In the New York Review of Books, Russian emigre Masha Gessen has a personal essay (originally delivered as a lecture at the New York Public Library last December) that examines the idea of choice. Gessen considers choices that have impacted her life: from her parents’ decision 39 years ago to apply for an exit visa, to her preventive double mastectomy and later an oophorectomy after testing positive for the BRCA mutation that led to her mother’s early death from cancer, to her more recent decision to switch from estrogen therapy to testosterone therapy.
Gessen also ruminates on the culture’s tendency to favor those who’ve suffered for a lack of choice — whether in becoming refugees, or picking their gender.
But in speaking about immigrants we tend to privilege choicelessness much as we do when we are speaking about queer people or transgender people. We focus on the distinction between refugees and “economic migrants,” without asking why the fear of hunger and destitution qualifies as a lesser reason for migration than the fear of imprisonment or death by gunshot wound—and then only if that wound is inflicted for political or religious reasons. But even more than that, why do we assume that the more restricted a person’s choices have been, the more qualified they are to enter a country that proclaims freedom of personal choice to be one of its ideals?
Immigrants make a choice. The valor is not in remaining at risk for catching a bullet but in making the choice to avoid it. In the Soviet Union, most dissidents believed that if one were faced with the impossible choice between leaving the country and going to prison, one ought to choose exile. Less dramatically, the valor is in being able to experience your move less as an escape and more as an adventure. It is in serving as living reminders of the choicefulness of life—something that immigrants and most trans people do, whether their personal narratives are ones of choice or not.