Wray, Interview...: All right, that should be us recording. All right. Thank you
for joining us. Today is March the 23rd, 2021. My name is Amanda Wray, and I am
part of the LGBTQIA project, that is securing oral histories from individuals
who have lived some or all of their life in the South. We just talked about
consent forms and all of those sorts of things, so we handled that business. So,
I'm going to just ask you to introduce yourself if you will, and how you would
like to be called, and if you're comfortable, will you tell us where you were born?
Benny: Yes. My name is Benito [inaudible], but I prefer to go by Benny,
B-E-N-N-Y. And I was born in Sonora, Mexico.
Wray, Interview...: What's your birthday, do you care to tell us?
Benny: Four, four, 2000. April fourth, so it's coming up in two weeks.
Wray, Interview...: I have two Ares babies myself.
Benny: Yeah, go Ares!
Wray, Interview...: I know. And we're in Ares finally, right? Would you mind to
maybe give us some identifiers, how you describe yourself in terms of race, and
gender, and anything that feels comfortable to share?
Benny: Yeah, so I am Latino of Mexican origin. I identify as gay. I also
identify as gender nonconforming.
Wray, Interview...: So, how long have you been here in Western North Carolina?
Benny: I've been in Western North Carolina since I was seven years old. Franklin
is what I call home.
Wray, Interview...: And that's Franklin, North Carolina?
Benny: Franklin, yes.
Wray, Interview...: Yeah. So, let's just get to it. What's something that you
want people to know about your life? Where would you like to start in sharing
Benny: Right. I guess a lot of people when they notice they're different, tends
to be in school, and that's the same for me. I was five when I noticed I liked
boys, it was something I noticed right away. But it wasn't until I was seven
that I was taught that it wasn't okay. And that's very typical, I grew up a very
traditional Latino Mexican child. My parents are both devout Roman Catholics. My
dad is a very masculine, very macho man. My mom played the more traditional
housewife role, raising kids and being financially dependent on my father. So,
00:03:00it was a very traditional sense in that. And so when I was seven, I remember
this very vividly, and I think it's because it was something that I didn't
expect at that age, and it was something that I didn't know was wrong. And it
really has scarred me for a long time up until even now, I remember it very
vividly. We were watching a soap opera, like Latinos tend to do.
Wray, Interview...: Like all people ten to do.
Benny: Right, my mom was really into them, and that's how me and my mom bonded
at that time, was watching TV and soap operas. But in every soap opera, there
was like a really handsome man, and so I kind of pointed out to my mom that I
thought that man was handsome. And my dad immediately right away, snapped and
00:04:00said, "No, boys like girls. You're a boy, so you have to like girls." And he
said, "Okay." And I said, "Okay," and I nodded. It was something that, it took
me aback and it really stuck with me for the rest of my life up until this
point. So growing up, I felt like I couldn't tell that part of myself to my
parents. I felt like I couldn't be honest with him about that part. And so at
school, because Franklin is such a small community, everyone kind of knows
everyone and such. So even at school, I was very adamant about telling people
even when people knew. And I say knew, because I'm very stereotypical, I guess.
Very effeminate, I have those fem characteristics that people will stereotype as
gay. And so, I just happened to fall into that stereotype. So, I didn't really
00:05:00express myself at school, and I didn't tell people even when people asked. But
something changed in high school, I came out when I was 16 as gay. But I'm going
to backtrack a little. So, when I started going through puberty and everyone's
voices were changing, and middle school boys were very proud of that, I felt
very, I guess, disgusted by the fact that my voice was changing as well. I
didn't feel comfortable at all. And somehow, some way, and I say it's God given
that I was able to change my pitch of the voice to what I have now, and I'm
very, very proud of it and very happy to have this voice, because it makes me
feel good and it makes me feel comfortable. And that was something I did not
00:06:00like during the first few years of puberty. And I didn't quite know what it was,
but I knew I didn't identify as male, but I also didn't identify as female. It
was a very difficult time to really know and assess what I identified as. And
growing up in the South, there's not really a lot of education, there's not a
lot of exposure to the LGBT identity. And so, I just kind of lived in this limbo
without really knowing what to call myself. But I've always used he, him
pronouns, and I think it's just easier in this region to use he, him pronouns,
even if that's not necessarily what I identify as. I just find it easier to
explain to people, "Look, I don't identify as male or female, but you can still
call me he, him. I don't really mind pronouns at all." And so, it wasn't until
college that I really became more educated on the LGBT community, and all the
00:07:00various sexual orientations and gender identities. And it was through college
that I learned the term gender non-conforming, and that's what I've been
identifying as since then. As I mentioned, I came out at 16. I had really
supportive friends at the time, and I had one friend that came out about a
couple of months before I did. And the response he got from our friend group was
just overwhelming. It was caring, it was very supportive. And for the first
time, I felt like I fit in, and that I had a place where I can be open. And so,
I came out right before the school year was over. And once again, everyone was
very supportive and they were like, "We knew. We knew a long time ago." So, I
had a very easy time coming out.
Wray, Interview...: Do you think that your friend coming out right before, did
00:08:00that give you more courage, or were you already really like contemplating coming out?
Benny: Yeah, I contemplated it a long time before. I don't know. I've always
felt like I just wanted to be free with that part of myself, and I think seeing
him come out and getting the response he got really, really helped. In middle
school, I had thought about it. And I also had a friend that was LGBT, that had
already come out of that time, and it was completely different story. Middle
schoolers are a lot more, I guess, aggressive and immature, so it was something
that was very difficult for her. And so, I didn't do it then, I didn't feel like
it was the right time. And so when I did come out, I thought about telling my
parents again. And so, on a trip with my mom, it was just me and my mom, I
decided to tell her again. I was like, "Mom, I have to tell you something." And
00:09:00at first it seemed like she was really calm, and I'm like, "I have to tell you
something that's been going on since I was a kid, and I don't want you to get
upset." Because at that time I was in my confirmation for Catholic, in the
Catholic church, I was getting ready to be confirmed. And I was only doing it to
please my family, especially my grandmother who really is a very devout
Catholic. And so, on the car ride I told, my mom was like, "Just say it
already." I'm like, "Okay. Mom, I'm gay." And it felt like time just slowed down
to milliseconds, and it just felt like everything went into slow motion. And my
mom got really, really upset. She got really, really upset, she said I should
read the Bible more, that I should be praying more, that I should be off social
media, that I should not be influenced by pop culture. And I felt very
00:10:00disappointed, because up until that point me and her had a really, really good
relationship. We were very, very close. And so, after I told her that she
prohibited me from spending a lot of time with my siblings, which I think was
very, very hurtful and very damaging. And we didn't talk for about three months.
