Gay and Undocumented: Some, Like Dagoberto Bailón, Must Come Out Twice
Dusk is falling quickly as Dagoberto Bailón steps forward and stands in the middle of a circle of people gathered outside the state Capitol on a Friday last October. He asks those around him if anyone would like to go first. It's National Coming Out Day, and Bailón assures them this is a safe space.
He looks around and sees that most people are staring everywhere but at him and some have even taken steps back. He shakes his head and mutters that he'll go first. After a deep breath and a quick look at the sky, he says, "My name is Dagoberto Bailón, and today I choose to come out of the closet as an undocumented man and a gay man." For a second, the people around him stay silent, but loud clapping soon fills the space. Once it's gone, people step forward and start coming out, one by one. Bailón, meanwhile, looks at each of them proudly. It has been a successful event for Arizona's Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project.
For most people, coming out of the closet is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Bailón, it had to be done twice.
The first time happened in 2006 when voters passed Proposition 300, a measure that forbids students who cannot prove their lawful presence in the United States from getting financial aid or classification for in-state tuition. Bailón was a freshman at Phoenix College. The news effectively meant he had to leave college. Bailón immediately knew he wanted to join the fight for the education of undocumented students, but doing so meant publicly admitting his immigration status.
With almost no hesitation, Bailón became one of the hundreds of "DREAMers" who took to the streets and Internet to tell the world they were undocumented and unafraid.
The second time happened almost four years later. It was a Tuesday evening and his parents were watching telenovelas at the family's home. They had been wondering why their son kept pacing outside the room. By 9 p.m., Bailón had made up his mind. He stood in front of his parents and told them he was gay. Eneida, his mother, immediately burst into tears. Ranferi, his father, kept shaking his head, saying, "Don't be playing."
Each time, Bailón would respond, "I'm not playing."
That night, Bailón fled his home and ended up at a park. There, he cried for hours. The tears were not out of sadness, he says, but out of a sense of freedom that for the first time in almost 25 years made him feel light.
A year later, in 2011, Bailón joined Arizona's Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project. The chapter was just starting. Today, there are more than 70 members locally and nine chapters nationally.
"I think when we talk about immigration reform, we tend to overlook intersections," Bailón says. "I believe QUIP points out those things we don't really want to talk about. I think it's important as humans we start learning and embracing the different identities we have." For Dagoberto Bailón, these days that even means appearing in drag as Melissa.
Born in 1986 in a town of 300 people in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, Bailón spent the first six years of his life in a town where the only technology available was one phone and a black-and-white TV.
"It's something out of a movie," he says. The townspeople, who were either related to him or thought of themselves as family, knew everyone else's business.
Among those 300 lived Amancio, Bailón's uncle and a transgender woman. Bailón does not know her transgender name, as he never thought to ask, but remembers her as young and flamboyant. Amancio was an off-limits subject to all in the town, most of whom were Catholic and conservative. In the town, the word joto, a pejorative term for a gay man, replaced Amancio. It soon became Bailón's greatest fear to be called that.
"I just remember somebody told me, 'If you keep acting like that, you are going to end up like your uncle,'" he says. "I knew that nobody really liked him so I didn't want to end up like him. After that, I paid attention to every move and to every detail to make sure I was acting manly."
When Bailón was 6, he and his brother left for America. A year earlier, their mother had come to the United States to work and be with the kids' father, but she missed her children so much that she called for them, despite the obvious risks.
To get to Arizona, Bailón had to walk for more than seven hours. He describes it as an expedition. Coming from a town with tropical weather, the red landscape of the desert was fascinating.
On the other side, Bailón's mom and dad were waiting for them. Before then, the couple had been living in Atlanta but moved to Arizona so that the brothers' trip would not be as long. While the kids had grown up with their mom, Eneida, it was another story with Ranferi, their father. He had never spent time with his sons, and the introduction was awkward. Bailón remembers seeing a man who looked just like him and not getting used to the idea of calling him dad until a few months had passed.
