Rito hesitates before entering the restroom. After everything he’s been through, including risking his life crossing the mountainous rainforest of the Darien Gap, using a public bathroom can fill him with dread. Rito is gay, and as he travels with his family from Venezuela through Mexico, sometimes on foot, he has seen other gay men get beaten in public facilities simply for living authentically.
In some ways, Rito is lucky. From a very young age, he was able to acknowledge and express his individual truth and be accepted by his family. His biggest champion and the person who inspires him the most is his grandmother. She nurtured Rito, instilling in him the importance of being clean and presentable at all times, even if you are only having lunch at home. For Rito, his grandmother is the epitome of elegance. Before Venezuela’s economic collapse, which has forced over 7 million Venezuelans to leave their country, she loved to wear perfume to go grocery shopping. If the weather was too hot, she’d take a cab to the store to make sure she didn’t smell bad when she arrived.
When Rito and his family were en route from Venezuela to Mexico, Rito couldn’t always go to the bathroom when he needed to because other men traveling the same migrant route knew of his sexual preference and harassed him. Losing that kind of bodily autonomy can crush your soul a little. The situation escalated In Tapachula, a city at the Mexican Guatemalan border. Rito was scared of showering in a men’s public bathroom after he witnessed another person being hit. He went a week without a shower and had to find a family member to accompany him when he wanted to use the facilities.
We met Rito when we brought the hygiene kits you supplied to the Bellavista House, a shelter in the state of Chihuahua, about four hours from Juarez. Rito says that when he first arrived at Bellavista House, he spent three hours (or so he felt) bathing. He wanted to make sure his hair was rid of all the grime from the journey. “Being clean brings me joy,” he says, “and having kits like the ones you provided us is wonderful.” He appreciates the help he has received in Mexico and is grateful for the opportunity to take a shower, which enables him to feel like himself again.
A bathroom is a place where all humans, regardless of gender identity or sexual preference, engage in a common activity. But for some, a bathroom is a place of bullying or violence, which engenders shame, hiding, or self-disgust. Bodily autonomy is a human right. Choosing who to love is an act of courage. Choosing to love, not hate, reaffirms our shared humanity. During this month of Pride, we celebrate those who stand up for justice by loving anyway, loving first, and loving always.