When Charlotte held its candlelight vigil for Orlando last year, I went by myself. As usual, I lied to family where I was going for the night and made sure I had access to a quick exit if necessary. The amount of people I saw on arrival was equally suffocating and uplifting, and slowly, I made it to the makeshift front while greeting and hugging friends and people I knew. As one speaker ended, and there was a short lull before another speaker went up, an acquaintance on stage looked to me, pointing to the microphone. I looked around and realized I was one of the very few in a sea of people that embodied everything that was murdered that night: queer, immigrant, brown, Latin and bilingual. And, shamefully, hidden in the closet from the public and my family. For a split second, I headed towards the stage, but then stopped myself, shook my head no, and fled. It felt cowardly retreating, and an even greater shame enveloped me as I used my pre-determined exit strategy as quickly as possible.
A sickening feeling grew in me as I realized that the reality I lived was the reality that many victims of the massacre lived, and that there would be those that, rather than being mourned and remembered by their families, would instead be shunned, rejected and forgotten quickly once their identities were revealed. How much longer do I have to live like this? Por qué? Que tanto más tengo que sufrir en soledad?
It’s a question almost all of us in these communities go through, but if you’re queer, an immigrant, and Latin in Charlotte, it’s incredibly more layered and complicated. I grew up in Charlotte, in various communities that often intersect. I’ve been active in LGBT communities since I was a teenager (even serving as a youth board member at Time Out Youth, a small feat for somebody whose name can’t be published) and I was grateful for folks in the community for understanding my extreme precautions of not releasing my identity: Not one picture of my face, no connecting on social media, and always use alternative names. There’s always a moment of panic and fear when I introduce myself, presenting as queer, to Latin folk in Charlotte. Shit, do they know my parents? Should I use my other name? Do I need to have the long talk about how it’s not safe? Christ, what do I do? Recently, I went through UNCC’s Special Archives, and the sign-in sheets of various LGBT orgs, communities, and events. I recognized my handwriting, and the plethora of names I’d utilized (Maria was common). I was there, present, but invisible, as my real name was never seen. Will I always be invisible?
It’s a complex thing to explain to my friends and community that I’m out to, when being out and proud is more common than ever, and though I’m grateful that not many have dared ask, I feel now it’s more important than ever. For many of us, our life is our family. We grow up with the ingrained idea that no matter what, nothing is more important than our families. Our mothers and fathers crossed oceans and borders and even sacrificed their liberty for us, and they’d do it again in a heartbeat. As I grew up, I learned that family is not biological, but rather experienced and gained through love, support, community and solidarity. It was my friends that offered me a place to crash when needed, the librarians that aided me in graduating, the staff at a then-small org that supported me through legal troubles, and the people that stood in arms against the police during the uprising. However, my biological family is still my foundation, a core of who I am and who I see myself becoming. It’s something I refuse to give up, at least not yet, and it’s painful, and isolating.
Every year of Pride is not a source of enjoyment and carefree fun, but meticulous planning and fear. How do I go without being caught? Every year I go, and get caught. My friends don’t see me for a while after that. One year, I even helped plan the first major Latin Pride event: a Latin dance in the basement of 1900 Plaza (what I call Charlotte’s Queer Haven). My only condition was that my name never be used (as both my parents are prominent in the Latin community). The night of the event was one of the greatest of my life. Here, everything I’d ever wanted — to be free to dance to salsa, to speak about queer gossip in Spanish, to meekly ask a girl to dance while eating our food and dance the night away to cumbia — here, I was free to be everything that I am and who I am and just dance. It is a feeling — a couple hidden hours of freedom of ourselves — I know that the victims of Orlando sought for that night, and were killed for. The next day, my name was published in a Spanish newspaper article online, my name was immediately recognized, and my father notified. I didn’t see my friends or community for a long time after that.
When Pulse happened, I cried myself to sleep for months. I didn’t talk to anybody about it because I no longer knew anybody else in my position. How do you cope when everything you are is gunned down? How do you cope when it could’ve easily been you? I’ve yet to even utter a word about how it makes me feel, to this day, to anybody. The closest would be with a couple of close Muslim queer friends who are in the exact same position as I am; in the closet publicly, but queer as hell with trusted friends. We have a good time discussing the things we face that a lot of our gay or white friends wouldn’t understand, and how the Pulse massacre was used to further oppress Muslim folk, especially those in position.
I write this, not for a better understanding from folks who aren’t in my position, but for people who live my reality. For those of us who can’t think of loving another romantically in our native tongue, who hide from the flash of a camera and who use different names so our double lives never intersect, and want it that way for now. There are some things that don’t get better: the annual “talk” with my parents around Pride that results in my disappearance for a little while, the juggling of two lives, two languages and various identities. However, there are some things that do: earlier this spring, I went to a gay nightclub (for the first time since Pulse) with my partner at the time and some friends, and though the fear and panic persisted as usual (I had my escape route ready to go), I had fun. I was free, for a couple of hours, to dance the night away with my partner, friends and drag queens. For the first time, I thought about my queer identities and my love for my partner…in Spanish! And for the first time, I wasn’t ashamed of myself. I’ve recently made friends who are Latin, and understand without ever uttering a word the pressures I face of being queer and in our community. I have a mentor at school, whom I can look to as somebody that is so proudly themselves (Latin, scholarly, queer and unafraid) and I can see myself maybe being one day. That, for now, is enough, at least for me.
For people, mi gente, that live my reality, this is for you. I see you, as much as you try not to be seen. You are not alone. No estás solo. And I love you.