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LGBT and Latino 

It's hard for anyone to come out of the closet—but coming out while living on the border includes a special set of challenges

Oscar Jimenez writes, makes films and creates fashion with the help of his friend and muse Daniela Olea (dressed in a Jimenez creation in the background).

Mari Herreras

Oscar Jimenez writes, makes films and creates fashion with the help of his friend and muse Daniela Olea (dressed in a Jimenez creation in the background).

When the priest spoke to Oscar Jimenez and the other children in Sunday school, Jimenez felt himself shrink in his seat, certain the priest was looking right at him.

Jimenez slowly repeats the words the priest said that day. "'If you are a homosexual, confess your sin against nature.' I remember thinking, 'He's looking right at me.' I wanted to hide under my desk."

In Catholic circles, swapping crazy nun and priest stories is like swapping baseball cards, with everyone trying to tell a better story than the last. But when you're gay, like Jimenez, or when you're growing up questioning your gender and sexuality, being Catholic is even more complicated.

"(In Catholicism), hell is very, very real, and they talk about it in such detail. That's traumatizing enough. But when they tell you that you are a sin against nature, and you know that's never going to change ..." Jimenez says, looking down at his hands. He sighs. "Well, I prayed enough rosaries, and it didn't go away."

Jimenez, 35, who manages LGBT community center Wingspan's anti-violence program, says the fact that he was growing up on the Mexico-U.S. border further complicated his life. He was often lonely, and when it came time to come out to his family, he recognized he had to do things differently than others.

During his elementary school years, Jimenez lived with his grandmother in Lukeville, and on the weekends, he traveled over the border into Sonoyta to visit his parents.

The dichotomy between the two worlds grew as he got older.

"I definitely understood that on this side of the border, I could be more myself than on the Mexican side of the border. For that little queer kid, it was just two very different worlds," Jimenez says.

Still, he didn't learn to speak English until he was 5. "Because I was an alien, I felt apart. I spent most of my childhood feeling that way, and it was hard, but in only the last five or six years, I've really come to embrace that time and finally realize how special it was."

He wasn't angry about feeling different; he was confused. Jimenez says he's convinced that confusion fed his creativity as a boy and now as a man. When he's not working at Wingspan, Tucson's LGBT community center, he designs clothes, writes and makes films.

Jimenez cultivated an interest in fashion when he watched a Mexican novella on Spanish-language TV about a fashion model and "a very flamboyant fashion designer. Something clicked in me; I started to sketch. When my parents were away, I used to make things from old sheets or crepe paper, whatever was around."

As he got ready to leave home for college, he says, he knew he had to work extra hard to make sure he did what was necessary to prepare his family for his coming out.

"I think coming out for people who are Mexican or Latin is unique. It was for me," Jimenez says. "What I experience in my outreach at work is that for us, there is an extreme, fanatical loyalty to family. I didn't come out until I knew everyone was going to be OK. I didn't even begin to experiment with my sexuality until I was 19, and I knew everything was going to be safe—that my family wouldn't have to know. I waited until I moved out on my own."

Jimenez says he remembers talking to his mother about moving to Los Angeles or New York, and she'd remind him that life would be more difficult for him if he was away from family: After all, what if his car broke down, or he got sick?

"I've heard George Lopez speak about this in his act: It's like this fear is instilled in us, and I think it is very true. I work with a lot of young people whose parents are very harsh on them. When they finally come out, they are encouraged to seek therapy or to see a priest," Jimenez says.

Experiences like these fueled the local creation of Latin Pride three years ago. The week-long Wingspan program is held during Hispanic Heritage Month in September, a few weeks before Pride in the Desert, the community-wide event that takes place this weekend.

Jimenez says Latin Pride started when he was working as a bilingual anti-violence advocate and running a program at Wingspan called Puertas Abiertas, which specifically worked to decrease social isolation and increase the awareness of violence in the LGBT Latino community.

This year, Jimenez says, more than 350 people participated in Latin Pride, and each year the number grows—as does the acknowledgement that a specific LGBT Latin event in Tucson is necessary.