And she told me not to tell my dad, and so I didn't tell him. And so, for about
three or so months, I felt like a stranger in my own house, so it was at this
point that I started going out more. I wasn't home a lot, I was out with my
friends all the time, and they kind of knew what was going on, but I didn't feel
00:11:00comfortable to tell them the whole truth. And it was around the same time that
my best friend who was the first person I told, also came out. And so, he had a
very supportive family and it just brought me further into this really weird
funk. And it was around November when my mom and I started finally to talk about
it. And she just started asking a couple of questions here and there, like, "Why
do you say you're this?" I guess she really wanted to get to know to the bottom
of what happened. She asked if anyone had done anything to me when I was a kid,
and I said, "No, no one did anything. This is just how it happened, I don't know
how to explain it to you, besides I was literally just born this way. I don't
00:12:00know anything to give you besides that." And so, she would ask a couple
questions here, would still go to this really awkward, no talking phase. And it
wasn't until school, where I had... I've always had really bad asthma as a kid,
and it was at school, I was going through a really hard time with everything
that was going on at home and trying to balance a social life. And at the time I
was really getting into activism and stuff, and I was wanting to be a leader.
And so, I was running for student body president and all this stuff. And it
really got to me, and it sent me into this really weird moment that I've never
felt before. My school was located next to some woods, and a lot of kids would
00:13:00go there to smoke weed and stuff. And so, I went into the woods by myself and I
had a really bad panic anxiety attack, slash asthma attack. And I went
unconscious, and some peers of mine found me and it was a whole thing, and I
ended up in the hospital. And that's really when my mom started to come around,
I guess the fear of losing someone. And so after that, my relationship with her
really bounced back. And we started having more talks, still avoiding the whole
gay subject. Just being more mother, son, but still just avoiding that part of
myself. And to be honest, I'm not really sure how my parents didn't know, or
question or anything, because I don't act any differently at home than I do with
00:14:00my friends. So, even if they were to stereotype me, I still don't know why it
was such a big surprise to my mother, when I grew up listening to Shakira and
dancing to Shakira in the living room, and watching soap operas with her and
being really invested in these things. For her to be shocked, I thought she
would be like, "Oh, I kind of saw this coming," and it wasn't like that at all.
But my relationship with her got a lot better afterwards, and it's been great
sense. We just don't ever talk about the topic.
Wray, Interview...: What's that like then? How do you have a relationship, and
you just... I mean, I know this for my own self. But can you tell me, I have lot
of questions about several things, one of which is how many siblings do you
have? You said that you kind of...
Benny: Yeah, I have two siblings, I have a sister and a brother. I'm five years
00:15:00older than my sister, and I'm nine years older than my brother.
Wray, Interview...: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
Benny: They were still really young when I came out to my mom.
Wray, Interview...: Was that trip you took with her, and your confirmation, that
all is happening around 16 years old?
Benny: Yes, around 16. And I ended up doing the confirmation, I ended up doing
it to please my grandmother, because she really believes in all that stuff. And
my religion, my faith also was really affected. Because as a kid, I was also
very devout into my religion, and after those experiences I really struggled a
lot with what religion meant. Especially if God really made me this way, why
would he make people in my life that are supposed to care for me, reject me in
that sense? So, I really struggled with religion, and I still do. I've come back
00:16:00a little bit towards the religious side, but not to a whole extent, not to the
extent that I used to be at least.
Wray, Interview...: So, this is a common narrative for a lot of people in our
interviews, is feeling like coming out to their family created this gap in their
religious or their spiritual identity as well, because of what you just said,
the acceptance factor. So, tell me about that journey. How are you coming back
into your faith, or how is it different than it was before?
Benny: I'll be honest, it really didn't start until last summer. And it really
started with the presidential candidacy, and I saw Pete Buttigieg, who's a
married, openly gay man who is very attached to his religion. And it made me
think that, because I felt for such a long time that I either had to choose
00:17:00being gay and having a partner someday and getting married, and my religion.
Because the way I was taught, the way I was raised, the way a lot of the
Catholic teaching was, is you can't have both. It has to be either or. And so, a
lot of the times I had thought well, maybe having a partner to me is more
important than being accepted by a religious entity. And so, I realized during
that time that I can still have a relationship with God, I don't necessarily
have to have a relationship with the church. And so, I think those two have to
be distinguished, that the church is an entity and God is a being. And I believe
the church has corrupted God's word to fit their narrative. And so, I have a
relationship with my creator, I don't have a relationship with the church I was
Wray, Interview...: Does your folks still live in Franklin?
Benny: Yes. I live in Waynesville now, I moved out literally two weeks ago.
Wray, Interview...: I love Waynesville, it's really pretty.
Benny: Yeah, I live right downtown also, so I have a pretty cute-
Wray, Interview...: That's so cute.
Benny: Yeah. So, I moved out two weeks ago, choice of my own. It wasn't anything
that had to do with my [inaudible] or anything. It was just, I thought I was
ready to do it. I graduated from college last year, and I have a full-time
position now, so I thought I can do this.
Wray, Interview...: So, this is your first... Did you live at home when you went
to college, or how did that work?