While Eneida and Ranferi lived in Atlanta, they rented an apartment and both had steady jobs. In Arizona, home was a rundown two-bedroom apartment they shared with the kids, two uncles, and Bailón's grandmother in Central Phoenix.
After reintroductions, they took the kids to a dollar store. It was the biggest store Bailón had ever been in. The fascination continued.
"Me and my brother were so happy because we thought it was the biggest store in the world," he said. "The next day, they took us to the supermarket, so you can imagine how I felt!"
Bailón's long-time friend, artist Jovany Vasquez, helps apply makeup.
Learning to speak English was the first of many hurdles Bailón faced growing up. Like many others, he was placed in an English-learners class and had to focus on the language as much as he did on the actual subjects that were being taught. He overcame this first obstacle quickly, and by the time he was 15, he knew English almost as well as he did Spanish.
Always a dedicated student, Bailón graduated high school with honors and was able to secure a scholarship to Phoenix College. It was 2005, a year before the passage of Proposition 300. The Arizona law, which passed with an overwhelming majority, prevents any student who cannot prove his or her lawful immigration status from getting any state or federal aid or in-state tuition.
Without his scholarship and facing paying out-of-state tuition, Bailón had to abandon his dreams of higher education. Enraged by the situation, he decided to join several organizations that fought for immigration rights and worked for the passage of the DREAM Act.
Introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act represented hope for young undocumented immigrants. It allowed a quick pathway to citizenship for people who had arrived in the country as kids, had never been arrested, and wanted to pursue a college degree. Bailón is one of the 50,000 potential DREAMers in Arizona.
The decision to come out and announce his immigration status was an easy one, he says, once he no longer had access to a scholarship and he realized that, just like him, there were thousands of undocumented young people who could not attend school.
"Of course you get scared," he says. "You can go back to a country different than what you're used to."
This fear, however, has never stopped Bailón in his quest to better the lives of undocumented students all over the country.
Like many others, Bailón has applied for President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The "mini-DREAM Act" gives people two-year work permits and, in some instances, access to in-state tuition for college. To qualify for DACA, applicants must have arrived in the United States. before they were 16 years old, be currently enrolled in school, be a veteran or have graduated from high school, and they must have not been convicted of a felony. The average wait time to receive news about DACA is six months.
So far, only 1 percent of applications have been denied. Arizona has had more than 16,000 applications, and 10,000 have been approved. The rest are still pending. Almost 97 percent of those applicants were born in Mexico, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
In Arizona, being a DACA recipient will not mean in-state tuition in the three public universities, but it's a different story in any of the Maricopa Community Colleges. These schools have chosen to accept DACA certification as proof of lawful stay in the country. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne disagrees and in March filed a lawsuit against the district, which is pending.
Bailón, who plans to re-enroll at Phoenix College if he gets DACA certification, is waiting to hear back about his application. In the meantime, he works as a waiter in a Japanese restaurant in Scottsdale.
Vasquez watches Bailon, making sure he's applying the makeup properly.
In February 2010, Mo'Nique went on stage to receive the Oscar for her role in Precious. It was a Sunday. At his home in Phoenix, Bailón was glued to the screen. Tears pooled around his eyes as he watched the actress thank her husband for his unwavering support and company. That night, alone in his room, Bailón wondered who he would thank if he were ever in that position.
On Monday, he decided he no longer could live a lie. The next day finally would be the day he told the world who he was. The world, back then, was his parents.
On Tuesday morning, he left home early in the morning and went to his acting classes. As the day wore on, his anxiety increased. He put off going home for as long as he could, but at 6 p.m. he could not wait any longer. His parents sat in the living room engrossed in the TV. He paced in the hallway and gave himself 30 more minutes to make up his mind.
"I have until 8," he told himself, and then, "I have until 8:30." Finally it was, "It has to be at 9." Bailón walked into the room and told Ranferi and Eneida he had something to say. "I'm gay," he said. And the room fell silent.
In that moment, he thought fleetingly of his uncle and the way his family had treated him. He finally understood what his uncle had endured.
He says he knew his parents would not take the news well.
