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Moses Serrano :: 'Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America'

by Joel Martens
Saturday Sep 9, 2017
Moses Serrano :: 'Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America'

As members of the LGBTQ community, we have a deep understanding of what it is to struggle against being different and having to fight against that isolation and its oppressive nature. The process of personal and then social acceptance around those biologically born differences help define the core of who we are as individuals and as a group.

For many, concealing that part of who we are was based on a sense of deep shame placed on us, which told us being "different" was an unnatural state of being. Most of us quickly understood, too, that it was a secret we needed to keep hidden, stowed deep in the recesses of our lives. Indeed, for some, it still can be a matter of survival, literally.

The process of breaking those chains isn't called "coming out" without reason. By stepping into the light and out of those shadows, we managed to redefined who we are in society, doing so by changing the narrative from the outside. Doggedly refusing to buy into the shame foisted upon us and the misdirected hostility from those who live in the fear of something they don't understand.

Moises Serrano takes on that fight, as well as another one which divides us deeply, in the film "Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America." It swims into the divisive debate of not only being queer and what growing up in a rural North Carolina was like, but doing so as one
who is undocumented, as well. Born across the border, he was brought to the U.S. at eighteen months and has lived here ever since. This is the only home he has ever known, and as he often says, "I fell in love with my country."

The documentary, soon to be featured on Logo, follows Moises' personal journey of self-acceptance as a gay man and as an undocumented immigrant. Coming out of the shadows not just in one world, but in two and why both pushed him towards activism as he fights for his version of the American dream.


You've managed to put a face on being gay and the issue of immigration and its challenges.We tend to see the world these days in terms of groups or ideologies and forget that these are real people, real human beings who struggle and not nameless faces. Was that your intention when you started out doing this?

Definitely. The goal of the immigration reform movement, specifically since the years I've been involved starting in 2010, is to bring the undocumented population out of the shadows, much like the LGBTQ population comes out of the closet. That's where we sort of borrowed the framework. Having immigrants "come out" personalizes the issue and individualizes it, making it real and very tangible for communities across the nation.

The process reminds me of the early days of the LGBT movement, when Harvey Milk talked about the importance of coming out to your friends, family and coworkers. It put a face on the people who were LGBT. Was that the model you followed when you decided to take this on?

I saw that it was quite effective on a global scale and on the grassroots level. The idea of "How do we start a conversation?" There is no better tool to start a conversation around immigration than to have actual immigrants share their story. That's what we focused on at the nonprofit that I cofounded and helped run for a few years [El Cambio]. Helping immigrants refine their stories and tell them, that's the technical idea behind what we do. It's the most effective tool we have to combat ignorance and the stereotypes that are so entrenched in society.

Was it a culmination of things, or was there a specific event that inspired you to become an activist?

It was a couple of different things. I was first introduced to the immigration reform movement in March of 2010 during the March for America. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to Washington D.C. to really ask for a pathway towards citizenship. That was my first taste of what being an activist was. I think it was my first taste of liberation, as well. I had always been undocumented and in the shadows. Now, I was part of the masses and I no longer felt alone, it was pretty heady stuff.

It's so powerful when you gain the knowledge that you are not alone and not isolated. It has such an interesting and strong parallel with coming out and being gay.

Yes, it really does. I grew up queer and undocumented in rural America. I don't think people actually understand how coming from rural landscapes and small towns are a universe away from urban areas, especially places like Los Angeles or New York, where I'm living now. For me, to be around hundreds of thousands of immigrants and potentially just as many who are undocumented, it was a very liberating moment.

It's a layering of oppression and a layering of discrimination that I think as human beings we're just not prepared for. I think fundamentally we all want to belong, whether it's in our families, our communities or wherever, human beings are social animals. That is how we evolved and how we survived. Especially for me, to have such an alienating experience was difficult. I didn't feel comfortable at home or telling my parents that I was queer, or being in high school because I was queer and I didn't feel comfortable in high school telling my friends I was undocumented. I never felt like I completely belonged anywhere. It was an incredibly alienating experience that has taken me years to disentangle.