Benny: I lived on campus, so it wasn't-
Wray, Interview...: Where did you go to school?
Benny: Western Carolina University. So, it wasn't a big transition from moving
out, because after college I moved back in, and then the whole COVID stuff
00:19:00happened, for the first, I don't know, six months. And so, now I'm just starting
to get back out there into the office space and stuff. So, for the first six
months I was working from home and living with my parents, and so now I just
thought it was time to move out. I thought it was an appropriate time. And my
parents are very supportive financially and emotionally, and I guess going back
to that earlier question, how do I have a relationship with my parents when it's
such a big part of me is-
Wray, Interview...: If you just don't talk about it.
Benny: Don't talk about it at all. Me and my dad had a really estranged
relationship for a long, long time. As a kid, me and him always fought. I would
tell him I didn't like him, I told him I hated him. I had a very bad
relationship with him, and I don't know if it stemmed from my sexuality or if we
just had really both big personalities that they just kind of clashed, but I
00:20:00never really had a good relationship with him until I moved out. When I went to
college, that's when I started having a better relationship with him. Again, we
never talk about it, but I think he's openly homophobic, because he does make
comments about the LGBT community in front of me. And I'm not sure, I don't know
if he... I don't know. It's hard for me to think he doesn't know, because I feel
like it's so obvious, but maybe he just doesn't know, maybe he thinks it can't
happen to him, it can't happen to his son. But he is very openly homophobic,
makes very open, very nasty remarks about gay people and trans people
especially. So, it's hard him being my father sometimes, when he makes such
remarks like that. But I've learned to accept that part of him, and I've learned
00:21:00to be okay with it. I don't take it personally. Ignorance is something, you
can't change ignorance sometimes. So, I'm not quite sure how he'll react when I
tell him or when he finds out. And then with my mom, even though she knows, like
I said we just don't ever bring it up. We still have great conversations. We
tell each other things that's going on in our lives. She's very, very supportive
of everything I do and my endeavors, and that's just one aspect of my life that
doesn't come up. And as I get older, I really struggle with it, because what am
I going to do the day I start dating? What am I going to do the day I get
married? Are they just not going to be present?
Wray, Interview...: I was just going to ask that, do you just not talk about
dating? It's COVID, so nobody's really been able to date much.
Benny: Right. Yeah, no, my dad's asked if I've dated, I'm like, "No." And he
says, "Well, when are you going to date? Where are you going to get married,
when are you going to have kids?" And I just say, "I don't know," and I move on
from that conversation. Because I don't know, I don't want to instigate any
fighting, any hard discussions that I might not be able to handle. So, that's
just something I don't talk about.
Wray, Interview...: That's what I was going to ask. What do you think would
happen if you talk to your dad?
Benny: Just based on what I've heard, just on the comments that I've heard him
make about the LGBT community, I really don't think we would have a relationship
anymore. I think his pride would really get to him. And like I said earlier,
00:23:00he's a very macho man, has very macho friends. And I feel like they've made
comments to him about me, there's just that feeling inside that I get. So, I
don't think it's a big surprise to his friends, but I still think it would hurt
his pride. And I think that his pride, his respect that he's earned, I think
would be more important to him than my sexuality, and what I choose to do with
my life. And that's something that I've accepted at this point. I'm like, well,
if he doesn't have a relationship with me, I'm not going to fight for it. All my
life he's told me to do good in life, to be a good person, to work hard, to not
fall into addictions and stuff, and I think I've done really good on that. And
so, I think just by the fact that me being gay is such a deal breaker to him, I
00:24:00wouldn't fight it. I just would accept it. Unfortunately.
Wray, Interview...: So, you said when you were in college and gender
non-conforming came up for you as maybe a new... Was it a new term? Tell me
about that process.
Benny: I guess just because at home, I was always really worried about watching
gay TV shows, or educating myself, just out of fear of a conversation coming up.
Again, I just never really explored that. And it wasn't until we had a drag show
at the university, that there was an open discussion about what gender was, what
sexuality was. And then I ended up taking a class called Sex and Sexuality, and
that class really opened my eyes a lot to what gender identity meant. And we had
00:25:00a trans student in there that explained his journey, and how he came to identify
as trans. And it was very eye opening moment, and I had a discussion with my
professor afterwards, just kind of picking her brain. I was like, "Do you think
this term would fit for someone that feels like X, Y, and Z?" And I think she
really helped me navigate that. And those feelings of not necessarily being
male, not necessarily being female, and finding an in between in both. And so,
the term gender non-conforming, I think fit perfectly with me in my case, just
because I didn't feel either or. I do have more feminine characteristics, but I
don't think that necessarily makes me female, and I definitely don't have the
00:26:00need or the want to change any physical aspect of myself. So, I definitely think
gender non-conforming was a very good term for me to identify it with. And maybe
I didn't need a term to know what I felt, but I think it was a relief that it
wasn't something unique to me.
Wray, Interview...: Yeah. I was going to ask you if you felt like the term was
valuable to have, like oh, as a means of that. What do you think the impact is
for yourself, or you can speak more broadly about LGBT youth, but what do you
think the impact is of... And I'll try to give you your words back. You said you
felt you couldn't be honest about who you were, and that you just didn't, even
when people asked, you didn't want to tell people yet. So, what do you think the
00:27:00impact is of carrying around that, some people call it the secret self, when
Benny: I think it's a very harmful impact. It's a very harmful thing for youth
to do. It really hindered my self-esteem, it really hindered the way I view
myself, and I still have issues with body image, and giving myself credit where
credit is deserved. I have a lot of self-esteem issues today, and I think they
all stem back from that period in which, it just feels very heavy. It feels like
you have to watch yourself. You can't be staring at your crush because people
will notice something. So, it's like walking on eggshells and it's really hard.
