The Heart of Full Disclosure

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Yumna Mohamed

Gabriel is a 24-year-old New Yorker who has just recently made the transition from being an undocumented immigrant to applying for legal residency. Tune in to hear Gabriel’s story.

Every day, Gabriel, 24, is faced with the challenge of articulating his identity, guarding himself and carefully choosing to whom he reveals himself and when. To put it another way, he inhabits more than one closet.

For 17 years, Gabriel lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. He also is gay.

“My undocumented status had a large impact on my upbringing,” says Gabriel, who moved here from Quito, Ecuador with his parents when he was seven.

“Without my papers, I felt like I was trapped in a box. I could see everything outside of it and I wanted to access it but couldn’t and I just wanted to get out of it,” he says.

This year, his uncle was able to sponsor Gabriel and his family’s application for legal residency. As his mother’s brother, Gabriel’s uncle, who is a U.S. citizen, is able to sponsor his immediate relatives’ application for an “adjustment of status,” which will hopefully lead to permanent residency and eventual citizenship. In the meantime, Gabriel has finally been able to get a state ID, Social Security number and work permit.

The sense of legitimacy these documents have given him has motivated him to help others in the same situation. He has become a strong advocate for immigrant rights in the United States, working with organizations like the New York State Youth Leadership Council to push for equal access to education for undocumented immigrant youth and the passage of the DREAM Act.

About 765,000 students between 13 and 18 years old arrived in the United States illegally in their early teens, and 65,000 students without immigration status graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to a 2007 study by the Migration Policy Institute.

Gabriel recalls how his status affected the way he interacted with his surroundings. He studied finance at an out of state school because he didn’t know about opportunities for undocumented students to study at colleges in New York City. To avoid other students missing this opportunity, Gabriel became involved with the immigrant youth group’s mentorship program.

A pilot project of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the program uses mentors like Gabriel to help young illegal immigrants graduating from high school learn about their options to attend college in New York. They help them with applications and prepare them for college life.

Through the mentoring program, the group wants to push for the state and federal passage of the DREAM Act.  It would give legal to illegal immigrant youth who attend two years of college or complete two years of military service.

Gabriel is aware of the difference legal status can make.

“Now that I can work legally, it feels a lot better,” he says.

But in many ways, this sense of identity will never leave Gabriel. His feeling of “otherness” in the United States persists. He prefers to identify himself as Latino over everything else.

“If I were to go to Germany and I met someone who told me they were Turkish, what would I say to them?” he wonders. “I don’t see myself as American, but I see myself now as a visible thread of the American fabric and can remove myself from the margins of society.”

Now that he is approaching legal status, he sees himself overcoming limitations and barriers and enjoying a sense of continuation that citizens take for granted. At the same time, his old life comes back to him when he doesn’t expect it. He remembers saying goodbye to his little cousin at the airport in Quito, one of 30 cousins he hasn’t seen since he left. Now, that cousin is 18 years old and is visiting Gabriel’s family for the first time. This reminds Gabriel of the impact his family’s departure must have had on those they left behind.

“Wow, it’s been 17 years,” he reflects as he recounts his memories.

He can count the moments and people that have led him to the point he is at now: working as a recruiter at GMHC, a non-profit organization that aims to support and educate gay men and women about leading healthy lifestyles.

In his work, he comes across people with whom he can identify on many levels. They require coaxing to reveal their status, something Gabriel has grappled with his entire life. Living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States has caused him to guard himself carefully.

“Gabriel is reserved, which is important for the job he is doing,” says his roommate Veronika Gorkina, 27, who works in retail management.

“He can process information calmly and doesn’t get emotionally involved, which is good for his clients. They wouldn’t benefit from an emotional wreck,” she adds.

Gabriel’s work at GMHC requires him to seek out gay men who appear to be marginalized and at risk of having unsafe sexual habits, and teach them to communicate with their sexual partners, as well as disclose their sexual preferences and HIV status with friends and families.  He learns from other people’s experiences without internalizing them.

“You can’t be a superhero and be everything for everyone,” he says.

Maintaining this distance has not meant that he cannot identify with his clients. His own sexuality and immigration status have often left him feeling marginalized, especially when he was younger.

“I’ve learned from them how it is to deal with being HIV positive and their courage when it comes to disclosing their sexual orientation,” says Gabriel.

His enthusiasm for social activism is what landed him a job at GMHC in the first place, a far cry from his previous work in finance. His sense of social justice became clear to his supervisor Eric Arnold, a group facilitator at GMHC.

“I first got to know Gabriel over heady, abstract conversations about ‘isms’,” Arnold said, referring to debates he had with Gabriel over politics, race and culture.

“I asked myself, ‘Who is this young kid, talking about this stuff?’”

According to Arnold, it is Gabriel’s analytical side that has served him best in his work.

“The challenge is working with people who haven’t openly disclosed their status, and identifying those most in need,” he says. “Gabriel has approached that challenge and taken the initiative to surmount it, coming up with strategies we haven’t thought of before, like social networking.”

Gabriel identified a number of online dating sites that target gay men, and created profiles on these sites to approach and educate its users about disclosing their HIV status to their partners and practicing safe sex. While not HIV positive himself, Gabriel has found that it’s more beneficial to leave this disclosure up in the air.

“I prefer to leave it up to the client’s assumptions, as it affects the rapport I have with them,” he says. “They need to feel like they can identify with me.”

Many of the people he helps are homeless and unemployed, overlooked and neglected by society. This is something that rings true with Gabriel’s work with another underrepresented group, illegal immigrant youth. Like those he helps, it took him a long time to feel safe enough to speak about his immigration status.

“With time I was able to reveal this to those close to me, like my roommate, Eric and others whose perceptions I could change by revealing this part of my life,” he says. “I sometimes try to remove myself from the memory of my life in Ecuador.”

He realizes how far his family has come. They started off in one room in his uncle’s home in Connecticut, then moved to a condo and eventually bought their own home in 2003.

“I am very proud of my parents,” Gabriel says. “Growing up, we never went hungry but we never had luxuries either. But my younger siblings are growing up comfortably.”

His mother is equally proud of him. Unlike Gabriel, her emotions are very close to the surface. It doesn’t take long for Janet to tear up as she speaks of her oldest son’s accomplishments.

“He is not just a good student and good worker, he is a good son,” the mother of three says, her words punctuated by emotional moments of silence. “We were working and couldn’t afford to help him pay for university, and even though his roads were blocked, he still succeeded. He didn’t have help and now he does so much to help everyone.”

Despite his obvious affection for his parents, his relationship with them is tenuous, as the topic of disclosure once again rears its ubiquitous head. While he was able to reveal his sexuality to his friends with relative ease, he hasn’t broached the subject with his strongly Jehovah’s Witness parents.

“If I come out to my parents, I feel like they will reject me,” he says, adding that for now he would like to leave them in denial.

“Disclosure is a process that for me has had far-reaching implications in my life and is intertwined in my work, my sexuality and my immigration status,” he says.

Gabriel used to laugh at the clichéd phrase of “finding onseself”, but realized that he found himself in his interactions with others and learning from them.

“It’s interesting to me that I open up to people and I get something in return,” he reflects. “Those people, and I can name them, don’t know how they’ve affected my life but they’ve helped me see myself in the world and know what path I’m going to take and it’s a matter of just getting there.”

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