In Conversation with Jorge Gutierrez, Founder of FamiliaTQLM
Sitting at a table inside the nondescript cafe Jorge asked to meet at, with K-pop music blasting and music videos projected on a concrete wall, I see him pacing back and forth on the phone through the tinted windows and wonder if a last minute emergency has come up. When he finally comes in, he apologizes (“We’re getting a group together in Texas to organize protests and conduct training sessions because a new trans detention center just opened up”) and extends his hand for a handshake even though I’ve already gone in for a hug. We laugh it off and head upstairs to a quieter area to talk about Jorge’s work and the story behind FamiliaTQLM.
The founder and national coordinator of FamiliaTQLM, Jorge was born in Nayarit, Mexico but raised in Santa Ana, California. As a queer immigrant who only recently resolved his undocumented status, Jorge saw a need for “a space, an organization, where folks can bring all of their identities to the forefront and say, ‘I’m an immigrant, I’m undocumented, I’m LGBTQ, I’m Latinx, I’m brown." This was the seed of FamiliaTQLM’s creation. Many times, especially in large metropolitan cities like LA, organizations aiming to help marginalized and vulnerable populations in the community are readily found but spaces that can cover multiple bases, that are truly intersectional and are able to address multiple concerns are more difficult to come by. Combined with the tendency of many organizations being overwhelmingly white-led, often catering to the needs of often upper or middle-class individuals, many members of an already marginalized community can get left behind. Bridging this gap, Jorge says, is the backbone of FamiliaTQLM’s programs and community work.
Standing for Familia Trans, Queer Liberation Movement, Jorge tells me the name was inspired by two things: wanting to give the LGBTQ+ community a chance to create their own possibilities and definitions of what a family could be and the need to seek liberation, not equality, for LGBTQ+ immigrants. When I ask Jorge the reasoning behind his decision to steer away from the rhetoric of equality, he says it's because of how it can often trigger issues of “exclusion, being left out, assimilating to these very systems that are actually oppressing our people." Most of all “equality tends to be equated with being gay and white and we’ve experienced, historically, how mainstream LGBTQ+ organizations, that are white-led, have excluded us and thrown us under the bus for many, many years.” Choosing instead liberation, FamiliaTQLM is free “to create something different, to say ‘we want to end these systems that are killing us, that are deporting us and incarcerating us,’ to undo these systems and dream of a future without prisons, detention centers, or violence and instead creating communities where we have resources we people can have housing, medical care, jobs, community centers.”
The summer of 2015 saw perhaps FamiliaTQLM’s most recognizable act of civil disobedience and protest when fellow community organizer and leader of the #Not1More Campaign, Jennicet Gutierrez, interrupted President Obama during a conference in June meant to celebrate Pride month and the progress made in the LGBTQ community under his administration. Gutierrez, an undocumented trans Latina herself, rightfully called attention to the fact that progress cannot be claimed or celebrated as long as trans women are experiencing such violence and abuse in detention centers and was highly praised for being so outspoken. “It created so much visibility for Jennicet herself, as an activist and trans woman and her story, it created visibility for the #Not1More campaign and it put [Familia TQLM] on the map in a much more real way,” says Jorge. “The fact that it was a trans, undocumented woman that [interrupted the president] was amazing; people are now paying attention to her as a person and her voice.”
But that isn’t Jorge’s most cherished memory from his work with FamiliaTQLM. Instead, he tells me about a last minute #Not1More rally organized in Santa Ana, California in 2014 where they took over a city council meeting and demanded an end to the city’s contract with ICE and the prioritization of ending trans deportation and detention. “To have trans women go up in front of city council and tell them they were responsible for the trauma and violence they’ve experienced [because of their contract with ICE], for [councilmembers] to hear directly about all they’ve been through and for [trans women] to be there fighting because they didn’t want anyone else to go through what they went through and demanding for their sisters to be released, was amazing,” he says. More than anything, the solidarity and the quickness with which community members were able to organize represented “a moment of validation” for FamiliaTQLM, affirming that “community organizing does work and when you invest in people, when you train people, when you share resources, what people told you was impossible becomes possible.” The rally, which resulted in the city council of Santa Ana agreeing to end their contract with ICE in 2020 and taking steps to get ICE completely out of Santa Ana as well as stopping the construction of more LGBT detention centers, showed all who participated the power of community.
