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The invisible lives of LGBT immigrants 

Coming out is hard for anyone, especially when you're also assimilating to a new culture.

Unbeknownst to each other, Jaime Villeges and his mother both hid pieces of themselves for years. Jaime, 22, only recently learned of her undocumented status, after years of asking questions about their family history. She learned he was gay only a month ago.

In a way, their reasons for maintaining secrecy were similar. After migrating from Mexico and settling in Sanford, North Carolina, Villeges' mom worked to make a life for herself and her three children when they were eventually born.

"I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood, more because my mom — she wanted to offer us the best upbringing she possibly could," Villeges said. "That meant giving us what appeared to her the most American life she could give." Part of maintaining that image meant hiding her undocumented status, which changed when she married Villeges' father, an American citizen. "She never made it an issue, and it was never talked about."

Coming out is a complicated process for anyone, and assimilating to a new culture — particularly one that isn't entirely accepting of homosexuality — confounds the process. This is especially true for LGBT immigrants who are living in the U.S. without documentation. The immense pressure Villeges felt to live up to his mother's expectations and to conform to his family's staunch Catholic beliefs kept him from revealing his homosexuality.

"It was almost this fear of letting her down," he said. "I think I might have created this monster in my head, thinking I was going to be exiled from my family."

Villeges draws from his personal experiences to make the LGBT immigrant community more visible in Charlotte. The gregarious cultural events coordinator for the Latin American Coalition, the largest immigrant rights organization in the Carolinas, is incorporating LGBT-themed events, possibly including a new Latino LGBT Pride event for 2015, into the coalition's regular programming. The coalition is a vendor in the Charlotte Pride Festival for the first time this year. Staff will offer educational resources, such as information about various organizations in town that cater to LGBT individuals. Villeges is also planning a movie screening for the fall — he hopes one with a transgender focus — followed by a panel discussion for the coalition's usual CineMás film series at the Mint Museum Randolph.

It's an outreach long in the making, discussed by the coalition's several gay and lesbian staffers and friends.

"Part of what we are trying to do is just have people acknowledge that this is an issue and a challenge for people, and in the interim create the most welcoming and inclusive place for resources, letting people know there are resources for them and making them aware," Villeges said.

One of the biggest gaps in services and outreach for the LGBT community as a whole is access to safe and trusted health services like HIV testing. The gap is especially wide for racial and ethnic minorities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say Latino gay and bisexual men are at an elevated risk of HIV. About 18 percent of Latino gay and bisexual men surveyed by the CDC were HIV-positive and nearly half didn't know their status.

Jermaine Nakia Lee, a behavior intervention specialist at local HIV outreach group PowerHouse Project, has seen those challenges firsthand. He said fear keeps young Latino men, especially those who might be undocumented, from accessing the resources they need.

"There's a lot of mistrust," Lee said. "When you go out talking about giving your name for an intervention or a survey or wanting their address or phone number, alarms go up. They think it is some kind of sting operation."

Villeges hopes the coalition and other partners, including the Latino Chamber of Commerce and Charlotte Pride, can begin a dialogue to address those needs and others, including offering safe spaces for LGBT Latinos to learn and to socialize with each other.

"It is sometimes overlooked, especially being undocumented and queer; that has so many obstacles in it," Villeges said. "Your ability to get these resources is obviously so slim."

He's also pushing for more internal awareness at the coalition. Staff recently participated in trainings to grow their understanding of LGBT issues, even changing forms to better account for gender identity.

"We're really trying to get the word out that we are welcoming and want to serve and help all members of the community," Villeges said.

This article is provided in partnership with QNotes, Charlotte's LGBT community newspaper. Learn and read more at goqnotes.com.


VOLUNTEER AT LGBT-MINDED GROUPS
Plenty of LGBT resource, advocacy, political and social groups in town could use your help, regardless of how you identify. Here are a few we like, and what you can do to help.
— Ana McKenzie

Social/Support Services

Time Out Youth (timeoutyouth.org) - Temporarily open your spare bedroom to a displaced youth (ages 11-20) through TOY's home-placement program.

PFLAG Charlotte (pflagcharlotte.org) - Attend monthly meetings to learn more about health issues and equal rights issues facing the LGBT community.

Different Roads Home (differentroadshome.org) - Help out at community events or provide rides to medical appointments for people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses.

Freedom Center for Social Justice & LGBTQ Law Center (fcsj.org) - Help facilitate daily operations for attorneys here, who provide services to LGBT people statewide. Internship seekers are invited to apply to the Law Center.

Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (carolinarain.org) - RAIN will match your skill set to help provide spiritual, physical and mental services to HIV-positive people of all ages.

Carolinas Care Partnership (carolinascare.org) - Volunteer at an outreach event or with daily operations to help provide housing, testing, counseling and care to the HIV-positive community.

Charlotte Pride Band (charlotteprideband.org) - Grab your instrument; set up and break down concert equipment; or prepare marketing materials for fundraising. Or just enjoy the music: individual season tickets go for $13, family passes $22.50.

Politics/Advocacy

Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (meckpac.org) - Serve on a steering committee, prepare and mail voter guides, or lobby with MeckPAC as it advocates for and educates politicians about LGBT rights issues.

LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County (facebook.com/LGBTDMC) - Help promote LGBT issues in your precinct through this auxiliary arm of the local Democratic Party.

HRC Charlotte (hrc.org/states/north-carolina) - Volunteer with the local arm of the national organization at galas, Pride and other membership-recruitment activities.

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