LGBT immigrants open up about their experience

Immigrants come to America for many reasons, and via many routes, as they have for centuries. When they arrive, especially if they have not come for a specific job or to join a particular community, they often find themselves isolated by linguistic and cultural barriers. LGBT immigrants are often further isolated within their U.S.-based families and immigrant communities, when those support groups not open to homosexuality. LGBT immigrants, then, are often faced with the prospect of living as an invisible minority-within-a-minority (or in the case of undocumented LGBT people, an invisible minority-within-an-invisible-minority).

As Renata Soto, co-founder and executive director of Conexión Américas, explained, “There are a lot of illusions. For many LGBT people, it’s what brings them here. They come here so they can be who they are. Even if that’s not why they come, they assume coming will allow that. This is not to say that when they get here, this is what happens: They find that a lot of people are excluded in this country too.”

Out & About Nashville sought to provide a window into the LGBT immigrant experience, but this was even harder than anticipated. Many did not want to talk about their experiences publicly, even anonymously. Some didn’t think their experience relevant: many went through the legal process completely closeted, came from countries where LGBT people are broadly accepted, or have little to do with immigrant communities. Immigrants from homophobic cultures feared further isolation and family shame. For undocumented immigrants, these fears are compounded by the danger of being identified (President Obama’s executive order notwithstanding).

Our cover model, Benji Camarena Garcia, is from Mexico. He came to the U.S. by bus from Guadalajara, Mexico, just two-and-a-half years ago, entering legally on a work visa. “I came to Nashville to work at a Mexican restaurant owned by some distant family members,” he explained. “I could not speak any English, but have learned a lot and have taken some ESL classes at Vol State. I started out as a runner and worked my way up to server.” Life hasn’t been easy. "It was an exciting, and lonely experience,” he said. “I miss my family, but I talk with them regularly. I work very hard, typically six days a week, at least 10 hours a day.”

Coming to America has brought Benji freedom to open up about his sexual identity, but there are limits. “I have made no secret of being at my workplace or to anyone I have met here in the United States. My coworkers have generally been very accepting and supportive,” he said. “But the Mexican culture is very macho and Catholic, so it’s not generally supportive of being gay. My family doesn’t know I’m gay, but I have close friends from Mexico that are aware.”

“The culture here generally seems to be more accepting,” Benji confirms. But among fellow immigrants here, there are difficulties. “In the Mexican subculture here, it can be very hard to be openly gay as a Mexican.”

JF Lagunas can well attest to this. He was brought to this country as a child in 2005. “There were a lot of factors [that brought me here],” he explained. His father’s family was wealthy, but his father abused his mother for years. “When I was three, my mother decided to immigrate to the U.S., but because of my dad’s family’s connections, they took us away from my mom, and I grew up with my paternal grandparents.”

Neglected by his father, Lagunas suffered years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of other family members. When he was twelve and finally told his mother about the abuse, she went back to Mexico and took her son, bringing him illegally to Nashville to shield him from his father’s influential family. When he came here, he, like Garcia, had no knowledge of English. But Lagunas’ mother had established a strong network and ran a business here, so there was more support.

Lagunas was fifteen when he first told a female friend he was bisexual, but he kept that secret carefully guarded. That did little to shield him: “My mom’s ex forced me to drop off school when I was 16. He told me that if I didn't bring in money to pay my own bills, I could get the fu(& out of the house!” His mom suffered physical abuse, and was threatened with violence if she left the man. “He found me a job where he worked at that time. He told everybody there that I liked to get fucked, making fun of the fact that I was raped, and then most of the Latinos would call me gay slurs all the time, or tell me what they were going to do to me.”

For the years he worked there before he came out, Lagunas suffered this abuse. Coming out also made it clear that his wider community hadn’t left behind its repressive norms either and made him reticent of talking to anyone about his sexuality, especially Latinos. “When I did finally come out, I was rejected by so many. So if I don't have the need to, I would rather not tell people about it, just to prevent problems, but I'm proud of my sexuality.”

Later, his mother’s ex would try to kill both Lagunas and his mother, but they cooperated with police, and the man was sent to jail. “We were able to move on to a better life. Then I got another job, met some LGBT people, and I began to feel more comfortable.” Further, because he and his mother cooperated in the prosecution of their abuser, they applied for and received U-visas, altering their status and opening up more opportunities for them.

