Avery Gordon identified a problem with sociology over two decades ago when they wrote Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Despite the sociological aim of unlocking knowledge about social life, the emphasis on empiricism left what remains absent outside its purview. According to Gordon, haunting is the means of understanding how what remains absent within social life attempts to make itself known.
Such a methodology is important when understanding contemporary queer migration. Whether queer migrants need to keep in the shadows because they fear they might be deported by the state, or whether they remain in the closet because they fear they will not be accepted due to their sexuality and gender, there is much to be learnt about what remains absent within narratives on queer migration.
Although sociolegal analysis has done well attempting to uncover more about queer migration and the lives of queer migrants, particularly as related to those claiming asylum, it must be recognised there are limits on what can be learnt. There will always be experiences that fail to make the headlines of media outlets or the reports by nongovernmental organisations, which prompt two possible responses. On the one hand, one may seek to know more using the established methodologies of sociology. On the other hand, one may seek to grapple with what remains absent but becomes haunting.
Paying attention to the hauntings of queer migration is exactly the point of my Identities article, ‘Beyond intelligibility: the hauntings of queer migration’. Importantly, this was not an attempt to simply theorise about what may be missing from narratives on queer migration, but rather an attempt to explore how cultural production has the possibility of invoking the hauntings that take place within social life. More specifically, I analysed Season of Migration to the North by Lars Laumann, a film about a queer Sudanese migrant who fled to Norway after hosting a fashion show, and Shelter: Farewell to Eden by Enrico Masi, a film about a Filipino transgender migrant navigating European borders.
What both forms of cultural productions show is that intelligibility is not the only political goal. Although the demands of immigration regimes and sociolegal analysis may seek to enhance the intelligibility of queer migrants, I pointed to the way absences are conjured through hauntings to challenge the need to make queer migrants intelligible to understand their subjectivity, especially when their experiences of plight are often traumatic.
Having recognised that both the violence of European borders and liberal hospitality often demanded queer migrants appear within particular schemas of understanding, I wanted to disrupt the way visibility as intelligible subjects is heralded as the sole achievement for queer migrants. This was especially important because queer migrants seeking asylum are often expected to reproduce particular norms surrounding their sexuality and gender in order to claim intelligibility within Europe, not only when interacting with immigration regimes but within the public domain more broadly.
Such norms were linked to the stereotypes expected of white queer subjects in Europe, ranging from going to nightclubs or attending pride events. The haunting aspects of queer migration occur when this ‘figure’ of the queer migrant is destabilised. Paying attention to how absences are made present in cultural production allowed me to grapple with the possibility of going beyond intelligibility when seeking to understand queer migration.
The very politics of intelligibility has become the cornerstone of much queer activism surrounding rights and recognitions in liberal democracies, but there is always the risk of this becoming essentialising and reproducing its own exclusions. This is why coalitional praxis that does not depend upon intelligibility may be one step forward when challenging the violence of European borders.
Blog post by Matthew Abbey, University of Warwick, UK
Read the Identities article:
Abbey, Matthew. Beyond intelligibility: the hauntings of queer migration. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.2003110
Explore other relevant Identities articles:
Transnational ways of belonging and queer ways of being. Exploring transnationalism through the trajectories of the rainbow flag
Identifications, communities and connections: intersections of ethnicity and sexuality among diasporic gay men
Queer habitus: bodily performance and queer ethnography in Lebanon