Queer Migration: Identity and Representation Challenges

By Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Culture, The Ohio State University. 

A migrant’s journey often starts due to reasons outside of his or her control. The catalyst for uprooting one’s life can be economic, political, cultural, or indeed all three of these combined. For Queer[1] migrants from Russia and the former USSR, the journey from their homeland to another country often began due to the violent and ubiquitous nationalism propagated by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. The Russian President’s administration advocates for Russian moral superiority, which promotes homophobia in an effort to differentiate Russian society from ‘Western’ societies.[2] The sentiment of his administration’s policies with regard to LGBT[3] Russian citizens are fairly summed up in the so-called ‘Gay Propaganda’ law of 2013, which prohibits talking positively about “non-traditional” lifestyles.

“Rainbow Flag Sticker on Door.” Photo taken by researcher on 5/6/2018 in St. Petersburg, Russia. A Russian colleague delivered a warning to avoid this bar because those with “non-traditional” sexual orientations go there.

Thanks to a grant from the Global Mobility Project, I was able to speak with a number of Russian-speaking immigrants from the Russian Federation and the former Soviet Union whose experiences have been shaped by major forces such as queerness, migration, and nationalism. In these interviews, I found themes that contrasted with the more conventional narratives surrounding LGBT migrants.

In the past, I have analyzed media coverage of these migrants and their experience; by contrasting this coverage with the interviews, I have observed a dialogic relationship of Queer identity formation through migration experiences and news media representations in Russian and America/Western European outlets. Moreover, within this dialogic relationship, contradictions that obscure actual lived realities arise. For example, some of the Russian speaking immigrants, with whom I spoke, noted a tension in having to adopt a victim narrative as an LGBT immigrant from the former Soviet Union due to expectations fostered by media coverage. Additionally, concepts of self are challenged when they are taken out of their original cultural context and renegotiated in an American context with American English lexicon. Research examining cultural productions and political utilization of the “Other,” or those who are perceived to exist outside the constructed societal norms, in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation has been carried out by scholars such as Stephen Hutchings, Barbara Heldt, Nancy Condee, Stephen Norris, Judith Mayne and others. Though scholarship has addressed the “Other” to the Russian “I,” specifically how the “I” is foregrounded against the “Other” in a variety of ways, little has been done to specifically illuminate the circular relationship of media representation and lived experiences of LGBT migrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union. Going forward, I am seeking to uncover the extent to which this dialogic relationship shapes personal expectations, identities and, in turn, media representations. When compared with media representations of the experience of LGBT migrants, my interviews have managed to offer a more nuanced perspective of Queer migration from the former Soviet Union.

This is an article from a popular travel blog that was published on 7/2/2018. This question is valid, however it relies heavily on the narrative that says LGBT people are in danger when they go to (or live in) Russia. This narrative is carried in much of the media coverage and it often gets attached to LGBT immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union regardless of their actual, lived experience. Screen shot taken on 7/3/2018.

Many LGBT individuals whose lives are complicated or interrupted by the effects of nationalism and its harmful exclusivity have decided to sacrifice their prior lives in order to move to another country. Migration is difficult enough without considering the particularities of identifying as LGBT. By taking one’s sense of self out of its original cultural context, and bringing into contact with another cultural context, the migration experience shows how identities are negotiated. This negotiation may undermine official narratives found in mass media or government rhetoric, because these narratives emerge, in part, due to foreign policy goals. Thus, these narratives tend to ignore reality in favor of generalizations and assumptions. The instability of categories like Queer, migrant, nationalism, LGBT, etc. exposes problematic aspects of government policies, cultural productions and, most pertinent to this project, media representations; namely the conflict between essentialized categories used in the policies, productions, representations and the fluidity of identity. In order to better understand the situation, and perhaps, to better aid these LGBT migrants in their journeys and goals, further research into the real, lived, migration experience of LGBT Russians should be done so to cut through bias or false depictions.

Works Cited

Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ 1 May 1997; 3 (4): 437–465.

Healey, Dan. Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

[1] I use the term ‘Queer’ in the way that Cathy Cohen has defined it in her seminal essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” She defines Queer as a category that encompasses all groups or individuals who reject dominant narratives and negotiate their positions within these narratives similarly according to their shared, marginal relationship to power.

[2] Healey, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi, Preface.

[3] I use this acronym literally. The experiences of the people, with whom I spoke, are that of individuals who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. I acknowledge that the language used in this acronym and throughout this post is from a distinctly U.S. or “Western” epistemology, but it is a helpful lexicon insofar as I am analyzing objects and experiences that were produced within a U.S. or Canadian cultural-political context.

