But that's how it's been. Our model has always been: We go to where they are at whatever time they want to meet. We never make them come to us. If they prefer us to meet them somewhere, we do that. It's always on their own terms. Folks have cancelled; we don't shame them.
We have to be really, really flexible -- which was humbling. Because if you've worked in nonprofit for as long as I have, you can get tricked into believing that people need to come to you. Right? And I had to let go of all of that. I don't have a service to provide, and that's OK. I'm not showing up as a service provider, which means I have to relinquish some of that power and some of that privilege. And once I began to do that, it was like now I have friends that I never would have had three years ago.
That's always been our motto: be really grassroots; meet them where they are; and allow them to talk about who they are, what they want to share. Some people are comfortable being interviewed on camera and some people are not. But, again, we don't shame. We explain that however we tell our story is necessary; and however we do it, that's OK.
It sounds like in doing this project you also went out and created a community -- or at least unified a community that you weren't a part of, necessarily.
It's insane. I always feel that people think that I'm the godmother, that I'm the madrina, of Varones. Because I'll get inbox messages, like, "Yo Louie, Carlos said that he's going to beat somebody's ass. Tell him he gotta take that down? The Gran Varones should be healing." And I'm like, I appreciate that we're wanted to intervene. But Varones is not about being a role model. I love that you think that. I'm humbled that people think that. But I always have to remind people that I'm not checking. I'm not in the business of telling people what they can do, or what they can't say, or how they should express themselves. Because, in Varones, everyone is allowed to be a part of it.
And it has those communities. It's so weird that, when [I come] back to North Philly, I'm always hanging out with them. But, again, I'm hanging out with people who I thought that I would never hang out with because of our cultural differences three years ago. But once you get past that perception, it's always, there's so much in common.
We interviewed this one guy who is a friend of, like, my aunt. Well, she's like my aunt like the way that hood people have aunts. I'm not sure who she's related to, but she's my aunt. And her daughter who presents as masculine -- she identifies as a dyke -- posted a picture of this guy named Raoul. And I was like, "Oh, he's got to be queer. Let me request him and I'll tell him that he could be part of the project."
I set up an interview. He says, "I can do it right now."
I said, "No worries. We'll stop by your house before I go to the club." I was like, "What's the address?" He gave me the address and I was like, ugh, that's the block that my brother was murdered on. But I told myself, I said, "We meet them where they are. Since I'm going through stuff, I'll just have an extra long time I have to deal with that trauma."
So we go to his house. We walk in. And I can see that they had a sheet hanging up by the door. And as soon as I walked in, I immediately knew what I was walking into. Because we grew up having sheets hanging by the door -- that was to keep the heat in. So I walked in. I noticed it was really dark and there were, like, maybe two lamps on the floor. And I did a quick surveillance of the space. He had three friends there, smoking blunts, drinking Four Loko. They generously offered us some. I prefer Watermelon now to Four Loko; so that's a fun fact.
I noticed that there was a hot plate. And I noticed all the extension cords. I was harkened back to my childhood, and every day it feels like I'm running from that; I'm one paycheck away from that. I'm always running from that. It was only when I got there that I realized how far I had come. But, at the same time, there was a new generation of Puerto Rican, queer men -- queer young men, because he was only 20 -- who are living in this. And while there was still a celebratory environment and they were partying, it reminded me just how we get tricked into thinking this is the norm. Like, as long as we have lights we're OK. You know what I mean?
So, we don't fight for electricity because at least we've got light. At least we've got the extension cord. We're always tricked into thinking, into living, like that. And then something always comes up. It was like a reminder why I do this -- not to feed my ego, but I was him. I had the luxury of getting a job at a queer agency at 17, and that completely shifted my life. Because it provided me access. It introduced me to hummus. It introduced me to Ani DiFranco. It introduced me to art. It introduced me to things that I would never have otherwise been introduced to, had I not been provided that one summer job.
One of the hardest things, when you see people in this situation, is knowing how much you can help and how much you can't help. How do you battle with the feeling that you aren't doing enough or that you want to do more but you can't, necessarily?
I've had to learn that, in those spaces, I'm not there to fix it. And I'm not there to remind them or to sell them notions of how they can be activists, or how they can advocate. I'm there to document it. And I try really hard not to show up as a service provider. Because it can be condescending and it can really drain you.
That's not to say that I don't want to inbox them the next day and say, "Hey, here are some resources, blah, blah, blah." But I really walk a tight line, because I also don't want them to think that [I'm acting as a service provider].
It's so weird. When we walked into that space, I felt like a [research] student from UPENN in there -- which is so weird, right? Because every day of my life, I always feel like I have to prove that I know big words. I have a master's degree, but how I speak and my language doesn't always represent that. That's always clinging to my mind: that I'm not smart enough, that I'm a dropout. And not out of shame -- it's just always something that I have to battle.
But yet, when I go into spaces like that, I instantly feel as if I'm a visitor in the spaces that I provide. And I remember feeling like a UPENN student to them. And I think: Don't try too hard to be hood because you already are. It's just something -- the code switching goes wrong.
That's why I try not to show up as a service provider. And after we -- when I say we, it's my best friend, Anthony, who moved from Lancaster three years ago -- share time and space about the project, we've instantly built connections. So those conversations and those opportunities to provide support will eventually happen, and very naturally, but not right there on the spot.
What does Gran Varones mean for you as an activist and gay Latino man?
Well, it's national now. Again, I did not want to leave Philly. I did not want to leave Philly. I worked in nonprofit for 18 years before I started Gran Varones. People knew who I was. So I was just always celebrated -- or, I felt that I was always celebrated -- as a great staff member for these agencies, right? Like, "Put Louie on the panel because he'll speak to the great work of GALAEI." "Put Louie on the panel because he'll speak to the great work of Philadelphia FIGHT." And that was amazing. I learned a lot of stuff through that. But seldom are you put on a panel to really speak about your experience without the filter of some nonprofit agency that you're working for.
So it was only through Gran Varones that I felt as if I actually became a force -- that I could literally say what I wanted to say, and communicate how I wanted to communicate, and advocate for other queer Latinos, unapologetically, without having to meet deliverables. And I've finally started getting invited to meetings because of Gran Varones, for Gran Varones.
Right now I have the great opportunity to travel with my job, so I'm able to collect stories nationally. I think locally, in D.C., there is still much work that I have to do. Because I came from Philadelphia; the largest Latino community there is Puerto Rican. And in D.C., there's not so many. I'm helping out the census here, in the DMV.
So, for me, I have to be really intentional and patient, and build a community with folks who don't have the same immigration status that I do. My privilege is that I've never had to worry about my immigration status, ever. So it can be weird, with that privilege, to ask queer Latinos to share their stories when they're not just disclosing publicly that they're queer, right? Some of that story does include being undocumented. So to expect people to come out with that, too -- and then do it publicly -- can very be tricky.
I want to make sure that I'm collecting stories intentionally here in D.C. So I'm just still building community and building trust, much in the same way that I did in Philadelphia.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Althea Fung is the community editor for TheBody.com. For her thoughts on the healthcare industry, food and other random musing, check out her personal website, follow her on Twitter or stalk her on Facebook.