Inside Francisco Cortes' fight for intersectional justice
Cortes went from fighting for the LGBTQ+ Latinx community in Philly to doing it across the U.S.
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To appreciate the journey of Francisco Cortes in the nonprofit world, one must go back before his days at Temple University, where he was the first member of his family to go to college.
“I went in kind of like, the world is my oyster, so to speak,” he said in an interview with AL DÍA.
Having grown up in Kennett Square, PA, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia in Chester County, college was something Cortés wanted because all his friends were going.
However, his path there was very different and one he had to forge all on his own.
A naturally curious kid
Cortes was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and his family moved to Kennett Square in the early 90s to work in its global mushroom industry. Back then, there were very few in the small town that looked like them beyond Cortes’ other cousins.
That difference sticks out especially when remembering one of his family’s early efforts to celebrate El Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, which falls every Dec. 12. In Mexico, the day, which commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary before an Aztec Indian in 1531, is arguably the most important in the country’s Catholic tradition. In the U.S., it is celebrated as a day of solidarity with immigrants, but nothing beyond a traditional mass takes place.
“We went to an English mass and it was not the same, and my parents were taken back a little because it was different,” said Cortes.
But unlike his parents, a young Francisco was drawn to the differences he saw not just in church that day, but everywhere.
“I think it also made me grow up into a very interested and curious adult as well because of just the constant changes and realizations of different cultural differences among folks,” he said.
At Temple, that curiosity manifested itself in his efforts to find a career where he could interact with and help people while also finding a place he could feel at home as a member of the Latinx LGBTQ+ community.
His first plan was to be a teacher, but after learning he didn’t like being around kids as much as he previously thought and taking an introductory psychology class, Cortes changed course. The class especially piqued an untapped interest in humans and how they interact.
With that in mind, his next idea was to be a therapist of some sort, but he found galaei instead at a job fair and joined as an intern in his senior year.
The organization, started in 1989 to provide HIV/AIDS relief to Latinx LGBTQ+ men in Philly, is one of the few of its kind in the U.S. Today, it defines itself as a Queer and Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) radical social justice organization. It still offers HIV/AIDS resources to LGBTQ+ youth, but has expanded to include services that both educate and empower individuals on QTBIPOC issues in those same communities across Philadelphia.
“I think just because of being a gay immigrant myself, galaei just seemed so fit for me,” said Cortes.
It also helped him realize what he had been missing from his life in Kennett Square and up to that point at Temple. Growing up as an LGBTQ+ Latinx individual, Cortes can remember being able to pinpoint the spaces that were “safe.” Latino and LGBTQ+ student orgs had potential, but both left out parts of his experience. The former never touched on LGBTQ+ issues and the latter was often a white-centered space — something Cortes says is still true in LGBTQ+ orgs to this day.
“I hadn’t been in a space where I felt whole until I was in a space like galaei,” he said.
As an intern, Cortes found the experience much more involved than he expected. He shadowed galaei leaders as they presented to LGBTQ+ student organizations and other community groups in the city. By the end of his internship, Cortés was the one giving those presentations.
The hands-on experience left a mark, but he graduated with his bachelor’s in psychology and left the city a year after the internship, moving back to Kennett and working with youth in a truancy program run by Chester County.
Not long after leaving, galaei reached back out and offered Cortes the position of youth programs coordinator. He accepted and moved back to Philadelphia at 21.
Intern to interim executive director
For the next seven years, Cortes learned all the ins-and-outs of what it meant to serve youth as part of galaei, and also operate in the larger nonprofit world.
On the programming side, his efforts centered on creating the same feeling of wholeness he felt when first discovering the organization, but for LGBTQ+ youth across the city.
“Everything I created in that job. I thought of like: ‘Okay, would Fran at 15 appreciate this? Is this something that a Fran who's like 15 out there could thrive from or learn from, or feel supported in a space like that?” he said.
Some of the programs included SOY (standing for Supporting Our Youth) and Project YEAAH (Youth Education and Arts Advocacy on HIV). The former was a one-on-one youth mentorship program for trans and gender nonconforming youth that struggled to be heard by therapists and case managers. The latter was a youth-run education workshop to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS in the community.
His most memorable experiences came from one of galaei’s longest-running traditions — an Alternative Prom for LGBTQ+ youth in the city that was usually held every June.
“We would have young people who, even four, five years ago, didn't feel comfortable, safe going to their own proms because they were LGBTQ, or they couldn't present themselves the way they wanted to,” said Cortes. “As they're leaving, [they’re] asking, when is the next prom?”
Beyond the programs, Cortes also got an intimate look at how nonprofits like galaei operated in the context of the larger nonprofit world. He dipped his feet in everything on the administrative side from operations decisions down to grant writing to get potential funding.
“What does it take to run an organization? There's a lot of… for some people, not fun stuff,” he said.
Halfway through 2018, those learnings hit a new level as Cortes was elevated to interim executive director at GALAEI. He was in the position for a year-and-a-half, where its focus shifted slightly to also include discussions around Latinx LGBTQ+ immigrants that faced inhumane conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border and in detention centers across the country.
It’s an experience that now defines Cortes new post, as a Co-Director of the nationwide LGBTQ+ Latinx organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (Familia for short). He joined amid the COVID-19 pandemic as a consultant for strategic operations, but was announced as co-director alongside Jennicet Gutiérrez on Nov. 4, 2021 after former director Jorge Gutierrez stepped down.
“My initial reaction was it felt like the right move,” said Cortes. “I think like with everyone, reflecting on how COVID affects our work and global pandemics and everything, I was like: ‘Okay, it's time for me to think of the next step.’”
Familia’s overarching goal is the liberation of trans, queer, and gender nonconforming Latinxs through community building, advocacy, education, and organizing.
The organization itself has three programs that help with different aspects of Latinx LGBTQ+ detention, but its biggest effort to date is the End Trans Detention campaign, which is a partnership with Mijente, the Transgender Law Center, and the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project.
End Trans Detention
Its goals are the release of all transgender individuals in ICE custody, who regularly face inhumane, hazardous, and inadequate care.
In the past, the campaign sent a memo to the administration offering a guide on how to release transgender individuals properly back into communities. In the meantime, it also provides concrete needs to meet to properly care for transgender individuals in custody.
“We're not just screaming,” said Cortes. “We are providing a very detailed way of how this process should go.”
On March 2, 2021, the campaign sent a letter to President Joe Biden, demanding his administration release all transgender individuals in custody of ICE. It was followed up by a month-long action during Pride Month in June that staged protests and marches across the country in places like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Georgia and North Carolina, to name a few, demanding the same action from Biden’s administration.
The latest action was a protest in Washington D.C. during Día de los Muertos.
As for 2022 and beyond, Cortes says the organization’s goals are to continue forcing the issue of ending trans detention, and expanding its presence to more areas in the U.S. like rural America and the Deep South. Those areas especially are facing the worst of local policies restricting trans and LGBTQ+ rights.
“We know that there's a lot of migration happening down there for folks and there isn't a lot of resources,” said Cortes. “We want to make sure that we're providing the resources at the local levels to prevent any local policies that sometimes affect people more directly.”