Right now the LGBTQ community — and the country in general — is looking for people we can truly consider heroes. Luckily we have one in activist and documentarian Moises Serrano, the face of Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America. The documentary follows Serrano, who fell in love with a country that refused to recognize his full humanity, both as an undocumented immigrant and as a gay man.
Forbidden is an illustration of the intersection of queer and immigrant issues. The film chronicles Serrano’s work as an activist traveling across his home state as a voice for his community while trying to forge a path for his own future.
We chatted with Serrano about living as a gay man and undocumented immigrant in Trump’s America. We also spoke about what’s next for a young man who is, in the purest form, American.
What you are doing is something to be commended. Where do you think that willingness to be such an advocate comes from?
Honestly I really don’t know. I think a lot of it comes from my mother. She is a very wise and eloquent person. Oftentimes it’s about our parents; the gifts our parents gave us. I think it’s also about what my parents were denied in terms of potential; being denied the education and the opportunities that I have and the privilege to work and to obtain and education.
Other than that, I think it was in 2010 that I really hit rock bottom. I was working at a factory starting at 7 a.m. every morning. And I was dealing with depression and the fact that I really did not feel that I fit in anywhere. I didn’t feel safe at home because I was afraid to come out to my parents. And I did not feel that I fit in at high school, because being a Mexican-American is definitely stigmatized in many ways. Just not feeling like I was at home or at peace anywhere — my community, my school or in my home.
I just hit rock bottom, and there is only one place to go from there. I decided to simply speak my truth and not be afraid anymore.
When you came out to your family, were your fears founded?
Homophobia is pretty much the same in all communities. It is entrenched, oftentimes, through religion. I think the immigrant community is just as religious as any other community. That was definitely the biggest obstacle and barrier to try to come out to my parents.
It did not actually go the way I thought it would. I was ready for my parents to reject the person that I really am. At a very young age I knew I was different from everyone else, and that at some point I would have to leave my family. I had been preparing for it for several years.
When I did finally come out, that was not the reaction I was met with. It did take them a couple days to digest it, but my mother said, “At the end of the day, regardless of what my family and my church says, I still love you.” She also let me know that she just wanted me to be happy. And that she regrets the loss of grandchildren. [Laughs]
How do you think we can reconcile religion with gender and sexuality?
Though I’m a non-religious person, I did go through Sunday School and church. I think we as Americans need to understand that the Bible is oftentimes used to perpetuate the agenda of ignorance and hate. No religion should be used as an excuse to spread hatred towards another human being. That’s what we should focus on. What can we do to spread our understanding and love to each other instead of using religion as a way to divide people?
Immigration has become such a hot-button topic, especially with the recent news on DACA. Is it frightening to be out as an undocumented immigrant?
No, not for me. I have been openly out for almost seven years now as an undocumented immigrant. What does make me constantly fearful, though, is the safety of my family and community. For me, there is no going back. Especially with this documentary, I cannot go back into hiding.
Under this administration, where it may be even more difficult for undocumented students and people to come out, I think it is my responsibility to be that loud voice. What worries me is whether undocumented immigrants should continue to come out. Will the same tactics used during the Bush administration work again during this administration?
The Obama administration was quite terrible with immigration. Trump is continuing this massive escalation of enforcement, but he’s such a wild card. At least with Obama we knew things like civil disobedience and sit-ins would pressure his administration. With Trump in the White House, I can almost guarantee the same tactics won’t work, based upon his inflammatory rhetoric — especially against undocumented immigrants and Mexican-Americans. That is what is really scary.
Has Forbidden solidified your passion to bring these issues to a wide audience?
Yes, it has. It’s what I feel compelled to do and what I have been doing the past seven years. More than anything I love the connections that I have built with regular people through screenings and speaking engagements. I really see the true American public when I go out and speak at these events. And what they tell me is that they really just did not know. The American public is so ill-informed on undocumented issues for a variety of reasons.
One of the biggest reasons is that the right has actively framed our narrative. They have so perfectly created a portrayal of immigrants breaking the law that it is very hard to overcome that stigma. What I wanted to do was focus on the simple narrative of an undocumented person and really focus on their story.
Forbidden and [filmmakers] Tiffany Reynard and Heather Matthews did such a fantastic job interweaving a story of documenting a young person. Not just that, but it’s an adult immigrant narrative, which as far as I know had never been done before. They interviewed my mother and sister and they also had an immigration attorney speak on the system. Combining all these variables brings together a very compelling message.
What do you want people to know about the undocumented experience?
I want to highlight that our immigration laws have always been exclusive. One of the biggest problems is that we as Americans do not know our own history. If we knew that undocumented immigrants can’t “get in line” for citizenship — there is no way Congress can provide a pathway towards citizenship.
Back to my original point, Mexicans and undocumented immigrants fit into a larger cycle of discrimination and exclusion. We have always had a ruling class drawing lines in the sand with regards to immigration.
Our immigration system has been used as a way to exclude people that have been deemed undesirable. America has barred queer people in the past. We have barred homeless people, vagabonds, ethnicities and nationalities. Our very first immigration law was used to exclude the Chinese, then the Japanese and then all Asians until 1965. This is not a new issue. That is what people need to understand.