The Faces of Structural Oppression – Reflections on Paul-Émile d’Entremont’s ‘Last Chance’

‘Last Chance’, a film directed by Paul Emile d’Entremont, gives voice to the struggles of five people who are seeking asylum in Canada. Trudi (Kingston, Jamaica), Carlos (Colombia), Jennifer (Beirut, Lebanon), Zaki (Egypt) and Alvaro Orozco (Nicaragua) have all experienced various degrees of state persecution and everyday acts of physical and psychological violence in their home countries, communities and families as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Canada is one of the few countries which accepts ‘membership in a particular social group’ (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) as a basis for a refugee claim (Rainbow Refugee Canada, 2013). In telling their stories, the film is then also an exposé of Canada’s immigration and refugee process.

While Canada has historically been seen as open to refugees and immigrants (in 1986, the United Nations awarded Canada the Nansen Medal in recognition of Canada’s major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees (CCR, 2009)), the documentary shows the ways in which this is a myth. Peter Showler, former chair of the IRB, stated in the film that the system has changed under conservative rule, making it more difficult for people to enter and remain in Canada; the implied message being that people are not welcome, will not be receiving fair treatment and should go somewhere else to make a refugee claim. This has been well documented by the refugee advocacy group ‘No One is Illegal’ (see: http://www.neverhome.ca/). And yet, for Trudi et al., persecution and violence experienced in their home countries situates Canada as a place of hope, inclusion and the best option to pursue a better life.

 

Social policies and legal structure: Social policies and laws in Canada, at the international (UN) level and in their home countries have an immense influence on a person’s well-being and on the refugee process (Meili 2015); as Trudi explained, the outcome of a refugee claimant’s hearing can be a matter of life and death. As a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Canada is obligated to protect refugees from persecution; one of the objectives of the current Canadian federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is that the refugee program is in the first instance about saving lives and offering protection to the displaced and persecuted (CCR, 2014). Canada’s refugee determination system must furthermore fully comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that all persons in Canada, regardless of their immigration status or lack thereof, are entitled to full protection (CCR 2014). The immigration/refugee claim process is impacted also by regulations coming from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the content of which strongly depends on the political ideology and priorities of the current party in power (CCPA, 2016; Vancouver Metro, 2015).

 

The federal government has also entered into various agreements with provinces and territories on immigration law and policy covering a range of issues including settlement, integration and labour market access (CIC, 2010). The most comprehensive agreement is with Quebec, which has its own immigration system and policies but shares the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) with the rest of Canada; see an Act Respecting Immigration to Quebec. The IRB decides, among other responsibilities, who needs refugee protection (IRB, 2015). These responsibilities differ from those of the CIC, which has the overall responsibility for immigration and refugee matters and determines claims for refugee protection made abroad at Canadian embassies and consulates; it is responsible for selecting immigrants, issuing visitors’ visas, and granting citizenship. It is also CIC that determines the eligibility of all refugee protection claims made in Canada and refers eligible claims to the IRB for a decision. Finally, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is responsible for carrying out enforcement functions related to immigration and refugee matters. These include detention, removals, investigations, and intelligence and immigration control functions overseas. The IRB reports to Parliament through the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, but remains independent from CIC and the Minister (IRB, 2015). In the film, we see Trudi et al. interact with and have their destiny decided by this Canadian immigrant and refugee system, its procedural norms and the stereotypes held and acted upon by individual service agents.

 

The home countries of all five people profiled in this film have an amalgamation of laws and policies that speak to the queer and transgender experience. In several countries ‘homosexuality’ is punished with the death penalty and over 70 countries imprison people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity (BBC 2014; ILGA, 2015). Political and cultural inertia is strong and often leads to a discrepancy between how the law is written and practiced. In Egypt, where ‘homosexuality’ is not illegal, adults suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct are frequently arrested on charges of debauchery, immorality or blasphemy (BBC 2015). Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law (established in 1864) on the other hand, has not yet been repealed and continues to criminalize anal sex and prohibits ‘acts of gross indecency’ (Huffington Post, 2014) between men. In many countries, ‘homosexuality’ remains a taboo with, as the film explores, serious implications for access to health and social services (e.g. protection by the police from harassment), interpersonal ‘normative violence’ (Boesten, 2010) from family and community members and (un)equal treatment under the law (OutRight, 2016).

 

The Faces of Structural Oppression: Young (1990) provides a conceptual framework of oppression which sees five distinct but enmeshed ‘faces of oppression’; these are exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. Together and individually these ‘faces’ embody a ‘structural oppression’, in that assumptions, stereotypes, norms, habits and symbols are embedded in and are systematically being reproduced by major economic, political and cultural institutions and the everyday acts of people through whom ‘power’ flows and is being diffused (Foucault, 1998). In the process, groups or categories of people face a systemic subordination and see their capacity to thrive and self-determine be immobilized or reduced.

Violence: In ‘Last Chance’, systemic oppression is experienced as a result of belonging to a group of people with a particular sexual orientation and gender identity. In the film one learns that in Colombia, Lebanon, Egypt, Nicaragua, Jamaica and many other countries, being LGBTQ is seen as a disease, a psychological condition, a crime or a moral failing. Oppression in the face/form of ‘violence’ is a common feature. Violence in the film manifests as physical attacks, rape and torture as well as psychological violence in the form of harassment, ridicule and intimidation. The fear of immanent violence as well as an everyday stigmatization of one’s identity is a constant and emotionally exhausting feature of how oppression is experienced by all five characters.

Trudi is a lesbian woman from Jamaica, which is described as one of the most homophobic jurisdictions in the western hemisphere. She was subjected to ‘corrective rape’ at gunpoint and had to move from hotel to hotel with her partner in fear of being harassed; Human Rights Watch finds that LGBTQ citizens in Jamaica are often driven from their communities by neighbors and sometimes even family (Huffington Post 2014). Police protection against bias and physical attacks is generally poor, Trudi explained. Police may even be the source of violence. Violence is therefore both a social practice – when people of a dominant group set out looking for members of oppressed groups to attack -, and structural, in that violence is tolerated, accepted, and normalized by the dominant group and perpetrators receive little punishment (Young, 1990).

The involvement of police and state authorities in the perpetration of violence against the LGBTQ community is perhaps most evident in the case of Zaki. Living in Egypt he attempted to connect with other gay men and resorted to the use of an internet site. This led him into a romantic correspondence with what turned out to be a police entrapment operation, a common practice in Egypt (HRW, 2004; Kurancid, 2015). Lured to a meeting, he was arrested and systematically tortured and abused. Men have told Human Rights Watch (HRW, 2004) that they were whipped, beaten, bound and suspended in painful positions, splashed with ice-cold water, and burned with lit cigarettes. During mass roundups some experienced torture with electroshock on the limbs, genitals, or tongue. Guards also encouraged other prisoners to rape suspected ‘homosexuals’. Psychological torment complements the physical trauma. One man stated “We asked, why is it us who are getting beaten? It was like they weren’t dealing with human beings at all. … Like we weren’t even animals, just mud or something they could kick around” (p.1). Belonging to a particular ‘othered’ group in society, Zaki experienced systemic violence intimately.

 

Jennifer is transgender and from Lebanon. In one interview her mother speaks about the family’s thought processes as Charlie made the transformation to Jennifer in her late teens. Among the family’s options were killing her with poison, or committing her to an asylum, which they eventually did. Her desire to be Jennifer was seen as a psychological condition that had to be ‘cured’. Her family experienced her as disgraceful and stigmatizing in a cultural context where the norms of gender identity are narrowly defined. Jennifer was repeatedly beaten by family members and on the streets of her community. Attempts to cure her ‘condition’ through chemical therapy while being hospitalized is arguably a manifestation of psychological violence normalized by society. It appears that this left her traumatized and fearing for her life as a transgender women in Beirut.

 

Alvaro walked north to Canada from his native Nicaragua when he was barely a teenager. He escaped from an abusive father whom he did not dare reveal his sexuality to. His claim for refugee status was rejected in Canada; ultimately, activism from the LGBT community saved him from this fate mere days from deportation. It is very likely that had he revealed his sexual orientation to his family and community in Nicaragua, that he would have been subjected to violence, both physical and psychological.  In Colombia, Carlos was not allowed to see his son; ‘homosexuality’ was seen as an infectious disease. Oppression worked structurally in that laws, policies and a conservative culture normalized homophobia and targeted violence and impacted his everyday life. Carlos shared how guerillas and paramilitary units, with the knowledge of the state, target ‘homosexuals’. Oppression was ‘felt’ intimately on a daily basis. In Canada, structural oppression surfaced in CIC’s stereotype of who ‘fits’ the mold of a gay male. His application was rejected despite his many efforts to ‘prove’ that he was gay. The ability to self-define was stripped away. The power differential could not have been more obvious; the ‘day to day reproduction of dominance and aversion’ (Young, 1990) by CIC agents rested upon a cultural ‘regime of truth’ (Foucault, 1998) which essentialized gay identity; Carlos did not fit the narrative.

 

Intersectionality: Faces of oppression differ, intersect, interlock and coalesce, both in their form and effect, so that any conceptual framework will be inherently incomplete in capturing the nuances of a lived experience (Young, 1990). The intersectionality paradigm (Crenshaw, 1989), an understanding of ‘interlocking oppression’ (Young, 1990; Hill Collins, 2000) and ‘social location’ (Hulko, 2009) are useful in that ambivalences and ambiguity are recognized while social workers are called upon to aim for an iterative process that continuously strives for a more accurate, self-reflexive and useful understanding of lived experiences to guide practice. Where ‘interlocking oppression’ speaks more to processes and systems, intersectionality speaks to identities and categories (Hulko, 2009). As a metaphor, it has been described as the “entanglement of identity categories that make up an individual, the differential attributions of power that result from such varied configuration, and the need to view intersectional beings holistically rather than try to tease apart different strands of identity.” (Hulko, 2009, p.48). A particular intersectional identity gives rise to an individual’s ‘social location’ which speaks to the relative amount of privilege and experienced oppression on the basis of specific identity constructs such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, faith, etc. (Hulko, 2009). Crucially, an individual’s particular ‘social location’ is externally imposed and is context (time, place, etc) dependent; it has much to do with the dominant ‘regime of truth’ and the status of those, vis-à-vis the subordinate group, who are able to say what counts as ‘truth’ and who can be defined as ‘valid’ / ‘normal’.