Although the Mexican government offers no official studies on many facets of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, CODISE, a civil rights organization in Guadalajara, Mexico, that works to bring visibility to the LGBT community, has teamed up with universities to conduct studies about sexual diversity.
Jaime Cobian Zamora, the organization's president, says LGBT people who, like Bailón, come from rural communities face even more challenges than those who live in urban areas. "In Guerrero, all the municipalities are plagued with discrimination," he says. "Gay and trans people are more often that not shunned by their communities."
Gay people who hail from rural towns sometimes are discriminated against even within the LGBT community, Cobian Zamora says.
"In the city, in comparison, there's a guarantee that you can be visible," he says. "You can walk down the street holding your partner's hand. Nowadays, you don't suffer discrimination from the authorities or even the church. But in rural areas, the discrimination is still the same, if not worse."
After Eneida's tearful outburst and Ranferi's refusal to believe, Bailón left his home to find some friends at a public park in Phoenix. It was 10 p.m. by then. He says he told them in between the tears, "I feel light. I just feel light."
Things would not get better for a while. Bailón's parents would bring up women in conversation, hoping that one day he would change his mind. When it became clear he wouldn't, they started to slowly get used to the idea. Bailón says now things are better than ever.
"He's my son and he'll always be my son," she says. "Parents love their kids regardless of who they are. If God does things a certain way, then you can't change it. I'm a mother, and I don't care what people think."
Eneida says she is proud of Bailón's decision to come out because she always taught him the value of the truth, and she has come to accept him just as he is. "He's my son. What can I say?"
In 2011, a year after coming out to his parents, Bailón discovered the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project after the first chapter was founded in Texas. Immediately, he knew he wanted to become part of it, and today he is the group's chair.
AZQUIP works to build bridges between the undocumented and LGBT community and to establish scholarships for members or QUIPsters, as they call themselves. Publicly coming out as anything other than straight in the Hispanic community might be a challenge in itself. For members of QUIP, the challenge does not end there. They are, often times, effectively stigmatized twice.
Part of Phoenix Pride, the Rainbows Festival is a street fair on Heritage Square in the heart of downtown Phoenix. It's a Saturday in October 2013 and AZQUIP has its own tent. The tent has a white banner with the letters QUIP on it. Flyers, pamphlets, and condoms in a variety of colors are displayed on a table.
Jerssay Arredondo, a QUIPster who attended ASU before Proposition 300 passed, is manning the tent. While trying to get people to approach the tent -- and mostly getting turned down -- he turns to his friends and says, "It makes us want to continue educating, you know? Most people are, like, 'Undocumented? Y'all exist?'"
Thousands of people attend this event each year. A few of them show real interest in learning more about the organization, but most of the people who approach the tent either want condoms or already know the QUIPsters.
The event also serves as an opportunity to promote "Drag for a DREAM," AZQUIP's annual drag show to raise funds that takes place at Aqua, a gay club in Phoenix that caters to the Hispanic community.
Jose Rodriguez stands behind the table and organizes the flyers. He tries to engage people as they pass by, but for the most part, his question "Have you heard of QUIP yet?" goes unanswered.
Rodriguez is secretary of the organization in Arizona and a national leader. He is out to the public but not yet to his family. He is careful not to be photographed or identified on social media, as he is afraid his family will Google him.
"It's hard," he keeps saying. "Dago is a social butterfly. He is a public face. I'm not. I always have to be on the lookout."
Rodriguez turns around, blows his curly hair out of his face, and keeps trying to pull people to the tent. Black tank tops with the organization's name hang from the ceiling. A couple walks by and sees the tank tops. The two women, who appear to be about 50 years old, do a double take as they pass the tent. One of them says, "Undocumented?" but they quickly move on.
Bailón returns from making copies of QUIP's flyers and decides to put on some music. A song by Christina Aguilera and Pitbull blares from iPod speakers and the QUIPsters start dancing.
Bailón says the organization's main goals of the day are recruiting, expanding its database of supporters, and promoting the drag show. "Here we are, trying to put a face to the undocumented struggle," he says.
