Updated: Apr 18
Guest Writer and WCS team member, Doug Graffeo gives us an insight into their complex and evolving relationship with the Queer Community where they currently live - Barcelona - as well as what brings them light.
by Doug Graffeo
Imagine a bustling metropolis of 4 million people, set alongside an idyllic landscape of the Mediterranean coast. In this magical place, there is a feeling that queers from all over the world try to make their way there to soak up the sun and enjoy relaxing times at the beach in this piece of heaven on earth.
However, and even after four years of living in this city, I am still struggling to find my place within Barcelona’s culture. Maybe because I first decided to come here for a short-term stay, only a temporary stop in the way of securing permanent residence status in Canada, where I had lived for almost a decade before moving here.
Having been born in Venezuela, and having existed as a queer, femme, and gender-variant person for as long as I can remember, I grew up with a deeply ingrained sense of placelessness that permeated every fibre of my being.
Many of us who grow up in hostile environments, and in cultures that aren’t ready to accept the vastness and beauty of our queer existences, can relate to this feeling of awkwardly attempting (and failing) to belong somewhere.
You’re expected to view a certain place as your home, but you may also experience the feeling that this very place could never fully encompass all the intricately complex hues of the richness that make up who you are. To be a queer kid who grew up in a place that wasn’t right for you is to be perpetually emotionally displaced, wondering if you will ever be able to replace this sense of home that was stolen away from us by bigotry and intolerance with a space that you carve for yourself, by yourself, and then in the company of others who love and respect you for who you are.
It’s this feeling, an almost less poetic but equally as inspiring sense of wanderlust, that first pushed me to leave Venezuela at the age of 18 and build a life for myself in Toronto, where I could unapologetically thrive as a queer person while enjoying the support of other queer people, especially those who also shared a immigrant background or were also visible minorities.
However, and as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end, and so this fairytale fantasy of a wonderful life in a chilly queer paradise eventually became something I had to learn to let go after a decade of happiness and self-fulfillment.
I landed in Barcelona in December 2018, scared and vulnerable, but willing to give this place a chance and see if I could make it my own.
I mean, I had already been doing that for the past ten years in Toronto, so how challenging could it really be to do it again, especially now that I was older, wiser, and more capable? Also, it was a welcomed change to have my family with me once again, as they had finally made the decision to leave Venezuela a decade after I had done so, in search of a better life for themselves in Barcelona.
At first glance, it appeared as though the stars had aligned, illuminating the path towards a life of fulfillment in this new city. However, an uncomfortable feeling of dread and unease soon filled every crevice of my mind and soul, and I knew right then and there that, despite all the wonderful things I had heard about the gay capital of the Mediterranean, this just would never be a place I call my home.
The first time I went out wearing makeup in Barcelona, I knew it felt different to Toronto. I could feel the faces of everyone staring at me, making me feel like I stood out.
I also remember the first time someone treated me differently because of the way I speak, even though I speak Spanish natively albeit with our own unique and tropical accent. All of a sudden I found myself sticking out like a sore thumb because of the irrevocably queer, femme, and ethnic markers of my personhood.
It’s my experience in situations like these that have created a void in my heart that longs for the things I had in Toronto. This void craves lasting connection with diverse people from varied cultural backgrounds and different walks of life. It desires access to radical conversations on undoing hegemonies and violent power structures, the same ones that Europe has propagated all over the world for centuries while simultaneously pretending that racism, power, and privilege are a uniquely North American factor.
I think my main point of contention with my life in Barcelona is that there is a very marked imbalance in how many opportunities there are to have unbridled fun until the early morning hours with how little avenues there are to find a community for yourself as a radically-oriented queer person.
This inability to find spaces to talk about the issues that matter the most to me, coupled with the little visibility that exists for collectives doing this kind of work and for activists working tirelessly to undo these systems of harm, has left me feeling utterly lonely and resentful of this city after four long and painful years of living here.
And so, for many years it was easier to become reclusive and close myself off to new opportunities and socialization spaces, as I just didn’t want to be exposed to any direct and indirect harm from people who didn’t see life and the world in the same way as I had grown to understand it in my former home.
For a while this was absolutely manageable (or so I thought), as I focused on growing my career in international human rights advocacy and tried to shut down the parts of me that longed for community. I really thought I had it all under control and could continue going on like this, but after a while I had to be realistic and acknowledge that the heart inevitably craves connection and affection, and the happiness I needed could only be felt while being surrounded by other queer and trans people.