And when you get home and you're in your room, and you're finally in your
00:28:00privacy, you get to breathe a sigh of relief because you don't have to do it
anymore. You don't have to do it at all. But then your parents are there. They
get home from work, and then you have to go put that facade back on, and it's
such a burden to carry around. And so, by relieving that burden with my peers at
school, I felt like at least at school I can be this. At home, I might have to
keep that facade on, but at least I can breathe easily within my peers. And I
think my generation is becoming more accepting of what it means to be LGBT. I
think gender identity is still something that we still struggle to understand, I
still struggle to understand personally. But I think it's becoming more
accepting, and yeah, there's always going to be those people that make remarks
and make comments, but at the end of the day, if I feel comfortable with myself
00:29:00I think that's all that matters at this point. I have incredible friends, and
incredible people and mentors, and I feel relieved to be free in my essence, and
not have to pretend to be something I'm not. And it really makes me sad when I
meet older queer people, because they had to live a life where they had to hide,
and they had to marry, and they had to have families just to hide the fact of
who they were. It makes me sad, I don't think I could have done that. I think at
some point I would have cracked, I don't think I could have ever been with a
woman, ever had a family that was built on lies. And I did contemplate it as a
kid, I'm like well, I'll just grow up and pretend like this doesn't exist. But
00:30:00then you meet someone and you fall in love with them, and then it's just so hard
to think like that. And I really think me having a very big crush on someone,
really also made me want to come out and explore that possibility of dating and
being with someone. And I think it changed my life honestly, and I don't think
if I would have had such a big crush on that person, I don't think I would have
come out then. But that made me want to come out even more, and just have a
chance to what every other teenager was doing, dating and finding themselves and
all that stuff, and going to prom and having dates and stuff. I really wanted to
be a part of that too, and so I was like, fuck it.
Wray, Interview...: That's so true though.
Benny: I don't think I could have done the whole marriage thing with someone
that just didn't feel right. And I don't think it would have done anyone a
service, especially to a young woman to experience that, I don't know how that
would feel. And I had plenty of friends in high school that did that. I knew
they were gay and I saw them date girls, and it broke my heart more so for them,
but also for the young women that they were dating, to be used like that. I
don't think I could have ever done that.
Wray, Interview...: So, earlier you talked about some intersections of your
identity with religion, with your faith. I wonder if you could talk a little bit
about having been born in Mexico, and maybe race and ethnicity here when you got
00:32:00to Franklin. How has that shaped your life history, and even your own sense of
your gender and sexuality?
Benny: Yeah. So as I mentioned, I grew up in a very traditional home, very
traditional everything. And I've always gravitated more towards the feminine
side, the female side. I guess to give you an example, in family gatherings you
usually have the men with the men, the women in the kitchen, and the kids
gathered around. And usually when you get the older, the young men start hanging
out with older men, and the young women started hanging out with the older
women. For some reason, I would always be with the women, and would always be in
the kitchen chatting with them. I think my aunts and my female relatives were a
lot more than accepting the fact. And one of the first relatives I told was my
00:33:00aunt, Esmeralda. She was amazing, she was very sweet, and she said she knew from
when I was kid. So, I always sensed that she was going be one of the first
people I was going to tell, just because she had always been so sweet. I was a
big Lady Gaga fan when I was a kid, so she would buy me my Gaga stuff. Again, I
don't know how my parents didn't know. So, Gaga was my thing. And so I think
growing up in that environment, in that Latino home, was good and bad. Because
with my male relatives, I would always had teased why I wasn't dating girls or
why I wasn't acting the way they were acting. And my excuse was always like,
00:34:00"Oh, I'm trying to..." Because I guess this might be in a lot of cultures where
masculinity kind of rules, a lot of my cousins were drinking at a younger age of
16, 17, and I wasn't. And it's not something that still attracts me, but
apparently if you want to prove you're a man, you drink a beer. And so, I wasn't
doing those kinds of things. And they would always question, and my response was
always like, "Oh, I'm trying to do good in school. I'm trying to make
[inaudible] myself." And for some reason that was always a joke, to want to
pursue higher education. I was the first person to graduate from high school for
my family. I'm also the first person to graduate from college. So, those things
just always made me stand out, I've always been the black sheep of my family.
Even with my female cousins, they'd go on to marry at 18, or leave the house at
18 and have kids when they're really, really young. And they'd forget about
00:35:00school, and they'd forget about having their own impact, and wanting to be
subordinate to men. And so, now that of my sister's older and my little
brother's older... They both know I'm gay by the way, so both of my siblings
know. I came out to them relatively quickly. Especially after the whole thing
with my mom happened, I was like in case one of them is queer or has queer
friends, I don't want them to be bad people. There was an incident with my
little brother where one of his little friends in third grade came out as gay.
And I thought he was a very brave little kid, because [crosstalk]. The response
was so negative. He came home, he talked to my parents, my dad told him he
couldn't be friends with him anymore, said that he was a bad person and wanted
00:36:00to do bad things to my brother, all these really horrific things. And he went
back to school, and said those things to the little boy. And so, my parents had
a phone call, and they had to have a talk with my brother at school. And so, it
was in that moment that I pulled my brother aside and I told him, "Look, I'm gay
too. Does that make me a bad person?" And so, he was a third grader so he was
like nine, I think that really has impacted him in a good way. He's accepting of
people. I'm trying to make sure he's not one of those macho men that can't cry
about his feelings, that has to repress everything with some kind of addiction.
And I'm trying to teach my sister to be a strong, independent woman that doesn't
need a man, that she can provide for herself, that she can be anything she wants
to be. And so, I'm really trying to be that example for them. And I don't know
00:37:00if I should be saying this or not, but my little sister came out to me as
bisexual a couple of years ago. And I felt like me coming out and me showing
acceptance, I think that has really helped her a lot. And I did tell her, I'm
like, "Look, don't tell Mom and Dad. You can talk to me all you want, but don't
tell them." And I know it sucks to hide things from your parents, but I really
want her experience to be different than mine. I'm like, "Look, kids are going
to say things, kids are going to always be kids. But there's always going to be
people that love you and support you, and I'm one of them." I want the future
generations to feel like it's okay to come out at third grade, that there
shouldn't even be a coming out process. It's just a thing.
