An Unruly Archive of Healing: (non-fiction essay)
An Unruly Archive of Healing: Struggling Against the Professionalization of Community Building, Immigration Enforcement, and Queer/Trans of Color Cultural Amnesia
By Bo Luengsuraswat
We all have heard about it. We all have lived through it one way or another. Some of us talk about it, and some even wrote books about it. Yet the vicious cycle of community violence continues without end. No one is surprised to hear stories after stories of long-winded abuse, passive-aggressive vengeance, and unresolved grief within the so-called “community.” Of course, as we all know, shit goes down and life goes on, and one day hopefully the wind of time will blow away the pain so we can all return to the same dysfunctional family over and over again. “Suck it up and move on,” many say. Tiptoeing around awkward hugs and fake smiles, skipping over infected wounds and deep scars as if the storm has never hit. This cultural amnesia is the glue that holds us all together, united under the sterile banner of trembling solidarity. As silence continues to dreadfully permeate my soul, I am here to produce an unruly archive of survival, a messy anecdote from the margins of citizenship privilege and cultural belonging.
With an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, I hesitantly approach the idea of writing this essay as part of my overdue healing process. How could the medium of essay—or any linear format of storytelling for that matter—capture the complexity and nuances of my lived experience in the aftermath of multifarious traumas? As a presently not-quite survivor of community, cultural, and state violence, I wonder, how do I deal with the dilemma of silence? Moreover, what is the cost of my utterance? When every ounce of air in the domain of culture is plagued by the poisonous profit-making promises of community, how can I possibly find a space to breathe? Or, is there such a place? As difficult and dangerous of a journey it has been and will always continue to be, I am assembling bits and pieces of stories, emotions, and hopes in this unruly archive that I wish will grow, expand, and generate possibilities of resistance outside the violent limits of our present.
Central to this archive is my lived experience and positionality as a trans immigrant of color at the precarious intersection of the U.S. immigration system, the non-profit industrial complex, and queer/trans of color community activism. To begin, I must emphasize that instead of perceiving queer and trans of color organizing as inherently radical due to the multiply marginalized identities of those involved, without critical analyses of power and privilege, however, any form of activism simply ends up reproducing the conditions of oppression that it seeks to dismantle. This lack of critical awareness is precisely what caused the recent series of abusive incidents in the landscape of Los Angeles queer/trans of color community activism in which I was at the epicenter. As an antidote to the suffocating effects of cultural amnesia, I am uncovering the lethal repercussions of the non-profit infrastructure and organizing model deployed by Gender Justice LA, the May Day Queer Contingent, and a few other queer of color community spaces within and outside Los Angeles.
These stories of long-winded cultural battles are based on my personal experience, as well as collective accounts of those who have supported and stood firmly in my solidarity. Through this retelling of events, conflicts, struggles, and emotional ripple effects, I sincerely hope to reflect on and continue to challenge our world-making practices in all complexity. Because at the end of the day, the perpetual violence of the white supremacist, settler colonialist, heteropatriarchal world is what compelled us to find each other in the first place.
In 2011, I was a graduating international student seeking to extend my legal status by securing an H-1B “skilled worker” visa sponsorship. The H-1B visa allowed foreign workers holding advanced degrees to obtain employment in the field that was directly related to their education, given that the employer were willing to go through the sponsorship process of significant financial and bureaucratic complicity. Because of the restrictive visa requirements and the degree of financial investment involved, it might seem impossible for non-profit organizations to sponsor foreign workers. Nevertheless, there had in fact been quite a few successful cases of H-1B sponsorship by small to medium-sized non-profit organizations, where foreign workers paid for most, if not all, legal expenses out of their own pockets.
