I can’t believe how far I’ve come in fulfilling my identity and freely living as my truest self. Just this past weekend, I found myself once again beating my face with contour, eye shadow and glitter as I was getting ready to perform in drag with three of my closest friends. The four of us had come together ― maybe through chance, maybe through curiosity ― and all found real joy in dressing up as drag queens and performing for our close friends from time to time.
I came out to the makeshift stage dressed up in some red, Soviet-inspired fantasy look, and I lip-synced my heart out to one of my favorite Spanish gay anthems. My makeup, for the first time ever, was almost impeccable. I had finally mastered gluing my eyebrows, and I was really giving the illusion of having a woman’s face. Our friends couldn’t stop cheering, snapping pictures and cackling at our revelry.
As I danced and twirled on the stage, a burst of emotion took over me and made my eyes water. “How did I get to this moment,” I asked myself.
The truth is that life has not always been a queer fantasy for me. About 10 years ago, a group of people attempted to murder me in my native Ecuador because I’m gay. My country and my parents — who sent me to conversion therapy and physically and psychologically abused me for being gay — were not willing to protect me. So with absolutely nobody to rely on, I was forced to flee, leaving everything behind, in an attempt to find safety in the United States.
I arrived in this country desperate and alone with only $200 in my pocket, some clothing, and goodbye letters from my two sisters and my friends. I was so scared, not only of what I had left behind, but also about having to permanently live in a country that was completely foreign to me. What was worse is that I didn’t have a plan. I had been able to obtain a student visa to enter this country, but that visa only allowed me to live here for a couple of months. During the first few months, I often fell asleep crying, wondering if I had made the right decision, desperate to find a permanent solution.
Through utter chance, a couple of weeks after I arrived, I became friends with an immigration lawyer in training. Through her, I learned about our asylum system and applied for asylum. The months that followed the application were an absolute nightmare. I had to fill out a form with my broken English and answer questions I did not fully understand — like whether I feared being tortured in Ecuador. For me, torture meant what I had seen in movies: what military members do to prisoners of war. So I answered no. Years later, I would find out that torture, in the legal sense, involves so much more than waterboarding. In fact, my parents had “tortured” me under the legal definition.
During the asylum interview, I was asked some of the most intrusive questions without any sort of compassion. I had to prove I was gay in order for me to receive asylum. Just imagine that. How do you prove that you are gay? Today, I would just show a picture of me in drag. Back then, I had almost nothing to show. I was fortunate enough, however, that I was dating somebody at the time and very lucky that he agreed to wait outside of the interview room for me to call him and literally introduce him as a piece of evidence. I cried during the interview, and, with no compassion, the officer asked me to leave the room until I was done crying.
When the four-hour interview ended, I was told I would receive a decision in the mail within a couple of months. Every day that passed, my despair and my inability to adjust in this country kept growing. I lost my ability to work legally, my grandfather passed away and I could not attend his funeral, and my car broke down, so I had to rely on others to get groceries, visit the doctor and comply with my immigration appointments.
I was alone and I did not find comfort anywhere. During this time, I often thought of “correcting” my sexual orientation and going back to Ecuador, to all of the things I had left behind. The truth is that if you would have asked me then to pick between my life in the United States as an asylum-seeker and my life in Ecuador pretending to be a straight man, I would have chosen the second one. To say that I barely survived during my first year in this country is not an understatement. Even today, just writing about this brings me so much pain.
In August of 2009, I was granted asylum in the United States, and two years ago I finally became a U.S. citizen. Becoming a citizen had a transformative power in my life. At that point, after feeling I had finally reached real safety, I started discovering things about myself I did not know before. I let myself explore my more feminine side by using language and gestures that my entire life I had seen as being limited to women. I put a wig on and wore pumps for the first time.
As I played with new experiences, I began to question things I had assumed were true for 28 years. Like, why does a man need to make his voice deep in order to be respected? Or why was a firm handshake — which, to be fair, hurts — a symbol of politeness and chivalry? Why did I need to carry myself in a masculine way so other gay guys would find me attractive? What was it that impeded me from wearing a dress or skirt in public?
The more I realized that all of these rules I had learned my entire life were all made up — most of them rooted in sexism and misogyny — the more I took back control over my body, my language and myself. Often, I think back to the things I never did while I lived in Ecuador, like talking with my hands or wearing an earring. And now, I do exactly that and more. To me, this is the real gift that this country gave me: the ability to be my true self without fear of being harmed, jailed or killed.
My transformation was contagious. As I was changing, my friends started changing as well. Like a set of dominoes, one by one all of them started trying drag, pearls, wigs and heels. Our friendships grew stronger, and the feeling of belonging and freedom was evident in our circle and envied outside of it. Anybody who had the chance to spend time with us and follow us in our extravagance was so shocked to have found the true taste of freedom.
Today, I am incredibly thankful to this country for giving me the opportunity to be exactly who I wanted to be. But my story is not unique. At this very moment, there are hundreds of our LGBTQI siblings waiting at our borders desperately trying to find the same safety I found in this country. Most them will be deported and will never get to thrive as I did.
So during this Pride Month, the very minimum you and I can do is to not take anything we have for granted. Let’s commit today to take control back of our lives and live them in their fullest version, to work on getting rid of toxic masculinity and to be fully embracing of the many beautiful variables of human beings in our community. Being the fullest version of ourselves not only means doing drag or flaunting some cute pumps on the street; it also means being politically involved, fighting so every single person in our community gets to enjoy the rights and freedom you and I have today.
Who knows? If we stand up for our asylum-seeker siblings today, they might become our friends tomorrow and fill our lives with the color and joy I was able to bring to this country.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.