A big and genuine smile is the last thing you expect of a person who has more than one reason to be fearful and not accepted. But it was his smile that greeted me as I entered Selene’s place of work.
Selene Cass is the name he uses when performing drag.
We met in the back of the store where he works. Right away, I felt he was the right person for me to talk to about the LGBTQ immigrant community.
I say this because I was a bit nervous about asking questions that may be offensive to him or anyone in the LGBTQ community. I must admit that I know very little about the issues facing these individuals, but Selene made me feel at ease right away.
I always think it is hard to be a minority in this country, let alone an immigrant, but when you are talking about an immigrant who is gay, that presents a new set of reasons to not feel accepted. You might be judged not only because of your skin color, country of origin or accent, but on your sexuality, too.
Selene is from Tijuana, Mexico. He moved to Des Moines with his mom and younger brother when he was only 9 years old. His dad had lived in Iowa for seven years and worked as a mechanic before his mom decided to bring the whole family to join him in the United States. Like many Latinos in the city at that time, he grew up on the south side of town.
Growing up in a very strict and traditional household, he would get home from school, do his homework, eat and help out at his dad’s auto mechanic shop.
“I always had responsibilities and when I wanted to play soccer as I saw my friends do, mom would say, ‘You have responsibilities, they don’t,'” Selene recalled.
At 14, Selene began noticing differences between him and his friends. He didn’t feel attracted to girls, nor did he enjoy traditional male activities, but he never said anything because he was afraid of what his parents might say.
“My dad has always been a machista, so was his father’s father, and so on, for generations,” Selene said.
Tradesman in Mexico, like auto mechanics, have a reputation as machistas (a strong sense of masculine pride of exaggerated masculinity).
At 19, Selene moved out of his parent’s home. He decided that it was time to tell his parents who he really was, knowing his father would kick him out of the house. A few months after moving out, he took his mom to a restaurant and came out as gay.
Although she cried at first, “Mom told me that she already knew it and she will love me unconditionally, and I will always be her son, no matter what,” Selene said.
Though his mom was supportive and loving, the most difficult step was to tell his father.
“One day, I went to visit him and asked him, ‘Dad, do you know I’m different? Do you know that I have different sexual preferences?’” he said.
Selene recalled his father saying: “That’s your personal life and I don’t want to know anything about it, so let’s change the subject.”
From then on, Selene’s relationship with his dad changed dramatically. He avoided Selene and would hardly talk to him. In part, and for a while, he regretted the decision to tell his dad about his sexual orientation, thinking that he should have pretended to be someone different so his dad wouldn’t be disappointed. For about five years, his father was indifferent toward him, until Selene’s grandfather died.
“I think losing his father made him reconsider, and he became more accepting of me,” Selene said.
Selene was relieved when his dad accepted him again; family is important to him. He is also a hardworking individual. From working for his father at the auto mechanic shop, or with his mother at her Mexican restaurant, he enjoyed being productive.
He later landed a position at a retail store, a field where he remained for several years. He takes pride in his job as a retail training store manager.
“I love my job, I love helping people,” Selene said.
He doesn’t want to make others at work feel uncomfortable around him, so he hides the fact that he is gay. When clients make comments about him being nice, they say, “Your girlfriend is lucky.” He doesn’t correct them and tries to avoid any conversations on the subject.
“I’ve had clients coming into the store with their MAGA hats and I treat them with the same respect as I treat others,” he said.
Some clients have asked where he’s from and when he tells them he’s Mexican, they asked if he had immigration papers.
“In one occasion I had a client telling me that he didn’t want a Mexican to help him, he wanted an ‘American,'” Selene said.
What strikes me the most about Selene is his kind and accepting personality. When I asked him what his reaction was when he was insulted like that, his response was always the same: “I kill them with kindness.” Although he doesn’t agree with them, he treats them with respect and professionalism.
Selene is busy; besides working at the store he is also in charge of Latino Night at the oldest gay bar in town, the Blazing Saddle. He said he started going to the bar many years ago. It all started one day when he drove by The Saddle hosting a block party.
“I saw a lot of people like me being themselves and having a good time,” he said.
Selene was too young at the time to go to the bars, but became a patron once he turned 21. He said everyone was friendly and accepting, making him feel at home. Since going to The Saddle, Selene also has started performing in drag shows.
“We are a community where we take care of and help each other, it is a safe place for many of us,” Selene said, of the comfort he feels at drag shows.
Unfortunately, there are still many people against the LGBTQ community and the different forms of self-expression within it. The Saddle has been the target of hateful attacks, ranging from throwing rocks at the bar’s windows, sending “white powder” in an envelope and burning the bar’s gay pride flag.
In 2017, Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he wanted to ban transgender people from the military. Some gay rights advocates point to the Trump Administration’s policies and rhetoric as potential catalysts for the increasing violence in recent years. Even with all this, Selene said it will not change his positive attitude, stop him from living the best way possible or stop him for fighting for LGBTQ rights.
When talking about the upcoming Iowa caucuses and general election, he said many people believe that most LGBTQ people are leaning toward supporting Pete Buttigieg because he’s gay.
Selene said many of his friends talk about different candidates without showing any strong preference for any candidate. All they want is a president that values them and respects their human rights, he said. For him, immigration is his priority, followed by health care and the economy.
As comes natural in the Latino community, we embraced to say goodbye.
I felt nothing but respect and admiration for this person who, although he has been mistreated, judged and discriminated for his race and sexual orientation, he continues to have a great attitude toward people and life. His warm smile sealed our interview in the same way as we met.
By Claudia Thrane