There is power in it once you understand that and claim your story, because it is part of what makes you uniquely who you are. It's something that really comes across in the film, your struggle and yet your ability to turn that into action.

Thank you. For me specifically, I graduated from high school in 2007 and I was barred from going to college and, again, living in the middle of nowhere, there were few resources. I was battling with depression and, as I said before, it was a layering process. Having no support system and no access either to mental health resources as an undocumented immigrant added to it. I was working in a factory in 2010 from seven at night to seven in the morning, and it was during that time where I hit my rock bottom. Every single day I had to go to a job where I faced homophobia and hostility from coworkers, who I knew were talking about me. My father had been laid off because of the recession, and I knew I had to continue because I needed to
support my family. I felt like I had to hide every part of my identity, and that it was always under attack.

There was only one place for me to go from there, and that was up. There was another experience I found working in that factory, it was the mothers
and the women who worked there who told me their stories. All of them were undocumented, and they would talk about how they would work 12 hours at the factory, then go to hotels right after their shifts at 7 a.m., just to make ends meet. That made me realize how privileged I actually was, and it also made me realize how angry I was. These women shouldn't have to kill themselves just to survive, and that injustice really motivated me. It made me want to take action for my community.

Part of why this documentary is powerful is it reflects a lifetime of experiences both good and bad. That's pretty rare, especially when it comes to someone LGBT and undocumented. When did you come up with the idea of creating it as a documentary?

I can't take credit for the idea. This film is alive due to the amazing work that Tiffany Rhynard put into this project. I'm still amazed by her willingness to work for it and her commitment to this film, even during the times when I didn't have the vision for it.

I had come out as queer and undocumented in 2010 and had built a reputation for speaking out. In 2012, I was doing a project in partnership with Wake Forest University, filming local narratives from immigrants and refugees and I was one of the narratives. On the day I did mine with Kathi Barnhill - who ended up being a coproducer and the cinematographer for "Forbidden" - her friend Tiffany Rhynard happened to be there visiting that day. As they started to interview me, Tiffany and I just sort of clicked.

She considers herself pretty liberal and defines herself as a "Woke white woman." For her to realize how little she knew about the undocumented immigrant community, it really just floored her. She wasn't prepared to think about the privilege of having citizenship. That's how this project got started, based on those truths.

What was the process of filming like? Documenting your life so continuously is very intimate and in many ways invasive.

The process was maybe a little easier because of my relationship with the director. I trusted Tiffany, I still do and she really put me at ease. She made me feel that this story wasn't going to be distorted in any way and that she wanted it to be as straightforward as possible. I think it's exactly what we see in "Forbidden." That goes the same for my family, too. My parents didn't know what I was doing, and she managed to gain their trust, as well.

You started this in 2012, finished the project in 2014, then premiered in 2016. We have a new administration since then. How has that altered your perspective on things since you premiered the film?

I think the instability this administration has brought is terrifying. Before, with the Obama administration, we at least knew where we stood. His administration implemented deferred action for childhood arrivals and decided to continue this program. Right now, whether the Trump administration will continue or end this program, that uncertainty is pretty terrifying. Though the comparison has to be made that both administrations are similar in many ways. Obama does have the distinction of deporting the most undocumented immigrants from this country, and that's a fact we just can't ignore.

I'm interested to know how the response has been to the film and its messages.

The response to "Forbidden" has always amazed me. We've had several standing ovations and it always completely floors me. The most common response and feedback that we get is, "I just didn't know." And I think that is what the goal of this documentary is for me, to be educational. I feel it's very good at building a narrative around what my character is and who I am. It also presents the legal challenges and obstacles, we have Amber Murray, who is an exceptional immigration attorney talking about how hard it is and the realities of the immigration issue. Educating America is the goal of this documentary. I would dare to say that we've been pretty successful so far, and I'm proud of that.


"Forbidden: Undocumented And Queer In Rural America" premiered in August on Logo Documentary Films. They will continue to air the TV version of "Forbidden" throughout the next nine months. For more scheduling information and to view a trailer, go to logotv.com/shows/logo-documentary-films

Copyright Rage Monthly. For more articles from Rage visit www.ragemonthly.com


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