Out of the shadows

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Vargas shares his journey of coming out — first as gay, years later as an undocumented immigrant

By the age of 30, Jose Antonio Vargas had already carved out an impressive career in journalism.

As a reporter for The Washington Post, he covered the 2008 presidential campaign, the same year in which he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Virginia Tech massacre. A documentary was made based on his coverage of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C., and in 2010, he wrote a profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker.

But the biggest story Vargas ever wrote was a June 2011 profile in The New York Times Magazine: Vargas himself was the subject of the piece, and in it, he came out as an undocumented immigrant.

When Vargas was 12, his mother sent him from the Philippines to America to live with his grandparents. Vargas first discovered his immigration status when he attempted to get a driver’s license at age 16. The DMV clerk looked at his green card and whispered, “This is fake. Don’t come back here again.”

For the next 14 years, Vargas would live a lie, fraudulently doctoring a Social Security card and lying about his status in order to remain employed, living in fear that someone would find out and he would be deported.

But Vargas’ decision to come out as undocumented was about more than just clearing his conscience. There are an estimated 1 million young immigrants in America with a similar story: brought or sent here by their parents at a young age through no fault of their own, working hard to finish school and start a career, yet remaining in the shadows.

Vargas advocates for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young immigrants from ages 12 to 35 who are enrolled in school, have completed two years of college or are enlisted in the military. And last year, he founded the nonprofit “Define American,” a project he hopes will shed light on the issue through the video testimonials of fellow “dreamers.”

It’s been more than a year since Vargas publicly revealed his undocumented status, yet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has not contacted him.

In June 2012, Vargas wrote a cover story for TIME Magazine about his experiences since coming out. Two days later, President Barack Obama announced his administration would halt the deportation of many DREAM Act-eligible immigrants through a program known as deferred action, allowing them to obtain work permits. However, the age cutoff was 30; Vargas had turned 31 just four months earlier.

While Vargas has put himself in jeopardy, he continues to fight for immigration reform undaunted. He also advocates for LGBT rights, having come out as gay in high school.

Vargas is in Louisville tonight as the keynote speaker for the University of Louisville’s Pride Week, and he talks with LEO about the unique experience of coming out twice, the intersection of the immigrant rights and LGBT rights movements, and where American policymakers go from here on addressing the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in America.

LEO: You’ve said that you came out as gay after watching “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” during class in high school.
Jose Vargas: I remember this like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the back of my U.S. history AP class, room 102. You know the last line of that documentary, when Milk says, “If a bullet should enter my brain?” That’s really what got me. After the movie — with that quote just hanging on air, ready to be picked up — I just kind of raised my hand and said, “Blah blah blah … and I’m gay.”

You know what the amazing thing is? When I did that, I was the only openly gay student in my high school. It was in 1999 and I was a junior. So guess what? This weekend, Mountain View High School for the first time named this Asian-American woman homecoming queen, and she’s openly gay. And guess who she quotes in her status update announcing it on Facebook? Harvey Milk. I just think that’s amazing. History is funny that way.

LEO: In that film it shows how Harvey Milk advocated for gay people to come out publicly, because the best way to advance the gay rights movement is for your friends and family and co-workers to realize they know a gay person. Do you think you had the same kind of mindset when you decided to come out as undocumented?
JV: Absolutely. I studied the black civil rights movement from textbooks, from Howard Zinn, but I lived through the gay rights movement. Remember when AOL had chat rooms? That’s when I figured out I was gay, because even though I had a girlfriend, I would go to those chat rooms. I lived through Matthew Shepard getting killed. I lived through Ellen DeGeneres being on the cover of TIME Magazine. I lived through “Will & Grace,” which to me, by the way, was a cultural turning point in the gay rights movement. Because it insisted that gay rights really wasn’t just about Will, it was also about Grace. Everybody had a gay roommate, a gay friend, a gay co-worker, they just didn’t know it.

So I think learning from the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s — the fact that black people and white people had to work together to insist on a better America, the fact that gay people and straight people have to work together to insist that gay people be treated as human beings — that is the exact analogy that I would give for where we are right now, which is that illegal immigration is not just about undocumented people. It’s about everyday Americans — our classmates, our friends, people who go to church with us, work with us, are in love with us — insisting that we be seen wholly.

You know, people ask me all the time what it feels like to have come out twice. Well I didn’t really come out, I just let you in. And I think that’s a really important framing to think about, in terms of how we as undocumented people come out to American citizens and say we’re here. We’ve been here. You know us. We’re not just some “illegal” person.

I don’t know if you noticed, but over the weekend I issued a challenge to the media, particularly The New York Times and the Associated Press.

