Friday, September 23, 2011

Stories from the margins: lgbtq farm workers speak out!

On a quite September evening in Stockton, CA, a powerful and resounding event took place at the San Joaquin Law Library. Proyecto Poderoso or Project Powerful (a California Rural Legal Assitance program that serves the rural lgbt community) hosted an exhibition called "En Nuestra Tierra" (In Our Land). The exhibition presents a collection of oral histories from lgbt latino farm workers in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. Along with the oral histories, the exhibition displays portraits of the participants taken by well known photo journalist David Bacon.

The project accounts for eight oral histories. The participants discuss a wide range of issues that relate to their intersectional identities. Harassment, humiliation and sacrifice are running themes throughout the testimonies; some participants talked about the strenuous process of coming out to their families and others described their degrading experiences in the work place. Yet, it was not all first hand accounts of victimhood. Many of the participants shared stories of celebrating identity, expressing their creativity through dance and successfully asserting their rights in the workplace.

During the event, several community members representing different non-profit and public service organizations discussed how difficult it is to reach out to rural lgbt communities. It is even more difficult when lgbt folks are undocumented immigrants as well. The primary researcher agreed that it is extremely difficult to first find people who identify as trans* or queer immigrants and second to have them open up to service providers, claiming that participants would voice fears about being deported if they tried to access public services.

Legal Ruralism has written about the work of CRLA' s Project Powerful in the past (and other related rural lgbt issues here). Repeating patterns of isolation, poverty, and discrimination plaques rural lgbt folks. Discrimination against lgbt people does not just happen on the street. Discrimination based on one's sexual orientation or gender expression happens when people apply for jobs or seek affordable and safe housing. These are the same themes that many poor urban lgbt people experience, however, a major difference is that in the urban setting there are built networks and centralized institutions to address these concerns. Unfortunately, the lack of services made available specifically for lgbt immigrants forces people to look elsewhere for their needs.

In an urban hub like Stockton where the surrounding community relies heavily on the agricultural industry, services for lgbt folks are even more dire. Be that as it may, the launch of the touring exhibit has helped spark more conversations between stakeholders concerned about the livelihoods of lgbt immigrants and farm workers. The event, the first of its kind in the San Joaquin Valley, was definitely an inspiring affirmation of a growing community.


hgill said...

Thank you for writing about this. Farm workers are already marginalized in society, so to also be LGBTQ must be very hard. As the daughter of farmers, I am not aware of any programs for LGBTQ farm workers. I know in England, there is a hot line one can call,, however I do not think there is something similar in the San Joaquin Valley. Hopefully this presentation you wrote about will pave the way for more opportunities and dissemination of information.

Patricija said...

I wonder what the climate is for LGBTQ migrant workers within their migrant communities. From my understanding many Mexicans are Catholic, and the Catholic church believes that being gay is a sin. Therefore, undocumented rural farm workers must feel complete isolation, both terrified they will be found out as undocumented workers in the United States on the one hand and being found out as being LGBT by their fellow workers. I know in the Urban communities, LGBT individuals find not only community with other LBGT folks but also with allies. Is that also non-existent in rural farms?

I know the LGBT legal organizations that serve rural areas do exist but are operating under high demand and extremely limited resources. At a recent LGBT Bar conference, I spoke with a woman who ran the Rainbow Clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah. She said that the LGBT population outside Salt Lake City (much of which is rural) had a very difficult battle in their respective county courts, and while she and her staff did all they could to help as many as they could, they currently are running on no funding.

With rural areas lacking much infrastructure, what could be done to help these individuals foster a community and have specialized resources? Would a resource center (or the equivalent) be useful if people couldn't get to it because of distance? I'm incredibly passionate about LGBT rights and people, and yet I struggle with what to say to people who say that while this is important, is it more important to focus our funding on basic needs many rural places face, such as poverty, education, and access to medical care. Is the solution one the towns should be encouraged to provide themselves? Or perhaps the farmers themselves? Or has that time not come yet and we must rely of the great work and initiative such as the CRLA' s Project Powerful

Lastly, I wonder how undocumented workers who are open about their sexuality are treated when they run into immigration issues. I know that this is particularly a problem for those that get detained. For example, transgender immigrants who have been detained are placed in solitary confinement (one of the worst punishments within the US system) because they are not safe with one population and a threat to the other. For undocumented workers, the hate crimes in US jails and the US government policies makes coming out a potentially dangerous act.