Juan Carlos Galan, Panama

Posted on December 30, 2009. Filed under: Stories |

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.

Additional Questions that were ask of Juan after he submitted his story as listed in the above, it was submitted via email:

Coming out:
When were you first aware of sexual identity? How did that happen? 
 Ever since I was a little kid, I always knew that I was different from all the other kids in school.  I didn’t know exactly how I was different because at such a young age I still didn’t have the notion of sexual orientation, but I definitely knew I was different.  When I started going through puberty I realized that I was attracted to guys instead of girls, and that’s when I knew HOW I was different from others.

How do you define coming out?
… to self? 
Coming out to self means finally accepting in your mind that you are gay and being able to identify yourself as gay without necessarily having to tell anyone.

.. to other gay people? Coming out to other gay people is easier because they will understand better what life feels like before coming out and after coming out.

… to your family? Coming out to my family was an exrtremely difficult process because they are all conservatic Catholics and Hispanic, so I was very afraid of how they would react.  Most of them were very supportive, except for my grandparents who chose not to speak to me for about 7 months, and afte much tension and sadness from all parts, they finally decided on a Don’t Ast Don’t Tell approach where I don’t speak about my sexuality, but they also don’t try to impose their religious morals on me.

… to straight people (how and when did you first tell them?) I started coming out to my straight High School friends when I was 16 years old.  I didn’t know any other gay people, so all of my friends were straight.  they were extremely supportive.  They accepted me and understood me and if hadn’t been for them I would have committed suicide.  They truly became my family during my high school years.

What influenced your coming out? I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.  I had this huge secret that I couldn’t share with anyone.  I just felt like I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore and that in order to be happy I needed people to know.  My life changed once I came out, it was like getting a fresh and much happier start.

Family background / growing up:
When / where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town called David in the country of Panama.  It is a country town where everyone knows everyone.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember what inspired those dreams? I wanted to be a Paleontologist so that I could study dinosaurs.  Jurassic Park inspired this dream

Any early signs about later orientation? (being a tomboy, playing w. kids of opposite sex, preferring opposite sex games and activities) I never wanted to play sports.  I hated PE class, and I hated every single physical activity because I always had to compete with other boys and could never win.  I also wanted to play with dolls and get girly toys.  I also preferred playing with girls when I was little.

Acceptance/rejection of these activities, or of emerging expressions of identity, by family members? My family was not supported at all.  They were always telling me that I needed to talk like a man and walk like a man, that I had to go outside and play more with other boys.

Did it make a difference? how?
I think when I lived in Tennessee I experienced racism, but I was too young and naive to have noticed.  It was just wierd to me that black kids and white kids never sat together in the cafeteria.

Social acceptance/rejection within gay community (re race)? — within one’s ethnic community (re sexual orientation)? I think the gay community or the Hispanic community have been very supportive everywhere I’ve lived in the US (Knoxville, TN, Austin, TX Miami, FL).  I never really felt like I needed to belong to one group more than the other, but I do have to share that the most supportive community I have been a part of were my gay hispanic college friends in Austin, TX.  We were all gay and hispanic, and we understood each other very well.  We were also going through the same phase in our lives.

Interracial relationships or friendships? If yes, what did you learn from that Experience, or from people you knew? What were the attitudes of others you knew to such relationships? My boyfriends and I are an interacial couple.  He is white, and I am Hispanic.  We haven’t really dealt with many cultural differences.  I have been in the US for so long, that I am very aware of any cultural difference he or I might experience.  I know when I am not necessarily in tune with what is happening around me because of cultural barriers.  However, living in Miami he is the one that experiences cultural shocks sometimes because of the large (majority) Hispanic community in Miami.  He has been in Miami long enough to also develop a self-awareness around cultural barriers and uderstand them.

Did being part of the GLBT community bring you in contact with people of different ethnic backgrounds? How did that affect your circumstances and/or outlook? Absolutely.  Anyone can be queer regardless of race, gender, age, SES, etc.  This is why the rainbow represent the glbt community, because of how diverse we are.  It definitely made me understand why gay people are so opened.  THE GLBTQ community knows discrimination, so they are more aware are more inclusive.  I think this made me realize that people are just people.

Religion / spiritual learnings:
Did your religion/spiritual learnings make a difference? how?
Yes, I had to completely disregard me Catholic believes, and this was a constant struggle until I finally decided that I was not going to listen to a community whose leader, The Pope, is claiming that condoms will promote HIV in Africa.  I completely lost respect for the Catholic church and stopped all involvements with it.

— family background? own (personal)? They were very conservative.

— can you identify sources or other influences of your beliefs? n/a

— changes/evolution of personal beliefs; relation to sexuality? Yes, at first I would reject all sexual activities, then I became highly promiscuous because I was acting out and “making up for lost time” then I was just taking it easy and now I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for over a year.

— membership in GLBT religious/spiritual groups or organizations? No, but my boyfriend is a yoga instructor and I’ve been learning how yoga can be a very spiritual practice.

Class / economic background:
Were your circumstances comfortable when growing up, or not?
Yes, I was definitely comfortable.

— opportunities available (for education, work, career)? did you feel these to be limited or not? No, I had many opportunities

— effects of any of this on personal outlook? n/a

— did your circumstances change as you got older? how? what were the causes? Yes, because of my immigrant status it was hard to find a good job, so I don’t live as comfortably as I would want.

One last question: May I post your story on my face book group and blog? An answer of no is acceptable but I wanted to ask. Also, I can remove names if you like. Yes, you can post it, just make sure you cite me as the author please


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