I remember the moment a few years ago when my now-husband Juan Rodriguez brought me a huge map of Florida. We had been organizing undocumented youth in Miami for the few months before that through Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER), and had gotten a good deal of traction. But Juan, ever the dreamer, was still not satisfied with our progress. He said, "SWER is only in Miami -- we need to expand to every corner of the state!"
We sat puzzled by this enormous task. How could we -- low-income, undocumented youth without driver's licenses -- organize the entire state? We started trying to make the task more manageable -- we divided the state into sections and created assignments with the small group of organizers who had stepped up in faith to stand up for our collective equality.
We took buses up and down the state, traveling to different communities every weekend. We talked with folks living in completely different realities throughout the state, building a small army of youth along the way who were committed to taking action whenever we needed a "spark" to push decision-makers in the right direction.
We met young people like Mayra Hidalgo, one of our fiercest activists, who came to the U.S. from Costa Rica when she was only 6 months old; she started a group in Lakeland, a small town in Central Florida. Soon we were family -- we housed and fed one another at every stop along the way, and created our own secret society. So in 2008, when we learned that our own Gaby Pacheco had been targeted by immigration because of her efforts to campaign for in-state tuition, we decided to "come out" as undocumented in front of the Homeland Security building in Miami while her family was waiting for their final order of deportation.
That day, for the first time in my life, I got on the megaphone and said, "I'm undocumented, come get me!" People from Miami Dade College who had come to support our rally didn't know my status -- in fact, at that time I was the Student Government President of one of the campuses, and they were horrified. That's when I understood that my biggest weapon was my own story. The more vulnerable I would make myself, the greater the chance I could attract support for our cause. I learned that courage attracts courage. We won a small battle when Gaby's family was allowed to stay, but we were already different people at that point. We knew that the attacks against our community would continue to grow and we needed to become better strategists and increase our political power.
When Juan, again not settled by our small successes in the midst of such large challenges, asked me if I wanted to walk with him from Miami to Washington, DC, in order to draw national attention to our broken immigration system, I heartily said "Yes!" Our demand was very clear -- we asked President Obama to give DREAM Act youth work permits and to stop our deportations. After many blisters, tears, rallies, long frustrating conference calls with other undocumented youth from other parts of the country and protests, President Obama finally -- just over a week ago -- created a system through his executive power to give us relief. Some will say that President Obama responded to our demand because of demographic changes that made Latinos a key electorate in 2012, without giving our movement its full credit. Whether that's true or not, I know a much deeper truth -- that young people in every corner of our country came together to push our cause forward and many have risked everything for this victory.
When I heard President Obama's speech from the White House Rose Garden, I was awestruck. I have grown tired of endless speeches and empty promises without any policy changes -- so to hear the president speak was refreshing. It inspired me to work even harder for equality and a pathway to citizenship for myself and my family. A work permit will significantly improve my life, but there is far more work ahead for me and for millions of others to fully be equal.
Because I'm gay, it is lawful for any employer in Florida to fire me because of my sexual orientation. There is no federal law protecting American workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. So, while I'm beyond thrilled that undocumented youth now have an opportunity to secure a work permit, undocumented LGBT youth still face enormous hurdles in actually using that work permit to find work that doesn't require them to go back into the closet. And today's ruling on Arizona's SB1070 racial profiling law shows us that youth of color face a unique set of challenges that go beyond punching a time card when we must live in fear from simply walking the streets of our communities.
President Obama has repeatedly punted on employment discrimination, telling activists to focus on the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) rather than on an Executive Order. But we know that a Boehner-led House will never pass pro-LGBT legislation. So while other organizations are focused on getting ENDA through the Senate, I'm doing the only thing that I know works -- pressuring the president to use his executive power to again stand with people who desperately need his help.
There is currently an Executive Order on President Obama's desk that would ban discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- protecting the 26 million Americans who work for federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination. Over 70% of Latino voters support this Executive Order and, more importantly, signing this document would make clear that President Obama is doing everything in his power to make tangible change, show leadership and ensure the passage of ENDA in a second term.
Just like a week ago when President Obama showed Latino voters that he was serious about keeping his promises, this is the president's chance to show the LGBT community the same thing. Just a few weeks ago I started a new chapter of my life, as I began working full-time as the National Field Director at GetEQUAL. I'm again looking at a big map and hearing Juan's voice in my head, knowing that there is more work ahead and more progress to make. I hope that President Obama can hear the voices of those of us who are continuing to organize -- and whether it's because of political calculation or moral courage, that he'll again stand up for those who are asking him to use his pen to make a difference in the lives ofmillions who are suffering and need clear workplace protections, so they can live with the liberty and justice that has been promised for all.
Follow Felipe Matos on Twitter: www.twitter.com/f_matos007