Research News

Understanding Immigrant Sexual Citizenship

Sociologists study U.S. experiences of gay and bisexual Mexican immigrants

How can gay and bisexual Mexican immigrants feel included in the United States?

Issues of immigration and of gay rights continue to make American headlines, yet “there’s been very little public attention to the ways that issues of immigration and issues of sexuality might actually have something to do with one another,” said sociologist and IPR associate Steven Epstein.

Steven Epstein
Steven Epstein

Recently, Epstein, along with sociologist and IPR associate Héctor Carrillo and their research team, interviewed 76 self-identified gay and bisexual male Mexican immigrants, aged 20 to 57, who lived in San Diego; Epstein and Carrillo wrote about their findings in Citizenship Studies. Almost half of the men were undocumented immigrants, a few were U.S. citizens, and others had visas, work permits, or permanent residency.

Hector Carrillo
Héctor Carrillo

The researchers talked with the men about how sexual rights and legal citizenship intertwined in their lives, and they discovered the men drew on three “templates.” The “asylum template” centered on obtaining U.S. legal asylum due to sexual persecution in Mexico. The “rights template” described the interplay between one’s legal rights as an immigrant and one’s legal rights as a gay person living in the United States. The “local attachments template” outlined how immigrants incorporated themselves into local gay communities.

Epstein and Carrillo found that pursuing citizenship through asylum was often unfeasible due to the difficulties of filing an asylum claim, in addition to the supposition by some U.S. immigration judges that only effeminate gay men would be persecuted in Mexico. The rights template also met with limited uptake because the men tended to view their legal rights as a gay person and those as an immigrant as two separate issues.

Respondents most identified with the local attachments template. They developed a strong sense of belonging to an LGBT-friendly neighborhood. Though even in such neighborhoods, an immigrant’s ethnicity or legal status could still generate discrimination, limiting community participation and the ability to feel like a “citizen” within gay spaces.

In short, though each template offered these men a model of how they might simultaneously become members of the gay community and members of the United States, each template was hard to follow because of tensions between the identities of “gay” and “immigrant.”

“These templates were in some ways enabling, but also in many ways constraining,” Epstein said. “In the end, it was difficult for these men to find ways to use these strategies to actually feel included in the United States as gay Mexican immigrants.”

The more immigration and LGBT rights scholars collaborate to address these issues, the more we can avoid putting individuals in the kinds of predicaments “where they’re caught between worlds,” the researchers noted.

Carrillo will incorporate this research into a forthcoming book on sexual migration, which will also explore “the changes immigrants experience as a result of crossing international borders…their motivations for coming, and how sexuality shapes these motivations,” he said.

Steven Epstein is John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities, professor of sociology, and an IPR associate. Héctor Carrillo is an associate professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies, and an IPR associate.