De Leon: Queer and Immigrant for the Holidays

Monica Alcota and Cristina

Monica Alcota and Cristina Ojeda, a binational gay couple in New York. (Photo: Maria Watts)

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Gay Voices blog.

The holidays are meant to be a time of merriment and family, but they are disappointing, even depressing, for some.

This time of the year can be especially difficult for immigrants who are separated from dear ones overseas. Many seek the company of compatriots to recreate festivities and meals that evoke their countries of origin. Often they turn to ethnic congregations for services consistent with their values and traditions.

Queer immigrants, like any other newcomer, can find the holidays tough. But it can be doubly hard for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants, as they feel left out not only by the mainstream but by their own families and ethnic communities which tend to be conservative and unwelcoming of openly LGBT individuals.

“My blood family and I had a contentious relationship due to my political involvement teamed with my sexuality and gender identity,” said K, who identifies as queer, transgender and of Philippine descent.

“Due to this, I was kicked out, homeless and estranged as a young person from my blood family. This has incited displacement, a painful sense of mobility and an instability that show itself during holiday time,” K added.

Tania, a community organizer at the Immigrant Youth Justice League and coordinator for the LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Project at the Association of Latino Men for Action, says her family has come around. They are more comfortable with her being out and she is able to bring her partner home for the holidays.

She nonetheless feels a great loss at this time of the year.

Tania is undocumented. Her parents brought their family over from Mexico 18 years ago when she was only ten years old.

“That’s really an important part of my identity because it’s something that has been true for me for most of my life,” she said, about living without papers. “It’s something that has affected every aspect of how I live.”

“It’s really difficult to listen to people’s plans of traveling at this time to a country where I can’t go even if I wish I could,” she admitted.

She sorely misses her extended family and laments the fading ties.

“I’ve lost touch with my family in Mexico, my cousins, my grandparents,” she said. “When I talk about Christmas and New Years and Three Kings Day as being family time, it really has only been my immediate family, my mom, my sister, my dad and myself, plus the few friends and chosen family that have also gathered around us, both from the LGBT community and the immigrant undocumented community.”

Many queer immigrants spend the holidays with “chosen families,” usually others who share their gender orientation and identity as well as their struggles in America.

Pia, a student and activist in San Francisco, celebrates the holidays with both her blood and chosen families. She admits that while her extended family does not object to her bringing a partner, she still feels invisible.

“My blood family never talks about my identity and sexuality openly, but they’ve all welcomed my former partners,” she said.

“At the same time, conversations regarding relationships – living together, how the relationship is going, “are you happy?” check-ins, marriage, or in my case, domestic partnership – are never afforded to me, the way they are so casually discussed with straight family members and their partners. While there is acceptance, there isn’t a genuine acknowledgement of my identity I feel like – even after they’ve seen me with a former partner for over three years and have considered that person a family member.”

Queer immigrants nonetheless do the best they can to commemorate the holidays.

K puts “great effort in being thankful for my shelter and home, having access to food, the people who love me and the communities who create joy with everyday social change. These activities are embraced with people who are my family in ways that have nothing to do with blood ties.”

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Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.  Feet in Two Worlds podcasts are supported in part by WNYC, New York Public Radio.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.