 

In ‘Last Chance’, Trudi et al. experience Young’s interlocking faces of oppression differently as a result of how their unique intersectional identity is socially located within the particular time/place context of their lives. Trudi is not only queer but also a black woman with very few financial resources. We see how a lack of money and vulnerable status as a woman complicates her ability to protect herself from targeted violence; if she and her partner ran out of money and were thus not able to pay for a taxi, they would often remain in place rather than risk being attacked while walking; the day when she experienced ‘corrective rape’ may well have been one of those days when taking a taxi and staying in place was not an option. Carlos similarly is not only queer but also presents as a cis-gender man which ultimately led to having his claim be rejected; his appearance did not fit CIC’s model of a gay man. On the other hand, Carlos, Alvaro and Zaki are able to pass as ‘straight’, which does provide them with the ability to ‘pass’ as a survival mechanism. For others, this is not so easy; Jennifer, as a transgender women, experiences oppression not because of her sexual orientation but because of how she presents in public. Zaki was able to hide his sexual orientation from his family while still being true to how he experienced himself; Jennifer was not able to do so. Being true to herself meant radically changing the way she appeared to her parents and the community. At the same time, she appears to have had the means and connections to transition from outwardly appearing ‘male’ to ‘female’. This is a privileged position relative to the many transgender men and women who lack the financial resources to align biological sex with gender expression.

 

The impact of place as context for social location was made visible when each moved from their home country to Canada. While racism, for example, may not have been something that was experienced in their home countries, in Canada, the experiences of racial minorities is not always pleasant (Ricochet 2015); the way Trudi et al. experience their intersectional identity may therefore have shifted, with a previously taken for granted component of their identity now becoming more pronounced. In that Canada has put in place laws and policies to protect the diversity of ways in which people choose to embody their identity and arguably has a population which as a whole is more tolerant and embracing of diversity than other countries, we observe another shift in how Trudi et al. experience their intersectional identity. Trudi’s belief that in Canada, walking hand in hand with your lesbian partner is seen as ‘normal’, is not far-fetched but also not necessarily accurate. While overt targeted violence and attacks are frowned upon and punished by law in Canada, a ‘whole world’ of invisible, insidious, pervasive, emotionally and psychologically debilitating violences (Sue, 2010) does continue to exist in Canada; Sue speaks of micro-aggressions which are ‘‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative… slights and insults” (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal & Esquilin, 2007, p. 273) towards individuals because of their group membership. The cumulative often traumatic impact of the constant and everyday reality of micro-aggressions, particularly for bodies transgressing norms, has been reported (Sue, 2010); since they are so ingrained in our society, however, many regard them as innocuous.

 

In the film, we observe micro-aggressions most clearly as depicted by the refugee hearing agent who not only demands ample proof that Carlos is in fact gay, but even after proof is submitted, still strips him of his ability to self-define; Carlos is seen not as gay but as ‘playing gay’ in order to get into Canada. Here we see the impact of ingrained macro-aggressions, a set of core beliefs and/or ideologies that inform the particularity of individual micro-aggressions as well as the types of systemic formal and informal structural mechanisms (Huber & Solorzano, 2015) – i.e. the procedural ask to provide proof of sexual orientation -, that subordinate, marginalize or exclude non-dominant groups. Canada’s particular macro-aggressions differ from those of Lebanon, Jamaica, Egypt, Nicaragua and Colombia and therefore structure identity based micro-aggressions and structural mechanisms of subordination differently; arguably, domination in Canada is more politically correct and thus less visible.

 

Finally, intersectionality and the persistence of intersecting inequalities and faces of oppression can be tied together by using Judith Butler’s concept of normative violence: powerful and inherently violent processes of normalization act to naturalize and sustain structural inequalities (Boesten, 2010). Normative violence – the restrictive violence of the norm -, foreshadows actual violence perpetrated upon bodies perceived to be breaking norms-as-hegemonic; “a racialized, hetero-normative sexual organization draws boundaries around people’s bodies and desires, and makes abuse possible” (Boesten, 2010, p. 18) and invisible; violence, as a tolerated and normalized response to social transgression, is socially not understood as violence and becomes invisible (Boesten, 2010). In Lebanon, Jamaica, Egypt, Nicaragua and Colombia, normalized violence is very present – it is overt – while in Canada, it is subtler. Regardless, critical violence prevention work must make violence visible and unsettle that which is normalized. Only then will Trudi et al. and other members of subordinate groups truly be able to embrace their identities without fear and shame.

 

References

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Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G.C., Bucceri, J.M., Holder, A.M.B., Nadal, K.L. &        Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical     practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

 

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender and sexual orientation. New      Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

Young, I. (1990) Five faces of oppression. In Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ:     Princeton University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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