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Somos Familia: The Intersection of Queerness and Latino Culture

Vanessa Macias, Staff Writer

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With huge buildings looming overhead flanked both sides, I walked down the streets of San Francisco until abruptly stopping in front of a set of ornate, golden doors. As I stepped inside the building, I was instantly taken aback. The floors were a cold, white marble. The same gold detailing decorated the other doors and the ceiling stretched high. Escorted into an elevator, nervousness and excitement coursed through me. When I finally got to the eleventh floor and walked down the hall, I stopped at a door decorated with construction paper hearts. I had arrived to Somos Familia, a San Francisco-based resource center that educates and facilitates Latinx families on the journey of coming out.

On July 3, I met with Rio Flores and Maritza Martínez from Somos Familia to discuss the reality of being a queer Latinx. Geared towards creating “support and acceptance for Latinx lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning youth and their families,” they allowed me to discuss white-washing inside the queer community, the effects of a Catholic culture on family acceptance, mental health, toxic masculinity and, of course, the process of coming out. All topics near and dear to my heart.

As a bisexual Latinx, my identity is the intersection of queerness and Mexican culture. Because of generational differences and a culture still based on Catholicism, those two things don’t exactly coexist peacefully. My parents don’t understand the difference between gender and sexuality, including the sexuality spectrum. However, as a community, I am confident Latinxs are working towards the coexistence of queerness and Latinxness.

Studies cited by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), show that youth are constantly teased, harassed and subjected to violence because people believe they are LGBTQ-identifying. Moreover, queer youth who are rejected by their families have 5.9% more chance of having mental health issues and a 3.4% more chance of developing alcohol or drug abuse than those who are accepted by their families, according to a study by the San Francisco State University.

Together with Somos Familia, Martínez and Flores educate, build trust with and encourage community support for Latinx families of queer-identifying people. Martínez says the organization’s goal is to not only educate on queer themes but also to normalize queerness, as this bridge between education and acceptance is a key part of the coming out process.

“[Mental health awareness] it is a motivator for families,” said Martínez “For us to talk about it in a way that’s like here are the statistics your child is eight times more likely to commit suicide if you dont accept them. Here are the statistics. It is a motivator it is like a wake up, some people say it’s like in baso de agua a la cara, a cold glass of water to the face when you see these numbers … Motivating families to try to understand and to try to [have] a minimal amount of acceptance. Don’t kick your kid out of the house. Don’t slap them across the face. That doesn’t feel like acceptance but it’s like one of the baby steps.”

For many queer kids, including myself, coming out is neither a safe nor realistic option. The reality is many parents will disown or evict their own children once they come out. I deeply yearned to feel even that smidge of acceptance and comfort from my parents. I saw Martinez as the maternal support I never had, the mother who could walk me down the aisle to my future wife.

“In the [conference] that I was talking about [before] something that has stayed with me for a while was there was this one workshop that I helped facilitate, the subject was about coming out,” Flores said, describing her coming out experience. We also discussed that for trans and non-binary people, coming out does not happen only once. In reality, it is a process of coming out many, many times. “Especially as a trans person you feel like you’re coming out everyday,” Flores added.

The thought of coming out daily terrifies me. I feel unprepared to come out to my family. However, I crave to feel the comfort and security in my identity I could feel once I come out. The pride and freedom to be wholeheartedly me. The fear of coming out and being rejected by your biological family or even being closeted can cause heavy stress on queer folks, especially teens. The cycle of wanting to come out and being scared shitless is one of the factors that can spiral me into a depression. It feels like no option will yield positive results, either way, I’m fucked.

Queer and trans people are eight times more likely to commit suicide compared to cisgender heterosexuals. Paradoxically, Latinx culture tends to shame mental health issues as much as it does queerness. In my culture, coming out can be traumatizing. Plus, dealing with the trauma by being shamed further adds to it.

“There’s a lot of stigma around getting [or] taking medication, seeing a therapist,” Flores said. “The idea is like you are dirtying yourself or like being imperfect by taking medication or seeking that kind of help. Or not being strong enough or something. Which is very powerful.”

Their words struck a chord deep inside me. It brought me back to my pre-adolescent years, when I first began to come to terms with my sexuality. A young girl struggling with her sexuality, growing up in a homophobic household, I was constantly dealing with internalized homophobia and subsequent self-hatred. It didn’t help that when I came out. At school, I was bullied with slurs and sexualized by my male peers for loving women.

These emotions were magnified by my family when they shamed me. It took my family years to understand my mental health issues were like any other medical issue. It took me just as long to feel comfortable in my sexuality. My parents scolded and shamed me for my depressive episode. They threatened to send me away, insisting I was crazy when I was paralyzed by intense panic attacks. Not having my parents comfort or even understanding in such a time of need has caused me to be even more reluctant in coming out. It sometimes feels that both of these pieces of my identity cannot coexist.

I feel I must compromise either my queerness or my Latinx identity. I cannot have both.

“At least for my family, there was this story of ‘you have to fit into America,'” Martínez said. “You have to be the model person in America. Because we are foreigners here. And I feel like that’s true for a lot of POCs [people of color] folks … I think that’s where just having folks visible in the community. We’re okay. We’re here. We can make mistakes, it’s cool. Everyone makes them, we shouldn’t put this pressure on ourselves.”

Immigrants have so much pressure to fit in and be not only accustomed to American culture but assimilated. To do so they sometimes have to portray themselves as perfect as possible. And being queer or non-neurotypical is a black smear on their pristine image.

Recently Somos Familia, had held an encuentro to bring together queer Latinx youth and their families.

“[During the encuetro ] there was this one moment- there was this young person we had been working with for several years, I want to say three or four- finally brought their parent to this space,” Martinez said. “I remember them telling me ‘it’s my birthday and they put my dead name- which is the name they don’t use anymore- on the cake’. Like all of these things that were like so hurtful. and then the last day of the encuentro– like we had been trying to figure out how to work with this family and what was the thing that was gonna shift them- so the mom stands up and says ‘I’ve been talking to all these gender non conforming, gender queer youth, and I finally get it. And I’m gonna call my kid their name and use their pronouns. Is she gonna make mistakes? Likely… but I feel like it’s gonna be different for every person and for that mom it was hearing the struggles of other kids.”

By the end of the story, I was crying. The hot tears sliding down my face. My heart was overflowing with emotions I couldn’t even name. I felt disappointed that I have yet to feel that support and comfort from a motherly figure and hope that one day I could. Martinez sensed that I was upset and stood up to hug me. Softly she said, “I feel it, I’ve been there too, every single day.” And just for one second, I pretended I was in my mother’s arms.

Even though I’ve come out to my friends at school, I still haven’t come out to my family. In fact, they won’t read this. But I’ve found ways to celebrate my sexuality in private. Mostly I am excited about the future. A future where I can bring home my girlfriend to meet my family. A future where we can hold hands walking down the street. A future where I am not afraid to kiss her in public. Walking in the Castro, looking at the plethora of rainbow plastered on the buildings from top to bottom, my heart swells. This haven where queerness is celebrated proudly gives me hope, it gives me comfort.

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Somos Familia: The Intersection of Queerness and Latino Culture