‘You have to come out of the closet twice’: What it's like to be queer and undocumented


As Trump’s presidency progresses, the fate of undocumented immigrants grows ever more tenuous. In January, President Trump signed an executive order that broadens the scope of people subject to deportation beyond violent criminals to include anyone living in the U.S. illegally. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested hundreds of people around the country, including at least three grantees of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that protects certain undocumented youth from deportation and allows them to work.

But an estimated 267,000 undocumented adults are caught in the crosshairs of a particularly thorny intersection. Both undocumented and LGBTQ—or “undocuqueer”—their sexual identity magnifies the fears stemming from their immigration status. Vice President Mike Pence and many of Trump’s cabinet members have a history of opposing LGBTQ rights. Queer people already experience disproportionately high rates of criminalization, according to a Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project report. United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project estimates queer people’s risk of sexual assault in detention centers is 15 times higher than straight, cisgender detainees.

Undocuqueer people face stigma within their own communities, too. Some immigrant rights community members view LGBTQ identity as undermining the traditional, wholesome, “good immigrant” image so often used to advance reform. Queer undocumented immigrants also feel overlooked by the mostly white, cisgender gay rights community. As a result, many of them have little choice but to advocate for themselves.

We spoke to four people about what it’s like to be undocuqueer.

Cuahuctemoc Salinas, 24, Los Angeles, community organizer and housing advocate

As beautiful as it is, being undocuqueer is a very tricky identity because you always have to come out of the closet twice, being undocumented and gay. A lot of people don’t focus on intersectionality. When they create spaces for LGBTQ folks, they don’t think about undocumented or even trans folks. Or oftentimes you go into an undocumented space, and when people say homophobic remarks, you’re taken aback. You think, “I thought this was a safe space.” I’ve never been in a space where I felt completely comfortable.

Even before the election, I remember being on the bus, and someone shouting, “Go back to where you came from!” And my response was, “This is where I came from.” [Salinas came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was two years old.] I haven’t experienced [harassment] since the election; I think it’s because this time around, I’m protecting myself more. The only time I’m really outdoors is when I’m at work. I don’t know if I’m putting myself in the closet again; it’s more like I know what spaces are going to welcome me.

I feel privileged that I have DACA, but it’s just a safety blanket. At any moment it can be taken away. I’m just living day by day. I feel bad saying that as an activist, but that’s all I have. If it’s my last day, I need to make the best of it.

Bismark, 19, San Francisco Bay Area, community organizer

When I started organizing with my college’s undocumented student union, I mentioned queerness and the gender spectrum. They told me, “That’s too hard to learn,” and “We need to focus only on undocumented folks.” They’re stuck fighting for heterosexual folks, even if LGBTQ folks face more criminalization, mental illness and homelessness.

Being gender nonconforming, I believe I embody both male and female, and neither at the same time. Once, my dad kicked me out for wearing a flower in my hair. Another time, I came home with makeup on. He got mad, and it ended up being a really angry, somewhat violent confrontation. I got a second job to support myself so I wouldn’t have to be home so much.

Since the election, I’ve begun experiencing gender dysphoria. Multiple people in power are basically saying, “A man is a man. A woman is a woman.” So what am I? Am I not here? I question my safety more, too. What if I express myself in this way? How can I protect myself?

I’ve been getting hate mail through Facebook. I’m scared for myself and my family, even if we don’t get along. I’ve made sure they know their rights and encouraged them to save money for a lawyer. I’m a survivor of sexual assault, so if I were to be detained, I would definitely be scared. A lot of folks don’t like to acknowledge the higher rates of assault queer and trans folks face in detention.

But we can’t hide anymore. We can’t afford that. We’ve been through our time in the closet. It’s time to step up and not be ashamed.

Yosimar Reyes, 28, Los Angeles, Define American Arts Fellow

Being queer has helped me be more empathetic to people who go through life feeling ashamed, including undocumented people. When you’re undocumented, it’s very hard to establish yourself. You have no resources. My sophomore year in high school was the hardest. Here I am, undocumented, sleeping on the living room floor, my house is hella crowded, and I have to negotiate that I’m queer. I started performing a lot of spoken word. I used it as therapy.

I definitely feel a lot more anxiety now. But I’m also more intent to challenge all these narratives about undocumented people with no agency. Many of our stories were initially aimed at documented citizens to create a moral crisis for them, but there wasn’t enough messaging focused on empowering our own communities – work for us, by us.  I want to show us as more than our adversity, that we know how to be joyful when faced with a whole country that views us as disposable. Just waking up every day and choosing to participate is an act of defiance.

I remember sitting at an LGBTQ roundtable discussing how to talk about gay undocumented immigrants. Someone said, “Worry about the gay citizens first. Then worry about the undocumented gay people.” That’s such a limiting statement. Since the election, we have yet to see one LGBTQ organization that has come out saying, “We support our undocumented brothers and sisters.” We’re not a priority, so we might as well start organizing ourselves.

Julio Salgado, 33, San Francisco Bay Area, artist

If you’re queer, you’re often told in social movements to “leave that gay agenda aside.” In the migrant rights community, people often want the media to see this image of a perfect heterosexual immigrant. But a lot of folks organizing civil disobedience for the DREAM Act were queer. I started making images of undocuqueer people because I didn’t want to people to forget that they were the ones putting their lives on the line. Some people criticized me for being divisive, but not all undocumented people are dealing with the same issues.

Lately, I’ve been either freaking out or thinking everything will be fine. Now that the government has my DACA application information, I’m worried they’ll come after not just me, but also my family, who isn’t protected under DACA. I’m moving back to L.A. this summer to be closer to them in case something goes down.

The other day, someone on the train started saying some really homophobic shit. I’m relatively safe here, but what about people in the South or Midwest? If someone beats me up, I’m going to fight back. Otherwise, do I call a cop and get in trouble, or risk my family being deported? It hurts me that I have to think this way.

I do want to credit folks for being more intentional about including undocumented and queer people. For example, a lot of my friends who are queer migrant women are organizing legal clinics. Documented citizens can be our allies by having those awkward conversations about gender and politics with their friends and family. If you know someone who’s undocumented, give them your number in case of an emergency. I need you to be there for us.

Diana Clock is a visual journalist based in Northern California. Her work has recently appeared in PBS, Bay Area News Group, the Bold Italic and VICE.

Melissa Pandika is an independent journalist whose writing has appeared in Discover, the Los Angeles Times, VICE, OZY and other outlets. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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