By Xorje Olivares, NCLR Blog guest contributor
Waiting at the end of the long corridor that led to the exit of my junior high school band hall were Mario and his buddies. I knew them. Not well, though, considering we lived along the Texas-Mexico border in the type of small-town community where strangers were pretty much nonexistent. But I knew them. And I knew the sinister look on their faces. LGBT kids, particularly brown ones, know what I’m talking about. Very well, I’m sure.
As I approached them that fateful afternoon, my hands tightly gripping my backpack straps as a means of comfort, I quickly realized that I lacked a strategy. I also lacked supporters. Seriously, though—where were my friends? I had literally just seen them in the band hall, and they, too, were headed to their next class. Looking back on it, I should have told Mr. Martínez to work harder on accompaniments or how to play a second fiddle because it’s tough having to face the music alone.
Now even if my besties (all girls at the time) were to have shown up at the last minute to carry me away in a cloud of freshly applied powder, they wouldn’t have been able to save me from Mario’s impromptu two-second solo, sans trumpet. That day, his fast, vulgar mouth was his instrument.
“Pinche maricón,” he said at me, slightly nodding to accent each word.
They hit me like a trombone slide to the back of the head. His buddies, now cackling in unison, barely moved away from the doorframe as I turned to walk out into the perceived safety of our general student population, my tears silently forming. Mario’s “solo” continued ringing in my ears that day despite repeated attempts to drown it out with better music. I think Linkin Park was still cool when I was in eighth grade.
Although I don’t remember the immediate aftermath of that performance, I can safely say that I’ve experienced the encore several times over the past 13 years. Mario’s use of that off-key, off-color remark forced me to confront parts of my identity that I had kept hidden away in my trumpet case for fear that my Tejano parents would find out and disapprove. I mean, in 2002, what Latino was out and proud? And no, the rumors about Juanga don’t count.
In all seriousness, I knew that more people laughed at “maricóns” than protected them. And I was already labeled by my classmates, who somehow learned that slur the same way I did: culturally.
I share this story because a lot has changed with regard to both LGBT acceptance and visibility in this country, especially within school settings, that today’s generation may take for granted. Not only are kids putting me to shame and coming out at far-younger ages than ever before, but their peers and loved ones are seemingly aware and completely understanding of what that process even means. I find that incredibly uplifting, though there are several areas where we must still seek improvement, including the Latino community’s historic reluctance to openly embrace its LGBT children. While I’ve been blessed to have had a supportive family, I admit that there are Latino households where issues of identity are a constant struggle.
But as millions of Americans commemorate Spirit Day today, an annual event created in 2010 to highlight anti-LGBT bullying, it’s easy to see—and hear—how we’ve slowly but surely changed our once-hostile tune toward a minority group that desperately needs our attention. Society has thankfully started to recognize the plight of vulnerable youth, specifically those of varying sexual orientations and gender identities, and they have the purple shirts and online avatars to prove it. The best part is that countless Latino celebrities, newsmakers, and brands acknowledge the importance of participating in Spirit Day, and in turn, empower the same queer, brown youngsters who previously felt isolated by a lack of racial and ethnic representation in the media.
I know a lot has happened in my hometown since I met Mario at the end of that long corridor more than a decade ago. Both my father and sister teach at one of the local high schools and are currently witnessing the (key) change. Two years ago, students there elected a same-sex couple representing the then newly formed gay-straight alliance as their homecoming queens. Several of my sister’s kids also talk to her about queer-related issues since she makes no secret about her openly gay brother—you know, the one who also dealt with growing up beige and confused. In fact, her classroom is widely known as a safe space for LGBT students seeking guidance or empathy.
But I’d argue that it’s still somewhat difficult for Latino LGBT students, mostly because of the lingering stigma associated with homosexuality in a culture defined by machismo and, oftentimes, Catholicism. It’s also much harder to find out Latinos being portrayed in movies, music, and television today compared to other ethnicities. Believe me, it makes a huge difference since youth are constantly consuming various forms of media and use them as resources to better understand their complicated lives.
Which is why wearing purple or changing the color of our profile pictures today matters. It’s our way of gently telling LGBT kids we see them and care for them. I guarantee you that such a gesture will be music to their ears.
Xorje Olivares is a self-identified Tejano from Eagle Pass, Texas, with degrees in Mexican-American Studies and Broadcast Journalism from UT-Austin. He’s currently a writer, producer and radio personality living in New York City. His work has been featured on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, ABC News, OUT Magazine, and The Advocate.