Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Limbo Life in Canada's Waiting Room: Asylum-Seeker as Queer Subject

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Limbo Life in Canada's Waiting Room: Asylum-Seeker as Queer Subject

Article excerpt


This paper puts queer theory's "subjectless critique" of identity to work in challenging the state's biopolitical use of essential, authentic identities in asylum law and practice. It not only builds upon, but also departs from existing scholarship that calls on state actors to recognize a wider range of forms of gender and sexual diversity that make people vulnerable to persecution. By contrast, I investigate how the practices of "destination" countries produce asylums-seekers as dispossessed, deportable, precarious queers, regardless of sexual identity or practice. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with asylum-seekers and their supporters in Toronto, Canada, I highlight the waiting room as one type of material and metaphorical space that produces asylum-seekers as liminal queer subjects. I argue that approaching queerness as precarity, rather than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identity or even sexual and gender diversity, provides alternative and expansive ethical horizons for queer and migration politics.


Queer, refugee, asylum, subjectless critique, waiting room, waiting


Queer theory has historically sought to challenge liberalism's ahistorical propensity for "installing injury as identity" (Brown, 1995: xi) by directing critical attention toward sexuality not as an identity, but as a diffuse form of power that is deeply imbricated in histories and geographies of violence (e.g. Foucault, 1990; Puar, 2007). In particular, the tradition of queer "subjectless critique" (Eng et al., 2005) insists on a queer studies without a "proper object" (Butler, 1994)--a point of reference with a marked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity--in order to offer "a more expansive, mobile mapping of power" (Butler, 1994: 21; see Oswin, 2008). Subjectless queer critique has been used to understand a range of non-LGBT-identified figures--from the African American "welfare queen" (Cohen, 1997) to the Brown man profiled as a putatively perverse Arab terrorist (Puar, 2007)--as queer, and thus to nurture incipient possibilities for coalition politics among differently marginalized people. Thus queer theory's anti--identitarian impulses have served not simply to negate the liberal fetish of identity, but to cultivate alternative experiments in worldbuilding (Sedgwick, 2003; van Doom, 2013).

In this article, I argue that queer critical mappings of power can prove particularly useful to scholarship grappling with late modern nation-states' drive toward the violent production, policing, fencing, management and expulsion of "stateless" populations (Arendt, 2001; Brown, 2010). Indeed, subjectless queer insights resonate with the burgeoning critical geographical literature on asylum (Gill, 2010), which seeks to challenge tropes of (in)authentic or (un)deserving "refugeeness," (Hyndman and Giles, 2011; Lewis, 2013) and expose the neoliberal, geopolitical and mundane contingencies that inform putatively neutral forms of refugee law (Malkki, 1995; Mountz, 2011; Shakhsari, 2014). Separately and at their intersections, both queer and critical asylum scholarship have sought to better map possibilities both for critically inhabiting extant political forms, and imagining more emancipatory alternatives to the biopolitical management and exile of refugee populations (Darling, 2009; Garelli and Tazzioli, 2013; White, 2014).

What, then, could it mean for scholarship and for politics to think of asylum-seekers as queer, irrespective of sexual identities or practices?1 This article aims to stage a productive dialogue between subjectless queer critique and the critical geographies of asylum by considering the spaces that I argue produce asylum--seekers as queer. A growing body of scholarship has sought to consider the dilemmas, violences and pleasures that LGBT asylum-seekers encounter, and much of it has generatively engaged queer insights about the performativity of identity and the violence of essentialist renditions of gender and sexual diversity (Lee and Brotman, 2011; Luker, 2015; Murray, 2016). …

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