After countless unsuccessful attempts to land a job, I had almost given up. Having limited career opportunities due to visa dictates and minimal venues of survival as a trans person of color despite holding a Master’s degree, I finally opted to seek sponsorship from Gender Justice LA as a last resort. Formerly known as the all-volunteer-run FTM Alliance of Los Angeles, Gender Justice LA (or “GJLA”) obtained its 501(c)(3) status in late 2010, becoming the only non-profit organization that specifically claimed to serve the transgender and gender-variant communities in Los Angeles. Having had been a volunteer for GJLA since the get-go, I thought it would not hurt to inquire about a possibility of sponsorship.
At the time, GJLA had a team of five board members and two paid employees—all predominantly people of color. With only two staff members facing the impossible task of “organizing” the diverse communities of trans and gender-variant people in Los Angeles, GJLA mainly relied on volunteer labor to sustain itself on a day-to-day basis. Due to the ever-fluctuating schedules of overworked staff, being a volunteer for GJLA meant performing unpaid work on an on-call basis. On top of that, depending on the day I was in the office, I had worked as a community organizer, campaign assistant, organizational representative, meeting facilitator, logistics coordinator, office manager, computer technician, social network specialist, researcher, writer, proofreader, note-taker, maintenance worker, laborer, and janitor.
With the encouragement of one of the staff members, I sent an employment/H-1B sponsorship request letter to the Gender Justice LA board of directors, detailing the work I had done for the organization as a volunteer as well as the urgency of my immigration situation. I specifically highlighted the fact that I would be willing to cover all legal expenses had the organization decided to provide sponsorship. In order to learn more about the logistics of sponsorship, the board designated one of its white members who had absolutely no idea about immigration, not to mention the struggles facing transpeople of color in general, to speak with me. During our initial conversation, this board member let me know about a grant writer position that was to open up at GJLA in early 2012, which, she said, would be subject to a community-wide open call in order to make the process “fair” for everyone.
Despite the problematic logic of “fairness” as articulated through layers upon layers of unfair competition—such as U.S. citizens versus foreign nationals in desperate need of legal status, or outsiders versus volunteers who had already been on watch—this announcement, for me, was a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. However, this hope that the organization gave me by no means translated into a promise. Consequently, without any guarantee of sponsorship from GJLA, I felt obliged to continue volunteering for the organization more regularly in order to increase the likelihood of sponsorship. In addition to office work and local social events, my commitment to GJLA included out-of-town trips to participate in meetings and conferences, which in the end caused me a significant degree of trauma in and of themselves.
I accompanied GJLA staff to the Creating Change Conference in Baltimore in January 2012, where I was made to endure a series of unaccountable transphobic incidents orchestrated by a group of young Asian American queer activists. With my determination to hold the perpetrators of the incidents accountable, I first reached out to GJLA, since I traveled to Baltimore as their volunteer. Yet, apart from the board’s brief response of sympathy, GJLA remained idle about the issue. This prompted me to take the matter in my own hands and intervene in the practices of non-profit community building, with the intention to create a space for myself in this violent relational network.
While I was making my best efforts to heal from the Creating Change incidents, Gender Justice LA posted a call for the part-time grant writer position. I applied, and nervously counted down; at that point I merely had two months left in status. A few weeks later, according to the “game plan,” I was called in for the first round of interviews along with a few others. During my job interview in early March, I hesitantly brought up the subject of sponsorship timeline and logistics to GJLA. In response, one of the board members mentioned that the organization was still considering the possibility of sponsorship, and, in case of hire, the board would agree to pay for the legal fees during the time that I could not “legally” work.
According to H-1B visa regulations, there was usually a waiting period when the applicant could not work until they got the approval, which in my case would be approximately six months. So, in other words, what the GJLA board was actually telling me was that they would be willing to reroute my “intended wage” during the time gap that I could not legally get paid towards the legal fees, given that I quote-on-quote “volunteered” for the organization until I received my H-1B work permit. Here, not only would it be considered unlawful for H-1B workers to work, or even volunteer, when they were not authorized to do so, it also indicated that GJLA was planning to take advantage of the visa dictates to further extract my labor. Although I understood well enough how underresourced small non-profits were, I still found this prospective working condition quite difficult to accept. Nevertheless, I was left with no other choice but to accept the deal in exchange of a possible legal “safety net.”