Wray, Interview...: We should stop assuming everybody's sexuality, right? Then
coming out isn't necessary.
Benny: And so, I really want to implore that on to my siblings. And I've tried
00:38:00with my cousins, but their mentalities are just so already designed the way that
my family has raised everyone, in that conservative mindset. So, I really try to
implore into my siblings to be open-minded people and to be strong people,
especially my sister. I don't want her to run away at 18 with some man and start
having kids right away. I want her to go to college, I want her to get a career,
I want her to explore her career options and then settle down. I want her to be
independent, I don't want her to be dependent on anyone, especially a man.
Wray, Interview...: You've got like a little feminist revolution going on at
your house, huh?
Benny: Of course, yeah. Around feminism.
Wray, Interview...: That's awesome. So you said, just also, I am also a
00:39:00first-generation college student. My dad didn't graduate high school, but my mom
did. And so, that experience in its own right is really difficult, going through
college and being the first one, I didn't know how to apply for things or that I
was supposed to do. Could you talk a little bit about how that experience was
for you going to college?
Benny: Well, to be honest-
Wray, Interview...: You lived in a dorm, right, you said?
Benny: Yeah, I lived on campus. To be honest, I went to an early college, so in
eight grade I applied to the early college in Franklin. I got in, so I had my
first two years paid for, so my associate's degree was paid for, done with when
I graduated high school. But I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to go to a
four year university, just because of income, it's expensive. And at the time my
parents really struggled with money, and I wasn't sure I was going to be able to
00:40:00fulfill that dream. So, senior year was very scary, just the uncertainty. I was
applying to colleges and I got into several, and I was also applying to
scholarships and that process. Thankfully I was given a full ride scholarship,
and my parents only paid for parking and stuff.
Wray, Interview...: That's wonderful. Congratulations, Benny. That's great.
Benny: Thank you. So, that covered that, my parents obviously helped me
financially through throughout college because they didn't want me getting a
job, they wanted me to focus on school. Which is something that my parents were
different from my other family members, they really wanted me to pursue college,
they wanted me to pursue a career. And I saw other relatives, and when their
00:41:00kids would graduate, they would expect them to get a job right away and start
helping with bills and stuff. And my parents were very clear that they wanted me
to get an education and get a good paying job, and not repeat their story. So,
I'm very thankful for that. But yeah, college was such a, it was a new
experience. It was something I didn't have any guidance on, I just kind of
jumped in with both feet. And I'm lucky that I had, I made my professor who was
also my mentor, she really helped me navigate the whole college process. And so,
if it wasn't for Dr. [Smisoska] I don't know how well I would have done. She
encouraged me in times where I thought about dropping out, just because I had
this guilt. And she compared it to survivor's guilt, so when someone survives a
tragic accident and others don't, I felt like being the first person in my
00:42:00family, I was standing on somebody's shoulders that I was like, well, why me?
Why should I be the one that does this? So, I thought about dropping out, I
thought about not pursuing it. And not because I don't want to, but just because
I didn't want to feel guilty. I don't know, it's such a strange feeling. Being
an immigrant and being given an opportunity, you're always very thankful for it,
but it always reminds me of other immigrants that don't get the same
opportunity. And around the same time, it was when the children were being
locked in cages by the Trump administration, so that also had a lot to do with,
if I would have been born in the wrong time, that could have been me. I could
have been the child in the cage, if it wasn't that I was born 20 years early.
00:43:00So, a lot of those things factored into me wanting to drop out, just because I
felt so guilty of being given an opportunity. And so, it was Dr. Smisoska that
sat me down in her office and told me all the reasons why I shouldn't do it. And
so, I continued on and I graduated. Even though COVID ruined that big ceremony
[crosstalk], I was still very blessed to have even made it to the finish line,
and so I was really very, very lucky. And in high school, I was a very outgoing
person. So, I was on student council, I was on yearbook, I was in glee club, I
was always volunteering, I was going to the animal shelter, I was raising money
for this. So in college it was no different, I was on student government, I was
an executive on the Latino association, I was part of the Black student union. I
was a part of Period@WCU, which tried to raise awareness for menstrual equality
00:44:00and eliminating the pink tax. So, I was always doing things, and working with
intercultural affairs, and bringing awareness to LGBT issues. I sponsored a
resolution on student government, that would provide housing for students that
did not identify as male or female, or for students who were trans and were not
allowed to dorm with their assigned gender. So, I tried to make changes while I
was there, and support changes.
Wray, Interview...: Are the dorms at Western all gendered?
Benny: No, but if you're trans you can dorm with another, like if you're a trans
man you can't dorm with another male, you have to dorm with what you're assigned
at birth. So as you can tell, there's a lot of issues that were brought up in
00:45:00that circumstance. So, we were trying to have inclusive housing, at least in one
hall of each residence hall. So, they're actually now working on that, so I'm
very happy that they're now putting initiative into that. So, I've always wanted
to make my part, even if it was small. And so graduating from Western and having
a degree, I wanted to find a way to help my community, the Latino community, and
especially the immigrant community. There's so many obstacles you have to go
through, especially when a person's undocumented. So, I worked for Vecinos
Farmworker Health Program. And so with COVID, a lot of things happened where
people lost their jobs or weren't able to provide, and they're not as lucky as
me where I get to receive a stimulus check every time they roll around. So, a
00:46:00lot of these people are left with a lot of economic impacts of COVID. And so,
what we try to do is find resources, locate them, and get them to those
resources. We're now providing free vaccination clinics in Spanish, we did free
COVID testing, we handed out as much resources as we could to the community in
all seven Western counties of the area. So, I'm very happy that I'm able to make
my small change to the community. And I really hope going forward. I can
continue to create change, even if it's small. I had a history teacher in high
school, Mr. Brown. He always said, "If you can make a ripple in the ocean, that
ripple gets bigger and bigger, and more people can make ripples because of your
ripple." And I think that's what we're here to do, we're here to create change.
