Two important events occurred last week that challenge US citizens to rethink what it means to be an American – Filipino citizen and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s announcement that he is an undocumented immigrant and an American and the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York. Each event poses the question – how different can a person be from some ideal type of American and still melt into the American melting pot? Each case suggests that there are limits on who is and who is not a ‘meltable American’, someone whose individual differences melt away when they identify as an American.
Vargas’s duel declarations of being an undocumented Filipino citizen who has been living in the US since he was 12 years old, and being an American, challenge the taken-for-granted belief that being an American requires one to be a US citizen. This is not a new challenge, as it can be traced historically to Indigenous Americans and geographically to continental Americans who are not US citizens.
But because Vargas is a Filipino citizen, his challenge to the belief that being an American requires one to be a US citizen is not rooted in this history or geography. It is rooted in how Americann-ess rooted itself in him.
American-ness rooted itself in Vargas not because Vargas lives in America but because he lives as an American. For Vargas, this means speaking English without a Filipino accent, immersing himself in US culture and embracing the American Dream by working hard to better himself. Vargas is so good at living as an American that he says, ‘I am an American’. By making this declaration, Vargas is not saying he is a US citizen. He is declaring himself to be a melted American. Vargas is saying that apart from his legal status, he is indistinguishable from US citizens.
Vargas’s broadening of the definition of American to include non-US citizens like him is receiving a lot of attention. What is receiving less attention is that challenging this definition seems to be Vargas’s Plan B. Vargas’s Plan A seems to be to reconcile his American identity with his legal status. His endorsement of the Dream Act – which would give a conditional path to citizenship for people like Vargas who live in the US because they were brought to the US as minors – is one step in that direction.
But a key element of Vargas’s story concerns a step in another direction that he cannot take. That step is to marry a US citizen and claim US citizenship based upon that relationship. Vargas cannot take this step because he is openly gay.
The repercussions of his sexuality are not lost on his family. As Vargas explains, ‘Lolo [my Grandfather] kicked me out of the house for a few weeks [after I came out]. Though we eventually reconciled, I had disappointed him on two fronts. First, as a Catholic, he considered homosexuality a sin and was embarrassed about having "ang apo na bakla" ("a grandson who is gay"). Even worse, I was making matters more difficult for myself, he said. I needed to marry an American woman in order to gain a green card.’
Which brings us to the events in New York last week. Even though states like New York are legalizing same-sex marriage, these marriages are not recognized by the US federal government. Without this recognition, same-sex marriage cannot be a path to citizenship for the same-sex partners of US citizens.
Many factors account for the denial of citizenship status to same-sex partners of US citizens. One is how US identity is expressed heterosexually, with the heterosexual reproduction of the family seen as the only legitimate foundation for the reproduction of the nation. Another factor is how US identity is expressed in relation to the American melting pot. The melting pot ideal suggests that it does not matter where a person is from or what their individual differences are because once they identify as American, all these differences melt into one national character.
But US history is replete with examples of ‘unmeltable Americans’, of immigrants to the US and of American-born US citizens whose differences did not so easily melt into American-ness – not because there was something inherently ‘unAmerican’ about these differences but because these differences were used to distinguish US citizens from some non-US citizens and to distinguish some kinds of US citizens from other kinds of US citizens. Beginning with Indigenous Americans, all of the following (and more) have at one time or another been regarded as unmeltable Americans – women, African Americans, Japanese Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.
Should we US citizens recognize gay and lesbian Americans as fully meltable Americans? Should the presumed difference they make to the ‘American family’ be allowed to melt into the American nation just like any other presumed difference? My answer to these question is ‘yes’ – not because I want to promote what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism, whereby the inclusion of gays and lesbians as meltable Americans becomes complicit in maintaining a heterosexual nationalism that continues to subordinate them. Nor is it because I want to leave American-ness or nationalism or the desirability of melting unquestioned.
Rather, my answer is ‘yes’ because sexual orientation and national identification should not have anything to do with one another, just as race, religion, national origin, sex and many other presumed differences should not have anything to do with national identification. This is not an argument for national identification. It is an argument against making these sorts of presumed differences into disqualifications for national inclusion.
My ‘yes’ is also meant as an objection to how those who seem to be firmly in the ‘no’ camp link sexual orientation and national identification. Here I have in mind members of the Westbourgh Baptist Church who scapegoat homosexuals for the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through their ‘God Hates Fags’ campaign, and the singer Pat Boone who equated supporters of same-sex marriage with the terrorists who carried out the 2008 Mumbai Bombings. Boone even went so far as to label these supporters ‘sexual jihadists’.
The US federal government is also in the ‘no’ camp because it denies the same-sex partners of US citizens a legal avenue to US citizenship through marriage or civil partnership.
Which brings us back to Jose Antonio Vargas. As ‘melted’ an American as Vargas believes himself to be, his homosexuality as well as his undocumented status keep him from being regarded as a fully melted American by some in the US, no matter how much he assimilates, or dreams the American Dream. And that reduces his paths to US citizenship.
US citizens need to take up Vargas’s challenge to ‘Redefine American’ – not just by questioning whether or not Americanness should be equated with US citizenship. We need to question how the creation of new categories of unmeltable Americans is used to unjustly distinguish these Americans from other kinds of Americans and to unjustly strip some US citizens of their citizenship rights.