Generating Discussion: Notes Toward a Queer History of Naturalization

In this article, Somerville explores the ways in which the state’s production of citizenship through naturalization in the United States has essentially been sexualized. She quotes Davina Cooper who states that not many scholars have investigated “the ways in which sexuality as a disciplinary structure, identity and culture shapes state form and practice” (660); the state as an institution is not separate from sexuality. The main view of immigrants is that they are “someone who desires America”; however, regardless to whether or not that is true, it is important to take note of how the state also plays a role by choosing desirable people to grant citizenship to.  

In the United States, citizenry has historically been replicated by either birthright citizenship or naturalization. Through birthright citizenship, a child does not have control over the status it receives because its status depends on factors such as where he/she was born or who his/her parents are. Citizenship is permitted to any person born in the United States or whose parents are already a citizen of the United States. Obviously, citizenry acquired through this manner involves sexual reproduction. In contrast, through naturalization, an immigrant deliberately and voluntarily commits to a “contractual relationship” with the state based on shared agreement. This process is seemingly nonsexual as it appears completely unrelated to sexual reproduction. However, “the very language of naturalization has historically been encumbered with assumptions about a heterosexual, reproductive subject, and so tends to reinforce the model of an organic, sexually reproduced citizenry” (663). Even this method uses the logic of the first method of birthright citizenship in which biological reproduction grants citizenship.

Somerville then discusses the history of federal legislation regarding immigration and naturalization. Governing immigration did not appear to be of much concern to lawmakers in the United States before the late nineteenth century. Even when naturalization was first regulated in 1906, the procedures were quite flexible and varied from state to state. However, the Naturalization Act of 1790 “implicitly constructs prospective citizens”. One way in which this was done was through children’s citizenship status. This legislation assumes that its potential or future citizens (that are white and free) will eventually be parents, “And the children of citizens of the United States…shall be considered as natural born citizens.” This sounds very similar to the framework of birthright citizenship. This focus on children implies that a “truly nonascriptive” reproduction of citizenship was never envisioned by lawmakers. This supposedly consensual citizenship of naturalization fails to separate citizenship from “(hetero)sexual reproduction”.


What are some ways, demonstrated here and/or elsewhere, in which sexuality shapes state legislation?

What are some similarities and differences between the two methods of citizenship: birthright citizenship and naturalization?

How does the legislation of naturalization contradict itself and fail to keep its liberal agreement?


5 thoughts on “Generating Discussion: Notes Toward a Queer History of Naturalization

  1. Birthright Citizenship vs. Naturalization
    Both are a form of citizenship in the U.S.
    Both have the same basic citizenship rights in the U.S. after becoming a citizen through either way.

    Birthright citizenship is given at birth while naturalization can be obtained later in life.
    A test is needed to be taken in order to become naturalized to be a citizen if you were not a birthright citizen and wish to live in the U.S.

    Side note: I have heard from people who have gone through the naturalization process that the history/government part of the test asks a lot of questions that not even the average U.S. citizen knows the answer to.

    • Good job with the questions and thanks for that side note! That is disturbing, but not surprising considering the amount of discrimination that we have learned about thus far in the citizenry and immigration process. It’s a shame.

  2. I found this piece interesting and agree with the way you pointed out that citizenship is framed to highlight heterosexuality, assuming that naturalized citizens will produce more citizens. But how do non-gendered, trans, or individuals who do not identify as heterosexual gain access to citizenship? I have also heard the tests for the naturalization process are extensive in U.S. history. Do these tests include all of history or just information the dominant culture wishes to portray?

    • Those are some very interesting add-on questions. From what Heather said it seems that the dominant culture may not even know some of the information asked during the tests. Nevertheless, it is very probable that the information asked would be evidently biased. Similarly, I learned that when tests were first created to test soldiers or potential soldiers going to the army, the information was also very biased.

  3. This article definitely highlighted the lack of access to citizenship in terms of naturalization desiring citizens that are able to reproduce birthright citizens. This last thought in Somerville’s piece, states,
    “…the liberal project of putting into practice a model of consensual citizenship stumbles when it confronts its own queer potential (and perhaps inherent demand) to detach political belonging from (hetero)sexual reproduction” (Somerville, 672). She breaks down this idea that it is inherently impossible for this ‘liberal project’ of reproducing desirable citizens to grant citizenship to those who cannot reproduce in the ways that is desired. I really enjoyed how this article really queered ideas and troubled ideas regarding birthright citizenship and naturalization.

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