Under a month before my legal status expired, a GJLA staff called me to deliver the news—that I did not get the job. According to them, “We totally understand that if you wouldn’t want to volunteer with us anymore, because I know how awkward it might be for you.” Not knowing what to say, I responded in positive, whereby the staff continued, “Alright then, we hope to see you back in the office soon!” Failing to acknowledge the consequences of not getting this job was for me, the organization unwittingly attempted to continue exploiting my labor even after they had alienated me.
With mixed feelings of relief and panic, among a host of other emotions that I could not absorb in their entirety, I began to embark upon divergent paths of solutions. On the one hand, I was sprinting for life. Scrambling for last-minute options to maintain status, I looked up schools with affordable admissions to transfer to, prayed for another employment miracle to come through, and researched the feasibility of returning on a tourist visa. On the other hand, painfully aware that all these options had already been exhausted, I was slowly giving up and trying to come to terms with my fate.
On the frozen edges of silence, beneath the capitalist community-building machine that withered my spirit, I heard a warm sound. A few loved ones who had stood by my side throughout the many phases of uncertainty, as well as newfound allies within proximity and long distance, were extending their arms to hold my crumbling body and, to the best of their ability, melt the frostbite off my infection.
Dear Gender Justice LA,
We are writing to you as friends, community members, and as supporters of your recent organizational structure changes and the work that you have been engaged in this past year. We are also writing from a real place of disbelief and deep sadness at your unaccountable hiring process, which has strongly shaped the life of our queer family member Bo among others. We realize that this process was probably a difficult one for the folks involved, and that each person has their own experience of and relationship to what has gone down. There are folks working for the organization in different capacities who we know and have a lot of love for, and who were a part of and not a part of the hiring process. We want to express that it is towards the organizational hiring process that these words are directed.
As an organization that depends on community support and engagement, GJLA’s hiring process should be critical of the various forms of immediate privilege and urgent forms of marginalization that attempt to circumscribe peoples’ identities and experiences. In this case the very real possibility of deportation for Bo, who is already intimately involved with GJLA, should index a very critical, compassionate, and honest process. Why did GJLA as an organization, not prioritize making a decision about whether or not the organization was committed to sponsoring Bo for a work visa earlier in the year so that he could psychologically and emotionally move on and find other viable sponsorship options?
Bo’s situation signals a much greater violence where his life, like so many others, sits at the intersection of racism, transphobia, queerphobia, and anti-immigrant policies and exploitative labor structures that say when and if he can work and get paid for that work, and in that way directly manages his self-sustainability. This hiring decision is not just about a job, when the people’s lives you are making decisions about are being constantly shaped by economic, political, and social power structures in which we are all implicated. As a nonprofit, work visa sponsorship does not have to be paid for by you, and yet you still could not find a way to work with him. This turn of events calls into question GJLA’s organizational priorities and praxis.
It is unsettling that Bo had been informing you of his immigration situation well in advance of his leave date, and you inserted his request for sponsorship into a prolonged hiring process with the knowledge that he was absolutely hoping that you would find a way to work with him. You continued to extract his labor in a number of ways, and asked him to represent the organization in different capacities—conferences, workshops—which obviously monopolized his time and required energy and emotional investment. To work with GJLA under the conditions that had been arranged, as well as being bound by the prospect of getting sponsored for a work visa that in the end left him with no viable options, signals a dual form of labor exploitation. The fact that there has not been an acknowledgement of any of this, nor the work that he has put in as someone who has seen a lot of your growth over the past year and the changes you have gone through, and even has grown with you in some ways, is irresponsible and reprehensible.
