For LGBTQ Tennesseans from immigrant families, culture may add extra hurdle to acceptance
Nicole Garcia Aguilar, a transgender woman, looks over donated clothing in the hotel in which she lives while she looks for permanent housing. (Photo: John Partipilo)
For some LGBTQ Tennesseans, growing up meant coming to the realization that their sexual orientation could be used against them by society, including members of their families.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, about 3.5% of Tennessee adults identify as non-cisgender. But despite being only a small percentage of the state’s population, LGBTQ residents face discrimination by employers and landlords and have difficulty keeping housing or jobs.
People of color within the community, for whom racism and gender prejudice can be synonymous, say they often feel left out of mainstream LGBTQ conversations. For immigrants or people from immigrant families who are LGBTQ, the hurdles to acceptance can be higher.
The Tennessee Lookout reached out to immigrants who are also LGBTQ. Here are a few of their stories.
Nicole Garcia Aguilar (She/Her)
Nicole Garcia Aguilar, a transgender woman, lived in Honduras until she was forced to flee in 2014 following death threats against her.
She fled to the U.S. as an asylum seeker but was deported in 2017 after missing a court appointment. Her attorney said that Garcia had been convicted of marijuana possession and faced prostitution charges but her criminal history did not involve violence.
Upon her return to Honduras, she was attacked and forced to flee again.
“A man had just been released from jail and I was on a bicycle and that person started following me, grabbed me by my hair and was dragging me. Some neighbors intervened and he said if it wasn’t for the neighbors, they would have found me with flies in my mouth, but for the next time, no one was going to intervene,” said Garcia.
Garcia was deported twice before being granted asylum by an immigration judge in 2018. Instead of being released, Garcia was detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Officials claimed there were inconsistencies in her testimony. Garcia spent nearly three months in solitary confinement before she was released in 2019.
With asylum status, Garcia settled in Nashville in 2020. She rented an apartment, but was evicted in June after the landlord refused to renew her contract. Garcia said the apartment managers were openly transphobic against her and that discrimination led to her eviction.
“They came to my apartment and threw everything outside,” she said. “I lost everything.”
A Tennessee Lookout reporter contacted Flats at Nolensville’s management, who said they were not aware of the incident.
Garcia enlisted the aid of Worker’s Dignity, a Nashville-based organization that advocates for low-wage workers. Donations gathered by the group gave Garcia the capacity to rent a hotel room, where she currently lives as she works to find permanent housing.
She now works as a member of Worker’s Dignity, working to help others facing similar discrimination.
Ali El-Chaer (He/They)
Ali El-Chaer was born and raised among Nashville’s vibrant and large Arab-speaking community.
Following an initial wave of immigration in the 1970s, thousands of families from at least 20 different Arabic groups established communities in middle Tennessee.
El-Chaer’s father immigrated from Palestine in 1982. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the family lived as quietly as possible for fear of harassment.
Parents barred their children from speaking Arabic and urged them to assimilate into American culture in an effort to keep them safe. Although El-Chaer started questioning his sexuality, LGBTQ conversations were not at the forefront of importance for his family.
“The last thing we need is our kid being queer,” he said of his parents.
As he grew older, El-Chaer was able to meet other LGBTQ people and started transitioning from female to male. He was well received by other Arabic LGBTQ members but, when he told his family, they weren’t ecstatic.
“They know, but it’s not like a conversation. Like my siblings all use my correct pronouns, and my mom uses my correct pronouns, and I don’t know if my dad doesn’t because there’s some language barriers or he’s just being dense, but there’s also lesbians in my family who are married but we don’t talk about it,” he said. “‘‘She’s married to a woman,’ that’s it, there’s no discussion,’ he said.
“There’s some weirdness that I’m queer, and we’re just never going to have that moment, and I’m more than okay with it.”
Still, El-Chaer finds himself divided between two worlds: The Arabic and LGBTQ community. There is still homophobia in his community and ideals more in line with Tennessee’s conservative politics.
El-Chaer feels that younger generations of Arabs have expressed more homophobia, possibly in attempts to connect with their home countries.
“I do think homophobia is really real in the Middle East, but I often wonder how much of it is a response to Western imperialism coming into play,” he said.
