By America in Transition Director, André Pérez
I grew up thinking of myself as white. It was self evident. My skin was white. My mother was white. My accent was white. The words “white girl” referred exclusively to me. One of those nicknames that’s not as much a nickname as a statement of fact.
My mother was a jet engine mechanic in the Navy. Her blues hung in the closet, smelling of starch. Creases still remind me of her evening ritual. Face pressed against the ironing board as the steam rose from the cotton. My mother lived for the rules, meticulously executing the orders passed down to her from those above, demanding absolute obedience from me. She was the alpha and the omega of our two person household.
I knew little more than my father’s first name as a child. Other kids would ask me, what are you? It always stung like an accusation. What are you? I would sometimes be coy. What are you? I knew what they were looking for but I didn’t want to give it to them. What are you, anyway? I was defiant. What are you? Technically, I’m half Puerto Rican, I would confess when I couldn’t fend off the intrusion. “Technically,” a word meant to explain it away as I held my breath and waited for the response.
I grew up in the South where race politics were very black/white, and no one could pronounce my name. To the black people I grew up around, I was white, to the white people I went to college with, I was one of 3 students of color. I graduated as the foreclosure crisis ravaged communities of color and the banks stole what little wealth black communities had fought hard to gain. I came to Chicago because I was moved by the history of activism, I was inspired by the young lords. I thought Chicago could be a revolutionary place, and that I could learn a lot from the leaders here who are so dedicated to their communities.
I scoped out the city by taking an internship in the gayborhood. Two experiences that summer made me know I needed to come to Chicago. 1) I went to the Puerto Rican Parade in Humboldt Park where I was engulfed by crowds of screaming, dancing, yelling Puerto Rican teaming in the streets. I thought maybe just maybe this place held the seeds to something inside of me that needed to grow…something never had the soil to grow. 2) I interned in the gayborhood where I saw up close and personal the ways that wealthy white gays both exploited (through sex work and drug trade) and also enacted their fear of black and brown bodies, using the full force of their institutional power to do so — the police, community centers, and business practices. It was clear to me from the start — this is a place to do The Work.
From Joe Mazza when Andre was name one of New City’s Film 50 influential filmmakers in Chicago
Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. A history of redlining reinforced by inequitable distribution of public resources and selective infrastructure investments have culminated to produce the combination of divestment and rampant gentrification that shapes the social and cultural landscape. As a mixed person, I’m constantly asked to chose which kinds of spaces I belong in and regardless of where I choose, I’m afraid I won’t be accepted.
I was scared to claim my latinx identity because I was full of insecurity, afraid that my poor Spanish would belie that I wasn’t latin@ enough. The first time I went to a latino space was an organizing meeting for Orgullo en Accion who was hosting an LGBTQ Pride Picnic in the park that I could see from my front porch. I invited a friend with me who was from Mexico City so that she could be my buffer. They may question me, but they wouldn’t dare question her. As I walked in, a tiny shitzu ran over to sniff me. It was the only interrogation of the day, and I passed with flying colors. The people in that room would become my familia — the first people to unconditionally accept and support me. I would learn about their conflicted relationships with Spanish, the blanquitos and afro-latin@s in their own families, about the underground latinx trans bar in Chicago.
I stared at myself in the mirror, repeating my name over and over. “Hi, I am André Pérez,” my tongue feeling fat and sluggish as I tried to roll my r’s. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center was hiring someone to do sexual health education young queer latinx men, and they wanted to launch a transitional housing program for LGBTQ youth. As a consoeur of gay sex and a formerly homeless youth myself, it meant everything to me to serve my community in this way.
The day Pulse happened, I couldn’t know what it would come to mean in the hearts and minds of so many queers. I got calls from friends, lovers, and colleagues asking if I was okay or needed support. The caringness made me feel something I rarely do — it made me feel the way I did when I first met folks in Orgullo… it made me feel like the “we” who wanted to take care of one another was bigger than I knew. It made me feel loved. But I felt something else — I felt afraid that the support would be ephemeral, and that as soon as the headlines of the immediate public tragedy faded, so too would this new found support.
I remember thinking — where was the support for this man who driven by desperation and fear and self-hatred took these lives? What programs, community centers, conversations with families, in faith institutions could have soothed his anguish before it got to that point? How could we become a community that heals together, and creates space for those around us to become whole? What if that was the legacy of Pulse?
I now inhabit POC spaces on the regular. Every time, I’m a little scared that they will tell me I don’t belong, but I realize that being rejected or misunderstood is not what I fear most. I most fear that injustice will persist, that the divisions outside of the LGBTQ community will filter in, reinforced by our institutions as well as the outside world. I fear that black and brown people will continue to get murdered, imprisoned, and deported. I fear that 15,000 mostly black and brown LGBTQ youth in Chicago are homelessness and being exploited every night. I fear that there are people in our community who do not see a need for change, and who are not showing up for the conversation about race because it is too “sensitive,” too “difficult,” too “loaded” or worse yet — simply “unnecessary.”
I want to honor pulse by moving forward a conversation about race and division in the LGBT community, and asking you — how can we show up for each other today and everyday? How can we become a community that heals together, and creates space for those around us to become whole? What will you do to #HonorThemWithAction?
America in Transition is a documentary series exploring community, family, and social issues for trans people of color across the United Stated. We are a production made up of a majority of trans folks, people of color, women and people who live at the intersections of those identities. Pledge your support today to connect trans people of color, activate allies, and empower educators here.