When You Have Love, You Have Family: Documenting Queer and Trans Immigrant Familial Relationships

By Ravindu Ranawaka

Note: Some of the names in this article have been changed at the request of the individuals, all alternative names have been selected by the individuals themselves.

“Family is with whom you create bonds that lasts over time, can change, and grow. You don’t have contact with them every day, but you still love them and care for them.” Bilal Askaryar, an openly gay refugee from Afghanistan experienced migration through means of displacement. During Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Bilal’s grandfather was rounded up and taken into custody for not pledging allegiance to the new regime. As time passed, more and more of Bilal’s family members were imprisoned. Bilal and his parents made the decision to escape to the United States in 1990, after Mujahideen began to occupy Afghanistan after the Soviet departure. Having lost so much in his life, Bilal had to endure further hardship after coming out as gay to his parents, years after resettling in the U.S. After coming out, Bilal’s parents stopped contacting him.

It is important to recognize queer and trans immigrant experiences to reassess and critically examine the American immigration system. Through the exploration of Bilal’s journey as well as those of other queer and trans immigrants, we can learn that queerness can complicate the normative definition of family and that it is necessary to acknowledge the importance of not separating extended family and partnerships during the immigration process.

Bilal’s story, like many other queer immigrant stories, has its inherent complexities and pitfalls. The rejection by his parents is not uncommon within families from more conservative backgrounds. Despite this, Bilal’s connection to his family expanded and flourished as his cousins and friends began to reach out to him with the desire to strengthen their relationships as well as offer support and a sense of solidarity. Because of these connections, Bilal was able to share his life with those who had a similar cultural background to him as well as make it easier for him to live freely and authentically. It is incredibly beautiful to see the power of not only tolerance but also queer acceptance. Love and respect contribute to the reinforcement of not only family bonds, but of the celebration of heritage and culture that play an instrumental role in the development of immigrant communities in the U.S.

Acknowledging extended family as an inherently essential element in the composition of family bonds support the idea that family immigration is instrumental in preserving and continuing those bonds post migration. Countless immigrants are separated from their grandparents, cousins, and siblings during the immigration process, so it has become exceedingly important for these family members to be able to immigrate alongside their kin. This rhetoric applies to partners who share relationships outside of the legal “sanctity” of marriage. Many countries still outlaw homosexuality and same-sex marriage and do not provide queer people with the luxury of having legal protection for spouses. The U.S. immigration system needs to acknowledge the inability of queer people to get married in certain countries and that it is imperative for these partners to be able to immigrate together. For queer and trans immigrants, this support system could mean the difference between life and death.

The rate of suicide and homelessness among queer Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the U.S. is disproportionately higher than other demographics. Having a larger support system such as Bilal’s can have tremendous effects in the mental, physical, and socioeconomic well-being of queer and trans immigrants, particularly immigrants of color.

“My mother was ok with me being trans, but my father took me out to the harbor and told me he was proud of me for being brave, that I was the son he had always wanted. They didn’t fully understand, but they knew that this weight had been lifted off my shoulders.” This heartfelt statement from Louis Laghari, a South Asian immigrant and college student described coming out to his parents as transgender at the age of 17. “There’s this idea that Indians are all conservatives, that we don’t get what it means to be trans or gay. India has a long history of queer people playing important roles in society and a lot of Americans just think that we’re homophobic from the get-go.” Louis’ story emphasizes the fact that immigrants are not discriminatory by default and that queerness is not a western practice. Being young, trans, and out, Louis combats racist stereotypes of immigrants being “backward” or “closeted homophobes.”

It has become increasingly important for Americans to be exposed to stories such as Louis and Bilal, especially during this time of anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT rhetoric. Queerness in the media is often centered on flimsy, cis-centric White gay male storylines such as Love, Simon while queer and trans-BIPOC and immigrant stories (presented sparsely in the mainstream) are notoriously marked by the subject’s trauma. Familial rejection and portrayals of immigrant homophobia feed into commonplace stereotypes and work to perpetually “other” immigrants, particularly queer and trans immigrants of color.

The inclusion of people like Bilal, Louis, and countless other queer and trans immigrants into conversations of representation and civil rights in the US allows us to change the narrative of what it means to be American and part of a family. Their definition of family transcends the biological and the immediate. In Bilal’s case, family is inclusive of cousins who provide him with unconditional love and support. Therefore, it is imperative for immigration policies to be more inclusive in the context of family immigration and acknowledge the legitimacy of extended family and partnerships as principal catalysts for queer and trans well-being and liberation. Queer diasporic narratives do not often have the opportunity to bask in the limelight of mainstream culture; however, powerful stories like Bilal’s and Louis’ play a pivotal role in the reshaping and restructuring of institutions, like family.

Queer and trans identities challenge heteronormative and westernized notions of immediate family. This notion contributes to the development of a progressive societal framework which prioritizes love, as well as immediate biological and extended family, as an instrument of immigrant and refugee integration in America.

Ravindu Ranawaka is a summer 2020 communications intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

To learn more about the Value Our Families campaign, click here.

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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb

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