00:47:00Even if we can impact one person, that person can go on and inspire another one,
and so forth. And so, I'm just trying to do my small ripple in the world.
Wray, Interview...: What was your degree in?
Benny: Communications. I've always been a very talkative person, and it just was
kind of fitting. I did journalism, and I worked for Ola Carolina, which is how
we met. Unfortunately, because I am now full-time at Vecinos, I had to let go of
that position, but I really, really loved journalism as well. I think telling
people's stories is so, so important and so vital, and that's what I really want
to do, especially investigative journalism. So, I'm sure I'll bump into that
path again someday, but for now and for the next year, I will be focusing on the
Wray, Interview...: Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?
Benny: About Vecinos or journalism?
Wray, Interview...: The farmworker program.
Benny: Yeah. So, they do incredible work. They provide medical services, both
physical and mental, health services to farmworkers in the area, they can be
00:48:00seasonal or they can be migrant farm workers. And just advocacy for them,
ensuring that they're getting proper pay, that they're working in proper
conditions. I did my internship with them, and I was a medical interpreter for
them back when I was an intern, and I really loved the work that they were
doing. The executive director is amazing, Marianne Martinez is incredible. And
everyone there is so friendly, and I just knew I had to come back. And when they
had a position opening for the COVID community health worker position, I applied
without having any medical background at all. She believed in me, I guess, and
gave me a chance. And so, I'm lucky to be part of the team, and I'm so happy to
be making small changes and affecting people's actual lives. And it's so
00:49:00gratifying when someone says thank you, I don't know, it just makes it all worth
it. So, I'm very happy to be part of that. And I think nonprofit work is so
important and it's so essential, especially for underserved communities, and
something I want to keep doing. And I can see myself in nonprofit work for the
rest of my life.
Wray, Interview...: Wow, Benny. What clarity you have around that, I just hear
it. That's really beautiful.
Benny: Thank you.
Wray, Interview...: I wonder if we could switch gears and talk a little bit
about like... So, one of the questions that we often ask is, what events do you
go to that has... This is all changed because of COVID, but we have been really
interested with the archive to try to think about doing some asset mapping and
needs assessment in the LGBT community. And so I just wonder, are there events
00:50:00that you've gone to, that helped create a support system or were really good for
you? Or are there things that you can, because you're so active already in
various communities, are there needs that you can identify that the LGBT, Blue
Ridge Pride, our organizations need to be paying more attention to?
Benny: Yeah. You mentioned something earlier about holding that burden onto when
you're young. And I think when you grew up in a really rural community, in a
very conservative community, and especially here in the South, it can be really,
really hard to be open to expressing yourself. And so, I think having more
discussions, having more events, even if it's virtual, where people can access
them, especially young people, I think more importantly, where they can feel
seen, where they feel visible, where they can feel like there's someone that
00:51:00they can relate to I think is important. For me, what really changed the game
was honestly, drag shows. I had never been to a drag show, I had never met a
real drag queen until I went to Western. And that was such an eye opening
experience. It's just, there's so much courage that it takes, to me at least, so
much courage to get up on there and do what they do. And I was like, I want to
feel that courageous, I want to feel as courageous as they do. And so, just
being exposed to that was so important and so impactful. And I think Western did
a good job, and Dean Paulk, who runs the ICA LGBT community stuff at Western, he
did a great job of bringing together a lot of events that were surrounding the
LGBT community. So, I'm really, really thankful for that. ICA at Western does a
great job. So, I think just being exposed to more stuff like that is important.
00:52:00I also really liked Pride, I went to my first pride when I was 18 and it was the
Blue Ridge Pride in Asheville.
Wray, Interview...: We're doing one in September, and we don't even know exactly
what it's going to be like, but we've started making plans. It's happening.
Benny: Oh my God, yes. I'm so excited. I've missed going out, it's been very difficult.
Wray, Interview...: I think it's like September the 26th, but you'll definitely
hear more about it.
Benny: I'm looking forward to it, yeah. So, just having events that expose
different faces of the LGBTQ community. Because I think pop culture has made it
seem that LGBT is just two men or two women on TV, and I think that's the full
extent that they're willing to go in pop culture, and on TV and in movies. And
there's so much more to the LGBT community that is not shown on TV, that I think
needs to be exposed. If it wasn't for that one class, I don't think I would have
00:53:00known what gender non-conforming meant if I hadn't researched it. So, being
exposed to different gender identities and different people within the LGBT
community is so, so important. Having visibility of them is important. I also
really like that you guys take initiative to interviewing people in Spanish,
because I think there's a lot of people in the Latino community that are just,
they have to hide it. One of my, I call him a mentor even though he doesn't
really know he's a mentor, his name is Alex. I met him when I was still a kid, I
was early teens, and he was very openly queer, and he worked at a restaurant.
And my dad would always make, always, always make some kind of comment about
him, always. And I'm like, "Can you just stop? He's a sweet person." I recently
00:54:00sat down with him and I interviewed him, because he opened up a restaurant, his
own restaurant in Franklin. And I am beyond proud of him, because no matter how
many people talk and say things about him because he's queer, Latin man, this
man is still full of life, so vibrant, has just this glow to him. And I aspire
to be equally as proud and strong as he is. Having that visibility within the
community is so important. I really didn't know a lot of other Latino queer
people until really college. College is such an eye-opening time for people, and
it was so important for me to go. Because here in these small towns, everything
is so hidden, everything is so quiet. People don't want to be open about it,
they don't want to talk about it. They want to live their lives quietly under
00:55:00the radar, and we need more people that are going to be able to express
themselves openly. And hopefully one day I can do that as openly without restrictions.
Wray, Interview...: So, you know Beulah Land, I assume?
Benny: Yes. I've seen her so many times, I love her.
Wray, Interview...: So, is drag something you aspire to? Have you ever...
