At the beginning of the summer, Jose Antonio Vargas came out of the closet. 14 years after discovering the truth about his identity at the age of 16, Vargas came out in one of the most public venues imaginable: The New York Times Magazine.
But Vargas wasn't coming out as gay -- he'd done that a long time ago, back in high school. He was coming out as an undocumented immigrant, a member of one of the most marginalized groups in the United States. Vargas had lived in the Philippines, until his mother sent him to the United States to live with his grandmother and grandfather in California. To hear Vargas explain it, his first coming-out -- telling people he liked boys -- was a total cinch compared to this second coming-out. After all, his residence in the United States breaks the law. Even his Pulitzer Prize (which he won in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings) doesn't change that.
Now, six months after publishing "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" in The New York Times, Vargas is working on a new project, one intimately connected to his current plight as an undocumented immigrant. The project is called "Define American," and Vargas is traveling around the country to help people understand the immigration issue, to put a face to the immigration issue, and to work toward a better future for the huge population of undocumented young adults in the country (a population estimated at 1.5 million by a 2008 Pew Research Study).
Last week, Vargas stopped off in Ithaca, NY, where I go to school, to speak for an event hosted by the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He spoke a ton about Define American, which you should definitely check out. But as a focus, I was really interested in where his dual minority identities -- being gay and being an undocumented immigrant -- intersected.
Be More Gay! Be Less Gay!
If you weren't reading his NYT essay closely last summer, you probably would have missed Vargas explaining that he came out as gay back in high school -- with this new, more recent, and more controversial identity secret to share, he's begun unconsciously skirting over his sexuality to allow more time to discuss his undocumented status.
He's well aware of the public's confused perception of his sexuality, and in the past six months, he's been told to be "more gay," "less gay," or just to not mention being gay at all.
LGBT advocates have been pressuring Vargas to discuss more about the intersections of being both gay and undocumented. Vargas explained, "I actually had somebody call me a few weeks ago -- he's a big LGBT leader who's seen me on Rachel Maddow's show and some other shows -- and he said, 'Jose you need to be more openly gay.' Because apparently, I go out and I talk on radio or TV and I don't talk a lot about the fact that I'm also gay."
He also gets the opposite reaction from more conservative people. For example, he said, "I heard from a pastor who said, 'Oh, I love your story, I want to bring you on to my parish and have you talk to parishoners about what you're doing, but I'm not really comfortable with the gay part -- the homosexual part.' And I was like, 'Is this a show? I come in full. What do you want me to do -- chop it off?'"
A Dual Minority Identity
It sounds like a tough balance to arrive at, but being pulled in multiple minority directions is nothing new for Vargas.
"All my life, living in America and exploring America, I've been a minority," Vargas said. "I look like this, my name is Jose Antonio Vargas, I majored in black studies, I'm gay, and I'm undocumented. I'm like an affirmative action hire gone amuck. But you know, I actually think I liberated myself a couple of years ago when I started thinking, 'I'm not a minority. I'm actually a majority of one.' That's where we're headed in this country, I think. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as minorities."
One of the clearest examples that Vargas could remember about the intersection of his two minority identities was last December, when Congress decided to approve the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy but reject the proposed DREAM Act, which would have allowed undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship by completing at least two years of college or two years of military service.
"I'm on two list-serves -- one for gays and one for undocumented immigrants," Vargas said. "It was a little maddening how some of the immigrants started attacking the gays [for the Congress' decision]. I call it minority on minority crime, and it makes me so mad. For me, this is where I'm trying to find whatever identity I am now. When that LGBT leader said, 'Be a little more gay,' he means that he wants me to talk about where my identities intersect."
Vargas went onto explain that if he were straight, he could marry a U.S. citizen and be able to remain in the United States. But because he is gay, the Defense of Marriage Act makes that option impossible. "I can't Sandra-Bullock-in-The-Proposal my way into this country," he said.
The Golden Age of Coming-Out
At the Ithaca College speaking gig, Vargas took the opportunity to encourage the student journalists and documentarians in the room to dig deep for stories. He said there's no better time to be a journalist.
"We are in the golden age of storytelling, the golden age of story-sharing, and the golden age of coming out," he said. "Twitter, your Facebook feed, your Facebook wall: All of these are ways of coming out. Now that I'm friends with so many undocumented people, especially students, it's fascinating watching their walls as some of them slowly come out and seeing how their friends react."
Social media, Vargas claimed, is what's making it so easy to explore stories off the beaten track. After all, minority people are disproportionately using social media like Facebook and Twitter. A study from summer 2010 indicated that 73 percent of gays and lesbians use Facebook (compared to 65 percent of straight people) and 29 percent use Twitter (compared to 15 percent of straight people). And an Edison Research poll from last year showed that black people are twice as well-represented and Hispanic people are three times as well-represented on Twitter as in the general population.
Vargas said that's not a coincidence.
"Is it any accident that black people and Latinos over-index in the use of social media?," he asked. "For the first time, they actually have a channel of their own. They can actually tell their own stories, which is an interesting kind of revolution happening. As we move to a much more transparent time in journalism -- where people want to know who is telling the story and why and where it's coming from -- people will be much more transparent with their biases, telling us where they're coming from and how they're framing the story."
That's part of Vargas' goal with Define American. He wants us to be honest with our unique backgrounds and life experiences, and he wants us to see that those unique experiences can do more to help the country than to hurt it. Whether those experiences are based in being an undocumented immigrant, a gay person, or a combination of dozens of other interesting minority perspectives, they are valuable and should be shared.