Guest Blogger

Breaking Silence & Coming Out: Living in the Borderlands

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 04, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: borderlands, Brett Stockdill, gay immigrants, gay Latino, HIV/AIDS, LGBT immigration rights, Mario Sierra

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brett Stockdill is a queer, HIV positive activist, teacher and scholar in Chicago. He is an Associate Professor in Sociology, Women's Studies, and Latino & Latin American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. IMG_0659.JPG His four-part series, "Living in the Borderlands," will be running every morning this week. You can start the series with the first post, "The Odyssey of the Utterly Fabulous Mario Sierra

Breaking Silence in the Face of Death

"I know you can do it, you're a strong man." --Mario Sierra*

Upon returning to Venezuela in 1987, Mario finished high school and college. He became a "youth leader-preacher" in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and decided to not have sex with anyone for three years. This was out of a desire to "be part of the church and be holy," but it was also an effort to be with his family: "I knew I couldn't be homosexual in my family."

During this time, Mario had a girlfriend with whom he held hands and read the Bible. At the same time, he "was constantly dreaming about guys." Mario began to hear more about HIV, discovering that some men he knew in Texas were infected, some of them dying of AIDS. He was "horrified" about the possibility of being HIV positive.

After three years, at the age of 24, while still denying that he was gay - at least on the surface - Mario was drawn once again to the United States in hopes of gaining, "freedom and being able to express myself and do things..."

Mario returned to Texas in 1990. Nicolas was living in Los Angeles and repeatedly pled with Mario to come visit him. Mario finally relented. He vividly remembered the day Nicolas picked him up at LAX airport: "I will never ever forget that day... I was looking for Nicolas, the Nicolas I had left back in 1987. When he came to pick me up, he was - bones. He was so skinny and sick... He looked like bones, like a calavera [skull], like a skeleton walking."

Nicolas had AIDS. Mario tearfully explained: "He wanted me to help him get through his death... He would die loving me - that's what he said."

Incapacitated, Nicolas lost his electrician's job and was not eligible for unemployment or other benefits because of his undocumented immigrant status. Nicolas wanted to kill himself. Mario decided to stay in Los Angeles. He moved in with Nicolas, took over his job and took care of his former boyfriend.

Still mastering English, Mario was forced to navigate the dizzying maze of US health care, particularly when he forced a recalcitrant Nicolas to go to the emergency room for treatment of PCP (pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), an opportunistic infection that killed tens of thousands of people infected with HIV in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

During this time period, pervasive homophobia and other inequalities in the government, the mainstream media, the medical establishment and the church encouraged stigma, discrimination and violence against people living with HIV/AIDS. This persecution compelled HIV positive people of all backgrounds to lie to biological/legal families about their health and the health of their loved ones.

Nicolas instructed Mario to not disclose his illness when Nicolas's family would call on the phone. But as time passed and Nicolas's health deteriorated to the point where he was admitted yet again to the hospital, Mario finally convinced his former boyfriend that his family should know: "I explained to him why it was necessary, that I was not going to be able to do it on my own."

With Nicolas's consent, Mario told his brother. Devastated, Nicolas's family came together to support him, putting aside their prejudices in the face of death. Mario's decision to break the silence and tell Nicolas's family the painful truth allowed them to come to grips with his life as a gay man and his death from AIDS.

Mario explained that at the end of his life, Nicolas, "...wouldn't talk. He wouldn't eat. He was just laying there in the bed. So I talked to him, I touched him. I talked to him when nobody was around and I told him that if there's something that - to forgive me that he should--"

Here, Mario began to cry.

After a few minutes he continued, "I told him that I was very happy that we knew each other, and that he will always be with me. I said, "This is not a goodbye, this is 'I'll see you later.' Just hang in there, I know you can do it, you're a strong man." And he said, "Yeah, you too. Take care." He said, "I'm sorry." I said, "there's nothing to be sorry [Mario's voice trails off as he cries]." And that was the last time I saw him."

Nicolas died one week later. It was 1991, and Mario was 25.

Mario and Nicolas's story exemplifies the twin ravages of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic as well as the remarkable caretaking and family (re)building that allowed LGBTQ and other communities to weather the massive death of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Mario gave Nicolas solace as Nicolas grew sick and died. Mario demonstrated such devotion - labors of love - for his family and friends throughout his life.

Coming Out and Speaking Out

"I never stay quiet. I always speak my mind..."

Although Mario was terrified in the wake of Nicolas's death, thinking that he was "next," he put off facing the possibility that he himself might have HIV. In 1992, he fell in love and moved in with his supervisor, Frank, a construction worker from Louisiana. But Frank drank too much and did not acknowledge his relationship with Mario to any of their friends. Mario wanted more in a relationship and more out of life. When their apartment was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Mario left Frank and moved forward.

Now in his late 20s, Mario steered his way through social spaces that were often in conflict - gay and straight, undocumented and citizen, of color and white. He treaded cautiously, but confidently. As he traveled, he faced and grew better able to challenge xenophobia, racism and homophobia. In the process, his pride and consciousness as a gay, Latino immigrant strengthened.

Because he would not reveal his status as an undocumented immigrant, Mario explained, "I live in an underground world." Mario faced constant fear, particularly in the workplace, that discovery of his status would result in firing and deportation. When he left his job as an electrician, he lied to get his next job in 1995, indicating on his application that he was "a US citizen from Puerto Rico."

After years of economic hardship, Mario established a career as a highly skilled professional in high technology in the mid-1990s. Like millions of other immigrants, Mario paid income taxes and contributed to Social Security though he was not eligible for government assistance or benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (including disability) at the time.

