Using personal experience, Jaci Cortez is helping change the narrative for others like her. Photo by Alex Medina.

In and out of foster homes while coming to terms with her sexuality, there was a time when Jaci Cortez found herself facing unique struggles tied to her intersectional identity. When the Boyle Heights Beat first spoke to her in 2018, she was a student at East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC) studying American Sign Language (ASL) while dealing with housing insecurity.

Jaci Cortez was homeless during her first three monhs at East Los Angeles City College in 2018. Photo by Jacky Ramirez

Fast forward to today, Cortez is a 29 year-old non-profit founder confident in her identity, always doing the best to confront life’s obstacles with the positive mindset she grew into amid her early struggles. Our reporter Carmen González has the chance to speak with her as part of the Beat’s Pride Q&A series to learn about this journey towards self-love.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

BHB: I know we haven’t chatted since 2018. Back then, you shared some of the struggles you were dealing with as a homeless college student. What have you been up to since?

Jaci Cortez: A lot of stuff has happened which I’m super grateful for. I ended up getting my own apartment in downtown LA. I graduated with three or four AATS [Associate Degree for Transfers] from Rio Hondo College. I even was able to start my own non-profit that helps streamline resources for current and former and current foster youth. It’s called Sunflower Foster Youth Investment.

BHB: When and why did you start your organization? 

JC: It officially got state approval in 2020 but because of COVID, it had a slow start. I began the organization because of my background in the foster system where I saw that there was a lack of resources, or instances where two organizations were doing the same thing.

At the end of the day, our statistics aren’t getting better, and even though people say there’s resources out there, they’re usually all the same or aren’t what people need. I made it my passion to help others in any way I could, so when I was able to save up enough to make my purpose and dream a reality, I went for it and opened up Sunflower. Right now it’s still remote, but the goal is to one day get a physical location that’s a one-stop shop type of thing.

It’s been amazing being able to give back to people going through what I went through. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the people that helped me out when I was down.

I’m grateful for the little team we have now, but I hope we can expand one day so we can bring even more resources to those going through or were a part of the foster care system.

BHB: Reflecting on your past, how would you say your identity within the LGBTQ+ community affected your journey in life?

JC: It definitely made my foster care experience more challenging. The foster parents knew I was a lesbian before I did and most of them were very religious. I would get kicked out a lot. But you know, that’s something that shaped me into wanting to create Sunflower, right, because I feel like all youth go through stuff, especially our LGBT foster youth. Stability is already an issue, but when you add sexuality to the mix it’s a whole new ballpark. There’s not enough homes that are accepting and then the youth themselves are already battling all this other trauma, and then you’re adding even more trauma on top of that from a lack of acceptance. That creates a whole bunch of mental health issues.

Once they’re able to accept themselves though, it’s a beautiful journey. It took me forever to accept myself for who I was. I was kicked out at 18 because I was outed. I was like, “Yeah, I’m tired of hiding. I don’t like men, right? I am a lesbian.” I got kicked out the same day. I was in that placement for four years. Before [they knew] I was a lesbian, they’re like, “you’re the perfect daughter. We’re gonna help you get a car, finish college, all that good stuff”. People have their biases, but that’s life. I’m grateful for those experiences. If it wasn’t for those experiences, I wouldn’t be proud of who I am, I wouldn’t be a person that is safe for others to be themselves. 

I love who I am. I actually, less than a year ago came out as non-binary, which, for me, was something different, because I didn’t know a lot of information on it. Now I go by as a non-binary lesbian, because that’s just how I am and who I am. And I’m very proud of that. Being a lesbian didn’t really help with my mental health, I was just filled with self hate. But I love who I am. I always try to be very loving towards everything and everyone because I understand that the world we live in is just very chaotic. If I can bring peace and comfort to people, that’s kind of the vibe I try to go with.

BHB: What is non-binary lesbian for those that may not know?

JC: I don’t know, because everyone’s different. For me it means that I’m not super feminine. I do present a very masculine personality. And I love it, right? What non binary lesbian means for me is that I’m both masc and femme. I don’t like male or male presenting people. Everyone is different. I don’t really like putting people’s inboxes but I’m okay with my box.

BHB: What significance do you feel intersectionality has in the community?

JC: In every community there’s intersectionality.

Everything we do in life is complicated. Sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, right? We’re all a jumble of things. I think that we just have to embrace that nothing is linear. There’s beauty in chaos and disorganization.

Even in the LGBT community, unfortunately, there is a lot of hate when it comes to some members, right? I don’t think that it’s ever gonna go away because it’s just been so ingrained. What happens is people were hated on when people don’t relate or understand something.

I just think that in the LGBT community, we have to do better to love and embrace each other. At least based on my experience, there’s a lot of confusion and hatred towards trans people, non binary, bisexuals, unfortunately. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that if people aren’t the basics of the LGBT, which is like lesbian or gay, there’s some type of misconnection, unfortunately.