Benny: I've thought about it, I have. So, I don't as much anymore because I've
gained weight from COVID, but pre-COVID I belly danced a lot.
Wray, Interview...: Oh, fun.
Benny: I do shows with belly dancing, and I always thought about incorporating
drag into it. And just when I was ready to jump into it, COVID happened. And so,
it kind of set me back a little, but I would be interested in doing that, and
learning and getting into drag. I think it's such a beautiful art, and I think
00:56:00it's so empowering, it just looks empowering and I want to feel that too.
Wray, Interview...: On Monday, so in a little bit less than a week, we have the
Drag is Art and Activism event. It's online, so I'll make sure and email you
that too. It's on our Instagram if you're on social media. Do you follow us on
Benny: I do, I just don't really go on it to be honest.
Wray, Interview...: That's okay. There's like a million other things way more
important to do in life than social media.
Benny: I kind of gave up on social media a couple of years ago. I'm active on
Facebook just because of my job. I run the Facebook account for the Vecinos
program, but that's about it. I gave up on Instagram, I gave up on Twitter, I
gave up on Snapchat, just because it's so unrealistic what social media
sometimes portrays, and it was really affecting my self esteem. I didn't look
00:57:00like the models on Instagram, or I wasn't living the adventurous lives that
people were living, so I was like this is all fake. I need to focus on my life.
Wray, Interview...: I think that's good advice, good advice. But I'll make sure
and email it to you. One of the questions I was going to ask, you already kind
of answered. In talking about or thinking about the needs assessment, you
mentioned having mentors, LGBT mentors. And so that's one of our questions, is
who have been some of your LGBT mentors? It sounds like your drag experiences,
and this gentleman who now owns a restaurant.
Benny: Yeah. And like I said, I don't even think he acknowledges or knows that
he is someone I look up to, which I should probably tell him that I look up to
him. Just having someone do it and do it so gracefully and so elegantly, I think
00:58:00is beautiful. And having someone that you can talk to and feel seen by, I think
is so important. I think having mentors would be incredible. There's still a lot
of things I don't know, things I'm sure I'm going to bump into the road that I
won't know how to handle. For example, marriage or dating. I've dated in the
past, but it was always very, don't post it on social media. [inaudible] that
would really bring a wedge between us, the fact that I was so nervous of showing
off my partner, and they wanted that and I was just too scared of my family
finding out. How to deal with that kind of stuff. How to deal when there comes a
time where I will possibly look into marriage. What am I going to do with my
parents, what am I going to do with my family? Am I just going to have to say
00:59:00goodbye to them? There's so many questions, and I think there's people that have
gone through similar things, and hearing what they have to say, I think is so important.
Wray, Interview...: I can't imagine that, your parents seem not perfect, but I
just can't imagine that they would let go of you, Benny.
Benny: I hope not. I think my mom would come around. I really don't know about
my dad. I want to say he would, I want to say she would understand.
Wray, Interview...: Those moments when he says the things, how does that, I can
imagine how it feels, but do you just respond to those comments with silence or
walk out of the room?
Benny: I used to fight those comments. I used to be like, "They're people." And
01:00:00most of the times, like when gay marriage became legal and that was one of the
big fights we had. He's like, "They're violating what marriage means." I'm like,
"Having a piece of paper that says you are legally married is not violating
anything." That's like having a driver's license. It's a piece of paper that
acknowledges you can drive. That's how I view it. I know people have a deeper
sentimental value to marriage, and I think I used to also, but not as much
anymore. I just look at it as I can legally be with someone, and we can share
finances, and I can see them if they're in a hospital bed and all these other
things, that's what marriage means to me. Just having that legal equality. And
to people that mean it so much more, they're not going to a church demanding to
be married. And even if they were, the church can turn them down. No one is
01:01:00negating what marriage means to you. But by you negating what marriage means to
them, you're just as you guilty as someone that says, "Whites only can drink at
this water fountain." And I always try to bring things, I used to bring things
up to him as an immigrant standpoint, or as a people of color standpoint, I'm
like, "Discrimination against LGBT people is equal to discrimination against
people of color." And I would try to equate the two, and so much discussing and
so much arguing. He was just very adamant with his way of thinking. But at this
point I just roll my eyes on, and that's all I do. There's no changing him,
there's no persuading him, and I'm not going to waste more of my breath trying
to convince him otherwise. I told him, and I always left it at this. I'm like,
"I'm not going to argue with you anymore, but there is a creator, and at the end
of you'll have to answer to him, and not to me or anybody else." So, that's how
01:02:00I like to be with things. My father can be as homophobic as he can be, I just
doesn't phase me anymore. What he says, I'm just numb to it at this point. I'm
just like, "Okay, if that's what you want to think."
Wray, Interview...: What about when HB was coming around, HB2, the bathroom
bill? Do you remember that?
Benny: I do, yes. And I think he's more anti-trans than I think he is anti-gay.
I think that's really where his homophobic things come from. I think it's more
with the trans community than anything else. And I pointed it out this to him,
I'm like, "So, would you have a trans man that looks just like a man, and acts
like a man go into the bathroom with my mom and my sister? Would you want that
to happen? Because they're biologically female, right? They were assigned female
at birth, would you want that to happen?" And that's when he would turn around
01:03:00and say, "No." I'm like, "Then where the hell do you want them to pee?" It's a
bathroom. I don't know, there's so many conversations about that, that I had
endlessly. My favorite conversation that I had about HB2 was with a
Representative Mark Meadows at the time.
Wray, Interview...: Oh, let's hear that.
Benny: He came to my school to tour it, and very adamant Republican, very strong
Republican. And I asked him about HB2. I'm like, "Well, why is the bathroom such
a big issue to Republicans?" And again, it's about protecting women and
protecting children from pedophiles. And when you bring statistics up, I'm like,
"Well, there's zero reports of anyone doing anything in a bathroom as to what
you're saying." And he would come back with some full argument, and it would
just go back and forth. And at the very end, he just got up with his assistants
01:04:00and left, after arguing with me so much.