Mario thoughtfully acknowledged that because he now spoke fluent English and was light skinned, many white people assumed he was a citizen - and white, lessening the impact of xenophobia and racism. He observed that other undocumented immigrants with heavier accents, darker skin or of Muslim background received much harsher threats and sanctions: "...the constant mental depression and trouble they go through is amazing."

Yet his relative privileges did not shield him from xenophobic, racist and homophobic stigma and bias. He endured varied slurs targeting immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ people both on and off the job.

For example, he related, "I can hear [co-workers] talking about gay people, and it's incredible what hypocrites a lot of people at work are. When there's a gay in the group, they go, 'Oh we're so accepting, we're amazing and we love you.' And when the guy leaves, it's like, 'that fucking faggot.'"

He explained racist and ant-immigrant discrimination are often "hard to separate." Mario recounted that he made less money than his white co-workers: "At work I see the discrimination in a subtle way, like in compensations and promotions."

Given his ability to - sometimes - pass as a white, straight citizen, it would have been easy for Mario to adopt a more conservative and less vocal political stance and to keep quiet about instances of bigotry. But, in addition to recognizing his privileges, Mario increasingly resisted xenophobia, racism, and homophobia.

Mario explained that when white people assumed that he was also white and made racist comments about Black and Latin@ people: "I never stay quiet. I always speak my mind and say what I have to say. I notice that that's a mentality, a way of living here in the States, where every race thinks they're better than the other... I don't dwell on that."

At times homophobia, racism and xenophobia affected Mario separately. At other times, they impacted his life simultaneously. Critical race and feminist scholars such as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw have applied the concept of intersectionality to identify and understand the various ways in which multiple oppressions interact. Mario related a harrowing event from 1998 that exemplifies the intersection of homophobia, racism and xenophobia.

A man approached him in a parking lot and asked him if he wanted to have sex. They talked in the man's car. When Mario then declined to have sex, the man, an undercover police officer, arrested him for lewd conduct. The police officer lied in the police report, saying that Mario had not only solicited sex, but had groped the officer's penis: "The whole story was changed around... Everything was changed around."

Such entrapment, which effectively criminalizes gay male sex, persists today across the country. This incident of homophobia merged with racism and xenophobia: the police assumed that because he was Latino he was an immigrant, which in turn put Mario in danger of deportation.

Mario's cleverly exploited white peoples' common failure to distinguish between different Latin American peoples and told the white officer he was from Puerto Rico - Ponce, to be exact. He spent much of his savings to hire a lawyer who plea-bargained the charge down to trespassing (in the undercover police car). The nexus of homophobic, racist and anti-immigrant policing makes immigrant queers of color extremely vulnerable to harassment and brutality, a vulnerability heightened in recent years by legislation that gives local law enforcement the power to enforce racist state and federal immigration laws.

Despite these and other incidents of discrimination, Mario continued to forge a productive and active life in the mid- to late-1990s.

He left the church for good. He met other LGBTQ people, went to gay bars, and explored sex, relationships, and dating. He came out to friends - both gay and straight - and embraced his gay identity in private and public. His identities as an immigrant, a Latino and a Venezuelan solidified.

In his late 20s and early 30s, Mario immersed himself in vibrant LGBTQ, Latin@ and Venezuelan communities that served as pivotal support networks. The most intimate webs of such networks, often called families of choice in LGBTQ communities, provide safety and resources for sexual minorities who are often alienated from, or even spurned by, their families of origin and larger society.

Immigrant support networks help members with such issues as legal advocacy, housing, jobs, childcare and education. These overlapping communities provide solidarity in the face of an often hostile dominant culture. In the face of multiple inequalities, Mario attested that having a support network is crucial.

"Absolutely," he said. "It helps a lot. I have a group of gay friends of different races, and it's really, really amazing. You hear a lot of different stories and share a lot of common things, problems. And even more, my group of gay friends from Venezuela, we come from the same background or similar, and - similar issues with families. And it's amazing that we give support to each other."

This latter group of LGBTQ Venezuelan immigrants - located at the intersections of different marginalized communities - shared experiences and perspectives on how to deal with their families of origin, in particular how to respond to family's persistent questions about marriage, pressures to get married, and the like. Mario noted that humor played a pivotal role in such discussions about family.

Mario actively participated in a wide array of cultural activities organized within these diverse communities. For example LGBTQ folks of Latin American and Arab descent regularly gathered to converse, drink, romance and dance at Rodolfo's, a gay Latin@ nightclub in Los Angeles. Such events exemplify the celebration of statuses - gay, Latin@, Arab, immigrant - that are frequently stigmatized by dominant society and embody resistance to the homophobia, racism, and xenophobia experienced in the family, the workplace, the criminal justice system and other institutions.

As he embraced his gay, immigrant and ethnic identities and spoke out against individual acts of bigotry, Mario critiqued and protested larger, systemic forms of oppression. For example, in 2000, he actively opposed California Proposition 21 (which mandated longer sentences for juvenile offenders, disproportionately poor youth and youth of color) and Proposition 22 (which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples).

When the millennium arrived, Mario had successfully fashioned a life for himself in Los Angles. Yet HIV still lurked in his mind. He learned more about HIV/AIDS, but when a boyfriend encouraged Mario to get tested, he "always found an excuse not to go.... Basically, I didn't have a sense of being in danger. Or maybe I was just not being careful because I thought in the back of mind that Nicolas died, why should I be different? I was just afraid to face it." T

his fear was widespread during the 1980s and 1990s among gay men and many others. Furthermore, LGBTQ people of color and immigrants faced a matrix of oppressions that often led to delays in testing, treatment and support. For immigrant men like Mario, this fear was frequently linked to undocumented immigrant status: "I was afraid of being [HIV] positive and not being able to deal with it. I saw myself on the street if I found out I was positive."

*Names of people and places have been changed for privacy/safety reasons

Living in the Borderlands Series


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