By 6 p.m., the QUIPsters start to pack up. A Shakira song plays in the background. Around 3.5 percent of people in the United States identify as LGBT. That number is the equivalent of 9 million people. Of those, at least 267,000 are undocumented immigrants.
About 70 percent of them are Hispanic, according to UCLA's Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School that focuses much of its research on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Jerssay Arredondo joined the organization last year as members prepared for the drag show. He was going to Scottsdale Community College as a dance major and helped choreograph the performance.
QUIP has helped him much more than he can put into words, he says. Arredondo came out to his parents during an organization's event that featured a panel discussion on the process of coming out twice. He has not looked back since.
"You always have to balance the two hats," he says. "Some spaces I can only be undocumented. Some spaces I can only be queer. We need to start infiltrating the spaces and we need to start talking about these issues."
Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of GALAEI, an organization in Philadelphia that focuses on Latino and queer issues and HIV prevention, says it's common for LGBT Hispanics to feel like they have a dual identity.
"Even though it's 2014 now, if I walk into a room full of LGBT people, I might be the only Latina there," she says. "Conversely, if I walk into a room of Latinos, I might be the only openly queer person there. Society doesn't necessarily recognize that a person is all of these things simultaneously, and you can't separate them out."
Almost 25 years after its foundation, GALAEI remains one of the only organizations that responds to the intersections of identity of gay Latinos.
Last year, the organization did a survey of 100 Latinos that resulted in a campaign called Positivo. The survey found that Latinos are far more affirming of people who are gay or HIV-positive than is popularly believed, Gonzales says.
"We're not saying [discrimination] doesn't exist in the Latino community, but by and large, Latinos are all about familia, and we found that people are way more accepting than it's being told," she says.
There is still, undeniably, a long way to go in order to achieve equality on both fronts. The QUIPsters are ready to try. With the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act and 17 states, as of now, issuing same-sex marriage licenses, the fight seems to be on the right path.
QUIP's goals for the future include the passage of comprehensive immigration reform and legislation such as the Uniting American Families Act, which seeks to stop deportations in bi-national same-sex marriages.
In 2013, the U.S. Senate approved S 744, a bipartisan immigration reform bill that sought to establish the Registered Provisional Immigrant Program. Under this bill, DREAMers' path to citizenship would be accelerated, as they would be able to apply for lawful permanent residency after five years in the RPI Program, according to the Immigration Policy Center. The bill, which in the House was renamed HB 15 and eliminated the border security amendment that called for militarization, seems to be on hold for the foreseeable future.
Bailón is not deterred. "We will continue fighting," he says. "We will pass immigration reform, and we will legalize same-sex marriage in the whole country."
Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, says the unconstitutionality of DOMA proved to be a huge step in the fight for immigration.
"The best part was that same-sex couples, from the immigration status, were looked upon as equal to straight couples," he said. "This changes a lot of different things."
Before this, Garcia says, bi-national same-sex couples were forced to rely on amnesty or the diversity lottery to remain in the United States. Now, just like with straight couples, if a spouse is a U.S. citizen, then he or she can sponsor the other spouse.
"It just goes to show how many issues immigration cuts across as a nation," he says. The support for the decision, a victory for both immigration and LGBT issues, can be explained by the average age of the Latino community.
"Traditionally, the Latino community has been very conservative, especially because of the church and the machismo," Garcia adds. "Older people were raised differently than younger people when it comes to these kind of issues. The Latino community is largely a young generation coming up. The average age of Latinos in Arizona is 26, whereas for non-Latino whites is 44."
It's almost Halloween, and Bailón's Phoenix neighborhood is eerily quiet. He lives with his parents in a small four-bedroom house.
He sits on the living room couch and puts on the first touch of makeup in preparation for the night. There's a huge TV in front of the couch, and to the right, the wall is made up entirely of mirrors.
Bailón moves into the kitchen, where the walls are deep red. He says he began preparing earlier in the day; he's already shaved his legs. Behind him, a huge image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs on the wall, surrounded by candles and smaller images of the Last Supper and Jesus Christ. His parents are not around.