"If you open Out magazine or The Advocate, your young Latino person is not going to see themselves reflected on the pages. ... You look at a film like Milk. We know there were a lot of people of color doing organizing back then in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the only Latino character was this sexpot whose name was Taco. I saw a lot of mainstream media praising the movie, but from my perspective, I couldn't agree," Jimenez says.

Another reason to have a specific Latin Pride event is to counter elements of Latin culture that discourage pride.

"Growing up, you are taught to work hard, and then you have that religious upbringing, where wanting more ... or having pride is sinful. Here I am, 35 years old, and I've seen a good chunk of the world, and still, it is something I have to fight," Jimenez says. "My family has had a real hard time with some of the exposure I've received, and I feel they are a little resentful. I am breaking the mold ... and it's uncomfortable. I've had a lot of backlash. Certain people, I don't speak to right now, because of my work on immigration issues, and the visibility I've had. And on top of this, the queer issues ... it is too much for them."

Despite these issues, it ended up being easier to come out to his family than he originally predicted. In his teens, he had nightmares about his family kicking him out, and detailed anxiety dreams in which he wasn't allowed to be around his younger cousins, whom he adores.

Jimenez says that when he fell in love with his lab partner in a film class he was taking at Pima Community College, he knew he could no longer hide who he really was.

"So I told my sister, and she told my mom, and my mom came to visit. She said, 'Mijo, I hear you have something to tell me.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' even though I knew what she was talking about. So we had a big conversation. She said, 'All I want is for you to be happy.' I was blown away. It was a Mexican Norman Rockwell moment. But at the end, she said, 'I just never want to see you in a dress,'" Jimenez says.

Guess what? Years later, Jimenez discovered drag and began entering competitions and shows under the persona Heather Boa. In 2006, he won Miss Gay Tucson America.

"This is how fabulous my mom is: She went on to make me a sequined gown for that event, hand-sewn. And she was there. She went to all my competitions. She has my picture up in the house of me in drag," Jimenez says, looking off for a moment in disbelief of how accepting his mother has been of her oldest child and only son. "She's been amazing. She is an amazing woman. ... She was raised right on the border, in a smaller town than even where I grew up. Her father prevented her from getting her education. She wanted to go to school to be a teacher, but he said no. He wanted her to be a housewife: 'You're going to marry into a family with money, and you're going to raise kids.' So this woman made this dress for me, for her son," Jimenez says.

"She lives her faith fully. We have a lot of conversations about what it means to be Catholic. She is the most amazing Catholic I have ever met. She puts love above everything. I'm blessed."

It was drag, Jimenez says, that helped him heal from what he calls the traumas he experienced while growing up gay and Mexican. It helped him meld his culture and his sexuality, and helped him counter the machismo of Mexican culture.

As he grew up, he forced himself to talk in a lower register, even though his natural voice is not particularly high. He also forced himself to control his hand gestures and the way he held his arms when he walked.

"You know, I'm a big guy, and I would take advantage of that and be as macho as possible—and I thought about that every night when I was getting ready to do a show in drag as Heather Boa. As I would put on my face, put on my eye makeup, my eyelashes and whatnot, it was a big 'fuck you' to that dangerous culture that doesn't allow this," Jimenez says.

"I grew up thinking that men didn't love, honest to goodness. I remember one summer visiting family and seeing an uncle of mine telling his young son that he loved him, and (he) picked him up and kissed him, and I was, 'What the hell is that? Men are allowed to love? They can have feelings?' I had the belief in me that men didn't love, because if they did, then how could my father be the way he was? So just doing the makeup, and you know, letting go of all that tension—'I'm going to let my shoulders down; I'm going to wear this fantastic gown, four-inch heels'-doing drag was one of the most healing things I've ever done in my life."

Angela Soto's coming-out experience was different than that of her friend Jimenez. It took her decades—and a failed marriage—for her to face the fact that she is a lesbian.

Soto, 49, recently left the Arizona Daily Star as a news assistant after working there for 25 years, and is now pursing a career in film and videography. She is a third-generation Tucsonan who grew up on the southside and graduated from Sunnyside High School, the youngest of five children.

"I have a sister who is a year and half older than I am, and she is a lesbian, and she came out first. She was 15. This was back in the '70s, and it wasn't a very good experience for her," Soto says.

