What it’s like to be queer and Latinx in Orlando now 

El amor, es amor, es amor, es amor

Among the many refrains her mother taught her, Kay Ríos kept one saying in her mind the day she left home.

"Cuando te mueras, te van a enterrar sola," her mother would tell her, which means, "When you die, they will bury you alone."

Mamis, papis, abuelitas, tías and your metiche neighbor will tell you this when you're caught sneaking out with your friends to a party or when they find the hidden matching tattoo you got with your bestie. Essentially, they're trying to say, "Your friends ain't shit, and when the going gets tough, they won't have your back."

But Ríos interpreted the saying differently: What's important in our short existence is to live life genuinely, and stay true to ourselves. So at 17, she decided to live her truth and told her mother she was a lesbian.

"She really didn't like that, or like me or my lifestyle," the now 31-year-old of Cuban and Peruvian descent says. "So I left her. I moved from Miami to New York, and I didn't talk to her for like four years."

Ríos didn't stop loving her mother. But she wanted her to know she wasn't going to accept intolerance from anybody, even her.

"Family is nice, but your humanity is greater," she says. "You have to stand your moral ground. That's the only way change ever happens."

And on Saturday, she drove from Miami to Orlando to defend the victims who died while living their truth in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. A lifetime ago, a gunman walked into Orlando's packed gay nightclub Pulse during Latin Night in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, unleashing a siege of terror that would ultimately kill 49 people and wound 53. The people who left us forever included an accountant, a bouncer, college students, pharmacy technicians, dancers, a perfume salesman, fast-food workers, an aspiring firefighter, salon owners, a TV producer, a singer, an Army Reserve captain, theme-park workers and mothers. As we said goodbye at funerals and wakes this past week, we learned they were loved deeply by their partners, families and friends.

And it's important to note that although the victims were from different races and sexual identities, they were overwhelmingly composed of queer Latinos, Latinas and Latinxs, the newly coined inclusive, gender-nonspecific term. Their names were Sotomayor, Reyes, Guerrero, DeJesus Velazquez, Alvear, Honorato. Nearly half of them were Puerto Rican, but there were Mexicans, Dominicans and Cubans, too, and several were undocumented.

click to enlarge Puerto Rican flags fly over the cross memorial installed near Orlando Regional Medical Center. - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Puerto Rican flags fly over the cross memorial installed near Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Ríos, who lives in this intersection of being queer and Latinx, was in Orlando last weekend as one of hundreds of counter-protesters who stood between the Westboro Baptist Church and funerals at Cathedral Church of St. Luke.

"We had to come out here," she says. "We're not just going to sit at home and cower while five people can stand out here. We don't care if there's just one of them. We'll come out."

Locally, LGBTQ Latinxs are still grappling with the fact that this could have easily been one of them but have started a conversation on what it means to live in the intersection of being queer and a person of color.

Carlos Guillermo Smith says it wouldn't have made a difference if the shooter had attacked on a different night. "Latin Night" just meant Pulse played Elvis Crespo and Aventura, but the people who frequented the club were mostly the same – LGBTQ Latinxs. In the past year, the Central Florida community has seen a surge in Puerto Rican migration as people flee the economic crisis on the island.

Smith, who is the government affairs manager for Equality Florida, says he went to Pulse many times because it was a place where he could "let his hair down, dance to Beyoncé and enjoy a good drag show." More than a sanctuary, gay clubs are like churches, he says, because they're affirming spaces where LGBTQ people can be loved and accepted.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm a gay, Latino man, and I'm proud of that intersectionality," he says. "I'm a first-generation Floridian of Peruvian and French-Canadian heritage, and growing up, I was surrounded by Spanish-speaking relatives, enjoyed Latinx food and spent Saturdays dancing into the night. That intersection has helped me understand that everyone sees the world in a different way."

Smith says Latinxs, like other religious communities of color, are more socially conservative, which means some gay Latinx men come out later to their families than their white counterparts. Sometimes, they never come out to their families, but the tragedy in Orlando has accelerated the dialogue within this community.

"It's forcing people from all walks of life to challenge the old ideology about how we love one another and what their worldview is on how people love each other," he says. "That in some ways has created more understanding, which is a good thing."

Smith says he has been "disturbed and disappointed" by some elected officials' attempts to erase the Latinx and LGBTQ identities of the victims. After initially omitting the victims' identities, Florida Gov. Rick Scott finally said on Wednesday that the shooting was a clear attack on the gay and Hispanic community.

"He seems to refuse to say who the victims were, and this refusal to acknowledge that this is a horrific act of terror not just against all humans, but against LGBTQ people in general, is a real insult," Smith says. "It's an attempt to erase and ignore the hate that created this massacre."

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At a student vigil for the victims last week at the University of Central Florida, drag performer Adrian Padrón, who goes by Mr Ms Adrien, says he works at Pulse but wasn't there the night of the shooting. His friends were closing up for the night around 2 a.m. Sunday and were able to escape.