Beyond community organizing, FamiliaTQLM has also made it a priority to hold workshops and presentations throughout the country, allowing the organization to reach many pockets of the Latinx community, often in rural areas where they wouldn’t otherwise have access to safe spaces, support and services. When I ask Jorge if these experiences have allowed him to see what our community needs and is lacking in, he says, without hesitation, “ yes, a rise in Latinx leadership that can be courageous and unafraid, that can be risk takers and who can center our communities.” Noting the wave and rise of various Latinx community organizers and leaders, including fellow trans activists at Translatin@ Coalition, Jorge affirms these will be the people to “paint a new future, a new vision and guide us in what needs to happen to get there, what it means for a Latinx community to fight for immigrant rights, what it means for us to be in solidarity with other movements, whether it’s queer or trans rights, being pro-black, etc.” More importantly, giving up the idea of citizenship as the end goal for our community is key to keeping us involved in the other issues and challenges we face, he says, noting the reality that “people continue to be criminalized and face all kinds of discrimination, oppression and violence even when you are documented.” Acknowledging the reality and severity of the situation our communities face ("people are being killed, they’re being deported, our communities continue to be depleted”) Jorge is still hopeful of what’s to come, saying “many of our people are looking for [strong Latinx leadership] and want that to happen.”
What follows below is a shortened transcript of a conversation where we talk more in depth about FamiliaTQLM’s community programs, what it means to be an ally and the importance of self-care in the face of adversity.
Mia Rodriguez: I wanted to talk about Family Acceptance which is one of FamiliaTQLM’s biggest campaigns and focuses on getting at the root of a lot of the casual violence, microaggressions and outright rejection the Latinx LGBTQ+ community can face from their family. What has the work Family Acceptance shown you in terms of how far the Latinx community has come? How much work do we still have to do, and how willing are we to do it? Are education and support enough?
Jorge Gutierrez: We’re really looking at Family Acceptance work not just as educating our parents and families and getting them to support us but also talking about the issues that are impacting us as entire families. It’s not just about being LGBTQ, it’s about our parents that are undocumented, low education levels, working minimal jobs, fear of deportation, being criminalized by the police -- all of these issues are the things we want to talk about in those spaces. There’s so much at stake here: our communities and families are being attacked left and right by this system so Family Acceptance is like an opening to be able to talk about those issues. As LGBTQ, we also need to show up for our community as much as we need [our families] to show up on the streets for us because we understand that we’re connected, we understand how important family is for us as Latinxs. Even when our relationships can be complicated and painful with our families, we know that at the end of the day, they’re our families and we’re going to stick around, be by their side and fight for them even if that love and acceptance from them is not there right now. We’re going to work hard towards it and we’re not going to leave our parents behind. That’s the framing and approach in our Family Acceptance that I think other models that we’ve seen don’t really encompass. It’s usually very one-sided, we see the same model again and again: a focus on white families is not culturally relevant for our communities, it’s in English. There was a need to create something for us, for our families and friends.
MR: It's about bridging the gap, definitely.
JG: Yes, Building bridges between our parents and having these difficult conversations around gender identity and sexual orientation as queer and trans people. I think the work is showing that our parents are ready for that conversation, our parents want to have that conversation but no one is creating that space, no one is guiding them, no one is providing the proper cultural information that they need. For us to be able to provide that is amazing and I think we are excited to see where this goes, to grow it and take it where it needs to go, allowing the process to be informed by the parents themselves not just us as people who have access to organizing and activism but to parents who are still having to work 2 jobs; we want to give them a chance to be part of the conversation. At some point, we would love to see a sort of national parent network where parents can talk to each other within this process.
MR: FamiliaTQLM’s #Not1More campaign instead focuses on the injustice, human rights violations, violence and neglect (medically) trans women (as well as trans men, nonbinary folks, etc) face in immigration detention centers and is a call to end their deportation. The biggest problem seems to be the government's complete ignorance and lack of interest in wanting to develop solutions, plans of action and alternatives that can be put in place to secure their safety. What do you think are the reasons and factors causing this kind of response (or in this case nonresponse) to those who vocalize their concerns and outrage?
