LGBT Undocumented "Unsung Heroes" Show the World Where LGBT and Immigrant Advocacy Intersect

Photo of Freedom from Fear Awards winners, courtesy of Carlos Quiroz

Hope is growing among immigrant and LGBT advocates and their allies after an LGBT-inclusive comprehensive immigration reform bill was introduced Wednesday by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), as the Immigration Equality Action Fund reported in a press release Wednesday.

Both the Senate proposal and the grassroots movement that fueled it highlight the connection between being LGBT and being an immigrant. Many people, because they are LGBT and undocumented immigrants, lack the protections they need to live a full life and thus need protections for all of their unique but intersecting identities.

Those who understand this very well are the accomplished, visible, and outspoken undocumented LGBT leaders who have played a major role in making remarkable gains in the immigrant advocacy movement. Through their advocacy, these leaders are not only inspiring and empowering others to come out as both LGBT and undocumented (no small feat, since it puts them at risk of deportation), but they are helping to further understanding between the two movements to create a fair and equitable society for all.

Take the example of the openly gay undocumented youth leaders who were announced as winners of the Freedom From Fear Award at this year’s Netroots Nation. Each of these leaders, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodríguez of the Trail of DREAMS and Reyna Wences and Tania Unzueta of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, bravely told their compelling stories to an audience of LGBT bloggers at the conference.

Get to know Felipe and Juan, who, along with two peers, organized and participated in the Trail of DREAMS, a 1500-mile journey from Miami to Washington, D.C., to create awareness about the harsh realities faced by U.S.-raised undocumented students. And also Reyna and Tania, who, inspired by the LGBT movement, organized the National Coming Out of the Shadows Day, a march to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in Chicago to demand Senator Durbin and President Obama to take leadership on comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act.

These and other undocumented advocates inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning, gay Filipino-American journalist Jose Antonio Vargas to come out as undocumented (and not “illegal,” as Colorlines points out) this week in an article in the New York Times Magazine, “shocking the journalistic world,”  as DREAM Advocate Matias Ramos wrote in the Institute for Policy Studies Blog.

Jose Antonio Vargas, courtesy of Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In the article, Vargas talks about how at the age of 12, his mother made the difficult decision to send him to the U.S. for a better life.  At 16, he discovered he was undocumented when he decided to apply for his driver’s license as many of his friends had. After handing the DMV clerk his green card, the clerk gave him the shock of his life, telling him, ‘‘This is fake…Don’t come back here again.” Though upon reflection he is very proud of his accomplishments, he writes:

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them.

These leaders’ stories are important because they shine a light on the struggles of less fortunate undocumented people—LGBT or straight—whose stories and lives are relegated to the shadows. For example, the story of 17-year-old farm worker Maria Isavel, who died of heat exhaustion in 2008 as a result of cruel and inhumane work conditions of extremely limited access to water, shade, or rest. Or the countless examples of undocumented people who are forced to live in constant fear of deportation, family separation, and workplace raids; and who endure racial profiling on a daily basis and sometimes are even murdered or beaten because of their  race or legal status.

But these leaders’ stories can also serve to shine a light on the struggles of countless LGBT people—undocumented or not—who, with or without non-discrimination laws, face hardships in finding and keeping employment and housing, or not being able to walk down the street without being called slurs, or who are murdered or beaten, because of their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity or expression.

LGBT people can be undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants can be LGBT.

Let us take the examples of all these unsung heroes and learn about another’s struggles and work together to build acceptance so we can all live free from fear, free to love, create, and protect.

Take a look at a video of the Freedom from Fear Awards winners speaking at the 2011 Netroots Nation LGBT Netroots Connect pre-convention: