Coming out Undocumented in the Age of Perry


In New York City’s Union Square last May, flanked by journalists and a sizeable crowd, 18-year-old Melissa Garcia Velez grabbed the microphone and announced: “I am undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.” This past summer, a group of undocumented day laborers, domestic workers, and students toured the country in what they called an “undocubus.” Under the mantra “No Papers, No Fear,” each declared him or herself undocumented at public gatherings. And in June, former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas became the most high-profile immigrant to “come out” as undocumented. In an article he penned for the New York Times, Vargas revealed that while he had “built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country,” as an undocumented immigrant he”liv[ed] a different kind of reality.” That reality, he explained, has “mean[t] going about [his] day[s] in fear of being found out . . . [and] rarely trusting people, even those closest to [him], with who [he] really [was].” Similar actions have recurred across the United States.

The ritual of “coming out” finds its historical roots in gay culture and activism. The appropriation of this ritual by many undocumented immigrants serves as a poignant reminder of the broad range of constituencies influenced by decades of trailblazing queer activism. Many of those at the forefront of the”coming out undocumented” movement, including Vargas, are also “out” as gay or lesbian. Surely, these individuals have utilized their unique experiences as sexual minorities to shape the immigrant rights movement from within. The gay rights call to action, embodied in Harvey Milk’s famous cry “Brothers and sisters, you must come out,” however, has now influenced many undocumented immigrant activists, regardless of sexual orientation.

The “coming out” undocumented campaign reminds us that, as we begin the process of understanding the long-term impact of Perry (and the marriage equality movement as a whole), we must look both within and beyond theLGBTQ community. The immigrant rights movement provides an ideal place to start. Exploration reveals striking synergies between the gay and immigrant rights movements–arguably the two most significant American civil rights struggles of the twenty-first century. Specifically, the immigrant rights movement has recently, and with much aplomb, adopted rhetorical and strategic devices developed in the context of gay and lesbian activism, most notably”coming out.” Such tactics, which encourage movement participants to engage in self-expression and self-disclosure as forms of political resistance, have enabled both movements to overcome the visibility deficit that previously prevented successful organization and mobilization.

Recognizing the synergy between these movements sheds a different kind oflight on the debate about the evolution and trajectory of queer activism. While the focus of many gay rights activists has been critiqued for moving away from the more radical objectives of sexual freedom and expression to the (perhaps) tamer demand for marriage equality, the movement’s “mainstreaming” has made protest strategies like “coming out” more available for other groups, who can use them in novel, radical ways. For proof, one need not look further than those calling themselves “undocuqueer”–young immigrants who are “out” as both undocumented and queer. At the vanguard of the “coming out” project today, “undocuqueer” youth have forced both the gay and immigrant rights movements to recognize and respect their existence.

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