Growing up in rural North Carolina Moises Serrano felt under attack every single day.
Since coming out as gay and undocumented in Qué Pasa, the state’s largest Latino newspaper, Serrano has had derogatory words spat at him and received death threats in his mailbox. The threats have escalated since he began fighting for LGBT rights and immigration reform. On one occasion, he found a cross made of stones stretched across his porch.
His mother took to be a blessing, but he knew it was a warning.
Serrano, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a toddler, is one of an estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBT people in this country. His work on behalf of this marginalized group is the subject of Forbidden: Undocumented And Queer in Rural America, a new Logo documentary that premiered September 1.
Despite the danger, Serrano, 27, has been outspoken in his activism: In one scene in Forbidden, he’s seen riding atop a float at the 2013 Winston-Salem Pride parade, chanting, “We’re here! We’re queer, undocumented, and without fear!” But, as he tells NewNowNext, “There’s more to our struggle right now than planning parades.” But not everyone is like him, living without fear. The election of Donald Trump, he says, left those who are LGBT, undocumented—or both—terrified. “And some of us still are.”
Director Tiffany Rhynard followed Serrano to lecture halls and corporate offices as he shared his story and raised awareness for immigration reform. A major part of his work is focused on DACA, or deferred action for childhood arrivals, policy that allows children who arrived in the U.S. without proper documentation to receive social security numbers—and, with that, be able to attend college and work.
Barack Obama launched DACA in 2012 and, thanks to the policy, Serrano was able to pursue a higher education.
But much has changed in just the few intervening years: President Trump is under pressure by Republicans to repeal DACA. He’s already reneged on his promise to safeguard LGBT Americans with his transgender military ban and, coupled with his campaign rhetoric about Mexicans and plans to deport up to three million undocumented people, people who are part of both communities, like Serrano, are fearful that whatever advances we’ve made toward equality and inclusion are quickly being rolled back.
For some, those advances have been pretty small to begin with: In 2015, transgender activist Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama at a Pride event at the White House. As she says, she was “impatient waiting and waiting” for the needs of undocumented LGBT people to be addressed.
“I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored,” Gutiérrez wrote in a Blade op-ed days later. “There is no pride in how LGBTQ immigrants are treated in this country and there can be no celebration with an administration that has the ability to keep us detained and in danger or release us to freedom.”
The dual marginalization that undocumented LGBT people face makes them exponentially vulnerable—they often lack support systems others enjoy, and can face harassment and violence if sent back to their home countries. Or even within the system: Although only one in 500 detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is transgender, they represent one in five cases of abuse and assault.
That’s a big reason why Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, pushed for the closure of the only ICE facility dedicated to undocumented LGBT detainees. Other activists criticized ICE shuttering that facility, at California’s Santa Ana City Jail, because it’s meant trans detainees are being shuttled off to a far more remote location, but Gutiérrez says she was driven by a desire to honor the appeals of those closest to the issue—especially those abused while held in detention.
If we don’t listen to the most vulnerable and help them in their struggles, she says, “it’s going to be really hard to build bridges.”
Bamby Salcedo, another trans activist working on immigration rights, agrees. “The LGBT movement in general has also been a movement of its own in some ways, not really considering the issues of immigrant individuals—even though, there are LGBT individuals within our immigrant families,” she says. “Even the women’s movement has been exclusionary of transgender women.”
Salcedo founded the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness in February because she saw that the needs of undocumented trans people were not being met.
“It’s really a culture that has been built to make us compete against each other,” she says. “Because of the political climate that we’re in ,it’s now more important than ever that we understand the concept of unity and how numbers build strength. How can we unify the movement to really change the landscape.”
Salcedo, an activist for almost two decades, has endured many of the hardships trans women, especially those who are undocumented, face—homelessness, sexual assault, addiction, lack of access to healthcare, and limited employment prospects beyond sex work.
Those experiences drove her to create a community for undocumented and immigrant trans women. “I have done a lot of yelling and screaming for a place at the table,” she recalls.
Educating others about the struggles facing the intersection of marginalized groups is a common thread for all of these activists: Serrano is a full-time advocate while also a full-time student. On campus, he says, there’s a lot of awareness around the LGBT community, but not so much when it comes to undocumented people. So he works to connect “people who may not see LGBT rights as connected to migrant rights” and those who are passionate about immigration reform but disregard LGBT people.
Real progress will only be made, he insists, when the two groups “build bridges and develop a common understanding.”
Forbidden: Undocumented And Queer in Rural America airs Thursday, September 7 at 9/8c and 10:30/9:30c on Logo.