Soto saw that her sister's coming-out wasn't easy for her mother, so Soto kept quiet.

"While I probably knew I was gay in the fourth-grade, I didn't realize it until I was in high school at 18, but I was still in denial. I got married in my late 20s. I thought maybe it was something that would just go away. I wasn't really sure. We didn't have a lot of information about it when I was growing up. I knew I was more comfortable with women, but then I knew that I was attracted to women, too, and I was trying to figure out if everybody else was like that," Soto says.

Eventually, Soto says, she got divorced, and a lesbian Latina group that met regularly at Wingspan helped her come out in the mid-1990s.

"That's when I finally saw that there are other women like me. You go into a young age, puberty, and you're around your girlfriends," Soto says, explaining how she felt in her younger days. "You have this instinct to take care of them in the simple sense—opening the door, or buying them flowers or chocolates. I knew that was a male trait, but I didn't have the information that told me I might have that 'male gene' that obviously straight women don't have," Soto says.

It's been 15 years since Soto came out to her family, and in 2006, she had a commitment ceremony with her partner, whom she's been with for 10 years.

"That was a little hard for my family members to come to, but they did, and they are great. I think they realized watching us that we live our lives the same way they do. I think they are probably more accepting of who I am because I'm not a flashy person. I think I do it subtly. I've been with this woman for more than 10 years. We march for our rights; we contribute, but it is subtle. I think that's the kind of stuff that opened up my family's eyes, especially for my brother and sister, who are much older than I am," Soto says.

Soto says she felt an immense release when she finally came out to her mother.

"I didn't care what anyone else thought—as long as I knew she accepted me, then I felt like everything was going to be OK," Soto says. "I think the guilt and this huge desire to please your parents—and then working so hard to be normal in a world that always makes you feel abnormal—is a Mexican gay experience."

Soto's friend Norma Galindo, who oversees telecommunications and technology networks for the Tucson Unified School District, had a similar experience.

Galindo, 61, says she always knew she was different while growing up, but like Soto, she got married anyway.

She had two daughters, and when she came out, the experience was heartbreaking. It's still difficult for her to talk about it.

"In the Latin culture, the attitude toward gays and lesbians makes it difficult to come out. I think I married because of social pressures, and the stigma was huge back in those days—the late 1960s and '70s," Galindo says.

When she was a teenager, she did come out to someone, but the experience was a disaster.

"I told myself, 'No, I can't do this,' so I married, and I had children."

After 15 years of marriage, she divorced. Galindo says she and her ex-husband decided to end their marriage for reasons other than her sexuality—but it gave her the chance to finally be who she really was.

Galindo says she chose to come out to her sister first, and her sister convinced her to finally talk to their mother. She did this on the phone.

"My mother's reaction was complete silence, so I said, 'This must be very painful for you. I'm going to let you think about it, and I'll talk to you about it later in the week.' Since then, the subject has never come up again. My partner and I visit for family functions, and she comes to visit us and stays with us, and so do my aunts, uncles and cousins," Galindo says.

A lesbian co-worker introduced Galindo to the Tucson gay and lesbian community. Back then, bars, like Ruby's and Colette's, were the places where people met. She started helping do the design and layout for the Rubyfruit Journal, a local lesbian magazine.

Like Soto, she also became active with the group at Wingspan called Lesbianas Latinas.

"Back then, it was really active. We hosted a huge conference in Tucson and had people come here from all over the country," Galindo says.

While she made her way through the lesbian community, she also had to work extra hard to be part of her daughters' lives. When she came out, her daughters were 12 and 10 years old. The divorce was difficult on them, but having a lesbian mother was worse.

"They decided they didn't want to be around me, and wanted to live with (my ex-husband). I remember my therapist at the time telling me, 'You can continue to push it, or you can back off,' so I chose to back off. For a couple of years, they chose not to visit or talk to me, but I still did what I could. I'd go to all their school and sports activities," Galindo says.

She stops and looks away. Her eyes well up with tears.

"Man," she says, "I still get choked up. It was a real hell."

One day, she decided to call one of her daughters and ask if she wanted to go out for Chinese food for her birthday. She said yes, and soon, her other daughter decided to have a birthday dinner with Mom, too.