Diasporic Contact in Urban Midwestern Cities

By Hope Wilson, PhD Candidate, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Culture, The Ohio State University and Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Culture, The Ohio State University.

Immigrant groups are often treated as though they are the same through and through. It is phenomenally easy to essentialize groups of people, giving ethnic, national or linguistic categorizations value as a diagnostic tool. Discussions of immigrant populations refer to “the Polish,” “the Russians,” “the Mexicans,” “the Italians,” relying upon (artificial and largely arbitrary) national and linguistic distinctions to delineate groups from one another. And from those national groupings, generalizations are made about this “community” of immigrants — never mind that this community might be spread from Chicago to Florida, from Seattle to Nashville, Bismarck to Austin. The national affiliation is used to essentialize them into representatives of a single, unified community.

Yet immigrants have historically come from a wide variety of cultural contexts, and they have moved into a wide variety of cultural contexts. Their presence in the locations in which they have lived has shaped the history and culture of their cities, and by their presence they have likewise changed themselves. Communities are, after all, local: even though we discuss immigrant communities in essentialized terms, every local iteration of a diasporic group is going to be unique and complex.

Of course, understanding local identities and senses of belonging is far from a straightforward task. It is an endeavor that involves sorting out complex webs of cultural contributions and expressions in specific settings. It also is a task that involves an understanding of the local conditions that shaped the community. This project, therefore, is setting out to document representations of Polish culture specifically in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, focusing on understanding the role that “Polishness” has played in the neighborhood in the past and the role that it plays today. Additionally, we have sought to question how these representations have influenced a sense of belonging or urban identity in Pittsburgh.

“Witamy Do Polish Hill” – Welcome Sign in Polish Hill, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/27/18.

This is a broad project. Understanding a neighborhood is complex enough that multiple perspectives are needed. Consequently, this project is a joint project between two students on different academic tracks: Randy Rowe (a migration specialist) and Hope Wilson (a linguist). We decided to work together on this project because each of us brings a slightly different background and perspective to the work. Randy’s background with textual analysis and background in migration studies equips him to study the neighborhood from a macro perspective in light of the broader trends in migration, while Hope’s linguistic training is helping her to do a close analysis of the linguistic material gathered from the neighborhood.

Our approach is grounded in linguistic landscape analysis (ELLA) (Maly 2016, Blommaert 2013). This methodology examines the presence and use of public written language in order to understand linguistic diversity in urban settings. Because written language posted in public is created with a particular audience in mind, code choice in writing can be a marker of imagined community and civic power in particular locations. The type, placement, content, and code of particular signs in public serve as a record of who uses space and in which ways. Explicitly designed to examine diverse neighborhoods and understand how diversity is a dynamic and shifting process, the linguistic landscape approach will help us uncover what is going on in the neighborhood by analyzing the ethnolinguistic vitality of Polish Hill. At the same time, though, we also want to understand why the neighborhood is this way; consequently, we have also been conducting interviews, which illustrate ideologies and beliefs on identity and a sense of belonging in the neighborhood and surrounding city. Finally, we are also going to examine historical documents.

“Free Samples Kielbasa” – S & D Polish Deli, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/18/18.

Based on our initial observations, the Polish immigration to Pittsburgh has indeed shaped Polish Hill in a variety of ways, but it has also shaped the city as a whole. Immigrant neighborhoods often feature restaurants, architectural styles, churches, stores and cultural centers that helped to ease the shock of assimilation after having moved to a new country. Pittsburgh is a city that has seen a change in its demographics since the 1950s due to a decline in its robust steel industry and an exodus of citizens to the suburbs. There are traces of “Polishness” in the originally “Polish” neighborhood, Polish Hill; however, to a large degree, representations of Polish culture have disappeared or been assimilated into a larger urban identity.

“Stuff’d Pierogi Bar – Pittsburgh’s Comfort Food” Stuff’d Pierogi Bar, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/26/18.

Thanks to a grant from the Global Mobility Project, we have significantly documented the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The next site for our study will be in another urban Midwestern population center and its historically Polish immigrant neighborhood: Hamtramck in Detroit, MI. When completed, our study will compare the presence of and representations of Polish culture in both neighborhoods. This is an apt comparison because these neighborhoods were centers of Polish immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries; both were located in industrial cities in the so-called “rust belt”; and both have seen their demographics shift significantly in the years since the peak of Polish immigration. We seek to further our understanding of how cooperation and integration amongst communities may be either fostered or hindered by local conditions, as manifested in the linguistic landscape.