Text and Photos by Prumsodun Ok, VoiceWaves Project Director + Executive Editor
On a cold Wednesday night the Guild Room of St. Luke’s Church is filled with warm chatter. Beneath the flatness of fluorescent lights, approximately twenty people celebrate Posada. They gather around two tables and laugh over plates of ceviché and chicken molé. And with the exception of staff, the evening’s revelers are clients of Bienestar, a non-profit organization providing services to the Latino LGBT community.
“We host support groups for gay men, bisexual men, and transgendered people,” begins Jesus Kanessa Gonzalez, Bienestar Health Educator and Community Organizer. “And we also provide counseling relating to substance abuse, clean needles for those making transitions out of drug use, case managers, and a food bank.”
Jesus, a 25 year-old gay man from a small town in Sinaloa, Mexico, has been living with HIV for seven years. He once spoke before an audience of approximately 2,000 teary and cheering people as an 18 year-old boy handling such weight. And now, smiling and laughing as he guides his colleagues through games he designed, he says, “I feel like I’m curing myself by speaking and sharing my story. I began working at Bienestar to help others who are going through the same things I am.”
During the celebration, repetitive techno beats fill the room only to be broken by more sophisticated Latin tunes. The atmosphere is festive and intimate as attendees guide each other in an excited Spanish through games such as “Ponle las flores a Frida Kahlo” [Pin the flowers on Frida Kahlo].
Mostly everyone present is a native of Mexico and Bienestar’s celebration of Posada is a chance for them to celebrate the relationships they’ve formed through the support groups. Jason Perez, a 24 year-old graduate of UC Santa Cruz and Bienestar Health Educator currently working to form its LGBT youth group, attends both these festivities as well as the one his family hosts at home.
“I go to see my family in South Central [Los Angeles],” Jason says. Admittedly, his family mostly stays quiet around the fact that Jason is gay. But, he adds, “Through the years, I’ve had to learn how to create the type of environment I want. I’m not afraid to talk about anything, and to be who I am.”
However, not all people have this luxury.
Sisi Lopez, age 48, is one of two transgender women present. She says through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, “I usually spend Christmas by myself. I feel so sad and lonely because of this.” Although Sisi has a sister with whom she works with—and loves and supports—Sisi does not spend the holidays with her because of the latter’s unaccepting husband.
This painful alienation is echoed in the words of 26 year-old Angie Morales, the other transgender woman present, “I just stay home and watch TV.”
Largely outcasts in a country that has just repealed its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and in a state that has just overturned the much contested Prop 8, many LGBT people face difficulties during the holiday season. Along with everyone else, they are bombarded with commercialized images of happy nuclear families on television. Many in the LGBT community must face their ostracization from the institution of family. Their status as social outsiders become heightened and highlighted, presenting many different complications for those with unaccepting families.
For some, it means that there is possibility for unwanted conflict around the dinner table. For others, it means that they will not attend festivities at all.
“I’m alone but I’m not lonely,” says Jesus. He recalls his many nephews and nieces running around his feet in Mexico and his loving mother with whom he communicates by phone. “I think that American society has lost the real meaning of Christmas anyways.”
“Besides,” he adds, “These guys are my family. We are each other’s family.”