But soon, her ex-husband and their daughters moved to Minnesota.

"It is hard, but because of my determination, I now have a good relationship with them, especially with my youngest daughter," Galindo says.

When she and her partner went to Canada to get married in 2006, she invited both daughters to be her witnesses, but her older daughter stayed behind.

"Only in the last couple of years have we had a better relationship," she says. She visits Minnesota often, especially to see the five grandkids she now has. "They are wonderful, and I love them so much."

The recent suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi—after his roommate streamed a video online of him having sex with another man—and the suicides of younger kids bullied and harassed for being different trouble Galindo. She says her work in the school district provides her with a perspective that other TUSD employees may not have. The suicide rate for gay and lesbian teenagers is higher than the national average, and she wishes more could be done.

"I would have liked to have been more of an open role model for the students I've come across, but I wasn't able to do that. I have always recognized certain students, but I couldn't reach out to them and say, 'You're OK. You'll get through this.' This was long before schools started to allow gay-straight-alliance clubs," Galindo says.

About seven years ago, she was walking around during a gay-pride event, and she saw a former student, a talented basketball player, who she remembered.

"She came walking up the sidewalk and said to me, 'Why didn't you tell me?' I explained that I couldn't, not in that environment. But I hope things change. If the opportunity became available to be a contact person for gay and lesbian kids, I would jump at the chance."

Although it may be a bit easier for LGBT kids these days, Galindo says some of the pressures that keep Latino kids the closet are still there, in the culture and in the Church.

"I'm 61 years old, but even today. I argue with my mother: 'Why don't you go to church?' But why would I go? They think I'm a sinner," Galindo says.

Jimenez and Soto have discovered a way to express how their culture and sexuality intersect—through film.

Jimenez has worked on a couple of experimental shorts, and in January, a 35-minute film he made was screened at the Loft Cinema. He is also in post-production on another film, Winky Smiley Face, "which explores monogamy and what it means to be loyal."

He's finishing a film script called Tineablas (Absence of Light) that he describes as "a cautionary tale for those who go into a relationship without self-awareness and self-respect. It tells a story of a man who is pretty self-destructive, because he doesn't love himself yet."

Jimenez says he'd eventually like to open a Latino-specific art space that could show art, fashion and local films.

"I think it could be easier if I wasn't in Tucson, but I don't know if that's really true. I want to work here. My ties to Tucson and to this desert are so strong. I love it. I'm drawn to these two worlds that are the borderlands. I can always visit New York," Jimenez says.

Soto, who studied journalism at the UA, says she used to consider herself a writer first. Then she discovered photography and got hold of a video camera—and realized she could tell stories on film.

When she first was able to use professional equipment thanks to the the local film cooperative Pan Left, Soto plunged in and made her first hour-length feature film—a lesbian love story. It screened at the Wingspan film festival in 2006.

"I got my friends and family to put this thing together. It was crazy, but I'm so glad I did it that way, rather than putting obstacles in front of me. I wrote this script, and the next thing I knew, I was doing storyboards and getting friends to act in it," Soto says.

Since then, she's made a couple of documentaries that she's sent on to film festivals, including one she is particularly proud of called Vincenta, about her late mother's life. Another documentary, La Virgen de Guadalupe, won a cash prize at the Nuestra Raices Film Festival.

She's currently working on a documentary about Tucson artist and muralist David Tineo.

"I met David through a friend, because he was looking for somebody to film him making a painting. I did that, but since then, we've become friends, and with him, I'm learning his life story. He's unveiled his life to me, and I'm fascinated by it. I want to do this documentary on him," Soto says.

She's interested in creating films that depict all Latinos, not just those who are gay or lesbian.

"I hate to say that—that Latino and Mexican stories aren't being told. But they aren't; only here and there. I've seen some really fabulous stories, like Real Women Have Curves ... but they are really under the radar, and you have to search and look for them."

While she makes her movies and her documentaries, Soto says her mother is always there, in the back of head.

"I think I still want to please her," she says. "So much of her is in all of us. ... I know that she had such a hard life and did a lot for us. I still feel that obligation."

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