Trump's America Feels as Terrifying as the Colombia of My Youth

I fled homophobia and terror in Bogotá. Last week, it found me in America.

by Manuel Betancourt
Nov 16 2016, 5:00am

The author in Colombia as a child. Photo courtesy the author

I'm waiting for a flight at LAX Wednesday morning, on a layover between JFK and a film festival I was set to report on in Los Cabos, Mexico, when I finally break down. The tears I had tried to keep to myself have finally defeated me, and I find myself helplessly sobbing. I'm more than 2,000 miles away from the person I want to hug the most: the man I married earlier this year and with whom I've set about building a life here in the United States.

I'm surrounded by strangers. I wonder if they can tell why I'm crying. Can they see in my face that these are tears of anger? Of fear and hopelessness? It's an infuriatingly familiar feeling—one I grew up with in Colombia, and one I thought I had finally escaped.

From a very young age, I lived with a special kind of trepidation, one tied up in the very image my country created for itself. The parochialism that governed the Colombia I knew meant that as a closeted gay boy, I felt alienated from the patriotism uncritically championed by so many of my peers. Those boys who cheered for the Colombian soccer team, made a ruckus on our independence day, and lived their lives with an effortlessness I envied were the same ones who'd call me a marica during school lunches and mock my effeminate tastes. I'd see their toxic machismo replicated in telenovelas and schoolyard gossip, in family anecdotes and overheard conversations. That feeling of inadequacy followed me throughout my childhood, and spurred me to find a way out.

The doctrines of the Catholic Church, inextricably linked to Colombian culture, made it clear to me that homosexuality was a sin. And the country's machismo is so deeply entrenched that its declaration of homosexuality as a protected identity (as of the 1991 constitution) felt like a hollow promise. Even as the movement toward LGBTQ equality gained steam in the late 1990s, one that would eventually turn Colombia into one of Latin America's most progressive countries for LGBTQ rights, I spent my teenage years reading about hate crimes in the morning paper, posturing to avoid being dubbed a fag, and recoiling from the gay stereotypes being paraded as topical humor on TV. It all became too much; I was neither brave nor foolish enough to come out while living at home.

It's how I ended up abroad. The story I crafted in my mind was that Bogotá was this unsafe and homophobic city I had to flee, which I did—first to Vancouver, and later to New York. I felt like I'd somehow stumbled onto these blissfully progressive safe havens where I'd be shielded from all that tormented me in my childhood. But what I so badly wanted to render real has turned out to be a fiction.

Terror and homophobia, violence and hatred, intolerance and cruelty exist everywhere, even—and especially—here in the United States. The boastful rhetoric that fueled the most implausible of presidential campaigns this year ("Make America Great Again") reeks of the most unbearable of America's traits: its unwavering belief in its own exceptionalism. In a way, it speaks to how the country deluded itself into that belief in the same way I deluded myself into thinking things would be different here.

But I know, too, what it feels like to live with a deep mistrust of political institutions. To worry for your safety knowing those at the top (and at the polls) gleefully loathe who you are. Growing up in a developing country leads you to be outright skeptical of any claims to be the best. I don't know what it would be like to grow up in a country that tells itself it's the best, even when faced with daily reminders of the obvious falseness of such claims.

Watch "FARC Commander Antonia Simon Narino on Finding Peace in Colombia":

Between sobs, I text my mom. I tell her that I made it safely to LAX and try to put into words the anger and frustration and fear and hopelessness I'm feeling. She tries to be conciliatory: "You shouldn't worry too much. You have your papers now. We just have to wait and see what approach he takes. In the end, the United States has many more rights and much more tolerance than a country like Colombia." She even went so far as to quote her favorite line from Gone with the Wind: "After all, tomorrow is another day." It only enrages me further, because it echoes the hollow beliefs that led me here in the first place.

As I board my plane to Mexico, I begin to dread my return, and the very moment when I'll hand my Colombian passport to an immigration officer and see their demeanor shift. Their open smiles will change into prim frowns; their eyes will glance me over suspiciously. My appearance and lack of accent always unsettles them. In other circumstances, the "reveal" that I am Colombian (yes, born and raised; yes, my family is all from there; yes I'm the only one living abroad; yes, I know I have no discernible accent) leads to my least favorite comeback.

"Wow! I never would've guessed!"

To defuse the flash of anger I feel at these moments, I resort to humor. "Thank you," I say, making a point to smile. I always enjoy the awkward moment that follows. It's the politeness that unsettles people. They can't bear confronting their words as the tacit and borderline offensive compliment they were, the need to mark my whiteness as something that would preclude me from being from where I'm from.

There's no moment of levity in these moments; the politeness I deploy as a party trick is instead a reminder that no matter how I look or sound, no matter how many degrees I have, no matter my marital status, I am always, at that precise moment, an alien.

These encounters are usually pretty uneventful. Except when they're not.

I was visiting my family when the Boston bombing happened. Early reports suggested that those responsible had entered the country with expired student visas. I braced myself for the worst. Sure enough, despite having all my paperwork in line (how silly to have thought that would help), and despite having never been stopped while traveling this same route with the same paperwork for five years prior, the immigration officer at the Fort Lauderdale airport asked me to step aside, directed me to a waiting room filled with people, handed my passport and papers to one of his colleagues, and walked away. I knew better than to ask for clarification. I could see that no one there had any idea what they were doing with our papers, let alone how long we'd be waiting. I missed my connecting flight, learning just how little those working the border thought of us in the process.

That night I spent in Florida came flooding back as we took off from LAX. "Never have I felt as unwelcome in this country as I do now," I remember texting my partner. What felt like an isolated incident has suddenly become an unshakeable reality. Making America Great Again is a violent threat to many of us, even those who may not immediately feel its effects.

Will I continue to enjoy freedom of commerce, the same standard of healthcare, protection against discrimination? Despite Trump's words, will my marriage remain intact? Will my ability to stay in this country be placed into jeopardy? Will these questions never not sound like melodramatic pronouncements? They are frightening, sure, but given everything else we've seen over Trump's rise to power, they're hardly as terrifying as what others must be asking themselves.

Growing up in a country that had no choice but to understand its armed conflict as an ongoing reality, reports of violence both near and far were commonplace during my childhood. They littered our newspapers and filled our newscasts. You couldn't escape it even if, as I did, you lived a pretty privileged life. To live with violence that was both present yet remote built a disconnect in my mind: I lived with a sense of terror that was so commonplace I could nearly ignore it, yet so obviously distant from my life that I often struggled to conceive of it as real.

It's disheartening to know that years of living in such a state will have prepared me for what's to come.

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