Tiffany Marie Sanchez, 28,
comes from an "old school Hispanic family," and knows a lot about
discrimination. To get respect in Bushwick, Tiffany had to "either knuckle
it out or run."
But Tiffany, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico
just before turning eight, wasn’t fighting discrimination against Latinos in
Bushwick, the Hispanic minority is actually a majority.
Tiffany fought because he is
a gay male, and also transgendered, meaning he identifies as a female. Since he
was 7 years old, he thought there was something different about the way he felt
and expressed himself. He remembers how his parents hated his hip-swaying walk
while he was growing up, although his mother did take pride in his ability to
Now, Tiffany wants to help
other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in his
neighborhood to feel safe, and change things from the time when, he says, being
openly gay in Bushwick was an "act of total suicide."
That’s why he volunteers for GLOBE (Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick
Empowered) a project organized in
1999 by Dee Perez, a transgendered male
who now lives as a woman. Perez said she founded the group at Make the
Road by Walking, a community-based
advocacy organization in Brooklyn, because it
was a place dedicated to fighting for civil and human rights. The agency
advocates loudly and publicly for immigrant families facing problems with
housing or access to services because of language or legal barriers. Since
starting GLOBE, Perez rallied members to hold similar demonstrations for gay
residents of Bushwick facing discrimination from landlords or others in the
To Perez, creating a safe
space for the local gay and lesbian community in Bushwick was an essential
addition to Make the Road’s mission, because "you can’t fight oppression
if you oppress."
And so, GLOBE
was born. On a Friday night in October, Perez sat in a circle of chairs with
about 14 other members as Tiffany, who was not dressed as a woman because he feels
his body is too physically developed as a male, led the group’s weekly support
meeting. The men and women in the room from teenagers to the middle-aged
are a sort of microcosm of Bushwick’s ethnic and racial makeup. Most are
Hispanic or black, with just a couple of white members. What they all have in
common is being gay, and the stigma that comes with that in a place like
Bushwick and in many cases from their native cultures. Some Hispanics in the
group said that the attitudes about homosexuality imported from their home
countries makes coming out a whole lot harder.
That’s the case for
"Theo," 18, who was born in Mexico. That Friday was his first
time at the group. A high school student, he feels the stigma of being gay, and
has only told a few trusted friends, all female. Theo is not his real name
even though the rest of the group is also homosexual, he still didn’t feel
comfortable disclosing his true identity.
In Mexico, Theo said, religion as
well as a culture of machismo reinforces the notion that a man marries a
woman, period. Theo came out to his mother when he was 16, and she told him to
go to church and pray that he would be cured. Two years after telling his
mother, who doesn’t speak English, he thinks she probably assumes he’s now
straight because his best friend is a woman. And his mother doesn’t ask any
questions to find out otherwise.
For many in the immigrant gay
community, coming to the U.S.
helped them feel free to be themselves. A 1994 federal law established that
homosexual and transgendered immigrants to the U.S. could apply for asylum if they
have fled persecution based on their sexual orientation. Immigration Equality,
a national advocacy group, estimates that "there have been at least
several hundred grants of asylum based on sexual orientation" since then.
The catch, said Nikki Dryden,
a staff attorney for Immigration Equality, is that immigrants to the U.S. have only
one year from the time they arrive to apply for asylum. And with a population
in which many don’t speak English and may not know where to turn for legal
help, they often aren’t even aware that this option exists.
Hazel, 31, another member of GLOBE,
fortunately didn’t need that option. Emigrating to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 16, Hazel grew
up as a boy. Now, she lives as a woman in Bushwick. Only the slightly masculine
tone in her voice hints at her biological gender as she talks about the fact
that she knew she liked men since she was a child, but never saw openly gay
expression until she came to the U.S.
"Being in this country
is helping me a lot," said Hazel, who thinks she would not have come out
if she were still in Ecuador.
After she arrived in New York
with her mother, she saw gay couples holding hands in public. She remembers how
nervous she was when her first gay friend took her to her first gay club in Manhattan. It was like
nothing she’d ever seen before.
When Hazel went back to Ecuador for the
first time in 2002, she was amazed to see that things had changed somewhat
there were now two gay clubs in her city. But, she said, being gay in Ecuador is
still very much taboo in mainstream society. Inside the gay clubs there,
homosexuals can be themselves, she said, but as soon as they go outside, they
need to pretend again, for fear that people will start "messing with
Hazel was in her early 20s
when she finally came out to her mother, who thought something traumatic, like
assault, must have happened to her son to make him homosexual and want to live
as a woman. She began her gender transformation by dressing up as a woman one
Halloween. Now, a decade later, Hazel says that her mother has accepted her
sexual and gender orientation.
Her father, she thinks, would
not be so accepting. Hazel said that he had always seemed tolerant of
homosexuality in general — but not when it came to his own son or daughter.
It’s an attitude both Theo and Tiffany experienced in their families as well.
"It wasn’t supposed to happen within her four walls," said Tiffany of
his mother’s initial reaction. But, before she died several years ago, he said,
she and his father sat him down and told him that they had come to terms with
who he was.
Helping gays and lesbians to
be themselves, not only in their own families, but in their own neighborhood,
is central to GLOBE’s mission. When she started the group, Perez saw oppression
and discrimination of the homosexual and transgendered community in Brooklyn,
and was tired of feeling like they needed to go to the more gay-friendly areas
in Manhattan in
order to be themselves.
"We’re not only in the village. We’re not only in
SoHo," said Perez. "At the end of
the night we come home to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy."
(Photo caption: Outside Myrtle-Wyckoff
subway station in Bushwick: Gay and Lesbian residents should feel free to
be themselves in their own neighborhood, says Dee Perez of Make the Road by Walking.)