I came to this country fleeing persecution for being gay, for being too femme, a faggot, a "maricón." I came to the United States hoping to find safety, away from all of the violence and hate I lived with in Ecuador. On the day of the Orlando shooting, I was reminded that the United States is still not that place for me, or for anybody like me.
The weekend of the shooting was supposed to be a weekend of celebration for me. On the Friday before, eight years after I arrived in this country, I became a United States citizen. It was a moment of pure triumph for me, finally seeing the rainbow after a huge storm.
I was so excited to call myself an American and call this country mine. As I was pledging allegiance to this country, I was being shielded from deportation, and with that, I finally felt safe and validated.
I fled Ecuador to escape persecution for being gay
I was outed to my parents when I was 18 years old. My parents, evangelical fanatics, did everything they could to "cure" me. My father routinely physically and psychologically abused me and regularly threatened me, saying he would break my arms and legs if that would stop me from being a maricón.
My mother never said much; she usually just stood there and watched as my father punished me for being gay. Crying every night, I would beg God to make me "normal."
When my family hurt me, I didn't have anybody to help me. To go to the police or some other authority would have meant risking my life. Every week, I read stories in Ecuadorian newspapers about gay people who were murdered, and the few gay people I knew in Ecuador were terrified of the police.
One day, I was unjustifiably detained by the police when they saw me holding hands with my then-boyfriend in a park. They wouldn't let us go, and they threatened to take us to jail unless we paid them a fine. Fortunately, I had some change in my pocket — after they searched us for more money, they were convinced we didn't have more and let us go. I was completely alone, at the mercy of my family and other people who hated me because I was gay.
I was terrified for my life. Being afraid and without the support of my family or my country, I fled to the United States hoping to be safe here. With just $200 in my pocket, I arrived in Florida on July 31, 2008. I was scared, and I didn't know how I was going to survive. In 2009, I was granted asylum by the United States government, and eight years after I arrived, I became a United States citizen.
Before Orlando, I thought America was a safe space
The night after my naturalization ceremony, on my first full day as an American citizen, I went out with friends to a gay party for Brooklyn pride. Pride has a very special meaning for me — it is how I celebrate my survival. As I was getting ready, I decided to put on eye shadow. With no shame, I left my apartment and started strolling the streets of Brooklyn in makeup.
I noticed how people looked at me while I walked. Some people laughed, others made faces of disgust, and others just couldn't stop staring. I felt uncomfortable and bothered by it, but since it was pride and I had just become a United States citizen, I felt empowered and unafraid. I kept my makeup on and continued to walk to the club.
I felt liberated when I walked in. I always do. I felt as if the walls of the club would protect me from all judgment, and that I had arrived somewhere where I could be myself. I was surrounded by glittery drag queens and sexy go-go dancers. Hundreds of other queer people like me had come together that night to dance and celebrate pride.
After Orlando, I felt my new country was rejecting me, just as Ecuador and my family had done
I danced unapologetically and freely. While I danced, Edward, Stanley, Luis, Juan, and hundreds of other members of my community were also dancing, at a different club a couple of hundred miles away. Like me, they were probably dancing to the Latino icons I love, like Thalia, Paulina, and Selena. If I had been there, I would have danced and twirled with them as we celebrated being different and having survived.
I survived that night. They were not as lucky. They were killed by an American monster who apparently hated us for being different. I could have been killed, too, if this monster would have seen me that night. He would have shot me for being a faggot who kisses other men, puts on makeup, and dances like a femme.
On Sunday morning when I found out about the mass murder at Pulse, I kept picturing me dancing at Pulse; me being shot. Suddenly those same fears I had felt when I lived in Ecuador came rushing back.
Consumed with fear, I was fixated on the news, as leaders and politicians made statements about this tragedy. All I was hoping was to find consolation and support from them, but to the contrary, I realized that the killer was not alone in wounding our community.
Honor the Pulse victims by keeping our borders open
Some of our leaders refused to say the word "gay" in the aftermath of the shooting. They couldn't bring themselves to say it because of their own homophobia. Congress provided the shooter with the tools to kill when it refused to pass reasonable guns regulations. The country filled the killer's head with hate when it refused to make places outside of gay clubs safe for our community. Or when it denied us access to public bathrooms and refused to serve us food at pizza places.
The United States propagated this killer's hate when it deported and jailed our community of color and when it supported politicians who passed laws to legalize discrimination against us.
Later, I would hear politicians use this shooting as a platform for their anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, when many of the ones killed and wounded were themselves immigrants and sons of immigrants. The billionaire standard-bearer for the GOP stated that immigrants were "pouring in" without any screening, vowed to "suspend immigration from areas of the world" he sees fit, and swore to weed out immigrants based on their religion.
He was supported by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who said the speech "showed leadership and strength," and by Peter Hoekstra, who said the remarks were about "protecting the values of the West" and agreed with the call for restrictions on immigration too.
This rhetoric felt like an attack against me. I suddenly felt unwanted and that my new country was rejecting me, just as Ecuador and my family had done.
As these politicians and their followers talked about closing our borders, I imagined hundreds of our brothers and sisters around the world taking arduous and dangerous journeys, leaving everything behind just like I did, with the hope that they will find in the United States a place to be safe. What would they do if they got here and found our doors closed to them? Where would they go? Where would I have gone if the United States had closed its doors to me?
Eight years ago, the United States opened its doors to me and allowed me to be myself. During these past eight years, thanks to the protection this country gave me, I became a lawyer, married the love of my life, and recently became a law school teacher.
I wouldn't have been able to do any of these things if the United States hadn't been there for me when everybody else turned their back on me. If this country hadn't welcomed me then, I would probably be dead today.
This country offered me the refuge I needed when I was most desperate to find freedom. Its laws allowed me to be gay as it protected me from my persecutors and just recently allowed me to wear makeup on the street without being beaten up or jailed. Now that our country has experienced how deadly homophobia can be, we should understand why it is so important to open the doors of our country to people who experience it outside of our borders.
My father died two years after I left Ecuador. Just before he died, he finally accepted me as a gay man after he learned that I was never returning to Ecuador. He realized that I had found a place where I was accepted and where being gay was okay. Knowing that I was accepted is what allowed him to love me again.
If there is something that we can do as a country to honor the lives of the 49 people who died in Orlando, it is to keep our borders open to the persecuted and guarantee that they enjoy the same rights and protections that any other American enjoys. Doing so would be the best way to honor the lives of those 49 people who died at the hands of homophobia.
The United States is still a much better place than hundreds of other countries when it comes to protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community. It is not, however, a completely safe place for me or my kind. Orlando painfully reminded us of that.
We have a duty to remain better than others at protecting these rights, and it is our duty to keep expanding, and not limiting, those rights. Let's be truly American and open our doors to all the tired, to all the poor, to all the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer of the world who are escaping death in their countries.
Anything short of it would be to betray the lives of the 49 who died believing they were free in this country.
Luis F. Mancheno is a clinical teaching fellow at the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He received his JD from Roger Williams University School of Law. Following graduation, Luis worked for three years as an immigration attorney for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona and the Bronx Defenders in New York, providing representation to asylum seekers and detained people facing deportation proceedings. He was born and raised in Ecuador and was granted asylum in the United States in 2009.
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