Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Redux: Gay immigrants

Originally posted on Washington Blade, October 16, 2009.

Images from last week’s National Equality March shared and posted on the Internet feature the energized and bright faces of the next generation of activists - the Proposition 8 generation. Not as prominent, if visible at all, are the faces of immigrant members of the LGBT community. As a participant in an Asian Pacific Islander Welcome Event and Summit pointed out, “Many of us are barely out of the closet – getting political is the last thing in our minds.”

I do recall my own experience as an FOB (“fresh off the boat”), trying to survive in New York City while fast-forwarding my emotional, psychological and social development as a young gay man. However, I was luckier than most, as I spoke English and had resources, friends and a decent education which, to some degree, put me on par with most Americans. I also acquired some chutzpah early on, and was soon on my way.

Most LGBT immigrants are not as lucky. Most arrive in the United States armed with dreams, resolve and not much else. Many barely speak English and do not have the education or social capital required to achieve middle class status. Not only do they have to struggle for economic stability and jump through hoops to secure residency or citizenship, they also have to wrestle with coming out to their families and ethnic communities and figure out how they fit into the LGBT community. Often, these women and men are alienated from their own because they choose to live openly. Others feel insurmountable familial, cultural and religious pressures to remain in the closet and thus lead double lives. All this can last for years, even decades. Understandably, marching in Washington is something of which many LGBT immigrants cannot afford the risks.

However, like generations before them, LGBT individuals from all over the world come to America to pursue the promise of freedom, equality and opportunity. Some are escaping political turmoil or personal persecution. Others come to seek their fortune to take care of family back home while building their own future here. Most are drawn to the ideals upon which this nation was founded. We come so that we might live and love freely. In time, with hard work and some luck, many of us integrate into American society and the LGBT community.

We can help gay newcomers by welcoming them and by continuing our efforts to pass legislation that benefit us all. The Uniting American Families Act and the Respect for Marriage Act will allow binational couples and families to stay together in the United States. The repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" will keep gay immigrant soldiers fighting for their adopted country and eventually allow them to be proud and loyal citizens.

Moreover, reforming our health care and education systems; creating jobs; addressing the widening economic gap; and promoting gender and racial equity will also benefit foreign-born LGBT people who tend to lack access to health care, earn less than most Americans and are at the margins and lower rungs of society.

Those of us who are native born or have integrated can reach out to LGBT co-ethnics who are still trying to find firm footing. Within the Filipino American community, for instance, a friend points to the wall that stands between Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans) and Fil-Fils (Filipino newcomers), which has to be taken down. We can also educate our respective racial and ethnic communities about us, their LGBT sisters and brothers. Sadly, homophobia and transphobia are prevalent in African, Asian Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and other immigrant communities.

Our strength comes in part from our diversity as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; it also comes from our varied and multiple stories, origins and heritages.

You can follow Erwin on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.

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