“Son estas costumbres gringas que traes en la cabeza,” my mom told me just a few weeks after I had come out to her. “It’s this American culture that you’ve got going on in your head.”
To my mother it seemed that me coming out as a lesbian at the age of 17 was something I had picked up by living in the U.S. It was a chiflason that I would eventually get over. Now that I’m almost 22, she doesn’t think that so much.
My family moved to the U.S. in the year 2000. I had just finished kindergarten in Mexico, and a few months later, I was enrolled in 1st grade at Castro Elementary in Mission, Texas. My dad, a U.S. Citizen raised in Mexico who got his GED in hopes of joining the military, was working two part-time jobs at fast food restaurants to help finance our transition to the country. (His English proficiency exam scores were too low to join the military.) He was rarely home, so my mom spent most of her time alone taking care of my little sister, Fernanda, four years my junior, while I was at school. She rarely saw him, but I never heard her complain. In fact, I think she preferred it that way.
From the stories my mother has told me, it’s evident she was just about ready to call it quits with the marriage even before I was born. But first love kept her hanging on. Then a pregnancy. Then another pregnancy. Then violence hit our city of Reynosa in Mexico at levels that they had never seen before, and she knew moving to the U.S. would ensure our safety and future. Then it was poverty in the U.S. And so the story goes, one thing after another, kept my parents married for about 20 years. The glorious Divorce Day came in 2011, just months after my Quinceañera (she had also waited until after that event passed to file for the divorce). By that time, I swear we almost threw another Quinceañera just to celebrate that it finally fucking happened. But that would be ridiculous, so we didn’t.
My mother then, who had only worked from home baking cakes until that point, became a single mom who was only offered minimum-wage jobs because of her broken English. Her ex-husband, my father, refused to pay child support for months to “teach her she could not live without him” and many from his family accused my mother of being a traitor, ungrateful, and selfish. His infidelities were never judged as harshly.
She had all eyes on her, and she needed to make sure that she did not look shaken without a husband next to her. She worked multiple jobs, baked cakes, asked for small loans, and did many, many little things before she would consider showing weakness after Divorce Day. As an immigrant, she knew how to “pass” as something she was not just to be accepted– she had done it her whole life. We had done it our whole lives. She was, and still is, made of iron and orchestrated the most convincing show that we were alright and faced no hardships and could go on after Divorce Day.
But when I came out to her, it was a curve ball she has not prepared for. The show was suddenly at risk of being discovered as scripted, and she felt it was all her fault.
“Son estas costumbres gringas que traes en la cabeza.”
I moved away for college the next year, and it helped that we didn’t have to see each other every day to heal. A lot of things happened in between, but that’s for another post.
Eventually, as part of my journey to come to terms with my sexuality, gender identity, and, later, my culture, I got involved with organizations that worked around those topics. I got involved with LGBTQ+ organizations, attended every queer and trans conference that I could, read every book, essay, and article about Chicanismo, Mexican-American identity, sexuality, and gender, and volunteered and organized with immigrant rights organizations.
I found that, although all the organizations nourished and helped me come to terms with certain parts of my identity, it was always a “choose one identity to show” game. I either focused on the fact that I am lesbian, or I focused on that I am an immigrant. There was never a space to be both at once, to heal both at once, or to advocate for both at once. In fact, it was usually the polar opposite that I would find: queer organizations being oblivious to immigrant issues and immigrant rights organizations infested with homophobia. It then became apparent to me why my mother could never understand or sympathize when I tried speaking to her of relating the oppression gay people face with the one immigrants face.
In the past year, I have been lucky to find spaces that do accommodate for LGBTQ immigrants, but there are still not enough. While I used to think that it was because the LGBTQ movement and the immigrant movement just would never understand each other, from the experience I have now of working with local groups, I now more-so believe that there is, indeed, a will from both sides to work together. There is just a scary, dark question that’s standing in the way: Where do we even begin?
In response to that, I have put together a small list of beginning questions for LGBTQ and immigrant rights organizations to look into themselves to find that beginning, to identify some places to begin working on to become movements that stand in solidarity with each other.
