Francisco Cortes: Changing paths, changing lives

Francisco Cortes: Changing paths, changing lives

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There’s a saying that to be successful, you should find what you love and make it your career. This week’s Portrait is a prime example.

Francisco Cortes originally thought he’d become a teacher but an internship at Galaei, an LGBTQ Latinx social-justice organization, changed his path.

Cortes has been involved with Galaei in various capacities for six years and was recently named the interim director of the organization.

PGN: Are you from Philadelphia?

FC: When can you establish yourself as a Philadelphian? I’ve been here about seven years and I feel like one, but I was born in Mexico and grew up outside Philly.

PGN: Which part of Mexico?

FC: Guanajuato. It’s known for its mummies. We moved to the U.S. when I was 4. My parents got a home in Chester County. There’s a large agricultural industry out there, specifically mushrooms. I grew up smelling them my whole life. Then I went to school at Temple, which is how I got to Philly, and I’ve been here since.

PGN: I’ve been dying to go to the big mushroom festival in Kennett Square. Do you like mushrooms?

FC: I hated them growing up and my parents would try to cook them in all different ways so I couldn’t tell what I was eating, but no. Now that I’ve been away and had a seven-year break, I don’t mind them as much. If they’re on a pizza or in a stir-fry, I can tolerate it.

PGN: Do you have any memories of Guanajuato?

FC: I remember playing with my siblings and my grandmother holding me. She passed away not long after we moved here.

PGN: I think I read you have two sisters?

FC: I have an older brother too, but people don’t believe it because he’s very shy and doesn’t like to be in pictures. I have an older sister who’s also LGBTQ-identified and a younger sister who was born in the U.S.

PGN: Any family traditions?

FC: My parents always made sure that we maintained our heritage, so we celebrated El Día de los Muertos and took the day to honor family members who passed away. My sisters had quinceañeras, baptisos, things like that. We still do.

PGN: I know you went to the same school, Millersville, as my brother. What did you study?

FC: I thought I was going to be a teacher, but my freshman year I took an intro to psych class and loved it. I loved abnormal psychology, I loved the counseling aspect and learning about different theories. But I needed to be in a city, so I transferred to Temple and got a B.A. in psychology with a concentration in LGBTQ studies. I thought I was going to pursue academia but I did an internship at Galaei my senior year and fell in love with the work they were doing at both the macro and micro levels. And I’m still here.

PGN: Tell me about some of the programs. I was at the LGBTQ State of the Union and heard you mention some exciting things.

FC: We have three core programs: the Trans Equity Project, the testing program and the youth program. Galaei was founded 29 years ago by a group of gay Latino activists and geared toward HIV issues. At the time, there weren’t any useful resources that were culturally competent or linguistically accessible so they stepped up and formed the organization. Today, we continue to serve the community through that lens of community organizing and are still doing HIV work. We have testing programs here. It’s walk-in, people don’t need ID and there’s no fee for the services. To make sure it’s accessible, we also offer the information in Spanish. We also have two satellite locations: William Way and Philly AIDS Thrift. We have support groups that do a lot of fun activities, including movie nights and bowling outings for people to meet outside the bar scene. We also have the Trans Equity Project. It’s one of the few “for trans, by trans” programs in the state. They do everything from resume-building to educational workshops. They are the hosts of the Philadelphia Trans March and this fall will be its eighth anniversary. Unfortunately we lost a big chunk of our funding for the Trans Equity Project and had to cut the program back quite a bit, but we’re hoping that the community will step up and help out so we can get it back to being fully funded. And lastly we have the youth program. Before this interim position, I was the youth-programs manager. One of the programs we have is the SOY Project.

PGN: SOY?

FC: Yes, we love acronyms in the nonprofit world and I’m no exception. I love a catchy acronym. SOY stands for Supporting Our Youth. It’s a one-on-one coaching-mentorship program similar to case management, but purposefully not clinically driven. In response to young people’s feedback, we wanted to create a one-on-one program that was more casual in nature. The youth were disinterested in any kind of clinical program, especially the trans and gender-nonconforming youth who felt like therapists and case-management workers didn’t really understand them. And it’s been working. We’ve had young people coming with an array of issues. From gender identity and/or sexual orientation, to help getting a job to buy that cute outfit that your parents won’t pay for, to support in coming out to the family. It’s been a thriving program. We also have Project YEAAH, another acronym, for the Youth Education and Arts Advocacy on HIV. This was a project I created with a small grant from the HRC. Two years ago the CDC released a statement that overall HIV rates are dropping, which is good, except that the rate in certain communities is on the rise. If the trajectory continues, one in two black MSMs (men who have sex with men) and one in four Latino MSMs will contract HIV. HIV prevention can’t just be “how to properly put on a condom” or abstinence or even PrEP. We have interactive and educational workshops led by a cohort of about 10 young people. We know that the stigma plays a huge role in the transmission of HIV. I can’t forget to mention the prom. Galaei hosts what I believe is the longest consecutively running alternative prom in the nation. It’ll be on June 22 at the William Way LGBT Community Center.

PGN: Cool. Let’s get back to you. What’s your coming-out story?

FC: It’s a little bit funny. My older sister was very feminine and always had a lot of boyfriends, but she had told me that she was bisexual. At one point she was dating a girl and my parents caught her kissing her “best friend” in the kitchen. They were completely in shock because they had a stereotypical idea of what a lesbian should look like and my sister did not fit the mold. So they were blindsided. My mom came up to me and said, “I need to talk to someone. Your sister was kissing a girl. What is this all about?” And I don’t know what possessed me but I just blurted out, “Yeah, mom, I’m gay too.” And my mom nonchalantly goes, “Oh, yeah, we knew that. We’re trying to figure out what’s going on with your sister!” 

PGN: That’s hysterical — one of my favorite coming-out stories so far.

FC: The beautiful thing is that it took my parents a little time to get adjusted to having two LGBT kids. But like many of the families in the Latino community we serve, which can be heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, they always put love for the kids first. Family and unity are the priority. (There are exceptions of course.) I was dating a guy for two years and living in a one-bedroom apartment and my mother still didn’t refer to him as my boyfriend until I called her out on it. And with my sister it was even worse. She ended up marrying the woman my parents caught her making out with. It wasn’t until they were getting married in Delaware seven years later that my mom realized it wasn’t a phase. But they never stopped loving and supporting us.

PGN: You work with Juntos, a nonprofit that fights for rights in the Latino-immigrant community. What’s going on?

FC: The attack against immigrant communities has been relentless and ruthless for some time now. Under the Obama administration, more people were deported than under any other presidency. Philadelphia is a sanctuary city with a super-supportive mayor and district attorney, but we still had 50 people picked up last week here in Philadelphia. We have one of the few family-detention centers right here in Pennslyvania, in Berks County. Mothers and children imprisoned for indefinite amounts of time. I was on a national call yesterday and made aware of a trans woman leaving Honduras to try to seek legal asylum in the U.S. She was taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and died in their custody.

PGN: Horrendous. Let’s wrap up with something lighter. What do you do for enjoyment away from work?

FC: I like to run. It’s been part of my life for a long time. It helps me block out stress and get ßinto a calm space. I’ve run several marathons including the Philly Marathon, which I’m doing again this year. I like to run for causes when I can. I like to try to be effective in everything I do!


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