Photo: Arcelia Hurtado
I’ve always been intrigued by the element of chaos theory known as the butterfly effect. It is the idea that everything is connected, and a small change in one place can result in large changes later. For example, a hurricane’s formation can be contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks earlier. I like to believe it’s true, at least as it relates to social change.
In Utah in December, we witnessed the unthinkable: marriage equality. The chances of that happening in a deeply religious state like Utah seemed zero to none. Seeing same-sex marriage legalized in Utah made me wonder whether change like that would ever come to my home state of Texas. Growing up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas as an immigrant, living in poverty, and with a budding sense of my queer identity, I made the difficult choice to leave at age 18. It was either that or be crushed, because in the 1980s there was no place for people like me there. No place I wanted to be anyway. I saw many of my schoolmates succumb to drugs. Many others got pregnant at a young age and dropped out of school. I distinctly remember my neighbor, Roddy, who was murdered by his own brother in a drug-induced frenzy, supposedly for being flamboyantly gay.
So I left everything I knew, and went away to college. The pain of leaving home is still fresh in my mind but I told myself, as I walked out the door of our house, that it would all be worth it if I did good work and gave back to my community. How I came to define “community,” though, was something that would constantly evolve.
As a young college student, I focused on racial justice and immigrant rights. I worked at a small non-profit in the predominantly Latino Mission District of San Francisco. I majored in Chicano Studies and became immersed in the liberation theology that was at the center of the 1980s revolutions in Central America. As a young law student, I rallied against California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative to ban undocumented immigrants from accessing health care, public education and other social services.
As a public defender, I defended the poor, indigent, and mentally ill against a system I recognized was inherently flawed and racist. Those crowded jail holding tanks filled with people, someone’s brother, father, sibling, reminded me of why I had left home.
Yet I had the sneaking feeling that I could not share the fact that I was queer. Not with my co-workers, or friends, and certainly not with the people I represented in court. It is only when I met the woman that would later become my wife that I had the courage to come out. I realized that I would not be fulfilling my promise to myself—to live a life of service to my community—- if I did not also acknowledge the queer part of me. And once I became a parent, I finally understood that the struggles I had undertaken in service to those most in need could never be complete until I acknowledged all parts of who I am.
As I look back on my career and the last 42 years of my life, I often wonder about my encounters with discrimination along the way. We all have those moments, when we think, why did that happen? Many times, I cannot pinpoint a specific reason why I didn’t get a promotion, or why I received a cold stare. I could say it’s because I’m Mexican, or a female lawyer or queer. Or all of those things. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what I do every day to resist and rebuild my reality, not just for me, but for all those that may follow in my footsteps once I am gone.
That’s why it’s imperative that our various movements for equality work together. The gay, immigrant, feminist, and all other progressive movements desperately need each other at this pivotal point in history, as we see miracles happen in Utah and beyond. We are only true revolutionaries when we seek to find that commonality in all that we do. After all, the sign of a true change-maker is one that strives to understand the world as interconnected—and passionately believes that her every action has ripple effects on everyone she touches, even if the ripples are invisible. Just like the butterfly.
Arcelia Hurtado is policy advisor for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.