These questions are short and are limited to what I have seen is most prevalent with the organizations I have worked with. They are certainly not meant to provide a full or thorough analysis of an organization, but a quick introspection guide on how immigrant rights organizations and LGBTQ organizations can become better allies to each other.
I divided them into four categories: Awareness, Visibility, Accountability, and Spaces. I also provide organizations to model after in the end.
Awareness – It starts with you
1. Does your group know what deferred action programs such as DACA and DAPA are?
2. Does your group understand what being undocumented means and what it doesn’t?
3. Is your group aware of how immigrant detention centers and deportations hurt our communities?
4. If you work with high school or college students, are you knowledgeable on the resources available for undocumented students?
Immigrant rights organizations
1. Does your group know what the acronym “LGBTQ” stands for? (Don’t assume it’s a yes!)
2. Has your staff ever attended a diversity training, specifically one on how to be allies to the queer and trans community?
3. Does your group understand what being transgender means?
4. Is your organization aware of the mistreatment of trans immigrants in detention centers?
Visibility – Come out!
1. Has your organization publicly denounced anti-immigrant sentiments? (Tip: Simply calling out Donald Trump is not enough. It’s much more complex!)
2. In your blogs, articles, videos, and other media, are you highlighting the special moments, victories, and efforts of immigrants in your organization? (If you’re having “trouble” finding an immigrant in your organization, call a group meeting immediately and think of the reasons why this might be and make a plan of engagement.)
3. Do you have a relationship with immigrant rights groups in your community? If no, why not?
Immigrant rights organizations
1. Has your organization publicly supported LGBTQ justice? (Tip: Simply changing your profile photo to a rainbow doesn’t count.)
2. In your blogs, articles, videos, and other media, are you highlighting the special moments, victories, and efforts of LGBTQ people in your organization?
3. Do you work with any LGBTQ organizations in your community? If no, why not?
Accountability – Check yourself
1. Does your organization work with pro-LGBTQ but anti-immigrant politicians, affiliates, or other entities?
2. Does everyone in your group clearly know how to report racist, xenophobic, or other anti-immigrant activities that happen within your group?
3. Is your group financially benefitting from businesses, politicians, or other institutions that profit from immigrant detention centers and/or spread anti-immigrant rhetoric? If yes, what are your ties to this institution(s) and does your affiliation enable them to continue harming immigrants?
Immigrant rights organizations
1. Does your organization work with pro-immigrant but anti-LGBTQ politicians, affiliates, religious groups, or other entities?
2. Does everyone in your group clearly know how to report homophobic, transphobic, or other anti-LGBTQ activities that happen within your group?
3. Is your group financially benefitting from businesses, politicians, or other institutions that are anti-LGBTQ, want to “reverse” marriage equality, or spread hate against the LGBTQ community? If yes, what are your ties to this institution(s) and does your affiliation enable them to continue harming the LGBTQ community?
Spaces – Are you providing a safe space for LGBTQ immigrants?
1. Is there a space within your organization for immigrants to organize for their specific needs?
2. Does your group organize events in spaces that may not be accessible or safe for immigrants? For example, some undocumented immigrants may have travel restrictions, regions along the U.S.-Mexico border may increase risk of detention or deportation, or events where federal agencies such as I.C.E. may be present. (The National LGBTQ Task Force had to learn that the hard way.)
3. If you offer any services are they accessible by undocumented people or people who are not U.S. Citizens? Is your staff trained on the specific needs and possible limitations of undocumented immigrants?
Immigrant rights organizations
1. Is there a space within your organization for LGBTQ people to organize for their specific needs?
2. Does your group organize events in spaces that may not be accessible or safe for LGBTQ people? For example, hosting an event in a religious building that spreads anti-LGBTQ sentiments is not a safe place. (Note: Not all religious spaces are anti-LGBTQ, but don’t assume!)
3. If you offer services, have you ensured that they are inclusive of queer and trans immigrants? Is your staff trained on the specific needs of queer and trans people?
Organizations for inspiration and models
- Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project
- No More Closets Report
- Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement
- Immigration Equality
- National Council of Lesbian Rights