Homosexual Haitian Migrants Focus of UA Doctoral Student's Research

As an undergraduate in Denver, Erin Durban began to study the conditions of Haitian immigrants and ways the United States has been embroiled in the history of the country.

Now a University of Arizona doctoral degree candidate in gender and women's studies, Durban is studying the immigration of "queer-identified" Haitians who choose to leave for the United States, but then opt to return home.

Perplexing to Durban is the idea that the United States has a reputation for offering "more liberated spaces" to people around the world seeking asylum – whether for political, economic, religious reasons or because of sexual orientation – and yet certain populations of Haitians decide to return to a county that has offers little protection against sex-based discrimination.

Durban, whose research interests are in sexuality, migration and cultural studies as well as social and economic justice, said she is interested in studying way Haitians interpret the relationship between the United States and Haiti within the context of what is defined as "home."

She recently received a Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Institute grant for her project, "Desire to Return, Desire to Leave: Investigating Queer Haitian Migration." The institute, which operates out of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, promotes research in the college.

The project will take her later this month to the country of more than 9 million inhabitants, where she will spend several weeks conducting research in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince to better understand the complexities association with the migration of Haitians who are homosexual.

Her investigation, she said, may also help to shed more light on the ways in which economic, political and social interactions and pressures influence certain people.

One challenge she'll face is the limited amount of information about homosexuals in Haitians, said Durban, who intends to publish an article about her research and incorporate her findings into her dissertation.

"Surprisingly, there is not a lot of research about queer migration in Haiti," Durban said, noting that of existing literature and documentaries, most tend to focus on gay men or the vodou, or voodoo, religion, which tends to be more accepting of homosexuals.

The focus, too, tends to be on the turmoil in Haiti, considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Durban's interest in these issues was heighted about five years ago with the announcement of the United Nations' Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a mandate established in response to armed opposition in the country. The United States is among the countries offering military and police personnel in the effort.

"Everywhere I went it seemed I was hearing about Haiti and I found it very strange that here is this place that is really close that no one ever really talks about," she said. "But when they do, all we ever hear about is corruption, violence and disease."

Durban said it is important to understand – outside of the typical contexts of violence and poverty – how gender and sexuality are shaping the experience of migrants.

She was encouraged to begin studying what she described as "the coexistence" of two seemingly conflicting beliefs about migration after visiting Haiti last year.

One belief describes the desire by gays and lesbians to leave Haiti for the more "progressive" United States, whereas another describes a strong desire to return to Haiti once in the United States because of a preference to live in their home countries.

Her research, she said, may help explain the role that family obligations, work-related struggles, the pursuit of citizenship, homophobia, the stigma associated with being an immigrant, "the heightened anti-immigrant fervor post-Sept. 11" and other factors play in migrants choosing to leave the United States.

In her grant proposal, Durban noted that her research could potentially "rethink the idea of the United States as a site of ‘liberation' for queer people of the world from a new vantage point." Of particular concern are ways in which racism, xenophobia and homophobia affect and influence the decisions of Haitian migrants.
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Commmunications