For an organization that says it cares about the rights and the oppressions that queer and trans immigrants and U.S.-statused folks of color experience, an organization that knows the impact of the prison-detention industrial complex and other carceral systems on our communities, it is utterly indefensible to make a decision at such a late date with full knowledge that a person will not have other options. This individualizes the issue, making it about Bo and a job, when it is in fact indicative of a larger systemic issue that you do have some kind of power to challenge through the organization. What are your priorities as a grassroots community organization that is supposed to be centering the experiences of the most marginal and vulnerable members of our queer and trans of color communities into how you run the organization? Why did you find it impossible to figure out a way to work with Bo, or to at least point him toward some alternative resources after all that he has been through for and with the organization?
Rather, as in the nonprofit industrial complex, a decision was made, the results of that decision were assigned to one person to inform Bo, and now it seems that the org has moved on and left Bo stranded. Even though GJLA does not have the amount of funding a corporate-structured nonprofit org does, it appears to be adopting that model for how it deals with people. To disappear when people need you the most, does not show care or compassion for our community. This is not a process that centers on community. If a decision is going to be made, be accountable to what your decisions mean, what you are prioritizing, and how that affects the people involved—this is what it means to practice community accountability.
Finally, the fact that no one from GJLA has reached out to check in and been real about the fact that this decision has some real consequences for Bo’s life, beyond telling him that he was not going to be hired for the position, is unacceptable. If there is no room for someone like Bo, who has legible educational skills and who has a relationship with the organization despite not having U.S. citizenship, then who is there space for at GJLA? Who does the organization have the capacity to work with, and in those decisions how is it complicit in reproducing hierarchies of privilege (social, relational, economic)? Where is your capacity, GJLA, to imagine alternative viable options, to be creative about the resources you do have, and to find a way to be accountable? As a trans immigrant of color, without the privileged status of U.S. citizenship, where is Bo supposed to go? As a person who is physically going through the processes of transitioning and who has to directly confront invasive U.S. immigration infrastructure and other forms of social, familial, and communal erasure, where does he call home?
It was because we found GJLA’s work to be the most exciting in LA that Bo was encouraged, among others to support the work of the organization in some way. This decision-making process has hurt other folks, not only Bo: folks who are trying in various ways to carve out some space outside of and within the ruthless, violent, soulless, and corporatized structures of a shrinking set of community formations.
We hope that the organization will not just move on, but figure out a way to address this issue that continues to have an impact each day that there is silence around it.
Thanks for your willingness to engage our words.
Allies in various positionalities and life experiences instantaneously formed a coalition to battle this cultural amnesia. Organizing against the grain, as one could call it.
In response to the community letter, GJLA affiliates, all of whom were friends and acquaintances of the people in support of my situation, took the critique directed at their organization instead as a personal affront and refused to acknowledge the consequences of their actions on my livelihood and the entire community. Ignorance, avoidance, and blame were the common reactions. Icy waves of uncomfortable silence swept through a significant portion of the LA queer and trans of color community-scape. Many, including myself, were experiencing dramatic shifts in the personal relationships they had with the GJLA affiliates. All in all, these encounters first-handedly taught me about the violence of non-profit relational practices—that is, the blurring of boundaries between political work and personal life to the point that a collective of people felt obliged to “dehumanize” themselves in order to deny others’ humanity.
In the meantime, I was left with a few days to materially and emotionally prepare for life as an undocumented transitioning person of color. In the midst of heightened immigration enforcement, the expansion of the prison industrial complex, and state-sanctioned racism and transphobia, being an undocumented trans person of color implied potential death. GJLA’s failure to understand the correlation among immigration regulations, labor exploitation, and the privileges of citizenship only increased the effectiveness of law enforcement in the lives of immigrants—the law that was particularly written to extract labor from noncitizens to foster the growth of U.S. economy and global capital, with no exception of the non-profit industry.
