They didn't choose their identities.
I would venture to say that most of our self-image lacks a choice in the matter. The sheer randomness of where we were born can be overwhelming when we actually think about it: our race, our gender, our economic placement, our nationality -- all random quips from nature placed onto us.
And for these youths, they struggle with identities that require them to confess that not only are they queer but that they are also undocumented. This double barrier--queer on one hand and undocumented on the other--creates a double closet, each of which one must come out of. Immigrants already face a liminal space of existence, that is, a simultaneous space where one belongs ("I grew up here, this is my home"/"I am Mexican, that is also my home in a sense") and where one is rejected ("But I am not entirely from here and I have no legal status"/"Mexicans don't consider me a real Mexican and I am rejected from there as well"); an in-between space that is neither grounded nor non-existent. Throw sexual identity into the mix and the instability of one's self becomes glaringly obvious.
The "undocumented closet" is not new, as more and more youth are creating a movement of sorts to address their lack of choice in the matter: they often came here at an extremely young age and, having been submerged American culture, consider themselves American. They are, in a sense, proud of their undocumented status. In the words of Miguel, it is not pride in the sense that they're proud to not have a legal status; contrarily, there is a sense of pride because he wants to desperately change the perception that "people think we are just ignorant and too lazy to apply for citizenship. People assume undocumented persons don't want to participate. Really? It just doesn't--doesn't--happen that way."
Miguel's family came here when he was young and following his life in California, he was part of the first group of youths to experience the benefit of California's AB 540 bill, passed in 2001 and permitting undocumented students who meet certain requirements to pay in-state instead of out-of-state tuition. His education altered the perception of his identity and knew it was obligatory to come out--of both closets.
"You won't get people to understand if you don't speak up. We're out there, y'know? You first have this internal struggle--being queer and what not. And then you have this whole public persona that comes into play with the fact that you're undocumented," he explained. "And being undocumented... It's not like sexuality where you're dealing with it [in your childhood and early teens]. I mean, it's talked about casually in your family but being undocumented doesn't really hit until you're out of high school. I believe you begin to solidify part of your identity in high school so when it hits, you have your identities merging."
This prompted Miguel to approach The Center in creating a programs that address undocumented LGBTQ individuals. The first program is simply titled UndocuQueer, which will showcase a film and host a panel discussion that is a collaboration between the Long Beach Immigrants Rights Coalition (LBIRC) and The Center.
Of course, the two closets weren't always holding hands. In fact, when Miguel first became involved in the undocumented movement, he was told--both via its leaders and the overall sentiment of the movement's participants--to leave his sexuality out of the equation. "They said to me, 'You're diverting the main goal of the movement, you're pulling us in the wrong direction.' I was told to just leave that on the side," Miguel said.
Diana, who has been here since she was five and just graduated from CSULB, along with Anissa, who has been here since she was one and is studying history at CSULB, are part of the undocumented movement as well--and recognize the intimate tie with the LGBTQ movement, even as straight women who are undocumented themselves.
"I think the whole conversation about undocumented identity and it's tie with queer identity," said Diana, "started out of the sense that there was no place for queer identity--just like undocumented identity. There was no place for it. And people started asking: If you're gonna talk about human rights this and human rights that...?"
The work these three individuals are trying to do is not being done alone. The concept of colliding identities, particularly undocumented queers, has been exemplified by Julio Salgado, a former student of CSULB who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area doing work with Latina artist Favianna Rodriguez. Undocumented and Awkward, a YouTube series chronicling the everyday struggles that undocumented persons face, features Salgado's double struggle with being gay and undocumented.
Conversations such as these are pertinent for Miguel, Diana, and Anissa--all of whom have experienced being rejected from a bar for a lack of proper ID or being unable to drive in order to make life easier. And do not expect a cry for sympathy; that is the last thing they want.
"It is just about making people understand a bit more," said Anissa. "I don't even recollect being in Mexico--where does that put me?"
UndocuQueer will occur this Friday, from 6:30 to 8:00pm at The Center Long Beach. For more information visit their Facebook page or contact Youth Programs Director Kyle Bullock at 562-434-4455, ext. 227. The Center is located at 2017 E. 4th Street.
Other events focusing on undocumented persons include:
General Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition Meeting, August 10, from 2:00p to 3:30pm at the Neighborhood Resource Center of Long Beach, located at 425 Atlantic Avenue.
Forum: Differed Action for Immigrant Youth, August 17, from 5:00pm to 7:00pm at The Little Brown Church, located at 600 East 5th Street.
Almost American, August 23, from 7:00pm to 8:30pm at The Center Long Beach.