Coming out for freedom

Angel is twenty-three years old. He came to the United States right after his first birthday. His six younger sisters were all born in the United States–only he and his mother are undocumented. In November 2011, police stopped Angel for not having a light on his license plate. The officer who stopped him appeared to be letting him go but another officer arrived and that’s when all congeniality disappeared. Perhaps he didn’t like the fact that Angel, returning home after an AIDS conference, was dressed in drag.

undocubus_charlotteWhatever the reason, they arrested Angel and put him on an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold while they investigated his residency status. As a result, he spent four months in a Metropolitan Detention Center before being transferred to an ICE Detention Center in El Paso, Texas and then back to New Mexico, where he spent an additional three months.

Seven months total—ripped away from his family, denied the right to a trial, treated like a criminal—all because of a missing light.

But even under these horrendous circumstances, Angel found a way to make a difference. On, he wrote, “Although I will never forget how hard it was to be in detention, I am happy that I was able to be out as a queer person. I feel like it gave courage to other people who were also LGBT when we were in detention. We would get together, and would talk back to those who were harassing us. It taught me to stand up for my dignity, and to support fellow LGBT people in detention.”

When ICE finally released him from detention in mid-June, 2012, he heard about Undocubus, the “No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice,” and knew he had to join them. This bus of undocumented immigrants planned to travel through the southern US in order to “confront power with the stories, voices, and actions of those directly affected by these immigration policies.” All along the route, which started in Phoenix, Unitarian Universalist congregations, in Denver, Albuquerque, Austin, New Orleans, Cordova, TN, Ellisville, MS, Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville, Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Asheville, Raleigh, and finally in Charlotte, offered them housing, meals, moral support, and their love. The forty or so riders came to appreciate our Standing on the Side of Love banners and t-shirts and expressed tremendous gratitude for our encouragement and assistance.

I met Angel when the bus arrived in Charlotte, NC, on September 3, 2012. By that time, he and the other riders had been on the road for more than a month. He told me he had to leave the next day, only a day after arriving in Charlotte and before the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the Undocubus’s final destination, even started, because he was taking his SATs the next day in order to get into college. Angel felt proud that he had come on this journey but missed his family and was anxious to get home to them. He hated being separated from them while he was in detention and told me he doesn’t believe anyone should have to go through what he did. That’s why he is continuing his work with Puente Arizona, who supported his mother while he was in detention, and with 3rd Space, a collective of queer migrants and people of color working on social justice issues in Phoenix.

Angel opened up a whole new world to me, the world of self-identified queers who are also undocumented immigrants. They call themselves Undocu-queers and they drip courage from their pores.

Because Angel was one of the first people from Undocubus I met, I assumed his story was unique. I asked him how he was accepted on the bus as an out queer. He laughed and said, “There’s a lot of us on the bus. It’s filled with queers.” It didn’t take long before I recognized the truth behind his words.

Some riders I talked with estimated that about half of them were LGBTQ people. One day, as an Undocubus news conference wound up just outside the gates from the arena where the DNC was going on, I asked a group of four young adults why they thought there were so many LGBTQ folks on the bus. They answered without hesitation.

“We already came out once,” one responded, “we’ve already had to claim our queer identity.”bus_charlotte

Another added, “This is another way we have to come out.”

“To be who we are,” chimed in a third.

One young adult explained further, “LGBTQ people have always been at the front of social movements. Look at Bayard Rustin who worked with Martin Luther King,”

Their clarity impressed me and their courage astounded me. They stood up against great opposition and proudly declared, “I am who I am and no one is going to take that away from me.”

Whether or not you agree with their strategy, these modern-day freedom riders, who rode thousands of miles through the hot August sun in a cramped, 1970s, un-air-conditioned bus, have to be admired for their willingness to put everything, even their own freedom, on the line to challenge a system that stands in the way of their dreams.

This post was originally published on blog.