My story is one of beautiful complexity, uniquely my own, but perhaps familiar to many within the LGBTQ+ community. I grew up in a deeply religious household in Florida, and this undercurrent of religious beliefs about truth and moral propriety, and the shame that accompanied those beliefs, existed alongside my growing realization that I was queer. The religious beliefs of our family also existed alongside another seemingly incompatible reality – one where addictive behaviors and violence were commonplace, and the presence of guns was normalized.
Though I’d later learn that my “normal” was anything but, the ramifications of this lived trauma would lead me to grow up fast. I experienced homelessness at a young age, and throughout the time I was unhoused, I saw firsthand the challenges of those around me, who experienced physical, emotional, and sexual violence. I became acutely aware of the difficulties of gaining access to education, resources, and assistance, and how much more difficult gaining access to all that was if you were an undocumented person in this country, or were non-English speaking, or were a person of color, or were queer. These myriad factors only perpetuated the cycles of vulnerability in which people already found themselves. I quickly learned that sometimes people living in chaos, trauma, or uncertainty make survival-driven decisions, and people in positions of privilege may struggle to comprehend them. Many times I faced situations that were unsettling, but they provided me with invaluable insights and interpersonal and professional skills. All of these experiences opened my eyes to new perspectives, even though the broader world may not recognize it the same way.
My life changed when on my journey I was justice-involved and given the opportunity to do community service work at The Center Orlando, which is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and empowering the LGBT+ community and its allies in Central Florida. Though I’d known I was queer for some time, I constantly battled these feelings; this was the first time I felt liberated – totally comfortable openly embracing this part of myself with full expression. The folks that arrived there showed up unapologetically themselves; I really admired that. At The Center, I was able to put to use all the skills I’d acquired while living on the streets. First as a volunteer and then as a staff member, I provided sexual health and wellness education, which led to another opportunity at another organization providing life-saving case management support.
On June 12, 2016, an individual armed with a gun in his hand and hatred in his heart went to PULSE in Orlando, Florida. What should have been a typical fun night filled with Latinx-themed music and dance at our local LGBTQ+ nightclub turned into terror as this individual proceeded to take the lives of 49 innocent individuals. Fifty-three additional individuals were wounded during the shooting, and a community and nation were devastated. That evening, my initial feelings of confusion about how this could happen quickly changed to panic as countless phone calls to loved ones went unanswered, and the names of those killed began being released. A sea of emotions washed over me: fear, anger, hopelessness. These feelings fell over the community, as the spaces we once felt safe in were robbed. We lost so many people, many of whom I knew and cared for deeply.
After the shooting occurred, media attention was intense, but as we watched the television reports, the complexities faced by the victims’ families, including language barriers and cultural differences, went largely unnoticed. Recognizing the need for comprehensive support, QLatinx and several other grassroots organizations emerged. I began working there as well, and today, in addition to still serving as a Case Manager at The Center, I am also the Executive Director of QLatinx. We make a conscious commitment to dismantling stigma and discrimination within the community, raising awareness and empowering individuals to embrace self-discovery, self-love, and personal well-being.
QLatinx exists to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ and Latinx individuals to talk about the issues affecting them. A lot of people live in fear, and many of them, because of their situations, rightfully so. We provide resources and hold workshops and panels, collaborating with partner organizations to find real strategies and solutions to the problems our community is facing. We focus on building trust and good relationships, and the importance of those for capacity building. We hold listening sessions, like “Ni Uno Mas,” which was an interactive community listening session about gun violence that we held in 2022 alongside Everytown, survivors and local leaders. We never lose sight of the fact that survivors are people, and we teach them how to advocate for themselves and protect their peace when interactions with others in positions of power are performative, not genuine. Overall, I see us as educators within the community, co-existing on a journey of healing, providing options and tools that our beneficiaries can take or leave.
Over the last nearly eight years, I’ve found it hard to say “no” and I often struggle with imposter syndrome – even after everything I’ve been through, sometimes I wonder why anyone would listen to me and I wonder if I’m really making a difference. But then I sit with other survivors and listen to their stories, I share space and stand alongside them, and I am reinvigorated and know we can make a difference. I think of what they have experienced, I think about my children, and I think about the kind of world I want us to live in, and I am motivated to keep going and keep fighting. I stand proudly as an advocate for those that have lived under the veil of systemic oppression, ignorance, and hatred. I live openly in my truth as a proud queer woman of color who fights for LGBTQ+ rights, who fights to dismantle stigma and discrimination, and to provide resources to those that need it most. I genuinely aspire to see a society where fear, violence and hatred have no place!