Despite Transphobic Laws, I Found A Queer Community in Miami | Sojourners

Despite Transphobic Laws, I Found A Queer Community in Miami

D'Arco Jones of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. takes part in the festivities at the 2017 Miami Beach Gay Pride parade on Sunday, April 9, 2017 in Miami Beach, Fla. Credit: Miami Herald/TNS/ABACA via Reuters Connect.

Standing hand in hand with my fellow classmates at St. Lawrence Catholic Church and School in North Miami Beach, Fla., I couldn’t help but notice how sweaty my hands were. It was 2006, and another 98-degree, humid day in my hometown was upon us. The old church’s air conditioner wasn’t very effective, and I remember I had a feeling I just couldn’t shake — even at the young age of 9: I felt as though something was deeply wrong with me.

I was raised in a primarily Caribbean Catholic tradition, where my family and community emphasized that adhering to the strict rules of the church was what made you a good person. Every morning, my dad would rush me and my sister out the door to school. We would line up with our classes and recite prayers before entering the building, no matter how hot it was outside. During the day, I took religion classes and memorized scriptures my teachers required me to recite at church twice a week. I hated it all.

If my fellow Caribbean classmates felt strange or alienated due to our Catholic education, I never noticed. But for me, the more I read from our religion textbooks and the more teachers lectured about Catholicism, the more judged and ashamed I felt about who I was. I often felt guilty knowing that I was different from the other kids. Even though I couldn’t quite articulate why, I knew that asking the adults in my life wasn’t the best idea. I now know that my feelings about being different and the guilt I experienced around those feelings were a direct result of not feeling aligned with my assigned gender at birth.

Fast forward to 2009, I’m going on 13 and a recession has hit the country — especially South Florida — hard. So, my parents made the difficult decision to move our family to Minnesota. The long drive up north from the sunny shores of South Florida to the crisp chilly air that cuts through the pine trees in Minnesota’s Twin Cities promised plenty of job opportunities for my parents and a better education for my sister and me.

While in Minnesota, I was adamant about putting Catholic teaching or any religious teachings behind me. I began to turn my attention to education, journalism, dance, and art which allowed me to begin getting in touch with my true self. I came to realizations about my cultural identity, and I also came to realizations about my gender and sexual identities. And in 2023, I returned to Miami, where the Catholic church looms large and Christians continue to promote anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

As an adult, moving back to Miami has been full of personal growth, struggle, and triumph. I’m part of a loving community of friends who have cared for me as their own family. So much so, that coming out as transgender in Miami was a lot easier for me than it would have been back in the Twin Cities.

I, like many other proud Miamians, like to say that we live in “Miami-Dade County, USA,” specifically — and not Florida — because for us, South Florida feels drastically more progressive than other areas of the state. But while I love Miami and am thankful for my community here, I find that I’m still processing my Catholic upbringing and the fact that I live in a state that targets LGBTQ+ people through policies and legislation.

Every day, I wake up to more news about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican administration passing or proposing discriminatory bills or policies meant to target people in my community.

In January, Robert Kynoch, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles deputy executive director, released a memo detailing “a policy change prohibiting Floridians from replacing their driver’s licenses to change what appears on the license next to the word ‘sex.’” Reporting for The 19th, Orion Rummler and Kate Sosin explain that “Although the rule does not apply to Floridians who have already updated their licenses, and should not affect first-time applicants, it still puts trans people at risk of discrimination in everyday interactions.”

Not having accurate identification can be life-threatening for transgender and nonbinary people who face a huge risk of violence, discrimination, and harassment in Florida every day. If someone’s perceived gender expression does not match the gender on their driver’s license, it forces trans people to be outed without their consent.

When thinking about the history of Florida and my current experience in the city of Miami, I often feel conflicted: On the one hand, I feel accepted and welcomed for who I am out in public, thanks to the supportive LGBTQ+ community, but I still don’t feel safe in religious institutions as Christians like DeSantis continue to promote anti-LGBTQ+ laws, policies, and rhetoric.

But there are also Christian leaders who are allies of the LGBTQ+ community like my friend Carlos Carbajal, who opposes DeSantis and has been actively fighting against his policies for nearly a decade.

Carbajal, a lead pastor of Oikos, a Christian religious organization in Miami, has a passion for storytelling, racial justice, and connecting with underrepresented communities — including Caribbean, African American, and the LGBTQ+ community across Miami-Dade County.

Carbajal told me during an interview that one of the issues he has noticed among religious leaders in Miami has been a lack of education. With outdated perspectives and inaccurate information, these leaders do damage when they advocate for policies that hurt LGBTQ+ people in their neighborhoods or even their own congregations. Carbajal says he’s doing his best to try and change things. He said the first step is teaching people how to experience God outside of the traditions they were brought up in.

“We’re not telling them that their religion is wrong, but that there are toxic theologies that we cannot tolerate,” Carbajal said. “We don’t embrace any theology, even if it comes in ‘the name of God’ that encourages discrimination against any group of people. We always encourage people to believe that God is with the minorities, not with the powerful. That can be challenging because we were brought up to believe in those who have the power. But we must bring justice to those who are struggling.”

On a recent drive by my old neighborhood in North Miami, my queerplatonic partner and I stumbled upon my old church and school. As I pointed out the classrooms and where we used to stand in the sun reciting prayers, I saw the new Nigerian American priest walk out the church doors. I wondered if things might be different there now.

It’s policies like the FLHSMV’s enforcement of the gender binary on licenses that make me skeptical that change is possible at any level — church or state. And yet, Miami certainly looks and feels a lot different than it did when I was a kid. There is a vibrant LGBTQ+ community and we have allies like Carbajal who stand in solidarity with us. That gives me hope.

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