Within the LGBT community, we still have a lot to learn when it comes to loving our community. We have things to work on. I’m grateful to be part of it. It’s beautiful to see people be themselves. Without people who went through harder struggles while being LGBT, I don’t think someone like me would have the space and opportunity to find who they are. I’m super grateful for the people before me. I’m hoping to continue passing on love and safety. Being yourself shouldn’t be a bad thing.

BHB: Fashion has long been an important part of the queer identity for many within the community. As someone who went through the foster care system, do you feel you were able to express yourself in that way?

JC: Oh, no. It was “oh, you’re a female. Here’s dresses, here’s skirts.” Once I became a teen I was like, I’m gonna buy all the things I ever wanted. It’s a good pair of jeans, collared shirt, comfy boxers, you know, but ya know, back then I have seen it improve in the new community events for the new generation of foster youth. They get to choose what they want. It’s not okay. You’re a boy, here’s boy clothes, you’re a girl whose girl grows up. It’s just very nice to see that they have freedom to express themselves through clothing. When I was in foster care, it was not affirming in any way. Clothes are always a way people express themselves. It shouldn’t have a say of what [foster] placement they go to.

BHB: Looking back at your life now, is there someone or a moment in your life that really helped you feel validated and safe as a queer person?

JC: Oh, yes. My last foster mom, Tanya, I call her mom, she’s my chosen mom. When I got kicked out, my social worker kept hearing about this amazing foster home and this amazing foster mom that took card cases or cases no one wanted, right? My social worker takes me to this house, I’m waiting in the car. They’re talking for like about an hour. I’m paranoid, “where am I gonna go?” I was like, “I should have stayed in the closet, right?” All these negative thoughts in my head. I shouldn’t have been brave enough to choose me for the first time? I was mad at myself. I’m not gonna lie, because I was like, I had it all set up, all I had to do is pretend to be straight. We all have our limits.

Then I got placed in this amazing home that I’m super grateful for and changed my life. I had lunch with my chosen mom for my birthday. Tanya took me to IHOP. We started talking about how we got into each other’s life. And I was like, “How did you choose to say yes?” And she told me “like, Oh, your social worker told me that you were a lesbian, if that was going to be an issue. And I looked at her and I told her, why would that be an issue? Most of my girls are.” I started laughing like this is an older Mexican Catholic woman. Yet, she embraced me and every foster girl, she had to be themselves. She’s an angel and my chosen mom. I went from not being chosen to being chosen.

BHB: What does Pride mean for you and when was the first and/or most memorable time you celebrated it? 

JC: For me, pride is being comfortable in my skin and being comfortable enough to accept others. My first Pride was in 2021, the Long Beach Pride. I had gone with my roommates who were also formerly in foster care. It was interesting, even though I was out, I was still learning a lot about the community. Growing up, I was very religious. I was terrified of everything from drag queens to people wearing rainbows, but I went, because I was like, “No, this is part of my culture now.”

The way I show pride is just embracing myself and embracing others as they are because it’s hard to be yourself in this world.

Actually, my first official pride was when I was 12. I went with our church and we were protesting the pride. I was part of the church group that was passing bibles while the adults were yelling horrible things. Little me was like, “That looks so cool and so cute”, right? But I had to try to get youth into the church. It was kind of traumatizing because I was like, “I want to be where they’re at.” A little part of me was like, “B**** you are gay.” But the other part of me was angry with a lot of self hate. Now I try to go to pride whenever I can.

BHB: What advice would you give to other LGBTQ+ members who are still looking for the courage to be themselves openly?

JC: I want to say, don’t feel forced to ever come out, do it when you’re ready and when it’s safe to. I’m not saying coming out is not worth it. I’m just saying it’s not worth putting your life in danger. I’ve known people that were outed and life got way more complicated. In my case, I got lucky. I would say don’t ever let anyone force you to come out. Because it’s something that you should do when you’re ready. And again, when it’s safe to do because I just don’t want any more LGBT people to get hurt.

BHB: What does being part of the LGBTQ+ Community mean to you?

JC: I don’t know because I’m still trying to find my little tribe. Once I do, I am sure I will be grateful. For now, I’m just grateful that the community before me and the community that I have, I guess seen right, is still fighting the good fight.

It’s still hard to be an LGBT person. At least, we have more visibility now. That’s one win, but we still have a bunch of other stuff to fight for. I just think that the community we have is constantly growing and learning just like everyone else.

In 2018, the Beat and KCRW collaborated on a youth radio podcast focused on unhoused college students. You can listen to the story featuring Cortez here:

Carmen González is a radio host and reporter. She was a youth reporter for Boyle Heights Beat from 2017 to 2019 where they wrote about societal issues and hosted the Boyle Heights Beat podcast, Radio...

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