Moises Serrano, the subject of the upcoming film “Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America” premiering at the Outfest Los Angeles on July 12th, has lead an intriguing life full of exploration, discovery, setbacks, and contradictions. Born in Mexico, Serrano immigrated with his parents as a very young child and settled in rural North Carolina. In his adolescence, Serrano was teased and bullied mercilessly for being gay, and even physically threatened when rats were placed in his mailbox and when a white cross was planted on his lawn as an ominous warning.
Serrano described encountering other gay men as rare as finding a “mythical creature” in the remote lands of his upbringing. Compounded with the sadness of many of his peers not accepting him, Serrano began to ruminate on another part of his life that was unresolved—his undocumented immigrant status. His anxieties grew around subjects that many young Americans do not think about on a daily basis. These included the huge fines, jail time, or even deportation that could result from driving without a license, not being able to attend college due to laws set in North Carolina, and next-to-nothing career options. Upon graduating from high school, Serrano’s only option was to work in a factory for 12 hours a day. Faced with crippling anxiety and depression, Serrano even contemplated suicide. Incredibly well-spoken with a calm-yet-pointed demeanor, Serrano needed an out. He needed to express who he was in all aspects of his life without hiding.
When filmmaker Tiffany Rhynard met Serrano, she began to make a documentary following him, chronicling his personal life and also his public life as he tirelessly works as an immigration activist. When asked how it felt like to be figuratively hiding away for most of one’s life and then have it revealed to the world on film, Serrano exudes with confidence and wisdom that the film has helped him rather than hindered him. A kind of on-screen catharsis existed and made him feel valued, “they (the filmmakers) made me feel extremely comfortable.” Since Serrano wanted to be an actor at one point of his life, he welcomed the attention. “Being in the arts is my dream,” he says.
Serrano is attending Sarah Lawrence College on a full scholarship and anticipates to graduate in 2018. He is currently interning for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in New York City. Serrano still loves North Carolina despite all the pain he has encountered there. “Being a southerner is a huge aspect of my identity.” Serrano says he holds much hope that southern U.S. residents who oppose LGBT rights and immigrant rights will eventually evolve to accept others. “I am a huge advocate of southern potential.” While Serrano has made several momentous strides in his professional and personal life, he recognizes that there remains work to be done. Serrano doesn’t want “Forbidden” viewers to forget that the struggles he faced were filmed during a democratic regime, which often is touted as “immigration-reform friendly.” Serrano feels the reform is actually quite the opposite. While the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was enacted during President Obama’s term and allowed for Serrano to acquire a work permit, driver’s license, and attend college, the fear and anxiety of being undocumented never truly fades for Serrano and his family. With all of the political upheaval of this year’s election, immigration rights might not be a priority for the next U.S. president. Serrano and other immigrants could face impending setbacks in citizenship reform that could result in life-altering consequences. Despite this uncertainty, Serrano exudes a positive attitude and calmness when you speak to him. He seems ready for life’s challenges and welcomes the future and whatever it may hold. He is willing to continue speaking up, no matter the cost. “I know as a country we can do better, and we will.”
See below for a Q&A with Serrano himself.
When did you decide to become a queer activist, and what does that mean to you?
I decided to publicly come out as queer a couple of years after I had come out as undocumented, in response to a homophobic pastor. She was quoted in our state's largest Spanish newspaper condemning "homosexuals" and using her religion to perpetuate fear and hate about LGBTQ people. I thought, "I can't do this anymore. I can't sit back and be quiet about this issue." So I wrote an op-ed in response to her. I came out as an undocumented and queer immigrant who saw both movements as a struggle for human rights and that we should actually form alliances with one another. I sent in the op-ed thinking it would be buried in the middle of the newspaper, but to my surprise, it made the front page. I thought, "Well, there is definitely no hiding now."
Queer to me is a more broad and all-encompassing term than the label "gay." I think this realization came to me because of the acquittal of the murderer of Trayvon Martin. That night I was attending an LGBT fundraiser and when the news broke I mentioned it to a fellow gay man, and he responded "Oh, I don't follow politics." That is when I realized how exclusive that gay space was. Immigration reform and Black Lives were not of a concern to the people in the room.
These days the personal is political. What advice would you give to others like yourself who are LGBTQ and undocumented?
To come out of the closets and shadows. To share your story and organize. Not only will you meet amazing individuals and activists, they will become your family, friends, and support system. Also, organizing in the immigrant rights movement put me on a pathway towards achieving my education.
Was it cathartic to see yourself on screen or did you feel like it brought up more issues?
I think it was a mixture of both. It was cathartic in a sense to where I was relieved that I no longer had to hide and I now had a great platform to humanize this issue and construct a better narrative of undocumented immigrants. However, the documentary does take me back to dark and depressing moments in my life. Every time I watch it, it is like opening a closed wound.
How are you feeling about the current election and what would you like to say to the candidates if you could?
I am weary of both candidates. I think that, of course, Trump's inflammatory remarks are fueling massive xenophobia. But behind the spectacle I would really love to draw the similarities between Obama and Trump, specifically on immigration policy. “Forbidden” was not filmed during a Republican administration, which tends to have the anti-immigrant label tagged to its party. The fear that I lived in and in which my parents continue to live in was under a Democratic and supposedly "friendly" administration. I fear that Clinton would keep the status quo on immigration given her record of not wanting to grant drivers licenses to people like me, wanting to deport Central American children, and the quite recent sanctioning of the military coup in Honduras.
I would like to say, "Enough is enough. The undocumented immigrant community is not a political pawn which you can play for your own benefit. Will you stand with my community regardless if it is politically viable to do so?"
How do you feel about the gun control battle going on? Do you feel like it affects you?
I definitely do. Especially after Orlando, this hit too close to home. As a gay Latino, that very well could have been me. What happened was a hate crime. We need to stop making it so easy for semi-automatic weapons to end up in the wrong hands.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but what are your goals for the future?
Throughout this whole experience I have learned to not have a plan, because you never know what life will throw at you. So I am just going to ride the wave after college and see what happens. However, what I do know for sure is that I want to buy my parents a house. I want to move them out of where they are and give them something better. Afterwards, I want to influence policy in any way that I can.