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.
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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.