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Coming Out As Gay and Undocumented: Interview With Marco Antonio Quiroga

October 9, 2015

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lobby day on Capitol Hill with LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. I was in a group with Marco Antonio Quiroga, the National Field Officer at Immigration Equality. Marco impressed me with the way that he talked to the Congressional staffers about urgent need to end LGBTQ detention. When I later learned that Marco, who came to the US as a child when his mother fled Peru, was out as undocumented, I wanted to know more. As we prepare to celebrate National Coming Out Day and continue to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, here is our conversation:

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Part of the LULAC LGBTQ Lobby Team: (Clockwise from top left: David Perez, Noah Lewis, Jorge Amaro, Marco Antonio Quiroga, Kayley Whalen)

Noah Lewis: What were some of the additional pressures and burdens you had to deal with as a result of growing up undocumented?

Marco Antonio Quiroga: I was taught at a very young age that I had to hide pieces of my identity from others. I was told that I should never talk about where my family comes from, where we live, or any struggles we were going through. My mom, a single-parent of four, emphasized that we were distinctly vulnerable. If people knew we didn’t have immigration documents, they could exploit us; and if the government found out, our small family could be separated from each other.

How did being gay compound the uncertainties of being undocumented?

As an undocumented and gay youth, fear casting its shadow over me is one of the earliest memories I have.

I grew up fearing police. I knew that if they questioned me, I did not have any identification. If they found out I was undocumented, I could have been thrown into immigration detention; a dangerous place where our LGBTQ community is ten times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted. It could lead to my deportation to a country that I have no connection to. Worse, for our LGBTQ community, deportation can be a death-sentence in many parts of the world. My biggest fear in the South was that police actively worked with immigration enforcement, and I knew my undocumented status placed my family in danger of deportation as well. There were so many uncertainties.

How is coming out as gay more challenging when you are undocumented?

Growing up, my family was the only support system I had in my life. Society rejected me for being undocumented.  Individuals I once trusted would, without really knowing me fully, make “those people” comments that made me terrified they would expose me.  The only people I could really trust with being undocumented were my family, and I was hiding from them as well. Coming out as gay risked everything; there was literally no where I could run for help.

Because of our undocumented status, unstable housing and homelessness was a harsh reality for my family. My mother is my (s)hero. She safely got us through it all. When I was 17, someone threatened to out me to my mother. Deep in my heart, I knew this would devastate her and it would devastate me in turn. Fearing rejection, I ran away. That is when some of my harshest experiences that I had to confront alone as an undocumented and gay homelessness youth began.

What led you to come out—as gay and as undocumented?

For me, being in the closet as gay was detrimental to my mental health and emotional well-being. For me, being forced to live in solitude regarding my undocumented status actually left me more vulnerable to being exploited, detained and deported.

I found a community that empowered me, led me towards liberation, and gave me courage. They articulated their experience as undocumented people with courage and from a place of power. They took me in and encouraged me to represent my full-self authentically.

You are a DACA recipient. What are the barriers you still face as a result of your immigration status?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was won by the community, particularly courageous undocumented youth who stood up and confronted power head-on. DACA gave me work authorization, lifting me out of the shadow economy. For the first time, I can access healthcare that is privately provided by my employer (DACA-recipients and undocumented folks are still not eligible to access Obamacare). My quality of life and members of my family that I support is generally better. However, DACA is temporary. Decision-makers in Washington weigh re-authorization every two years and could take it away at any point. Furthermore, many LGBTQ families and individuals do not qualify. My mother, here for more than 20 years, remains undocumented.

What advice do you have for people who are thinking about coming out—either as gay or as undocumented—but are afraid to do so?

Coming out is a process. Only you can choose when you are ready or when you are able. If there are people in your community working for immigrant justice, join them in whatever small way you can. Living in solitude makes someone who is marginalized even more vulnerable. Know your rights. Know there is a strong, broad and diverse community out there that cares for you. Know I care for you.

Not everyone has the courage to come out. How does your coming out affect people whose circumstances cause them to hide parts of themselves?

It does take courage, but I am actually really privileged to be at a place in my life where I am able to speak out. I see it as my responsibility to use whatever platform I have to uplift the countless undocumented LGBTQ folks in my community who do not currently have that option due to varying degrees of hardship and dangers it would impose on their lives. I am humbled, fortunate, and thrilled to be an advocate for my community.

The only difference between me and my undocumented, queer and trans community who have been criminalized, who are in prison, in detention, and fighting against deportation, is that I was fortunate enough to have a mother who re-opened the door for me to return home. I had a community provide me with opportunity.

How can LGBTQ organizations and activists better meet the needs of LGBTQ people who are immigrants?

There are over 267,000 LGBTQ adults in the US and many more children who are undocumented. They have families. Many do not qualify for DACA or any other form of relief. Four out of ten homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and many of those are undocumented. Many are particularly vulnerable to an immigration system that partners with for-profit corporations, like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, that profit from placing people in detention in private facilities that are extremely similar to or worse than prison. Some come from countries where conditions for LGBTQ people are life-threatening. Trans women of color are particularly victimized and criminalized.

We need LGBTQ organizations to call for an immediate end to inhumane LGBTQ detention. President Obama and decision-makers at the Department of Homeland Security have the authority, ability and responsibility to use their discretion to end LGBTQ detention today. We need local groups to support formerly detained individuals meet their basic necessities of shelter, food, clothes and healthcare. We need LGBTQ organizations to call for an end of dangerous deportations of LGBTQ individuals and their chosen families.

We can all do our part to make America a welcoming place for LGBTQ people who are simply seeking a safe place to call home.

By Noah Lewis, Policy Counsel, Trans/Gender Non-conforming Justice Project, National LGBTQ Task Force

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