Growing up queer in a Mexican American community rooted in faith wasn't easy. But seeing that community celebrate my identity this weekend was a monumental experience.
Attendees at Eagle Pass Pride. All photos by the author
Since moving to New York City almost eight years ago, I've returned to my hometown of Eagle Pass, Texas, roughly 20 times. But this past weekend was the most important yet.
Each visit, I feel, has gotten gayer and more fabulous than the last, because I just don't give a fuck what people (read: nosey neighbors) think about my queerness anymore. And that's because I have the love and support of my family. That attitude, of course, came only after years of self-discovery and acceptance, made possible after moving from the sheltered Mexican American community where I grew up to one of the world's most LGBTQ-friendly cities.
My little border town boasts a modest population of around 25,000 folks, more than 96 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino. Many are die-hard Catholics who stick to deep Mexican American traditions rooted in machismo and strict gender roles. You can only imagine what it was like to grow up queer there. But, to my surprise, times have changed—this weekend, me and about 50 others participated in the inaugural Eagle Pass Pride Parade, to some unexpected but welcome fanfare.
The event was long overdue for those of us in the community who have struggled with our sexuality.
The parade itself was called "Love Without Borders" because of our unique setting along the Rio Grande. The border fence served as a backdrop to the proceedings. It was a true milestone for my hometown, and may well have been for all of South Texas, given how conservative much of the region is.
I'll admit I was a bit nervous going home. You'd think I was a pride pro by now, considering I've marched in New York City's three years running. But this was a far more personal and, frankly, emotional affair. In New York, being gay is almost a social asset; in Eagle Pass, it's an anomaly. By physically marching down our city's busiest street, everyone and their comadre would see el hijo de Mr. and Mrs. Olivares "out" and about with a rainbow flag, flaunting the kind of lifestyle only whispered about during games of lotería. And not that I necessarily care at this point, but it's still a weird sensation when your queerness is on full display before that old classmate you haven't seen in ages or Mom's co-worker who's practically known you since birth and didn't know you were "one of those."
And that actually happened to me. Before marching together in this Sunday's parade, the last time I saw my classmate Jeremiah was probably at our high school graduation. He and I had a number of classes together and were quite friendly, which, at 17, meant speaking to each other maybe a few dozen times on campus. Back then, though, I'd probably say that he was in the "I wouldn't mind you knowing I'm gay" category of my hometown friends.
See, for me, much of my high school experience consisted of dividing people up into groups. For instance, the "I wouldn't mind you knowing" list that Jeremiah was on included anyone whose knowledge of my true identity as a gay Latinx kid didn't necessarily bother me. But then again, I didn't feel coming out to them was a huge priority. That honor (and it is an honor) was reserved for my closest friends, or the "I want you to know" category—people I cared deeply enough about that I wanted them to know my authentic self. These were people I trusted enough not to share my secret with their parents or other adults who could possibly share the news with my mom and dad at church or the grocery store. Not the case for the "I don't want you to know yet" kids, especially in the age of MySpace.
Because before I became the Super Gay Tejano I am today, I used to always have to worry about what Jeremiah's mom may have heard about my gay teenage ass—or any other adult, for that matter. And that's an experience I guarantee many Latinx people can relate to. We know that you don't talk about that queer life, because porque se enoja Diosito y abuelita—because God and Grandma will be upset. Diosito, or God, definitely plays a major role in our sexual repression as LGBTQ people, including in Eagle Pass, where we boast five separate Catholic parishes. There, most residents (especially the older ones, like abuelita) end their conversations with " Si Dios quiere" or "God willing," and ask you when you're going to find a nice girl or a strong man to marry. Hmm, about that...
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I'm sure all of this crossed the minds of those who marched in this Sunday's pride parade, as we strolled our town's streets with more rainbow than Eagle Pass has likely ever seen. And while we marched, I couldn't help wondering where all these queer townsfolk came from, and where they were when I needed a good, queer role model during the 90s and early 2000s. I'm sure they were always there, living their lives in whispers, but seeing them out on the streets declaring their queerness was a moving sight—an opportunity that had only been afforded to them by the passing of time.
Maybe the excitement of it all clouded over any fears we may have felt about dissenters or critics. What if we encountered a Stetson-wearing caballero shouting the kind of Spanish epithets lobbed at me as a sexually confused kid? What if we were told by our fellow churchgoers that we needed to find Diosito? Luckily, no one objected, at least in public. Absolutely no one. Gracias a Dios.
Instead, we were met with about 70 cheering supporters lined up along Main Street, who affirmed our true identities as LGBTQ Latinx people. And quite frankly, seeing that meant just as much to me as the dozens who followed behind me in the parade on their floats. It was pure magic. As Jeremiah told me as we marched, "There might not be a lot of people out here, but there's certainly nothing but smiles down this street." He and I agreed—there was no hate present there that day.
And I think the hate is dissipating, particularly in Latinx communities like my own. The fact that we've seen the spread of the gender-neutral term "Latinx" alone is proof that society is moving toward a progressive place. And the best part about the first ever Eagle Pass Pride Parade is that we've now set the stage for its annual return. Young brown kids with names and faces like mine will always know that their neighbors embrace them, and it absolutely warms my huge, queer heart.
Follow Xorje Olivares on Twitter.