"That's my family," he says. "Latin Night was the most family night because people would bring their moms, and their sisters, and their cousins. That man tried to hurt gay Latino people, but he hurt all of us. Pulse was a home, not a war zone."

At the same vigil, Paulina Helm-Hernández, a queer Chicana who co-directs the organization Southerners on New Ground in Georgia, says Orlando's mass shooting felt like the fruition of the targets placed on immigrant, Latino and LGBT communities this past year.

"To take the sanctity away from that space robs us of our safety and of the possibility we could come together," she says. "To come into the heart and kinship of our love for each other and to make that the one thing we're now afraid of, to me just fortifies all the homophobia Trump has been talking about, that Gov. Scott and Marco Rubio have been talking about. They could have just as easily marked the trajectory for all those bullets; the only difference was that the shooter pulled the trigger."

Helm-Hernández says the tragedy proves just getting marriage equality is not enough for the LGBT community.

"We should have been fighting state violence, police violence and racism as well," she says. "I'm not saying it's an either-or, but if marriage equality was supposed to be the revolutionary win that everybody said it was, if same-sex marriage was supposed to be the one thing that kept us safe, that assimilated us into being just like straight people, this wouldn't have happened."

Speaking at a vigil at Valencia College last week, Chris Cuevas told the crowd that communities of color and the few spaces they have to heal and love are under attack.

"Outside, there exists a world that politicizes every aspect of our identities," he says. "There are debates over the rights of trans people to use public restrooms; a political candidate that has built a platform on xenophobic and racist rhetoric; a colony that many in my community have called home seen drowning in debt, suffering with no way of protecting itself; and an inordinate amount of legislation targeting us, our choices and our rights still pending in various states."

After the vigil, Liz Jusino and her partner Marilyn Acosta say they met as young girls in New York because their fathers grew up together in Puerto Rico.

"It's a Catch-22," Jusino says about living in the intersection of the Latinx and LGBTQ world. "The love that's in the Latino community, you feel from your family, from everyone, but there's a need to still be closeted. As long as you don't say it out loud, you can be who you are. When I came out to my mom, she told me, 'I love you because you're my daughter. I just can't accept your lifestyle.' I told her, 'As long as I'm a good daughter to you, I think it's going to be OK.'"

After the vigil, Destiny Santana says that despite her mom being in a 15-year lesbian relationship, she didn't want her own daughter to express her love for women.

"My mother went through the hardships and discrimination," the native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent says. "But she understands you can't choose it. My mom and her girlfriend would hold hands walking down the street and they would get looks of disgust. It breaks your heart. In this day and age, it shouldn't be happening."

The first and last time she went to Pulse was on Latin Night. Santana, who lived in New York during 9/11, says the tragedy in Orlando feels like that all over again.

"It could have very easily been me," she says with tears in her eyes.

There's also another community struggling with the massacre at Pulse nightclub – queer Muslims.

The shooter was an American Muslim who pledged allegiance to ISIS during the attack and whose father said he attacked Pulse because he saw two men kissing, though later reports claim he visited gay nightclubs and talked to men on gay dating apps.

In The Islamic Monthly, Hina Tai writes that we are all to blame for the horrifying event in Orlando, including politicians who use the event to further their narrative, "America's historic oppression of LGBTQ people" and Muslims who humiliate other queer Muslims.

"Blame is on us who shamed LGBTQ Muslims and made them unwelcome in their own mosques and communities rather than promoting inclusivity," she writes.

"Blame is on us Muslims who felt the need to stress the 50 murdered individuals were also human beings, because being LGBTQ means questioning their self-worth and dignity. Blame is also on us who while condemning the violence purposefully erased the identities of LGBTQ from their statements.

"Blame is on Muslim leaders who are scurrying to distance themselves from ISIS, yet fail to address the growth of intolerance and unhealthy conservatism in our communities."

Jordyn Victoria Laos, who is half-Dominican and identifies as transsexual, says the hatred for LGBTQ people comes from the haters' own insecurities, which she suspects was the case with the gunman.

"It's like in the movie, when Yolanda [Saldívar] kills Selena [Quintanilla] out of her own jealousy," she says. "I believe his hate came from jealousy that we were living our truth. His family made him feel this way, and when you think about it, that's really, really sad, but it doesn't take away from what he did."

And while it may not be the same level of hatred the gunman displayed, Ríos says people should stop accepting homophobia from their families and friends. While her mom has accepted her, her father and grandmother still say her girlfriend is her amiga, which means friend, instead of her novia, though Ríos says she doesn't mind as long as they recognize her partner.

"I think this is eye-opening to Latino families," she says. "Sometimes, they're so quick to judge their children and there's less acceptance in cultures where there's a lot of machismo. But I think you need to love your children, because you could lose them. Maybe they are too afraid to tell you what their lifestyle is about, and then one night, they go out and you never see them again."

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