Wray, Interview...: Interesting, what was the context? How many other people
Benny: It was a classroom, he was touring the school, [inaudible] and then
eventually left the school. And I bumped into him again about a year or so
later, and I was a student reporter then. And I tried asking him a question, and
I think he remembered me, either that or he was just flat out ignoring me, but
did not accept any questions from me. I'm very proud of that. I'm also proud of,
I had an interesting conversation with Jim Davis who was a State representative
or State Senator, about environmental issues. And he also doesn't talk to me
anymore, doesn't allow me to ask questions, so I find that interesting. And
that's when I knew that journalism was going to be it for me.
Wray, Interview...: That's awesome. Those are great stories. Yeah, the bathroom
thing, the rhetoric around that was exactly the same as the way that white
people encouraged slavery, like, "We must protect the women and children," you
know? Without asking any of us if we wanted protection.
Benny: Exactly, it's crazy. And then when you point out to them that trans men
would be... I think their argument was that you would have a man dressed up as a
woman, I think that's what the argument was, going into a woman's bathroom. I'm
like, in that sense that person would have to use the male restroom because they
were born male, right? So, their argument was always flawed. And it does more
harm to the trans people than it does to actual women or children. And
01:06:00[inaudible] statistics on that. Trans people, especially trans black women are
murdered at disproportionate rates than any other group. And it's such a
tragedy, it's just so disturbing and it's saddening that it happens. It's just
something that really upsets me.
Wray, Interview...: So I have one another question, but you be mindful of your
time. I don't know how much time you have to talk to me today. So at any point
you can be like, "Let's be done," and we can pick up another day. Because
usually we do more than one interview, but not quickly. We'll wait a while and
maybe do another one. Maybe this summer when we could be in person.
Benny: I have about 15 minutes left. [crosstalk] have to wrap up.
Wray, Interview...: Well, let me ask one last question then. So, earlier you
were talking about the value of pride events and pride festivals as a means of
01:07:00seeing the diverse faces of the LGBT community, something beyond just these
people on TV who are getting married, same sex couples getting married.
Something that I've really experienced here, I moved here from Tucson, Arizona,
and so something that I've really experienced here is how white coated the LGBT
community seems to be. So, when I go to events other than Pride Fest, when I go
to what seem like bigger events, it's just so white. And there's lots of allies,
it's hard sometimes to know. So, there's two questions there. How have you
experienced the LGBT community maybe in Western North Carolina, in terms of
racial diversity? And also, what do you think about allies, cisgender allies in
01:08:00what some people call our home spaces, like the bars or things like that?
Benny: So, I don't know how people will take this, but I found that in the LGBTQ
community, there is a lot of racial issues, especially when it comes to dating.
I think hookups, okay, fine. Anyone will do anyone. But when it comes to dating,
I've had a lot of this told to me, it's like, "Oh, I'm sorry, but I only date
white people." Or white men.
Wray, Interview...: I was going to say, do you think this is more of a male thing?
Benny: I think so. I think it's more of a male thing, yeah. With my friends that
are lesbians, I think there's less of that issue. I'm sure it's still an issue,
but I think it's less-
Wray, Interview...: [inaudible].
Benny: Yeah. And the thing that I get a lot, I think especially more with cis
gay men, it's that they want to only date cis gay men, cis white gay men. I've
had a lot of people, a lot of guys told me they wouldn't date me just because of
my voice, or just because I don't identify as a male, or because I'm brown. But
they view me as exotic when it comes to sex. So, it's that weird, I don't know.
It's almost fetishized. My best friend, he's Asian, has bumped into the same
issue. People will pursue him sexually because he's Asian, but they won't pursue
him romantically because he's Asian. So, it's a weird... I don't know, it's a
weird dynamic. And I really think it stems from pop culture. We don't have a lot
01:10:00of visible queer members of the community that are prominent out there, that are
people of color or other gender identities. And that's why I think it's so
important that we have shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, that shows a more diverse
look, a more diverse scope of the LGBT community. And I think that it's a
wonderful platform that he has, and that he's been able to do with it. But
there's a big racial issue in the LGBT community, and it's sad and it's
unfortunate. And I think our Black brothers and sisters get it worse than any
other group. Like I mentioned earlier, trans women, trans Black women are
murdered at a disproportionate rate compared to other groups in the community.
And same thing with trans people in general, they're also very fetishized, and
01:11:00they're looked at more sexually than romantically. And I think it's something we
need to fix within the community, it's a stigma we need to fix. To answer your
other question about cis allies, my other best friend is a cisgender white man.
And I'm surprised he's even my friend because he's amazing. His name is Cole, my
best friend's Dexter, by the way, but Cole is an incredible human being. Such an
open-minded person. And I was always worried in high school, we met freshman
year in high school, I was always worried that maybe he eventually would get
bullied out of being friends with us, with me especially. But he's always stood
by me, and has been a really, really great friend and a really great ally. And
01:12:00so, I think we need to have more people like him that aren't afraid to have gay
best friends, that are okay with gender non-conforming people, and that are okay
with people that talk like me or sound like me. And he's just been very, very
open-minded, and kudos to him and to his mother, Sandy [Pentileo]. They're
incredible people, and I'm just so blessed to have him in life, so we definitely
need more allies like him. And I have a lot of straight friends that are also
really, really big allies in the community, and I think when you have a mixture
of LGBT friends and straight friends, there's always an educational side to
having straight friends. Because they help me see sometimes what straight people
01:13:00tend to think about me, or why someone's [inaudible] to me. And I think also
with them, it's educational to them to have queer friends. So, it's a good
balance, and I'm really happy to have people like them in my life. And yeah, I
think it's so important to have cisgender allies.
Wray, Interview...: Well, thank you so much, Benny. This is so wonderful. I'm
going to go ahead and pause our recording.