“But I’ve been very lucky with talking with homophobic Arabs and maybe if they don’t agree with the conversation, that’s fine. You know, I’m not asking them to agree with me, but I feel like we can walk away and see that they’re coming from this place where they’re feeling betrayed or oppressed or working through their own generational trauma and looking for someone to blame,” he added.
When it comes to Tennessee’s LGBTQ communities, El-Chaer said he is sometimes asked to renounce his Arab background.
“I get told that my people are homophobic, and we’re not welcome unless we call out our culture,” he said.
“I’m needing to take a step back from the Nashville queer scene, because it’s so toxic if you’re not white,” he added.
El-Chaer currently works as an artist in Nashville’s art scene.
Qais Assali (He/Him)
Assali was born in Palestine but lived in the United Arab Emirates before moving back to Palestine at 13-years-old, a move made more difficult as he began to question his sexuality.
“I remember that I grew up crying, and my family thought this was because of how much I wanted to stay in the United (Arab) Emirates for my friends,” said Assali. “But the actual reason was this confusion of me fully discovering that I’m gay.”
During his time in the UAE, he had more freedom to express his sexuality, but he realized the difficulties he faced as a gay man when he moved back to Palestine.
“Homophobia under occupation is different under other conservative cultures,” said Assali, explaining that issues impacting Palestine are sometimes dismissed by western countries based on Palestine’s treatment of the LGBTQ community.
Assali chose to keep his sexuality a secret from his family, fearing their reaction. Instead, he pursued romantic interests from the safety of his computer and soon fell in love with a man from Lebanon. They often talked about running away together.
One day he made the mistake of leaving his computer open, and his older sister found out about his secret life. He stood helplessly as she read through his messages until she finally turned and asked him, “You want to kill our mom, is that what you want?”
“In the eyes of my siblings, being gay would kill my mom,” said Assali.
Years later, his first love interest, the boy from Lebanon, died before they could meet in real life.
As he grew older, Assali became a teacher, hoping to help other LGBTQ children in Palestine and educating the population about sexuality.
“Having a supportive family is more important than having a community,” he said.
At 22, he was called by the Israeli military for an interview where he was questioned about his role as a teacher and asked why he would want to stay in Palestine. He feared they would use his sexuality as leverage to force him to spy for Israel against Palestine.
“That made me at a very young age understand what are my priorities in this life, as a Palestinian and as a gay man,” he said.
Assali would later emigrate to the U.S. to complete his master’s degree in teaching. He soon met and married a Hispanic-American, although having his sexuality, an abstract notion he’d kept hidden for so long, become open, was “insanely hard to live with.”
Today he has a tenuous relationship with his family. When he left Palestine, he was told “don’t come back” by his sisters. Years have passed since he last saw his mother.
Despite their flaws, he said life could have been worse.
“I’m lucky they didn’t kill me. They didn’t kick me out,” he said.
In June, Assali visited his family in Palestine for the first time in years. Although he worries about the potential dangers, he wants to see his mother, who is excited to find him a wife.
Assali, who works as an artist, currently has an exhibit at Vanderbilt University.
A.B. Bedarn (They/Them)
Bedarn’s grandmother was Palestinian, and her ancestors came to the U.S. following the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel in 1967.
Growing up, Bedarn questioned why their family had been forced to assimilate instead of embracing their Palestinian heritage.
“I can claim that part of me, especially in a world that feels like it should be erased or it shouldn’t be discussed,” they said.
By high school, Bedarn had come out as bisexual to their family, who were unsupportive.
“I feel like I’ve come out to my parents 10 times in the last 10 years, and there’s always a conversation where I have to re-explain something. But the first time was at 14 and I just asked my mom what she thought about bisexual people, and initially she told me ‘I don’t think that is a real thing,’” said Bedarn
“‘That’s just an excuse to have sex with a lot of people.’” That really caused a lot of harm, because it made me feel that this part of me wasn’t allowed to exist, along with other parts of me,” they added.
Today, Bedarn makes sure to keep boundaries between themselves and family but continues to struggle with their family accepting them as gender noncomforming.
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