Lagunas has felt far more welcomed by the LGBT community than the immigrant community, though he said he has met a lot of others who sympathize, especially straight Latin immigrants who were also sexual abuse victims. Most of his support, he added, has come from governmental agencies and LGBT friends.

Not all immigrants experience the kind of overt rejection or harassment that Lagunas experienced. The third person who agreed to speak, Peter, did so on the condition of anonymity, despite the fact that he emigrated here legally. Peter’s family left the Philippines for increased opportunities. His parents were granted work visas. “My dad was an architect and engineer…. My mom got work as a school teacher.” The family came to Nashville after first moving to American Samoa.

Peter was seventeen when he arrived in Nashville, and here he came out. “My family,” Peter said, “was pretty good about it.  I was expecting worse, but they were supportive.” Nevertheless, the support only went so far, and didn’t extend to the broader Filipino immigrant community. “Being gay is taboo and no one ever addresses it openly.”

Being in America definitely made Peter’s experience easier. “Living here required a greater sense of openness. The Philippines is far more conservative and religious.  Since I did not grow up in the Philippines, I felt more comfortable being out.” His family knew coming here that they’d have to be more open to difference. Still, he said, “It's hard to be out here in the local community.  No one wants to talk about it but no one gives anyone a hard time about it either.” The stigma of homosexuality is silent, but deeply isolating.

Peter honestly couldn’t grasp what I was asking when I asked how his LGBT and immigrant identities influenced each other. “Those worlds exist far apart from each other.  It's kind of like a third identity apart from both my native and immigrant ones.  Those lines don't blur.  It's just easier that way.” Peter has never taken a partner to an event involving the Philippine immigrant community or his extended family, and he’s only taken one partner home for a visit with his immediate family. “I don't hide or deny that I am gay in any of these worlds, but I know where I am more welcome.”

Peter’s sentiment recalls Lagunas, who said he was proud of his identity but doesn’t bring it up if he can help it. Navigating the immigrant world and experience as a minority within a minority compounds an already hard existence, and adds difficulties all its own. As Peter said, “It took me a while to get to this place.  It's a hard truth in life that coming out doesn't just happen once in life.  It's awkward enough in a normal setting but put it in the context of a different culture and set of values.  It becomes a more formidable beast.”

Now imagine Lagunas’ position when he was undocumented. While he said that most whites he had encountered were accepting of him as a gay Latino, he added, “Yeah, they were cool if they didn't know [about my undocumented status].” Undocumented immigrants, like LGBT people, are constantly faced with the necessity of, or the opportunity to, come out. When you’re both, it must seem inescapable.

“I think Americans take a lot for granted,” Benji said. “However, you don't know what you don't know. They have not experienced the hardships and discrimination that we often experience in Mexico.” It’s equally true that we don’t know the hardships, both in terms of social isolation and exclusion and of internalized guilt, immigrants face when they come here.

And yet, while there are real difficulties, there are real rewards. “I came to the United States to find work and make money,” Benji said. “I never expected to find love like I did.  That has been the greatest surprise of all.”






For those who are in the country illegally, either having entered without inspection or having gone out of status, there are a few options for remaining in the country legally:

Path 1—Asylum. The process is complicated, requires experienced legal assistance, and rarely leads to a grant of asylum. Asylum must be requested within a year of entry.

Path 2—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This program, initiated by Obama in 2012 and expanded in 2014, allows illegal immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday (before 2010) to apply for a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. No path to citizenship.

Path 3—Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Part of Obama’s November 2014 Executive Action, DAPA offers protections similar to DACA for parents of children legally in the U.S. Renewable every three years, no path to citizenship.

Path 4—U-visa. Congress created the U nonimmigrant visa for crime victims who assist law enforcement with the prosecution of the crime are eligible to apply. This confers a documented status and therefore may open other legal avenues.


“Entry Without Inspection”: The act of entering a country without examination by customs and immigration.

“Undocumented Immigrant”: A person who enters the country without the appropriate permissions (visa).

“Out of Status”: A person who entered the country with the appropriate permissions, but whose status has subsequently changed. Generally the visa has expired and the person chooses to stay without appropriate permission.

SOURCE: Paula Auerbach, attorney



photo credit: Chris Walburn

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