Leaders in El Paso’s LGBTQ+ community convened on Thursday for a discussion on the state of the local queer community, hosted by El Paso Matters.

Coinciding with LGBTQ+ Pride Month, the conversation covered several wide-ranging issues: queer rights in the borderlands and the problems of toxic masculinity, state and national legislation targeting transgender children, how the pandemic differentially affected LGBTQ+ El Pasoans, and how the vibrancy of El Paso’s arts community is largely due to the work of queer El Pasoans.

“What makes El Paso special is that we’re a Democratic town but we’re not necessarily a progressive town,” said award-winning author and panelist Benjamin Alire Sáenz. “And I think that the gay movement in El Paso is making El Paso more progressive.” 

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Saenz told the audience he wrote a novel during the pandemic, a sequel to his widely successful young adult novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”

“As an adult writing for young people, my readers are my children. I write to give them hope. The world seems to want to take all their hope away,” Sáenz said, referring to sweeping legislation targeting transgender children throughout the country. 

More than 100 bills were introduced in the past year in states around the country that are directed at trans people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Several of those  bills were introduced in the Texas Legislature and dealt with transgender children’s access to gender-affirming medical care and participation in sports.  Ultimately none of the proposed Texas legislation passed in this year’s regular session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called on Gov. Abbott to convene a special session in June to revive a measure that would ban transgender kids from being on sports teams that align with their gender identity. 

“There are kids who I work with on an almost daily basis, and I am worried about their long-term mental health … when their youth has been so impacted by having to defend their very existence,” Adri Perez said during Thursday’s panel. Perez, who uses they/them pronouns, works as a policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU and has been active in fighting statewide measures targeting transgender children. 

Perez and other El Pasoans went to the state Capitol in April to speak out against the legislative efforts. 

Perez said that in the 10 years since they came out, there has been a tremendous increase in the level of visibility and acceptance for trans El Pasoans. But they also cautioned that there is still a long way to go in achieving equality and acceptance in the community. 

“If I go to a city like Seattle or Portland, someone will immediately read me as a transgender person, and they may be inclined to ask me what my pronouns are,” said Perez. “Whereas in El Paso, I just get read as a man, even though my pronouns are they/them and I’m nonbinary. Here we don’t have a lot of the language around queerness.”

Perez said that, unlike some other Texas cities, the city of El Paso does not have a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance that applies to all citizens of the city (although it does have one that applies to municipal employees). 

“We (the El Paso LGBTQ community) haven’t really worked in such a way to build organized political power,” they said. 

Panelist Diamond Briseño said that although El Paso has a lot of room for improvement in supporting its LGBTQ+ community, the pandemic was an important period for connecting and developing support systems. Briseño, a local advocate for trans rights and popular nightlife performer who also works as volunteer co-director for El Paso Sun City Pride, an organization dedicated to uplifting LGBTQ+ visibility locally. 

“If you are part of the LGBTQ community you know about being turned away from your family, and not having anybody,” Briseño said, explaining that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 were especially acute for queer El Pasoans. But she expressed optimism for the future of the LGBTQ+ scene in El Paso. 

“We’ve all grown up together; we might be a small community but we are indeed a family,” she said. 

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.