EL PASO, Texas — To live in a border city is to live between contrasting jurisdictions and beliefs. It is to delicately walk the line that divides cultures – never falling to either side – balanced by an ability to sustain contradictions.
For the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Bisexual community of El Paso, the city they call home is riddled both in tradition and progressive thought. The line the GLBT community walks is an interminable border that hovers between acceptance and condemnation.
“People from both sides of the border … all we’re doing is just tolerating each other, coping with each other, instead of mastering our differences,” said Rosio De Leon, student at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“I’ve heard this argument that the reason why El Paso is as gay-friendly as it is, is because people don’t really care,” said Jeannie Tran, also a UTEP student. “They don’t hate, but they don’t like. Even the gays: some of them aren’t very active on campus or in the community. They’re just gay and that’s all we know.”
This general social apathy towards the GLBT community seems to fade as the condition is focused in on families. “Socially, there is a great history of homophobia in the [Chicano/Hispanic] community,” said Professor Carlos Ortega, Chicano Studies lecturer and scholar at UTEP. “At the same time, there’s also been a great deal of support within families. It really would just depend on the family.”
For some in the GLBT community, family has remained their support system. “My mom’s side of the family is Mexican,” said Alyssah Roth, 18, UTEP student. “They’re the ones that knew first and they were completely welcoming of it. But that’s not to say that they were more welcoming than the White side, my dad’s side. There was no difference in being accepting of it.”
“My mother is very religious,” said Julian Casillas, UTEP student. “I always thought that I was going to have a hard time because of her faith-based values, but she was very accepting. Her biggest problem with it was the way that society was going to react to me.”
The religious aspect of family life has proven difficult for others. “I come from a very Catholic family,” said De Leon, 22. “My mom took it very hard. My brother didn’t believe it. My dad assumed I was going through a phase. My mom, being the religious head of the family, made me read the Bible from 7:30 to 11PM every night. She’d take me to church and one priest even tried an exorcism on me!”
“It was really hard because I thought I could cope with it and I thought that if I could somehow pray it off, it would go away,” De Leon continued. “I would try to be straight. I used to pray to be straight. I love God and I want to be close to Him … My mom would tell me, ‘Mija, please be straight. I pray to God that you’ll find a good man and he’ll make you straight.’”
For others, their sexuality has brought about confrontations with family and in public. “I was living with my brother at the time [I came out],” said Isaac Perez, UTEP student. “I told him and that wasn’t very smooth. We got into this huge fight. He kind of wanted to beat me up this one time outside of a bar. The relationship became very stringy, so I had to move out. I was actually couch-crashing at my friend’s house for a while. That was pretty rough.”
Perez, 22, who was born and raised in Chihuahua and moved to El Paso about five years ago, knows the delicate cross-cultural sensitivity all too well. “With the rest of my family, [coming out to them] went okay,” he recalled. “Of course, they asked questions. They worried that my friends and my environment were changing me, if it was some kind of weird idea that I got from being here.”
“My ex-girlfriend and I were in a store holding hands,” shared Victoria Ortegon, student at El Paso Community College, “and a little girl came up to my ex and asked, ‘Are you a girl or a boy?’ Her mom said, ‘You don’t talk to people like that. They’re the devil. You don’t talk to them.’ Then they walked away from us.”
“In elementary and middle school,” said Jordan Francis, 19, UTEP student, “I was called many names like ‘faggot’ and ‘girly-boy.’ In middle school, the guys didn’t even let me go to the bathroom. I had to use the faculty bathroom! It was definitely the worst three years of my life.”
The cultural condition of the Chicano/Hispanic family and way of life is seen to be the most obvious hindrance to complete acceptance. “I can see that El Paso is predominantly Hispanic and there’s that stigma that families are really conservative and strict,” said Josh Carter, UTEP student.
“It’s the idea of machismo, the idea of masculinity and being strong,” said Casillas, 22. “The man is the one that work from eight to five and comes home. It’s gender roles that get played into that.”
“The man is supposed to be the breadwinner,” echoed Ortegon, 23. “The man is supposed to be the one who takes care of his wife. To see a girl taking care of a girl or a man taking care of another man is just wrong in their eyes. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Support groups and organizations have provided relief and comfort for the GLBT community amidst ambivalence. “I grew up on the Eastside,” said Carter, 20. “I went to Montwood. It had a very large number of gay students as opposed to the other schools. They had a gay-straight alliance. Overall, I think it was a pretty good atmosphere. I was never bullied or made fun of. I was pretty much accepted for who I was.”
“There are a lot resources on campus which is amazing,” said Tran, 21, of UTEP’s handful of GLBT organizations. “I didn’t have that huge resource in high school.”
The three major GLBT organizations at UTEP are the Rainbow Miner Initiative, Queer-Straight Alliance, of which Roth and Tran are members, and Delta Lambda Phi, a gay, bisexual and progressive fraternity of which Casillas is president and Carter, Perez and Francis are members.
The brothers of Delta Lambda Phi find that their existence also teeters on the border of ambiguity. In their case, it is not with sexuality, but with their fraternity’s identity.
“There’s an unwritten motto we have that says we’re a fraternity founded by gay men for all men,” said Casillas. “It’s been very interesting trying to balance the idea that we are a men’s fraternity and we’re not just there for gay men because we’re there for progressive men as well – but also trying not to stay away from the idea that we are gay men, because we’re still fighting for the movement. Even though we’re not a politically-charged organization, we individually fight for the cause.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of people see us as just the ‘gay fraternity,’” Carter said. “Delta Lambda Phi has the highest overall GPA [of the fraternities at UTEP]. For as long as Delta Lambda Phi has been at UTEP, they’ve proven themselves to be a viable force. They’ve won homecoming before. We’re just as good, if not better, and we’ve proven that we can keep up with everyone else.”
Opinions about El Paso’s “gay-friendliness” seem to be pretty balanced, leaning towards neither side. “I’d say yes and no,” said Diego Ramirez of the city being “gay-friendly.” Ramirez, 30, is a straight bartender at local gay bar the Briar Patch who has also bartended in gay bars in California. “Yes, we do accept it in our families. We’ve overcome that barrier. But I think that we are 15 years behind any other big city. It’s easier for more people to come out nowadays, but the lifestyle is not here.”
“Compared to some cities I’ve been to, I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but I also wouldn’t say it’s the worst,” said De Leon. “I think El Paso tolerates it, but they’re not friendly about it.”
“I would consider El Paso a gay-friendly city,” said Casillas, “but I don’t know about gay-embracing.”
Overcoming the border mentality towards acceptance of the GLBT community can be seen as compromising to the very identity of a border city. El Paso stands apart from any other city in Texas, unique in its own history and reputation in the Lone Star State. Being one of the safest cities in the United States and bordering the most dangerous city in the world, Juarez, demonstrates the border state of sustaining contradiction.
But for the progressive side of the argument, there is hope and direction to help in overcoming apathy and ambivalence. “The bottom line is that there has to be discussion,” Professor Ortega said. “What is it that makes people so uptight? Is it just machismo, which is the easy way out, or is it social conditioning that people learn growing up in their families that creates this homophobic attitude among people? The discussion doesn’t only have to be here on campus, but ultimately the real test is getting into the community little by little whether it’s with church groups or with the business community. If we’re truly concerned about changing attitudes – which we should be – ultimately, we have to move into the community. There’s no way for El Paso to be totally ‘gay-friendly’ unless something like that happens.”