By Justin Mahoney
When Héctor Gomez arrived in Quebec City 10 years ago from his native Bogotá, Colombia, he felt alone and without any bearings: he claimed political refugee status on the grounds that the Colombian government didn't protect him from the violence he endured for being gay.
These days, Gomez leads a non-profit organization based in Montreal that helps gay and lesbian immigrants transition into a safe Canadian haven.
Usually found at the city's outer métro line terminals or the airport, Gomez reaches out to newly arrived immigrants with pamphlets that lead to his support group named Beyond the Rainbow. Gomez knows that most gay immigrants live beyond Montreal's gay village and are used to living in the closet - hence the name of his organization.
"When you come to Montreal as a gay political refugee, there isn't anyone waiting for you at the airport with open arms. You feel abandoned and alone ... If you don't speak French or English, you can easily isolate yourself in circles where you'll find the same homophobia you tried to leave behind," says Gomez.Gomez's organization relies on volunteers and known non-profit organizations in the city to help with his weekly meet-and-greets where people can access translation services, get a sense of community and learn about their rights in their new adopted country. The meetings are held at Université du Québec à Montréal and attract on average a predominantly Hispanic group of 40.
"The most difficult challenge with these meetings is convincing newcomers they are in a safe environment and that it is okay to be gay in Montreal ... It often takes two or three meetings before new people open up and start making new friends," Gomez says.In Bogotá, where Gomez lived as an openly gay man, intimidation and beatings were a regular occurrence and police intervention was nonexistent.
"A group of guys once broke my jaw but it didn't make me want to go in the closet," Gomez says.In Montreal, Gomez pursues his career in architecture as he did in Bogotá and hosts a radio show called Out of the Closet on Radio Centre-Ville. He says his true passion is social work.
"The hardest part was dealing with my father and older brothers who were also homophobic ... They kicked me out of the house."
"It makes me happy when people move on from the support group because that means we helped them find new ties here in Montreal," he says. Beyond the Rainbow has welcomed approximately 400 people since 2006.