New Initiative To Boost U.S. LGBT Movement Leadership

September 23, 2014

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez came from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to the United States with a dream. At age 14 he arrived at his sister’s Miami apartment on January 3, 2001, hoping to lift himself and his family’s lives through hard work and sharp wits. Six months later, his tourist visa expired.

Sousa-Rodriguez felt “heartbroken and afraid” as life without residency papers grew into a maze of snags and obstacles. Florida law barred him, for example, from driving a car, borrowing library books, or qualifying for in-state college tuition fees.

His adjustment to undocumented U.S. life grew more complicated as he realized the importance of remaining silent about his sexual orientation: “I was worried about coming out, getting kicked out of my house, going to a shelter, and not having an I.D. because I didn’t have papers,” he says.

The U.S. undocumented population, estimated at as many as 11 to 12 million, shares the daily risk of deportation as a result of minor infractions, such as driving without a license—which only 11 states allow those without legal residency to obtain.1

Among this population are an estimated 267,0002 LGBT adults, who face the additional dangers of being fired at work or evicted from their homes in approximately 30 states where no legal protections from anti-LGBT discrimination exist in employment or housing.

Sousa-Rodriguez began to embrace his dual identity when he joined a movement of student “Dreamers”—young people brought to the country as children without legal status: “We found strength with each other,” he says, adding, “I came out as gay to my family.”

Having participated in the 2010 Trail of Dreams march to end deportations of youth and families and in support of legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would allow provisional residency to undocumented students, Sousa-Rodriguez recalls: “Something beautiful came out of something horrible.”

Passing through Nahunta, Georgia, the Dreamers were taunted by racist and homophobic jeers as they encountered a Klu Klux Klan rally. But, he says, “Immigrants and the NAACP really came together. We supported each others’ causes.”

Two years later, in spite of a record two million deportations under President Obama, the administration halted the deportations of young people who had come to the United States before age 16, had lived in the United States for more than five years, and met certain other criteria.

Sousa-Rodriguez had risen in 2007 to become the student government president of the 40,000-strong Wolfson campus of Miami-Dade Community College, where he spoke openly about both his immigrant status and sexual orientation.

Following graduation, Sousa-Rodriguez was hired by the national LGBTQ social-justice organization GetEQUAL and became a codirector. In 2013, he was accepted to the inaugural class of the Arcus LGBT Leadership Initiative and a year later he joined United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant youth–led organization, as deputy director.

Thanks to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, he will soon receive permanent residence status through his husband, a U.S. citizen. However, he acknowledges: “I know there are 11 million others who don’t have that opportunity.”

1 Source: National Immigrant Law Center, March 2014 2 Source: Gates, Gary J. (2013.) LGBT adult immigrants in the United States, Williams Institute.