LEO: Yes, about their use of the term “illegal immigrant.” I was going to ask what you thought about their response.
JV: I love Margaret Sullivan (New York Times’ public editor). I actually think she will serve as a model for how other public editors do their job. But in terms of what their reasoning is, I think they’re evolving. I thought it was interesting that after The Washington Post killed my (June 2011) essay, The New York Times ran it. And throughout the essay, I kept referring to myself as undocumented. And I think their headline for me was like “Outlaw” or something. To me, this is all about ownership of language and the power of language. And as someone who has been called “faggot,” this is the conversation I want to have.

And I don’t know if you noticed this — it’s not like I issued a statement saying “this is what you should call us.” I didn’t say if you should call us “unauthorized” or “undocumented.” I just said you should stop calling us this, and let’s talk about why you call me that and what that says not just about me, but about you, and what it says about your understanding about this issue. That’s the conversation I want to have. I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to debate. I want a conversation.

LEO: Under Barack Obama’s presidency, there has been a record number of deportations and he hasn’t been able to pass the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform. Yet he did come through big this summer by granting work permits for those eligible for the DREAM Act, which will prevent them from being deported. Are you happy with Obama’s record on immigration?
JV: Well, I think it’s important to note that his hands have been tied by Congress. Comprehensive reform and the DREAM Act can’t happen without Republicans coming on board. And you’re in Kentucky, right?

LEO: Yes, the home of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who’s filibustered the DREAM Act twice when it had a chance to pass.
JV: Oh! Mitch McConnell … (sigh). You know, I’ve never met him in person, I’d love to. And he’s married to Elaine Chao, right?

LEO: Correct.
JV: The same Elaine Chao who decades ago would have been excluded from America because of the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred all Asian people from citizenship. You know, it’s really hard sometimes, because I don’t want to feel like I’m a walking history textbook that’s trying to open up the book and say “aha!” — but it’s really hard to have an honest conversation with people without connecting those thoughts.

But on Barack Obama, I think when everything is said and done, the deportations are something that frankly will be one of the biggest marks in the Obama history. I don’t think he’s going to be able to fully explain to people why that happened. I think it’s really tragic. Tragic that this could happen, specifically under this president. As a political reporter for The Washington Post four years ago, I know he would not have won the presidency without the Latino vote, pure and simple. And he’s not going to win it right now without it either. And the Obama campaign should just be very, very thankful that Mr. Mitt “This would be easier if I was born in Mexico” Romney is the way he is. Because if this was a different kind of Republican candidate, Obama would have a big problem. So in some ways, Romney has been a gift.

Now as far as deferred action — and I remind you, this is speaking from somebody who doesn’t benefit from it because I aged out, I’m four months over — that was within presidential power. He could do that, and he did do it. Now it took him a while to do it. Is it any surprise that it happened during an election year? Of course not. I think people of color and gay people are used to this. It’s politics. We’re used to being treated as a political football. But I think it also must be said that the Democratic Party in general has been better than the Republican Party when it comes to this issue …

And I remind you, this is coming from someone who isn’t privileged enough to be a Republican or Democrat. I’ve never voted. I’m not allowed to vote. I pay taxes, but I’m not allowed to vote. It’s not OK, but it is what it is.

People also need to realize that granting deferred action to more than a million people is the most significant move for immigration inclusion since Reagan signed amnesty back in 1986.

LEO: Did you see Mitt Romney talk about immigration at the Univision forum?
JV: I was sitting in the audience, man.

LEO: Really? I thought Romney demanded to that network that only his supporters would be allowed in?
JV: Oh no, I was there. I wasn’t going to move. The last time I was at a Mitt Romney event was in Iowa, and I got kicked out, so I was afraid it would happen again. But Univision has been great with me, and I’m actually working with them on a project, so I got an invitation. And I was very happy to be there. It was … interesting.

LEO: Back in the primaries, Romney talked about vetoing the DREAM Act, self-deportation and “illegals,” but it seemed like he softened his rhetoric that night.
JV: Obama will win the election because of the Latino vote and because American demographics have changed so much. Romney will lose the election because of the Latino vote and because American demographics have changed so much. The best story right now out of Washington is the remaking of the Republican Party. The best story. Can you imagine the conversations they’re having with themselves? The country will only get browner, more and more gay people are going to come out, more and more undocumented people will come out, and there will be more Asian people. Diversity is destiny in American politics. So how is the Republican Party going to deal with that?

LEO: Yet it seems like even the Republicans who used to support the DREAM Act and reform are running away from it, and you have McConnell and Republicans filibustering it in the Senate. How do you break through and win over Republican support so reform can pass?
JV: We cannot change politics if we don’t change the culture. And again, that’s something that the gay rights issue has taught us. Cultural change precedes political change when it comes to the gay rights movement. “Glee,” “Will & Grace,” the fact that straight people are advocating for gay people, the rise of gay-straight alliances in high schools, the rise of PFLAG, all of that. And I think the immigrant rights movement is learning that.

