Queer Limbo Life in Canada’s Waiting Room
Is This Enough Proof?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the waiting room in the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board office at 74 Victoria Street in downtown Toronto is how unremarkable it is. In rows of drab off-white chairs, people sit. They may tense up. They may appear bored, blasé. Some haven’t slept the night before their hearings. Some haven’t slept well for days, months, maybe years. Some come dressed in what might be their finest clothing. Others look more business casual. The most formally dressed in the room, accompanied by rolling briefcases and large file folders, are the immigration lawyers.
Any two people in this room could share a geopolitical conflict that indelibly shaped their lives, a relationship to empire, a last name, a religious faith, or a favorite colour – or next to nothing. Incommensurable histories, differences, trajectories cross, collide and combine in unpredictable but stratified permutations. Perhaps the only thing these people most certainly share is that they must wait.
People sit in families, in couples, in groups. Babies scream. To my Anglophone-Francophone ears, people seem to be chattering in Farsi, Jamaican patois, Russian, Somali. They could be talking about something urgent, or rehearsing the most salient, straightforward renditions of their stories in their heads – or not. In any case, it passes the time, something the refugee claimants I’ve interviewed described experiencing as both a dearth and surplus.
Too much time. Refugee hearings endlessly deferred for already backlogged adjudicators who’ve fallen ill or gone on vacation. Endless time in the waiting room, at the whim of the banal rhythm of one little corner of the nation-state immigration machine. Formidable commutes from suburban and exurban rooming-houses to downtown lawyer’s offices and social service institutions – expensive journeys straddling two or even three regional transit systems. Long gaps between appointments, religious services, job interviews downtown, with few options for where to pass the in-between-time safely, cheaply, warmly.
Not enough time. Sped-up hearings. Work permits threatening to expire. Thirty to sixty days to acquire all the requisite documents from impenetrable and often hostile bureaucracies back home. Late warnings at second and third shift jobs after those lengthy, unpredictable commutes. Working all the time, but not enough to pay for rent, transit fare, remittances, groceries.
The waiting room is a site where these distorted timelines, at once stretched out and compressed, the “too much” and the “not enough,” converge.
I first came to the waiting room at the IRB in September 2013 to support Paige, a friend and interview subject I met in the refugee peer support group at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto – a large, predominantly LGBTQ Toronto congregation I’ve been worshipping at and researching since 2011. Paige, who volunteered at church as a candle-bearer, enthusiastically made a beeline for me after I came to the support group looking for interview volunteers for my dissertation research. A few weeks later, she and I met up and chatted at a mall near her home in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood, then began routinely catching up after church services. After getting to know her for a few months, I nervously but unhesitatingly wrote a letter of support for her request for asylum from the homophobic persecution she described experiencing in St. Vincent. Paige had agreed to call me as soon as she got her hearing date, and she did.
I initially showed up for Paige’s hearing wondering whether I could secure permission to attend it as a silent observer, as she had requested. As fate, or bureaucratic norms would have it, I ultimately wasn’t able to get on the list to attend Paige’s refugee claim hearing. But this spatial constraint serendipitously gave me greater insight on a less remarked-upon, yet in my view equally significant, space in the everyday spaces of refugee claimants, and of nation-state immigration management: the waiting room. Sitting in the waiting room also gave me the chance to chat with Paige’s girlfriend, Edie, who was, like Paige, a refugee claimant from the eastern Caribbean. Because their relationship had begun quite recently, Paige’s lawyer thought it better for Edie to wait outside the hearing than to testify and risk incurring suspicion about the authenticity of the relationship – and thus of Paige’s sexuality, and claim to refugee status.
So there Edie and I sat for over three hours that September afternoon, apprehensive yet numbed by the grey of the room and the almost inaudible hum of charmless fluorescent lights. The hearing both began and ended much later than expected. There was only one break, at which time a tense and uncharacteristically taciturn Paige came out for water. To pass the time, Edie and I chatted intermittently, texted friends about the hearing’s imagined progress, and took turns going to the washroom and getting paper cups full of water.
In our conversations, Paige and Edie described complex lives and immigration cases. Both had children back home from previous relationships with men. But both could point to well-documented legal and extralegal hostility to same-sex sexuality among women in their island nations of origin, much of it influenced by US-backed evangelical groups. Both described experiences of beatings and death threats. The two met in a social group for black women who love women organized by an ethno-specific AIDS service organization in downtown Toronto. On Wednesday nights, Edie told me, the two would attend LGBTQ refugee claimant support group meetings at a secular community centre, and then stop at a bar in the city’s gay village that charged no cover and boasted a comparatively decent representation of black drag performers. For the most part, though, the two lived and worked far from downtown.
Paige finally got out of the hearing. She told us the immigration judge had offered a few reassuring words, and said she should hear back about the decision on her claim by mail in about a month.
In January 2014, Paige wrote to me telling me she had finally been granted refugee status by the IRB. Yet in the months that have followed, my mind has remained with others who did not share her luck – those who remain in Canada’s waiting room, and those expelled from it.
Feminist, antiracist and queer activists and academics have long pointed out that the assumption that our identities are bounded, stable, transparent and straightforwardly knowable, can have profoundly violent consequences. That danger is abundant in Canadian immigration and refugee policy, which requires people to prove the vulnerable, persecuted identities that forced them to seek asylum. Moreover, many migrant justice activists have noted that since Stephen Harper’s Progressive Conservative government first came to power in 2006, Canadian immigration policy has been characterized by even greater levels of paranoia and austerity. Indeed, the past eight years have seen a range of reforms geared toward curbing successful refugee claims, including sped-up hearing times that can leave claimants disoriented and underprepared; a new requirement to collect biometric data on clients from poor countries; deep cuts to legal aid, healthcare, and public sponsorship for claimants; and a call on civil society to “step up to the plate.” In the very same breath as such Spartan reforms, nation-state actors have touted Canada as a beacon of enlightenment, tolerance and welcome for refugees, particularly LGBTQ refugees from the developing world.