His bedroom is fairly small. About 20 women's shoeboxes are stacked next to a wall. Next to his closet hangs an image of Jesus.
Tonight, Bailón will perform at a friend's Halloween party as Melissa, his drag persona. It's 9:30 p.m. and Bailón stares at himself in the mirror, ready to finish his makeup. Next to him is a leopard-print makeup case. Clothes are spilling out of a bag on the floor, where he has put some dresses, heels, and other clothes for the night.
Bailón is still looking at himself in the mirror. He says he forgot to shave his face and Melissa cannot be a barbona (bearded lady), so he runs to the bathroom and gets his electric shaver. While he shaves, the conversation turns to wigs. He has more than 20, he says, and by now has lost count of how many dresses he owns. Once he's done, he gets rid of his T-shirt and looks at his chest in the mirror. He starts mixing foundation and applies it to his face.
"You have to make sure you keep your character," he says. "As soon as the heels are on, you're a completely different person. Melissa, for example, has no shame."
Bailón finishes with the foundation, laughs loudly and says he now looks like a mime. He continues with the process and talks about Melissa. He's learned so much through her, he says.
Melissa appeared two years ago when QUIP organized a fundraiser at Zarape, a now-defunct Hispanic gay club in Phoenix. The owners liked Melissa so much, they offered Bailón a job there. For months, Melissa was on stage every other Friday.
Bailón says that although growing up, he did not even know what drag meant, he remembers being a little boy and imitating popular Mexican singer Gloria Trevi. After that, he says he tried to not think about it much, but once he was out to the world and the opportunity presented itself, he knew we could not resist.
"When I had to find an idea for a fundraiser, I immediately thought of it," he says. "I thought of it because I knew how much fun people have at them. I wanted to be part of that."
Bailón puts on fake eyelashes and smiles. "This is Melissa coming out!" he says.
By now, Bailón has put on a black bra and decides the room needs some music. A live video of Beyoncé performing "Grown Woman" plays on TV, and Bailón moves to the rhythm as he applies mascara.
The next video is Macklemore's "Same Love." Now Bailón is excited. He says it might just be his favorite song, and he starts singing. "And I can't change even if I tried," he sings, eyeliner in hand.
After that, the TV plays two videos about DREAMers: Operation Butterfly and The Dream Is Now. Bailón says solemnly, "Now, this is heavy."
Long after the videos have ended and Bailón has finally painted his lips (he hates lipstick, he says) he holds a blond wig and brushes it carefully. He puts it on and adjusts it, looking at himself in the mirror.
He takes it off and tries another one. This one is black and resembles a small Afro. He takes it off and returns to the blond one.
"And that's Melissa," he says. "The bigger the hair, the better the woman." For now, Bailón decides on shorts, heels, and a black top. He will change into his performance outfit at the party.
Bailón makes it to the party at 11:40. The house is packed and full of Halloween decorations. Salsa and cumbia play on the patio and people inside are doing karaoke. Everybody is wearing a costume, so nobody pays attention to Bailón and his friend, Damian Lorenzo.
Bailón goes upstairs and changes into his witch costume. Lorenzo, who will be known as Monica for the night, is already wearing hers. Daniel Garcia, the party's host, will play the third witch.
Monica used to perform with Bailón at Zarape. She says she only ever performs when Bailón is on stage with her.
"Since we started all this together I've seen him grown and he's seen me grow," she says. "The stage is a comfort zone."
The planned performance is Hocus Pocus' "I Put a Spell on You."
Garcia is one of the co-founders of AZQUIP and tonight is the first time he has ever performed drag. He says he was nervous, but felt better to know that Bailón was there with him.
"Dago is a short, funny man," Garcia says. "He is very cool. You get a big person in a small package."
Bailón has already changed and is now wearing a brown skirt, a black blouse, a black cape, and a hat. Moments before they're set to begin, Bailón and Monica talk about their routine. They go over it one more time and check to see if Garcia is finally ready. They move down the stairs trying not to bring any attention to themselves and suddenly loud music starts playing. The crowd is taken by surprise. The trio moves into the living room, and the show begins.
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