I think it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of the leaders of the immigrant rights movement, particularly young people, are also openly gay … And that’s why I think the embrace of “coming out” as a term is really interesting. Because I remember reading history books about James Baldwin and other gay black activists who were pushed aside because people thought they were too gay. People actually called James Baldwin “Martin Luther Queen.” I think it’s really interesting right now that you have a movement of undocumented young people being led by many gay people, and it’s completely acceptable and completely embraced. That’s really interesting.

LEO: Most people know you more for coming out as undocumented and fighting for the DREAM Act, but not your work for LGBT rights. Is this something you devote a lot of time to?
JV: Well, there are some people who tell me that I’m not gay enough. I work with some gay rights activists who say I should be more gay, that I don’t talk about it enough …

People say I’m an advocate now, an activist … I have no control over what people call me. What I do have control over is how I ground myself. I’ve become a public person, and that’s what I was really most afraid of. Because as a journalist, I’ve spent my entire career writing other people’s stories. I’ve written about 800-900 news stories since I was 17. I used that as a way of busying myself — writing other people’s stories so I’d never have to confront my own. And now that I have, how do I really own who I am and what I’ve become? And to do it publicly is very difficult …

My name is Jose Antonio Vargas, there’s nothing more Latino-sounding than that. I look like I’m a cross between Yao Ming and Jeremy Linn. I’m gay. In college I majored in political science and African-American studies. And I’m undocumented. So I’m like a walking uncomfortable conversation, and I have to prepare myself. And I’ve always known that about myself, and now I’ve dealt with this in a very public way. It’s not like anyone forced me to do this. I did this myself. It’s not like someone was waiting to out me. I had to make a choice. My career could not have kept going; the lies kept getting bigger. To me, profiling Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker was the height of my writing career. I’ve always dreamed of writing for The New Yorker. I wrote that in September 2010, and I came out in June of 2011. I couldn’t keep going until I confronted this.

LEO: A journalistic question: You mentioned Howard Zinn, who said you can’t stay neutral on a moving train. Do you consider yourself a journalist/activist? Some of the old-guard journalists don’t like those lines being blurred. What is your role?
JV: My role is that I’m here to tell stories; it just took me awhile to tell my own. I’ve been working on a documentary. I was bit by the documentary bug a few years ago. I wrote a series on HIV/AIDS in Washington that was turned into a documentary. So that got me into visual storytelling. Again, they can call me what they want to call me. When people call me an advocate, my question always is, “What exactly do you think I’m advocating for?” I’m advocating to be seen as a human being. I guess that’s what I’m advocating for. I wish there would come a day when we didn’t need a gay pride march or gay pride week. I wish there would be a day when all the classes — Filipino, gay, undocumented — would be useless and not mean anything. But we’re not there. And until the time that we’re seen as human beings, we need to keep empowering one another. We’re living right in the middle of history, so we fail to really grasp what’s happening. The gay rights movement, relatively speaking, has moved very quickly.

One of the craziest weekends of my life was when I had to interview (gay rights activists) Frank Kameny and Larry Kramer in the same weekend. And it’s interesting when I got to The Washington Post, I was so surprised that they had never profiled either of them. People don’t hear about Frank Kameny in their textbooks. This tells you a lot about where I come from — my textbook in my high school for U.S. history was Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” That was my textbook. And even in Howard Zinn’s book, Frank Kameny and Larry Kramer, as far as I remember, do not exist. So history in this country is always being written, it’s never set in stone. I think we need to remember that.

LEO: So it’s been about 15 months since you came out as undocumented, and ICE hasn’t seemed particularly interested in you. Do you feel safe at this point?
JV: In my recent TIME cover story, the last section was about how I contacted ICE, saying “What are you going to do with me?” I could not be any more public. And again, I have to really think about that. And I guess I could say that every day feels like civil disobedience. That was always how I felt ever since I came out about this. And I think as a gay American, that’s kind of how I’ve always felt. I’ve been so afraid of this issue. I came out as gay when I was a junior in high school, and I found out that I was undocumented when I was a freshman in 1997. I couldn’t be in the closet about two things. I spent about a year and a half being quiet about those two things, and thankfully coming out as gay was the easiest one at the time. I’ve been so afraid of this issue, but once I came out, most of that fear was gone. I was amazed, frankly, how liberating it felt. I’m not afraid of getting arrested by ICE. I’m not afraid of even being deported. I’m not afraid of being detained. The only fear that I have is not being effective or having an impact on this issue. Of not using whatever platform I have. Truly, I mean that. It’s amazing how that happens. Again, I don’t say this enough, and I’m glad that I’m talking to you about this, but I would not have been prepared to go through what I’m going through if I hadn’t been an out gay man for so long.