What Does Queerness Look Like?

As a daughter of immigrants, queer identity always seemed like a white, American thing. But that wasn’t the truth.

People walk and dance during a Pride parade in Mexico City.
People walk and dance during a Pride parade on June 29 in Mexico City. Adrián Monroy/Medios y Media/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

It’s the summer of 2008, and I’m in San Francisco, attending my first Pride celebration. I am 21 years old and identify as straight, but I’m delighted to be there, cheering from the stands and supporting as an ally. Suddenly, I spot a man in the crowd waving a rainbow banner resembling the flag of Mexico. It has the same Mexican coat of arms with the eagle in the center, the red and green columns on each side replaced with rainbow stripes.

For the first time in my life, I am watching an openly queer person proudly represent my family’s culture. As he waves his flag while marching past me—large, dramatic motions back-and-forth with his arms—my imagination begins to expand. I realize something I had not considered before: “Mexican queer people really can be here too.”

Growing up in the ’90s as the daughter of Mexican and Ecuadorian parents, I didn’t have many examples of Latinx queerness. Unlike some Latinx families who had at least some chisme, a little gossip, of a queer relative, in my family of more than 15 tíos and tías and over 50 primos, no one was out.

Back then, television and media weren’t of much help either. There was no Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy, or Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Elena Alvarez from One Day at a Time, or the very queer cast of Latinx characters on Vida. There was only Will & Grace, Ellen, the mostly white cast of The L Word, and the very white (and biphobic) women on Sex and the City.

I spoke with a few queer friends of color who, like me, had immigrant parents, and they all agreed: As kids, they had to rely on white people to imagine and affirm their queer identity. Janet, a daughter of Indian parents, told me if she hadn’t grown up with a white best friend who had two mothers, “I think I would be 10 years behind where I am in my own self-understanding right now.” Even today, she still can’t name a single queer woman from her family’s state in India. Most of the queer Indian women she’s met over time have come from adopted white families.

When I spoke with Hernan, a son of Puerto Rican and Filipino immigrants, he pointed to his leg tattoo of a drawing by Keith Haring and told me, “Clearly, my representation of queerness has been mostly white.” Whenever Hernan did find Latinx representations of queerness in U.S. media, he remembers that these characters were used often only as a punchline: “It was always some stereotypically sexy man, with an unbuttoned shirt and hairy chest, hitting on the straight, white protagonist.”

As artist Michael A. Estrada wrote in a recent article, “the act of imagining is not a fair, objective, equitable, or apolitical thing.” What we are capable of imagining for ourselves shapes who we ultimately allow ourselves to become. As a Latinx kid and teenager, with only white images of queer women, it was difficult to imagine what a queer Latinx life could look like for me. And without any vision to dream about, considering that life as a real option seemed nearly impossible.

So instead, I adopted the idea that queerness was a “white people thing,” invented by the promiscuous and self-indulgent “gringos” many within my immigrant community complained about, individualistic Americans overly obsessed with their own identities.

In Colombian writer Daisy Hernández’s memoir, when she comes out to her mother, her mother responds by telling her: “I’ve never heard of this. This doesn’t happen in Colombia.”

Daisy responds, “You haven’t been in Colombia in twenty-seven years.”

Her mother insists, “But I never saw anything like this there … ”

The messaging I internalized was similar: Queerness did not come from Latinx culture. It was just yet another bad influence from the sexually loose culture of the United States—something we first-generation kids were constantly told to resist. If queerness existed, it existed only in the imagination of self-involved Americans. It had nothing to do with us.

In my late 20s, that story, of course, started crumbling. No matter how many times I tried ignoring my attraction to people of different gender identities, it kept returning—often with other Latinx women, women who gradually proved all my assumptions wrong.

When I moved to Oakland at 29 years old, I finally gave myself permission to explore this identity I had never before allowed myself to admit. By the time I was 31, I had come “out” to my closest friends and siblings, and I lived a fairly queer life in the Bay Area.

But it was a life I kept hidden from my family. Though my queer identity felt affirmed and welcomed in such a progressive and diverse city, I still worried it could not be accepted within my family’s culture. I still worried my queerness would be yet another thing making me more pocha—too Americanized, distancing myself farther and farther away from my family.

This past January, I moved to Mexico City for a month because I wanted to experience my family’s country without my family. I wanted to explore my Mexicanness on my own terms. That also meant experiencing Mexico, finally, as someone queer. A week into my trip, I began dating Itzel. As we walked through the streets of my mother’s hometown, holding hands and noviando on plaza benches, my mind struggled to reconcile the images I had now forced it to process: Mexico and my queerness, finally interacting together.

Itzel had been deeply involved in the city’s queer community for years. During our month together, we visited the radio station where Itzel hosted the only LGBTQ radio show in all of Mexico City. We attended picnics hosted by a friend and lawyer whose organization won Mexico’s first case allowing a trans person to change the gender of their birth certificate. We sang karaoke with Itzel’s queer friends for her birthday and danced at queer bars throughout downtown.

One morning, I spent hours scrolling through Itzel’s list of followers on Twitter, account after account leading me down an internet rabbit hole of Latinx queer activists, artists, journalists, celebrities—all people I had never before imagined could exist.

“We are undeniable,” Tanya Saracho, a queer director and the showrunner of Vida, once said about queer Latinx people in an interview with Out. Looking through Itzel’s Twitter and spending a month surrounded by her friends, finally, it felt that way to me too.

One night, Itzel took me to La Cañita, a woman-owned queer bar in the Doctores neighborhood of the city. (A month after my visit, the bar would nearly shut down after enduring a violent homophobic attack.) Out of all the queer bars and events I explored that month with her, La Cañita stood out among all the rest. Unlike the mostly gay male Zona Rosa, or the posh lesbian crowd at the club Kinky on Thursdays, La Cañita was queer. I entered a dance floor of cis women and men, trans people, nonbinary folks, people in drag. Some femmes had unshaved armpits, some wore heels. Some danced wearing only their bras, some wore no bra at all. The crowd reminded me of every queer dance party I had loved in Oakland, with one difference that made all the difference: Everyone here was Mexican.

First-generation Latinx people in the U.S. often say we are “ni de aquí, ni de allá”—“neither from here, nor from there”. But as a queer first-generation Latinx person, the geography becomes even more complicated. If we aren’t Mexican or American, where is our queerness from? Does it make us somehow whiter? Was there any way it could make us more Mexican? I had lived my entire life starving for answers to these questions, for examples of a queer life that could somehow still connect me my family’s culture, rather than alienate me more from it.

Later, I would learn about muxes in Oaxaca. Later, I would learn the Nahuatl words patlacheh and Xōchihuah. Later, I would understand intellectually that queerness has existed in indigenous communities in Mexico for centuries, long before white colonizers arrived. Later, I would find organizations, like Somos Familia and QTViệt Cafe that celebrate queerness specifically from an intergenerational immigrant context. Later I would read a survey concluding that Latinx millennials are the least likely demographic to identify as straight.

But that night at La Cañita made me feel all this viscerally. As the DJ played banda, Itzel pressed her left hand against my back and took my right hand in hers, and we danced. And as I looked across the dance floor, packed with queers from my family’s country, for a brief moment, my Latinx queerness felt a little closer to having its own home.