Soon after Gender Justice LA left me hanging, the organization shamelessly proposed to march with the May Day Queer Contingent for the May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles, the annual demonstration to illustrate solidarity among and support for immigrant workers. Outraged by GJLA’s continued ignorance and unaccountable stance, a few community members brought the concern regarding GJLA’s anti-immigrant practices to the attention of the May Day Queer Contingent organizing committee. To their utter shock, the May Day Queer Contingent core organizers—mainly cisgender queer women of color in power positions—aggressively dismissed the issue due to its “personal” nature of someone not getting a job and instead insisted on supporting GJLA’s involvement in the march, because not doing so would imply “excluding” an organization that “works with queer people of color.”
What was quite bitterly amusing to witness was when one of the core organizers, feeling so frantic that the Queer Contingent was “under an attack,” strategically misused Audre Lorde’s quote to provoke the urgency of keeping the “movement’s solidarity”—thereby co-opting the language of radical women of color feminism to do the reverse. As fervent immigrant worker protests were transformed into carefully polished ceremonies in service of a queer visibility agenda, the lived struggles of undocumented people and non-citizens paradoxically became an excess of the movement that must be conquered and obliterated in order for queer communities of color to thrive. According to many local activists, this tradition of ruthless, militant organizing had persisted throughout the history of the May Day Queer Contingent, producing a “queer immigrant rights movement” that voraciously endorsed settler colonialist institutions and its violences.
These appalling waves of unaccountability and horrendous drama had not yet nearly come to an end. One month after the May Day Queer Contingent disaster, or altogether three months since my H-1B sponsorship denial, Gender Justice LA finally decided to hold a “mediated” conversation with concerned community members. Expectedly, as it turned out, this conversation session that took so long to schedule was in no way meant for GJLA to acknowledge the consequences of its actions; instead, the conversation was merely set up for the organization to officially extract labor from well-politicized community members to “improve” its institutional existence. In addition to the organizational affiliates’ obnoxious displays of wounded pride and inability to maturely accept critique, the unethically partial mediator kept pressuring community members to articulate the ways in which they had imagined GJLA to “move forward.” After all, a couple of things that the allies walked away with was the knowledge of having witnessed the unaccountably inconsistent perspectives within an organization that claimed to do the work of justice, as well as the immediate need to strengthen relational networks and practices outside the non-profit structure.
This extensive series of community violence brings to attention that the issues of trans immigrant justice and labor rights cannot be irresponsibly resolved through empty promises of “equality” and “inclusion,” nor can they be reductively represented by rainbow flags at May Day marches. In the era of the rapidly expanding global economy, the increasing regulation of U.S. national boundaries, and liberal politics of individualism, the non-profit industry and its model of organizing have effectively come to serve as an arm of the state in disciplining and exploiting those without citizenship privileges, ironically within the very spaces that claim to support and affirm the experiences of queer and trans immigrants of color. Alas, the professionalization of community building turns any social space into a “non-profit” benefit-making enterprise, where the bitter irony of belonging finds no better refuge.
On the whole, I am deeply saddened and disturbed to have intimately observed and experienced the degree to which capitalist social formations shape people’s perceptions of community, activism, and survival. In the most tragic sense, the countless repetition of these unaccountable incidents within the non-profit industrial complex manifests in the lopsided distribution of power, where only the privileged few are entitled enough to call a community their own. Ultimately, the common irresponsible practices of scapegoating—that is, the relegation of structural oppression to personal defects and the aggressive denial of one’s complicity in the production of violence—render any effort to generate a dialogue, as well as healing, futile.
Against the backdrop of cultural amnesia, the silent forgetting of violence, through this ephemeral archive I am remembering our hopes and dreams of an elsewhere, our courageous desire for a transformative future, our urgency to embody a disruptive present. Despite my fear of retraumatization and retaliation, I am determined to create a space for critical reflections, to connect with those who wish to change the way the wind blows, and, most importantly, to imagine healing as possible.