And so, even though I felt scared and hopeless after so many years without the community component that was once so central to my life, I decided I needed to fill the social void that begged me for close connections and contact with others like me. Thankfully, I came to the realization that queer people exist everywhere and are often available to offer their love and support, provided that you make an effort to seek a glimmer of hope in what might appear as an inhospitable place, and to present yourself as your truest self for them to recognize and appreciate.
I don’t know how we always do it, but us queers are magical like that, in the way that we will always manage to find each other, time and time again.
Almost by chance, I came across this workout group by and for trans and nonbinary people, that in addition to offering attendees a space to work on their fitness in a gender-affirming and non-judgemental way, it also served as a powerful catalyst for social interaction. It is also a serendipitous coincidence how this shift in my mindset that inspired me to seek out deeper and more genuine connections also coincided with the launch of operations in Barcelona by We Create Space. I first reached out to the team after attending a conference and seeing that some of the people I had met there were part of the repertoire of panelists that often collaborated with them.
As someone who had a lot of things to say about queer community life, and who has a unique, radical, and thought-provoking perspective on social justice and human rights issues, I was eager to join the WCS speaker collective and soak up the eventual opportunities that could come from partnering with these new friends.
What I didn’t know is that this new professional relationship would eventually become a catalyst that would bring all these loose ends of my personal life together in one place, where I could openly speak about the issues that mattered to me, in the company of those who shared a similar point of view and weren’t afraid to learn and unlearn more about the world together with me. As I said before, queers always have a unique way of finding each other, so who I thought would be random panelists, participants, and attendees, soon turned out to be my new friends and family now that I had an outlet to interact with them in public.
Being a queer person who always felt like they existed outside the norm, coupled with having to migrate twice for things outside of my control before the age of 30, certainly made me feel displaced, confused, and hopeless.
But this same relentless magic that characterizes queer people inevitably leads us to always seek better for ourselves, leaving behind the toxicity and negativity of what didn’t work for us in the pursuit of a better life filled with love and community.
In this light, my best advice to other queer and trans migrants finding themselves in this position, lost and aimless in a place that seems to not understand them, is to always seek strength in being your most authentic and unapologetic selves.
No matter how challenging this current chapter of my life has been so far, it never made me forget, and only reassured me, that there was inherent power and strength in being true to myself and the radical queer aspects of my personhood. It was only when I decided to face this city with this new outlook on the world that I realized that there many others going through the same things as me, and that what I thought were unique experiences of loneliness were actually shared by so many all over Barcelona.
Sometimes it seems incredibly tough to seek a better life for yourself when you give in to the sadness that comes with feeling lost and misunderstood, but I promise that if you chase the little glimmers of light that show up in your life, this same light will soon encompass your life and transform what seemed like utter hopelessness into a new chapter filled with kindness, compassion, and community.
Even though struggling with depression and loneliness can virtually destroy our will to make things change for ourselves, I also have to acknowledge that even the smallest actions can eventually bring forth life-changing consequences that transform our lives for the better.
To all my queer and trans migrants who may find themselves in similar positions, I want to impart a powerful truth: the very things about yourself that you believe to be burdensome are, in fact, your greatest strengths. When you have the courage to reveal your true self to others, you will undoubtedly discover meaningful connections and a sense of community, regardless of your location.
Our queerness and our experiences with migration imbue us with unparalleled strength, boundless potential, and unwavering resilience. Life is too short to silence these parts of ourselves, especially when there are countless people who are eager to embrace and love us for who we truly are. If we can find the courage to let our authentic selves shine, we will undoubtedly attract the right people, no matter where our journey in this world takes us.
Doug Graffeo (they/them)
Doug is an accomplished activist, speaker, and researcher on LGBTQI+ and human rights issues from Caracas, Venezuela. As a human geographer, Doug is skilled at providing critical analyses of sociopolitical phenomena through an intersectional feminist and decolonial lens. They have experience working with multilateral and international organizations such as IGLYO, ILGA World, and the Equal Rights Coalition, in addition to local and community groups in Europe as well as North and South America.
You can find out more about Doug's work here.
If you are interested in booking Doug as a speaker, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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