Written By Juan Barajas
Growing up in a religious Mexican community, I never saw an example of a gay man - I didn’t know what ‘gay’ meant until I was 12 years old. At family parties, my uncles or cousins would always ask me about girls and if I had a girlfriend; eventually, I began skipping out on some parties just to avoid those questions. I felt like I was the only gay man in town, and I had to hide it from all my friends and family just to fit in.
I developed the courage to come out at the young age of 19; I moved out of my parents’ house that same day. Moving out was controversial to say the least - the standard practice in many Mexican and Latin American families is for kids to stay home until they get married, but I felt like so much time had been wasted trying to deny who I really was.
I didn't experience a same-sex kiss until my first year of college, and the guilt hit me so hard that I cried for days - out of fear, shame, and the feeling that I was going to hell. That first kiss happened at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
On a random Tuesday night, I drove to Pulse three or four times before I found the courage to go inside; I was scared I would run into someone I knew. When I finally went in, I found it to be the most amazing place I had ever visited. Not only did I see many gay Latinos like me, but I found a warm community who welcomed me with open arms.
Many years later, on June 12, 2016, I made plans with my best friend to go out for Latin Night at Pulse Nightclub. As usual, we would meet at his house to ‘pregame’ before going out. When I got there, my friend was playing Settlers of Catan with his husband and a friend. I never turn down a chance to play board games, so I joined in. Time flew by, and my friend and I decided we would go to Latin Night on another weekend.
Unfortunately, my friend, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, and his partner, Juan Guerrero, did not have a distraction like we did - they were among those killed in the Pulse Nightclub shooting that fateful night. The second deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, there were 49 lives lost at the Pulse, many of whom were Latino and LGBTQ+. The club hasn't operated since the shooting, but the site where it stands has turned into a makeshift memorial until a permanent memorial is constructed.
And the lives of those lost continue to be memorialized as well, including that of my friend, Drew. An activist who had started a gay-straight alliance and had won the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for his work in the gay community, Drew’s legacy lives on through thedruproject.org, which was established in his name to empower LGBTQ+ youth and help set them up to be successful leaders.
Today, there are many monumental figures in the Latinx LGBTQ+ Community for young people to look up to:
- Jose Sarria, whose trailblazing run for public office in 1961 as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBTQ+ Californians to run for public office.
- Frida Kahlo, a world-renowned self-portrait painter and role model for generations of artists, people with disabilities and bisexual women.
- Julio Salgado, co-founder of DreamersAdrift.com, whose status as an undocumented, queer activist has fueled the contents of his visual art.
- Ricky Martin, singer, actor and LGBTQ+ advocate, who has achieved the title of “King of Latin Pop” and pocketed multiple music awards and accolades from around the globe.
- Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the first openly transgender appointee in the Obama White House, who now serves as a Deputy Directory for the All On The Line Campaign.
- Juan Gabriel, beloved and popular Mexican singer-songwriter, whose flashy stage personality remains cherished by fans around the globe.