Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Queering Up the Family Vacation

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | June 15, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Arizona, First Nations, immigration, Latino, LGBT, movement, queer family, race

Basta!Immigration.jpgAbout a month ago my brother-in-law called from Puerto Rico to invite us to join in on an already planned family vacation to Sedona, Arizona. As the month proceeded, more and more family members were added to the impending family extravaganza. In the end, our not-so-little delegation included my mother, father, sister and brother-in-law, two nieces, my sister-in-law's mother, my partner, and me. Traveling in a pack is our specialty!

When the initial invitation was issued, we spent quite a bit of time talking about whether or not we should go to Arizona given the passage of SB1070, one of the most racist anti-immigration laws in the United States. In the past year this hateful law was not only passed, but Arizona has also banned ethnic studies from being taught in its public educational system . Institutional racism and anti-immigrant sentiment run deep in Arizona. We questioned what it would mean for us, as committed social justice organizers, to go to Arizona on a family vacation. We questioned what it meant for us as queer people of color to go to a state that has been at the epicenter of right wing activity.

We eventually decided to go for only one reason: to spend time with family and, in particular, our young nieces who we do not get to see often because of the distance and the cost of flying from Washington, D.C. to Puerto Rico. Given that we happened to have airline vouchers, we were able to fly for free to see them anywhere in the United States except Puerto Rico. With serious reservations, questions, and excitement about spending time with our nieces, we made the trek to Sedona.

And what a trip it was....

It was full of contradiction, including wonderful moments with family mixed with insights about queerness, class, and race. This week-long trip deepened my appreciation of family, broadened my understanding of race and institutional racism, made me grapple with the complexity of queerness, and inspired me to broaden my commitment to all movements and communities working for self determination. Spending a week in a place that is both so beautiful and yet so hostile to communities that I am either a part of or stand in solidarity with challenged me to reflect and connect some important dots.

For example, race was a salient issue throughout the week. When we landed in Phoenix we ended up staying overnight before heading to Sedona. We visited with old family friends from Puerto Rico, who had moved to Phoenix years ago. They tell us over lunch that we should always drive under the speed limit because "the police target Latin@s and other brown people."

As we drive around the state, I am profoundly aware of my light skinned privilege and the accountability I hold if something racist happens during our travels. Even though half the family is light-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes and the other half is dark-skinned, I was the only one in the group that was not Latin@ and did not have an accent. I was the only one that did not "look like" or "sound like" an immigrant (whatever the hell that means). Although I am darker than most of the light-skinned family members, what mattered was that we were in a place where darker-skinned people of color, particularly Latin@s, are systematically targeted simply for being black/brown. In this context I knew that I was probably the least likely to be targeted and that I had a responsibility to use that privilege to interrupt any racism we encountered.

For six days I was constantly aware of the power dynamic around us. I prayed that nothing would happen on our travels and, at the same time, I was prepared to be of service if something did. I was prepared to use my privilege in ways that would interrupt, stop, or challenge racism and racial profiling. Of course, everyone in our family is quite capable of speaking up and out for themselves. Yet, I was aware that having one non Latin@ person in the family might be useful in a difficult situation.Thankfully, my services were not needed this time around.

This trip was all about family, and over the past thirteen years my partner and I have had an incredibly moving experience with her family. Over time, they have come to support and embrace our relationship. We have witnessed a great deal of transformation as it relates to LGBT issues and this has led to more open conversations and direct expressions of support and love. Of course, this has had a major impact on the young people in our family. For example, on the second day of our trip our eight-year-old niece engaged me in a conversation that went exactly like this:

Niece: "Titi Lisa...are you gay with Titi Lisbeth?"
Me: "Yes, for almost the past 14 years."
Niece: "Some people think that is weird."
Me: "So what do you think about that?"
Niece: "I think that everyone should be able to love who they love."
Me: "I couldn't agree with you more mi amor."

After I almost melted over the way she asked the question "Are you gay with Titi Lisbeth," I reflected upon the fact that my nieces only have LGBT aunts and uncles. My sister-in-law's only sibling is a gay man who lives in New York. Queerness is a very intimate and real part of my nieces' lives. It's something they knew even before they could articulate it in words. The best part of this particular conversation is that my niece is now at an age where she is asking questions and expressing her own opinions in very loving and conscious ways.

Homo/bi/transphobia is intolerable to her because she knows that she is deeply loved by the queer people in her life. I am excited by a future full of nieces, including my sister's daughter, who are already demonstrating a radical form of love and openness that has the power to transform hearts and minds.

Speaking of hearts and minds, mine were transformed as I traveled through the many sovereign Nations in Arizona. Arizona is home to over twenty Nations, including the Apache and Navajo Nations. There are more First Nations reservations in Arizona than almost any other state. This allows one to witness both the complexity of First Nations communities and the depth of the appropriation of Indigenous land and cultures.

The revisionist history of "how the West was won" is told and retold consistently from the perspective of colonizing countries and institutions, such as Spain and the U.S. government, who stole indigenous land and claimed it as their own. The narrative systematically leaves out the fact that the land was not only stolen but that an ongoing genocide continues to be waged against First Nations peoples across the Americas.

All over Arizona First Nations cultures and land have been turned into artifacts to be displayed, bought, and sold for profit. Witnessing this hurt my head and heart. It has made me even more committed to engaging in deeper solidarity work with Two Spirit and indigenous people who are not only living with the occupation of their land on a daily basis but also with an LGBT movement that completely ignores issues of sovereignty and self-determination.

As a queer movement, self-determination over one's body and land should be a central tenant of our movement. As queer people, we have a long history of being denied self-determination over our own bodies, love, and desires. Why aren't we standing in solidarity with communities who are also struggling with self-determination in other ways? Why is it that the queer movement isn't connecting all of the ways our LGBT communities need and deserve self-determination?

There was nothing simple about this family vacation other than the wonderful time we spent with our nieces. There is something so direct, clear, and consistent about their love and affection that made the whole trip totally worthwhile. Yet, what was also important about this trip was that I had the opportunity to notice. To really notice queerness, race, class, family dynamics, sovereignty, and cultural appropriation in such profoundly interconnected ways. This vacation reminded me once again that the role of queer activists is to notice and pay attention to the complexity of the world around us and to use that awareness to work for justice.

Image courtesy of Ricardo Levins Morales


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Beautiful reflections, Lisa, about a beautiful and very troubling space and place. It would be my hope that, like you and I, many of our LGBT movement collegues will take the opportunities to visit and learn from the First Nations leaders and communities that thrive in many parts of this continent...not that the struggle is over, by any means! But we will each learn and grow from visiting and talking with First Nations people who must, each and every day, know that the spaces they live in now are mere shadows of their once great geopolitical tribal cultures, governments, and faith traditions.

I was born and raised in Arizona. As was my mother, her father, his father and mother and their parents. Arizona was a harsh yet beautiful place to grow-up. I will be the first to admit that our racial issues have always been just below the surface. In school my Latin@o peers were not allowed to wear shirts in Spanish because the teachers didn't know if it was 'Gang-Related'. I always found that odd. The white students could wear the Rebel Flag and nobody would say a word.

I remember our little school in S. Arizona being split between the 'Cowboys' and the 'Mexicans'. I tended to hang out with the kids who had one 'Cowboy' and one 'Mexican' parent. I always found this divide so weird. Interestingly enough growing up the Lati@os and the kids who were from mixed backgrounds were way more accepting and less likely to throw the Bible in my face about being a queer.

My state is so complicated. I have had days where I wish I could just pack up and go home to Arizona but, I am not sure I would have a place in my beloved home.