative for my people. That means creating art that does not put us in a perfect light, or a perfect immigrant narrative that only shows my good side. It’s dangerous for us to show our flaws and so I hope that through my art, I can change that a little bit.” – Interview from KQED Arts

Undocuqueer illustrates how undocumented LGBTQ+ people face multiple systems of oppressions not only in society at large, but even within the mainstream LGBTQ+ community in the United States – which LGBTQ+ people of colour argue can be exclusionary and racist. In addition to this, LGBTQ+ people are denied asylum status as sexual minorities if they do not fit neatly into Westernised notions of LGBTQ+ identity and terminology. To be considered legitimately LGBTQ+ by the state often involves an intrusive process with personal questions about sexual practises and relationships brought up in interviews.

Colin2One personal example of exclusion within the LGBTQ+ community recently was recounted to me by a friend of mine who is a queer refugee from Afghanistan and was denied entry into a queer club due to his resident card stating he was born in Afghanistan. It was assumed that because he is brown and from a Muslim society that he would be a threat to the liberal, white and Westernised queer space.

In similar fashion, prominent scholar and activist Audre Lorde talked about the contradictions she felt due to her race and queer identities in her autoethnography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. In Lorde’s words:

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself–whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.–because that’s the piece that they need to key in to.

They want to dismiss everything else.

But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”

As anthropology highlights, there are dangers of conceptualising oppressed groups as homogenous and in binary opposition to hegemonic groups. Binaries are thought of as fixed categories but how people actually live transforms, transcends and reshapes these binaries all the time. Oppression can and does take place within and across minoritised groups. Anthropology has the opportunity to destabilise hegemonic knowledge production and systems of power and thereby be used as a tool of social justice.

Colin Gill is a student on the MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex. Colin has worked with LGBTQ+ youth in non-profit organisations in the United States and is currently working on research related to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees.

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