Story of JG.

Posted on November 1, 2009. Filed under: Stories |

JG. Wrote:
I was borne and raised in an ultra conservative Catholic country town in Panama, Latin America by my maternal grandparents. Although, Panama City, Panama is one of the most liberal cities in Central America, the same thing cannot be said about the small town where I was raised. Growing up gay in a highly homophobic family, school, and society made the process of coming to terms with my sexuality an extreme journey. By the time I was 17 years old I had already come out as a gay young man to my closest friends, who were more supportive than I would have ever imagined.

At the ripe age of 17 I was finally done with high school. I could not have been happier when presented with the opportunity to come the United States for college. Most information about American culture had come to me through movies and TV shows, so I could not wait to move to a country that, in my teenage mind, was all like New York City. I had so many choices, so many cities, so many states, so many schools where I could go! This is why I decided to move to Knoxville, Tennessee. I was quite shocked when I arrived in Knoxville. It did not look like New York City at all!

You might want to know why I chose Knoxville of all places. Well, the answer would have been a very simple one coming from a 17 year old. I did not want to go up north because I did not want to deal with the cold. I did not want to go down south because I thought there would be too many Spanish speakers, and I wanted to force myself to speak only English. I did not want to go too far west because I thought it would be too far from Panama. So I looked at the US map and thought Tennessee seemed just fine right there in the middle.

Being a Hispanic gay immigrant in Knoxville, Tennessee was not as bad as you are thinking. I was so culturally ignorant and young that I did not even notice how different I was from everyone else. Also, I moved to Knoxville in January 2002, and I was completely oblivious to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the aftermath of September 11th. Ignorance is truly bliss; being from Panama, race did not even cross my mind very often. In Tennessee, I suddenly became Hispanic or Latino (white people use the terms interchangeably depending on geography; I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago).

However, I had never met any gay people before, and was ready to embark on my first trip to a gay bar. Packed with my fake ID, my flirting skills learned from cheesy sitcoms like “The Nanny”, and a pretty rough English grammar, I went to my first gay bar with some lesbians in their thirties that I had met in the University’s gay organization. The experience was as liberating as it was scary. I had never felt so… free? I could not believe that gay men were actually able to hold hands and buy drinks for each other in the gay clubs. It was beyond me how a woman could flirt with another women. This was happening before my very eyes and in such a normalized and peaceful way that I just did not know what to make of it.

I can barely describe how I felt, but I remember a strong sense of relief, belonging, freedom, and equality. My mind was in shock, but I have always believed that whenever your mind is not responding, you should always rely on your instincts. And my instincts (along with my hormones) were telling me to give my number to that cute guy who was smiling at the bar.

He never did call, but within a year I was already living with three gay roommates and fully aware of how conservative the state of Tennessee is. Once I got a little more acclimated to American culture (rather “southern culture”), I realized that there was another society to become familiar with: the GLBT community. In a way, gay culture became home. It became my community. I was the only Panamanian I knew in the university, so I was really out of touch with my Panamanian roots. I needed a place to fit in, I needed a family, I needed a support network, and I needed to come to terms fully with my own sexually, so I embraced gay culture at its fullest because the gay culture embraced me as well! They did not care that I was an immigrant! They did not care that I had an accent! They made my immigrant journey easier (special thanks to the show Queer as Folk for strongly influencing my sense of style and wardrobe). I realized how special a gay friendship could be, and the sense of belonging and understanding that gay friends could give you. I really did feel like I was finally home.

For the first time, I could go out with friends and be myself. I was able to flirt and go on dates. I was able to kiss the guy I liked (only in private, I mean… this is still Knoxville, Tennessee). I was able to be a college student and just have fun like any other college student. However, all these things could only happen under very limited and determined circumstances: in gay clubs or in the privacy of my home. I never saw gay couples holding hands in public in Tennessee. I did not meet many LGBT families. I started noticing that GLBT individuals were actually being made fun of and regarded as strange by the community at large. I was only able to feel fully safe around gay people and allies.

I knew that my legal standing was different, not only because I am an immigrant, but also because I am gay. I knew I could not get married (I did not care so much about this because I was having too much fun having casual sex), I could get fired from a job for being gay (this did not bother me too much either because student visas prevent you from working off campus), I could not serve openly in the army (this also was not too big of a deal for me… I would get my ass kicked in the army anyway), hate crimes did not protect me (looking back and thinking of the many times I walked back and forth late at night from the gay clubs to my dorm room… I am very grateful that nothing tragic ever happened to me). I also knew that many GLBT youth were not safe in school (just like I was not in my high school).

However, I did not make much of it because none of these laws prevented me from going out, partying, and having a good college time with my friends. On the other hand, when I started noticing how racially segregated the school cafeteria was, how small the Hispanic community was, how sometimes people would choose to ignore me because they did not want to make the effort to understand my Spanish accent… This is when I decided that Knoxville, Tennessee was not the ideal place for a gay Hispanic immigrant, and this is how I ended up on South Beach.

Coming to Miami for graduate school was a completely different experience. After finishing my Masters degree, I got a job offer from an American company. My student visa expired, but I had a temporary work permit that allowed me to work for a year. That same year I fell in love with my partner and started planning my life with him. My work permit had an expiration date, but my love for my partner did not. After thousands and thousands of dollars spent on legal fees, I was able to secure a temporary work visa.

This is when all the legal inequalities really started to bother me. If we were an opposite-gender couple we would not be faced with immigration challenges, and he would be able to sponsor me for permanent residency just like straight couples can do it when they get married. Also, not only did I have to worry about my immigrant status during my job search, but I was also afraid to be judged because of my sexual orientation and not my skills and qualifications.

I have been living in this country for almost a decade. I am involved in my local community, pay my taxes, work in the nonprofit sector helping underprivileged communities, and feel happy to be part of and contribute to American society. This says a lot about my immigrant journey. I do not understand why there is not a realistic, affordable, and legal path towards permanent residency

My GLBT immigrant journey has been and continues to be an exciting one. Coming from such a small town knowing nothing about the Stonewall riots to being involved in grassroots gay rights lobbying efforts. From being so repressed and afraid of my own sexuality to living with my partner and demanding the right to marry him. From not understanding Saturday Night Live sketches to cracking up with watching the movie Superbad.

I do not struggle culturally because I am a gay immigrant anymore, and that is in great part because both the gay and immigrant community have embraced me helped me acclimate to this great country. The gay and immigrant groups need to work together towards their final goal, which is legal recognition. Discussions need to start happening and coalitions need to be made. I am looking forward to the day when I am regarded as equal and when the laws treat the GLBT AND the immigrant community fairly. In the meantime, I will keep fighting for it and invite you to do the same because unless you are a Native American, we are all immigrants and fairness and equality are the reasons why ALL OF US moved to America.

JG of Miami


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