Lessons I've Learned as a First-Generation Queer
When I was around 5 years old, I was in my parents’ home watching TV in the living room with my little brother. A woman came up to the door of the house and knocked. My mom was in the garage working on her sewing machine, so she didn't hear the woman's knock. I kind of froze and asked my little brother to be quiet so the woman wouldn’t hear us and she’d go away. But the TV noises revealed that someone was home. The woman finally left after I told her that there was no one she could speak to about her adult information. Later, my mom instructed me to say that my parent is taking a shower if that ever happens again. That day I learned to lie to adults if I wanted them to leave me alone. I also learned that adults cannot be trusted.
I have childhood memories of my siblings and I watching TV characters with parents who spoke to them in English and who went to their friends' houses after school. These characters were not at all like me. It took me years to figure out the differences between being Mexican, Mexican American, and first-generation. I was confused, but always learning, troubleshooting, wondering, and ironing out that confusion. I still am.
Here are some of my most notable learning experiences:
Age 10: I learned to translate English to Spanish at parent-teacher conferences.
In the 5th grade I was at a parent-teacher conference right before the winter holiday break. On this rare day, both my mom and dad came to this conference. Ms. Middlebush is telling them about my work and says that I wrote a nice essay about family holidays. But Ms. Middlebush is a white woman who does not speak Spanish and I have to translate her words to my parents. I feel shy having to share my work with my parents; it’s weird and awkward. I do a bad job, but Ms. Middlebush doesn’t notice; she doesn’t speak Spanish.
Ages 10 to 17: I learned to fill out all school district forms for myself and my siblings.
Each school year always began with an entire week of filling out complicated forms. My sister used to pre-fill all of our school forms, including our free lunch forms and our emergency contact cards for the school. These forms had all sorts of big words, like “source of income” and “relationship to the student”. Eventually I learned what to write under “mother’s occupation”. When the forms were filled, we’d leave them for my dad to sign at the bottom.
Age 13: I (mis)learned that queer is another word for weird.
A lot of the kids I was going to school with were suddenly coming out as bisexual, as if this sexuality was a cool, new trend. Bisexuality, bisexual, bi. I let the concept ferment in my mind and allowed myself to wear the identity (until further notice). This new identity gave me a private world outside my home that I could keep hidden from my family. I hid everything from my family, but this was special; it was mine. At some point, an older kid pointed out that I was queer. In my blissful ignorance within the walls of my bisexual world, I innocently asked my sister what that word meant and she said “weird”. She and I both knew I was weird, so I adopted the term “queer” to my vocabulary.
Age 14: I learned how to answer phone calls without disclosing too much information.
Inevitably, the phone at home would ring. My mom would answer, but when the person on the other line would speak English, she would rush to find me so I could listen to what the English speaker on the other end was saying. The calls were usually for my dad, and I had to speak to an adult on his behalf; like a secretary. I was often nervous about the information I disclosed - what if I said too much? Eventually, the scary adults became less scary and I learned what was safe to say and how to end the conversations.
Age 15: Lesbians exist too, and I am one of them.
I met a lesbian who knew I was gay before I did. She asked me if I was straight, as though she already knew the answer. I had never thought about this before, but the obvious answer easily fell off my tongue: no. (good-bye, bi world, and eventually, boys).
Age 18: I learned that it is better if I accompany my mom to anywhere she needs to go.
I was at the emergency room with my mom. She sat in the waiting room while I talked to the receptionist, and then to the nurse before I sat to fill out pages of forms with the relevant information that I knew from past experiences with similar forms. My mom asked if I included the house address? Which phone number did I put down? Which emergency contact did I use?
When the nurse came to speak with us, my mom ushered me forward to speak to her. Neither of us were patients, but it was important that my mom had me with her to handle this situation. Not only did she need the emotional support, but she also needed me to demand answers from the English-only staff and ask questions when the forms were too complicated.
Age 19: I relearned the term “queer”
When I was much younger, the older boys at school called me queer. My sister told me it meant weird, and it was reassurance; yes, I am very weird, indeed! But this time was different. I was in college and was relearning this concept. I knew there was more than just lesbian, gay and bisexual, but I never thought too much of it for fear of finding out too much and falling in love with a part of my identity I had not yet met. My mom does not like surprises; I can’t be anything too complicated or else I’ll break my mom’s heart.
Age 20: Re-learning how to pray the rosary.
I was feeling guilty for hiding my queerness from my mom. Being raised Catholic, I felt guilt-tripped into going to church. I went to a Catholic parish, but it was not at all the way the Catholic church back home was like. There wasn’t even a large image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. I went to mass and was unfamiliar with the English prayers. After mass, I stayed for group prayer. It had been years since I even touched a rosary. I didn’t have a rosary and had to borrow one. Someone gave me a rainbow rosary and let me keep it. Being raised Catholic, I considered the rainbow rosary a sign.
Age 21: I can’t get rid of my immigrant parents and I can’t get rid of my queerness.
Years after I came out to myself, I finally came out to my parents. I fell in love – the type that encouraged me to come out to my parents. I wanted them to meet my love-person (I call the person I love and with whom I am in an agreed relationship with a “love-person” – the term works for both of us). This episode in my life made me realize that if I am going to have love-people in my life, I am facing a lifetime of having to figure out how to talk to my parents about them. How do I translate these feelings and situations to my parents? How can I explain my parents to my love-people? I learned that this is something that will have to be figured out as it comes. I cannot predict the turns and waves that my queerness will bring me. I cannot guarantee that I will always be ready to discuss these things to my traditional Mexican parents. Good thing I took an improvisation class in undergrad, I guess.
Age 22: My parents will never stop worrying about me.
I struggled financially after I finished undergrad. Somehow, my mom always knew that I was struggling and she would slip money into my hands or pocket when I would visit. One time, she gave me a bag of groceries. This was not the way it was supposed to be, I would think. I was supposed to be my parents financial relief.
Age 24: Fears are challenges and the more we face them, the easier it becomes to face them.
This lesson is self-explanatory, though I struggle to explain what I mean by it. My cultural upbringing taught me that to be a good person, I must live in accordance to what my Catholic faith teaches and eat regular healthy meals. These things had me living in fear for years. But I learned that fears are one of the best things to happen to a person. They are like challenges that can make you learn new things about yourself. Fears can show you that you are capable of doing things that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. But you have to work out the fear and overcome it. Embrace the fears.
So there you have it: my list of lessons I’ve learned as a first-gen queer kid.
My mom’s logic was that I was the one going to school, so I must be learning about how to do things in this country. She was partially right. Though, most of the things I had to learn did not take place at school. Most of them were psychological: I had to learn to accept myself, to believe that I belong in the white American spaces, and that I had a voice loud enough to get things done. You can’t learn these things in school.