JG: In the last 5-7 years that I’ve been in the trenches of doing immigrant right’s work, beyond immigrant youth and beyond LGBTQ immigrants, when you look at the bigger picture of this country’s deportation machine and its connection to the prison industrial complex, at the end of the day, the government is refusing to “work with our communities” when it comes to solutions because it’s all about money. It’s a business. It has turned into a ludicrous business for private corporations. They’re making money, they’re in it for the business component so any kind of solution, initiative, campaign, that aims at cutting their profits -- they’re not going to respond well, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop it. And we’re seeing that. I’ve yet to see ICE work with any vulnerable community whether it’s children, women, trans people, because that would mean lower profits, it would create opportunities for other communities to go in and follow a similar model for solutions. The #Not1More campaign has created the perfect platform for ending trans detention for being uplifted and centered so it’s been exciting to see how it’s garnered national attention. It’s a visible campaign, it’s tangible and it's creating a new narrative that is more complicated than 'Deport felons, not families.' We're saying, "actually, the system criminalizes our people, labels them felons and yes, felons are our families and we are going to fight for the felons." Trans people will tell you that this has been happening to them for many, many years. Now, not only are they being sent to prison but they’re undocumented and they’re sending them to detention centers so for us, these are the stories we hear on the daily and drive our work. That’s what makes us say, “no, we need to push for all of us.” When we say, “let’s end deportation and detention” we mean “‘let’s also end trans detention and deportation.”
MR: How can we help as a community? How can we get involved and be allies while not speaking over or for the LGBTQ+ community?
JG: Do your research locally. What campaigns are happening? Who’s leading them? There are so many amazing organizers and organizations that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Get involved. Go to meetings. Find out who’s doing the work. Pay attention. Listen. Show up. Ensure that if you’re an ally to whatever community, show up in a way that builds and doesn’t co-op. That you’re centering the lives and voices of the ones that are most impacted by that issue and moment and space. There’s a huge need for all of us to get involved. Specifically for FamiliaTQLM: look us up online, sign up to our mailing list. As we’re growing our campaigns and work, people can follow us and support. If our communities aren’t realizing this at this moment when we’re seeing so many black folks being murdered, trans women being murdered, a massacre like what happened in Orlando where LGBTQ Latinxs were targeted -- if that is not shaking you, if that is not making you ask questions, if that is not making you want to get involved, I don’t know what will.
MR: What does the future hold for FamiliaTQLM? What do you want to accomplish in the near future?
JG: I hope that we can create solutions, policy changes so that trans people and LGBTQ immigrants don’t have to go through all the violence they go through in detention centers and for us to be able to get rid of the deportation machine in this country. We want to be able to have a bigger network of parents and families that are ready to work alongside us and we’ll be ready to work alongside them. We hope that we can continue to grow and have spaces where LGBTQ folks can organize and build community across the country, whether it’s big cities like Chicago, New York or LA or rural places. We hope to have more resources to do the work. We also want to be able to think about our Afro-Latinx community. How do we do the work to bring them into the conversation? We are going to need a network of leaders, organizers, activists, organizations -- this is all hands on deck. We need everyone to be part of this fight in beating these systems that have been working and profiting off our backs.
I look at my list of questions and realize I have one left: my favorite one to ask, mostly because I haven’t found my own answer to it. I hesitate but manage to say: “Do you ever get discouraged? What do you do to fight it?” Jorge falters, pauses and takes a deep breath. The regret sets in for a second; maybe I caught him off guard, maybe I shouldn’t have asked. He admits it’s a very personal question but eventually says “it’s easy to be discouraged, to fold your hands and throw in the towel and say ‘I’m done” but there’s too much at stake for our communities.” As for what keeps him going, it’s knowing that “we have too much resilience and love in our communities, too much courage."
He does get discouraged, though, at times when thinking of our community’s challenges and the relentless attacks of everyday life just for existing and living our truth. When he feels that setting in, he thinks “ of my friends, my community, my family, my mother and everything we’ve endured and continue to go through and how at the end of the day we still have the space to laugh and love.” Noting that the work that needs to be done requires a “commitment of a lifetime,” and how that can take a toll on people, Jorge says is important to “take care of each other, to have support systems, to lean on whoever you need when you feel discouraged, when you want to give up.” And knowing that that is still missing for many marginalized people is what makes him realize that “we need to go back and continue creating the communities we’ve been talking about. It’s not just theory, it’s not just ideas, they’re concrete.” “That,” he says, “is what keeps me going.”
Photos courtesy of FamiliaTQLM
Edited by Ana Ortiz Varela and Alexandra Butron Landivar
Layout by Alexandra Butron Landivar
Special thanks to Edgar Vargas