Being transgender and Latino has much to do with public relations, and Shaun Arroyo could tell you a lot about that. He would also want you to know how ordinary he is. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Shaun lived there until he was 12, then moved to Washington Heights and went to high school and community college in the Bronx.
Shortly after he graduated from the community college, Shaun followed his sister, who had moved to Tennessee, and now spends much of his time working with and for local Nashville LGBT organizations. He’s the Chairperson of the Tennessee Vals (the local trans-support group), Secretary of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, and is on the board of Nashville Pride. Keeping up with those commitments, while working full-time at Vanderbilt Hospital and attending classes at Tennessee State, leaves little time for anything else, but that didn’t seem to bother him when we met for dinner.
In talking about his experiences in the LGBT and Latino community, Shaun first pointed to a study released last year by The National Council of La Raza and Social Science Research Solutions showing that “54 percent of the Hispanic population supports gay marriage, making them one percent more supportive than the overall American population” while the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) reported that “LGBT youth who identify as Latino experience greater rejection within their own community than non-LGBT youth.” Shaun added that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made the most important point, that "gaining acceptance and understanding is still very difficult for LGBT youth and especially for young LGBT Latinos.”
To explain this, Shaun points to the traditional norms of machismo and the Latino emphasis on family which are still of central import in the Latino community. “Most Latinos know I have an issue,” Shaun says, “but the close family ties in Latino families make it too hard to keep a secret.” The family knows and may discuss it in private, but otherwise it’s ignored. “If you bring a partner to a family gathering or holiday celebration, a few family members will say ‘tu pareja’ (your partner) but most will just say ‘tu amiga’ (your friend).” Shaun’s story, however, challenges any attempt to ignore it.
“I guess I was thirteen or fourteen when a boy tried to kiss me,” he explained when I asked how he became aware of his true gender. “What’s the matter?” the boy asked. “Don’t you like boys?” (Shaun laughs at the memory of it.) “I said ‘No...I like girls’ and wondered, didn't he like girls? Because I did. I was a boy and I liked girls so I thought, since he was a boy he liked girls too.”
Shaun was one of eight children, all with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ names—Bryan, Elaine, Edith, Michelle, Aileen, Nilda Ann, and John—reflecting his mother’s attempt at helping them to blend in. “I picked Shaun, an Anglo first name, imagining what my mother would have picked at the time,” he explained. “I recently added a Latino middle name, Pedro, that I use at work.”
One telling story about Shaun’s development is the time he auditioned for a community center marching band, but only after challenging the leader’s rule that band members had to be male. “I am,” he insisted, “I’m a boy. So you have to let me in the band.” And the band leader acquiesced—an early sign of Shaun’s forcefulness and his ability to win people over.
Later, he sorted things out further for himself and realized how inadequate the standard gender terminology was. “I was just me,” he said. “I don’t try to meet society’s expectations of ‘maleness’; I just meet *my* expectations for myself.”
Shaun encountered the usual transgender issues on his first job—wrong pronouns and wrong bathrooms. For the latter, the company had him use a separate bathroom which had a ‘Women’ sign on the door. Echoing the firm insistence he showed when confronting the band leader, he told them he wouldn’t use it unless they took down the sign. They did, and thereafter the other men in the office started using it along with Shaun.
I asked him about the impact of prejudice and discrimination as it applied to being transgender and Latino. “Being Latino is definitely more of a problem,” he said. “The police single me out because of my Latino ‘look.’ At work I would sometimes get asked for a green card (despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens). Or here, in Tennessee, people assume I’m Mexican.” The whole matter of the Latino identity, Shaun explains, is a sticking point. “Non-Latinos don’t understand that there are major cultural differences between Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, and others.”
“We are a very diverse group,” Shaun said, “but we are really very ordinary. We have dogs and cats.” And as the server brings our check and asks, “Will there be anything else, Sir,” Shaun smile and adds “Some of us have ferrets, too.”
It doesn’t get more ordinary than that.