Such an atmosphere has dramatically affected the refugee claimants I met at the church’s peer support program. Haunted by the specter of the “fake” LGBTQ refugee and the accompanying threat of deportation, the claimants I got to know described the injunction to make their lives and identities intelligible and sympathetic to the supposedly beneficent yet profoundly paranoid nation-state.
One man told me how difficult it was to make the constraints of his life legible to Canada’s putatively benevolent immigration system. Even from the account of himself he made public, Richard had had a messy life – a life riddled with the kinds of complexities that keep people on the outside of recognition by nation-state litmus tests of “true” gay and refugee identity. Richard recounted severe homophobic persecution “back home” in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, including one beating so severe it affected his brain and capacity to use one of his arms. Seeking to pass as heterosexual, he formed relationships with women and became a father to one son. These relationships, Richard conceded, were far from happy, and he had a criminal record from time in the US that included reported domestic violence.
Whenever I ran into Richard episodically in the social hall after church services, we chatted warmly and ate cookies and drank bad church coffee from styrofoam cups. A self-described regular at bathhouses in Toronto’s gay village, Richard told me it was precisely the forms of sociality he enjoyed (anonymous, after hours sex) that made his queerness so hard to “confirm” in the eyes of the Immigration and Refugee Board. Much to my surprise, Richard’s difficult case received a great deal of attention from mainstream LGBTQ institutions and progressive politicians. However, he was ultimately deported to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in April 2013. Since his forced return, Richard has sent worrisome dispatches to contacts in Canada recounting his effective social death: socially determined unemployability, and routine death threats against his life and that of his son. (And rather than dramatize homophobic violence in the global South here, what it’s crucial to keep in mind is that Richard is vulnerable to violence precisely because he never made it through the Canadian waiting room.)
Another refugee claimant, Elizabeth, described to me how what she called her “limbo life” as a not-yet-refugee – substandard and insecure housing, unaccountable landlords, lengthy commutes across a sprawling and stratified Greater Toronto Area – had affected her on psychic, erotic, and sexual terms. While official framings of Canada as progressive, enlightened, and emancipatory purport to extend a promise of a good life to LGBTQ refugees, Elizabeth told me her liminal status made her deeply leery of many features of that promise, including in matters of intimacy. As we chatted, Elizabeth scrolled through her email inbox, which was littered with dozens of unanswered messages on Zoosk, an online dating site. On the one hand, she told me she regarded the prospect of a romance with another refugee claimant with great skepticism. “You don’t know if the person really likes you, or if they really just want to get involved with you so as to get more evidence that they’re gay,” she told me. “’Cause you do need the evidence.” On the other hand, Elizabeth explained, finding a partner with more permanent status was also a vexed affair: “When you [tell] people that have their papers here, you tell them of your status, your immigration status, then you’re looked at suspiciously.”
Refugee claimants negotiate this grim “limbo life” with profound creativity, playfulness, and sophistication. One summer evening, I got coffee in Toronto’s gay village with Fernando and Craig, two young men from Jamaica seeking asylum in Canada. The two described their frustration with the prevailing grids of intelligibility used by federal bureaucrats to ascertain gayness. Fernando and Craig bemoaned the spuriousness of such standards, which they explained simplistically conflate gender non-conformity with homosexuality. Fernando described how the pitch of his voice marked him as effeminate, and how he had habitually remained silent on public transportation “back home” in Jamaica to avoid incurring suspicion or violence. Craig, by contrast, told me he had a hard time convincing white Canadians or Jamaican diasporics of his sexual identity, because of his masculine gender performance, which he aligned with the trope of the “roughneck man.” Thus the assumption of correspondence between gender non-conformity and homosexuality to the exclusion of other gender-desire configurations – an assumption notoriously prevalent in Immigration and Refugee Board hearings – posed an especial problem for Craig.
I asked both men how they coped with the ongoing anxiety they faced before a refugee hearing that made no guarantees. Craig responded that he usually sought out a man on the Internet for sex, just to relieve stress. We all laughed, and then he added a hilarious, not entirely unserious, thought:
“The thing I have to do to make my case solid is – I go to the extreme level, because there’s no way they’re gonna tell me I’m not gay. So I go to the extreme level. I would video myself doing what I’m doing. So if that day comes and they say they have doubts, I would say, ‘Is this enough proof?’”
We all laughed.
“So I’m not taking no chances with that process,” Craig continued. “I ain’t going back to that country.”
Craig insisted on his gayness throughout our conversation. But his joke about the putative juridical heft of a homemade sex tape taught me something just as important. As a refugee claimant, Craig can’t afford not to disavow the ghost of the fake refugee. But he can simultaneously never offer “enough proof.” Playfully asking “Is this enough proof?” Craig gets naked in his joke in order to point to the nation-state as the true phony, the arrogant emperor who has no clothes.
Much has been written about the arrogance and violence of “saving the Other” – “saving Brown women from Brown men”, or “rescuing global South queers.” What the refugee claimants I met demanded – what Craig’s joke hints at – was not salvation or suspicion, but solidarity. The church’s refugee peer support group, which creates space for refugee claimants to share knowledge about navigating the legal and social dimensions of immigration, is one place that can nurture that solidarity. But there’s more work to be done. Perhaps solidarity might begin by directing scrutiny not to our neighbors’ “true” identities, but to the violence of the waiting room itself.
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