Op-ed: Coming Out as Gay And Undocumented
I came to the United States when I was 13. The night I crossed the border without documents shadows every other part of my life. My sister and I were coming to rejoin our mom, who had been working in the U.S. Before that night, we hadn’t seen her in more than eight years.
It was the night of July 27, 2003. It was a cold day, and I was more scared than I have ever been in my life. I crossed the border posing as a child of another woman. The story that I was told to remember was that we were returning from a family gathering in Mexico. I wore my best clothes that day. I was asked to sit in the co-pilot seat and to pretend that I was asleep.
My heart was beating faster than ever before, and my legs were shaking. I closed my eyes and did as I was told. Immigration officers stared at me a couple of times, they also flashed their lights at me a couple of times, but fortunately, we were out of there in less than 30 minutes. I still dream about the lights at the border, and lights reflecting off the freeway pavement. Those lights illuminated a new path for me, marked the beginning of my new life.
I just wanted to be with my mother and sister, but I was worried because of all of the things I heard on the news were racing in my head: I didn't want to get killed or put in a detention facility. I also didn't want to be away from mom any longer. I needed her. That night at the border, I was given the opportunity to re-invent myself and to start a life from scratch. Something that I quickly learned was not going to be easy.
My immigration status is not a secret I share with many people, but sometimes I feel like people assume I’m undocumented just because I’m Mexican. Again, I feel like I’m constantly forced to prove that I’m a good person, that I’m not here to take someone’s job or get free emergency room care. Even though I am the proud holder of a bachelor’s degree in business, which I financed completely with private donations, I can’t work, travel, or even drive a car legally in the United States.
When I came out as gay two years ago, I felt like I was on trial. Like I had to prove to everyone else, and to myself, that I was still the same person they’d known and loved. I had to make my case that I wasn’t going to drop out of college, get AIDS, or become the caricature of the gay man my family joked about. I knew that my mom was going to be the most critical voice at this so-called trial, but I needed her acceptance if I was going to be able to face everyone else. I understood that her doubts and questions were because she worried about me, but they still hurt.
Although I was busy trying to convince everyone else that I was still worthy of their respect and love, I still really wasn’t sure myself that I was a decent person. I didn’t have any personal role models or mentors who were gay, and I was struggling with what kind of man I was going to become. Then I met several members of the LGBT community from different backgrounds who changed my life, and who have become my family. From them, I’ve learned that gay men can be respected individuals who can achieve their personal and professional goals.
It took some time, but with their love and support, and that of the other allies I’m lucky to have in my life, I feel like the jury found in my favor. I’m confident that I’m a worthy human being, and that if my new role models are OK being gay, then I will be OK, too. Though I do recognize that discrimination and violence against the LGBT community still exist, it feels like things are getting better. I know that one day I will not be viewed as less because of my sexual orientation. Except there’s one area in which I feel I’ll always be judged harshly. In addition to being gay, I am still an undocumented immigrant, or what is sometimes referred to as undoqueer.
I don’t reveal my status because detention, deportation, or vigilante violence are real risks for undocumented immigrants. But I’m ready to come out about being undocumented now. I’m ready to face the jury and present my evidence that I deserve a chance. Thanks to the new policy established by the Obama administration, the thousands of other young undocumented immigrants living in America now have the chance to stop looking over their shoulders for immigration authorities.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 15, and who fulfill certain other criteria, to apply to remain and work legally in the U.S. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I will still have to make the case every two years that I deserve to exist in the United States. And though the way has been smoothed a bit, I’m still essentially at an immigration dead end. Immigrants granted the chance to remain in the U.S. under DACA still do not have a path to citizenship, or even legal residency.
Even with the DACA protections, I’m afraid this coming out trial is going to be much harder than the first one for several reasons. Though a segment of America still does not accept the LGBT community, probably no one believes they are poor, uneducated, drains on the U.S. economy. But much of the country still views undocumented immigrants as the reason for the recent economic downturn, the decline of public education, and the health insurance crisis. I’m afraid I will always have to struggle to prove that I’m paying my way.
Also, we undoqueer don’t have many role models to guide and reassure us that we are going to survive this trial. So far, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is one of the only openly gay undocumented public figures we can look to for inspiration. And since we undoqueer don’t have a strong community supporting us, it feels like I’m facing the jury by myself. If we are to win over the jury in this case, we need the full support — organizational, financial, and political — of the LGBT community, who must embrace the idea of equality for its members at all levels.
JUAN PEDRO GARCIA-MACHADO is a graduate of San Diego State University. MARY JEWELL, Ed.D., is a teacher and immigrant rights advocate in San Diego.