Learning to be comfortable in their own skin

Central American Refugee Center offers 'second home' to LGBT immigrants

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Part seven in a series.

The halls of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead had gone quiet. The long lines of refugees from around the world seeking assistance with their permanent resident and citizenship papers were no more. Folks had gone home for the day, and only the sound of heaters clicking could be heard. The sun had set.

Then, CARECEN’s doors swung open to welcome a group of eight lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, immigrants, primarily from Central and South America.

They were all members of a support group that CARECEN sponsors to assist LGBT immigrants, who are often shunned because of their sexual orientations. The group meets every other Tuesday.

Group members were cheerful and chatty as they entered CARECEN’s narrow halls and settled into a corner office, where they crammed onto a comfortable, well-worn couch.

When members learned that a Herald reporter was there, they suddenly turned anxious. “They don’t really feel comfortable talking to you right now,” Jenny Chevez Urbina, the group’s coordinator, told this reporter. “They’re a little bit nervous.”

Eventually they relaxed and agreed to speak, but only, in most cases, on the condition of anonymity. All said they were afraid that they might face harassment or worse if their sexual orientations were known. We agreed to use only first names or to change names as needed to protect their identities.

‘It’s difficult to live a double life’

Natividad, 26, and Jorge Lopez (not his real name), 27, both of El Salvador, and Edwin, 30, of Honduras, were reticent at first. Slowly, though, they started to open up about their lives and the daily struggles they face as gay men in the Hispanic community, which is often traditional in its customs, particularly when it comes to dating and marriage. Still, the three agreed that things are better for them in the United States than they were in their native countries.

“I feel more free here than I do in my own country,” Natividad said in his native Spanish. “I feel more comfortable being myself here than I did in my country.”

Despite his greater sense of freedom, Natividad said, he is scared every day. He knows that homosexuality is often looked down on in Hispanic culture, as well as in American society. He left El Salvador, in part, to find work, he said. At the same time, he worried about how his parents would react if they learned he is gay.

Now CARECEN is helping him overcome his fears. “This group gives me comfort and hope and love and support,” he said. “In this country, I’m free to be me and be open about it.”

Natividad is now “out of the closet.”

Lopez, however, is not. He still lives a double life. Aside from safety concerns, he didn’t want to reveal his real name because he has not yet come out to his family or friends. “It’s extremely difficult to live a double life,” he said in Spanish. “When you feel like you were born one way, and for your family to tell you that being gay is an illness — a sickness — it’s really difficult.”

After arriving in the U.S., he said, he met up with an aunt, whom he thinks of as a second mother. She gave him a place to stay. Then she started to distance herself from him. He believes she might have learned his secret. “She answers my texts,” he said, “but the love that was there between us is no longer.”

His mother lives in El Salvador and his father in the U.S. Neither knows he is gay, he said. “My mother might suspect, but my father…” Lopez’s voice trailed off. He started to cry. “I tried to be what my family wanted me to be,” he said. “I was even in a relationship with a woman, but I was only hurting myself and her, and I felt pain and regret.”

He wishes his family would accept him and his partner for who they are, but he believes that will never happen. He comes from a traditional Christian family that regards homosexuality as a sin, he said. “But I have plans to tell them,” Lopez added. “I plan to tell my aunt first. I know she will feel betrayed.”

‘We’re just like everybody else’

“My family thought I was possessed,” Edwin said. “I always knew I was gay. I always liked playing with dolls, and I liked to do a lot of things that girls do, but my dad would always yell at me for it.”

Edwin said his father told him that if he ever had a gay son, he would kill him. He described his parents as homophobic. “Sometimes I think God punished them for being homophobic by giving them a gay son,” he said, grinning.

Edwin hid his sexuality by burying himself in his schoolwork. He studied long days and nights to prevent his family from asking him about his sexual preference. He earned straight A’s in school, to the delight of his mother. But his father chided him, saying he needed a girlfriend. He felt increasing pressure from his family to date a woman, and so he eventually decided to leave for the U.S.

“My aunt and cousins know I’m gay, and I feel free,” Edwin said. “I was so scared to tell them, but now I’m mature.”

“We’re just like everybody else,” he added of the LGBT community. “We’re normal. We’re good people.”

“We just want people — especially our families and people from our own cultures — to know that we are just like them,” Natividad added. “We breathe, we eat, we cry, we work. Our sexuality does not make us any different than anyone else.”

Urbina knocked on the door. “The rest of the group is ready to talk now,” she said.

Finding support

Group members spoke of the support and love they have received at CARECEN.

“This country continues to provide so many great opportunities to immigrants — gay immigrants — from all over the world,” Urbina said. “It allowed me to marry my wife, and I’m grateful for that.”

“The Latino community, they discriminate against us,” Javier Robles said in Spanish. “The U.S. opened its doors to us when our countries shut us out. The laws here respect us, and we are treated like human beings.”

Aside from offering support, Urbina said, CARECEN provides educational pamphlets and lessons on topics ranging from safe sex to mental health and free HIV testing.

“We want people to know that this group exists,” said Gabriel Galo, a group member. “We want them to know that if you’re scared, you can come here and be comfortable in your own skin. You can come here and find your second home.”