The #SeeMe Campaign
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Watch Jose’s #SeeMe Video
Jose Vega shares what it was like experiencing homelessness in high school. Then, he gives encouragement to young people who may not have a home, but that doesn't mean they aren't extraordinary people.
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#SeeMe Q&A with Jose
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Q: Share a little background about yourself.
I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a son of immigrants. My family moved here in the ’90s from Mexico. I grew up here in Tulsa. I went to Webster High School, graduated, went off to Tulsa Community College, did two years and then graduated with a bachelor's in Health Administration from the University of Phoenix. And now I work as the program director for Oklahomans for Equality.
Q: Tell us more about your role at Oklahomans for Equality.
Oklahomans for Equality seeks equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals through advocacy and education programming here in the state of Oklahoma. As we know, here in Oklahoma we still don't have LGBTQ protection. Hate crime, employment, housing and public accommodation -- that's a lot of advocacy that we do. We are the seventh largest LGBTQ community center in the world and it's amazing that it’s located here in Oklahoma.
Q: Can you tell us about the challenges you personally faced in the aftermath of revealing that you are gay?
A: Yeah, at the age of 14 I started feeling things, attraction towards other guys and male figures. I wasn't really sure and I didn't know any other individual who was going through this. I was afraid. And growing up, I always heard homophobic slurs or, “I’d rather have a murderer or a thief, then a gay son,” and certain things like that. And so that really put me deeper in the closet and afraid of, “OK, if this is gay, then that's what I am and that's not what my family wants.” It was a very Catholic family and culture as well. I was very afraid, but I came out at the age of 15 and my family didn't accept it, so I was kicked out and left with only the clothes on my back.
Q: Can you walk us through how frightening that was for you?
A: I knew how the system worked, how foster care worked, how the shelters worked that I tried at all expense to avoid all of that. I knew that my ability to make my own decisions was going to be very limited. And I didn't want to be perceived as vulnerable or as a “poor child.” No. I wanted to sho w that I can do it and be strong. So I couch-surfed my way through high school. There were times where there was no couch or roof over my head. I decided to just sleep under the bridge next to my high school. I carried a backpack with me. When I had a chance to wash my clothes and hang it up so it can dry, I did it. So t hat was my way through high school.
Q: What did you do when someone found out you didn’t have a home?
A: So people looked at me a little bit different after they found out. I felt like I was getting special privileges or special treatment. Things that they would say would kind of rub me the wrong way. I challenged them as well to believe in me, to see me more than just, “Oh, where is he going to find his next meal? Or where is he going to b e going after school?” No, I wanted to show them that I was a hardworking student. I was also a hardworking employee because I worked at Reasor’s as a sacker back then. I was a volunteer at school as well, helping out newcomers. So, we had a lot of youth, a lot of kids who would come in as immigrants. English wasn't their language and so I was their guidance. I’d say, “This is how we get lunch. This is your first class, your second class and so forth.” I’d introduce them to friends. I worked a lot with new kids who were moved from different high schools as well. I was a newcomer myself because I went to all Catholic schools until I went to Webster High School in the 10th grade.
Q: What were some of the tough choices you had to make back then?
A: I knew I needed to graduate as a sophomore in high school. Being homeless, going through trauma and going through everything that I was going through that year, I said, “Either drop out of high school and get to work in the real life and just find your next meal. Quit living outside under the bridge. Quit trying to find your next couch. So, either I need to graduate early or drop this and go to work because I need to make a living.”
Q: Who were some of the people who really supported you during this time?
A: My high school counselor helped me a lot. She showed me that if people see you a certain way, just avoid that look and continue showing them that I'm not vulnerable, I can still make it. I'm a hardworking student and employee and I'm much more than “a homeless youth.” That is why I go out into universities and talk to future counselors because I believe that she saved my life. She's the only one who never saw me differently, who gave me encouragement, showed me that I have the same opportunities. She helped me graduate early. So from being a sophomore, I went straight into senior year, but I had to pay $400 to go to summer school. If you needed it, summer school was free but if you didn't, you had to pay. And so I mowed lawns, I cleaned houses, I walked pets, I did whatever I could do to get more money and pay that off. Then from summer school I went straight into my senior year of high school.
Q: What what would you say to someone who is experiencing what you did, right now?
A: One piece of advice that I would give to somebody who is going through homelessness is, “You're more than that. Don't give up.” There are lots of opportunities and a lot of good people in this city and this state that I've met who want to help and are eager to give back. When there's this extended hand, take it and just know that it's pure heart. That's somebody who wants to help. It gets better. At first, you may be kneeled on the ground, tired and wanting to give up, but no, just stand up, brush it off. And, you know, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt. And all of these words and criticism and thoughts, they won't hurt us, they just make us stronger.”
Q: So you’ve been seen as many things in your life. What do you want people to see you now?
Coming out as a gay man, I wasn't accepted by my family because religion and culture. In Hispanic culture, it's a lot of machismo. Men are outside working and doing things, and the women are stuck in the kitchen cleaning and cooking -- and that's not right. Right now with the activism work that I do, I try to break those barriers and try to have equality in all aspects in our culture.
I'm more than just a gay man. I am an activist. I’m a community member. I’m a son. I’m a leader. I’m more than my identities. We all have more than just who we are. We're all of this. I'm a Latino, gay, well-mannered, educated, family member, loving, supportive, just kind-hearted individual. And I want to be all of those other ones. Not just, “Oh, that's the gay Hispanic man who suffered homelessness.” No, I'm more than that.
Q: How can people contact Oklahomans for Equality?
For all LGBTQ individuals, if you are needing help, if you need a free counseling service, if you are needing free HIV or syphilis testing, whatever it is that you need, you just need some support or lawyer, due to discrimination, LGBT issues, please contact the Center at (918) 743-4297 or www.okeq.org.