Julio C. Romans groundbreaking memoir and leadership guide for LGBTQIA+ advocates suggests that safe spaces are not rooms with four walls and a door. Safe spaces are people. Leaders whose values words and actions invite and encourage every individual in their presence to express their fully authentic self.

Leaders embody those bodies physically, they embody them on social media. They create them by sharing the values of worth, acceptance and self-esteem with every life they touch but what happens when our safe spaces are violated? What happens when the people we love, especially those who represent safety are taken from us? How do we deal with what we are witnessing and where do we start picking up the pieces?

By sharing his own poignant struggle to overcome the emotional scares of violence and abuse, Roman demonstrates the critical importance of safe spaces for every marginalized voice. Whether youre a young LGBTQIA+ person, a community-based organizer or ally and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate, a business leader, an HR representative or anyone else who wants to create a safe space for others, Out of Space can help you learn how to do it and what being a safe space truly means. 

This is The Author Hour Podcast, and Im your host, Frank Garza. Today, Im joined by Julio C. Roman, author of a brand-new book, Out of Space: Creating Safe Spaces in Unlikely Places.

Julio, welcome to the show.

Julio Roman: Hi Frank, thank you for having me. Im super excited to be here.

Frank Garza: So Julio, you dedicated this book to The 49 souls whose lives and safe spaces were taken from them on June 12, 2016 at the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.” You talk about this event quite a bit in the intro of your book. Could you please remind people of what happened that night and talk about why its had such a big impact on you?

Julio Roman: Sure, thank you, Frank. So, this particular, what I like to call, incident took place on June 12th as you mentioned and it was an attack and, really, an assault on a group of people who were going out to enjoy themselves. I dedicated this book to the 49 victims because of the connections that I thought that I had with them in terms of being a gay Latino and also, being someone who actually frequented the Pulse Nightclub location, where the shooting took place. 

It was important for me when I started to really put the idea of the book together that it would be dedicated to these individuals and the loss that was a safe space that they have on. I wanted to honor them by being able to create a book that will allow other individuals, analyze and advocates alike, to be able to create safe spaces within their environment and also to represent a safe space out in the world.

Out of Space

Frank Garza: Can you talk more about who you wrote this book for? Who is your target audience? 

Julio Roman: My target audience would be LGBTQ advocates and allies. Ive been doing LGBT work for the last 23 years, so Ive been honored to work with the LGBT community in creating safe spaces around the country and more local communities and I began to get some of the same questions around, How do you actually create a safe space? What was your experience as a Latino gay male growing up and navigating what could sometimes be unsafe spaces as youre coming to terms with who you are?”

So, I wanted to take those questions and I wanted to take my experiences so that other allies and advocates who are looking to be safe spaces or who are charged with creating safe spaces, some sort of guidance that they can utilize and reference in creating those spaces.

Frank Garza: Before we get into the book itself, could you talk about how the book is organized? Theres a part one and a part two, could you just touch on what each of those parts are about?

Julio Roman: So, my book is actually divided into two parts. Part one of the book, you will follow alongside my journey as a queer Latino boy who sought to see himself in the world. I was on a journey to search for love, I dare to dream and I was also on a quest to find my purpose. So, part one of my book is filled with stories and examples of how I navigated unsafe spaces and how the power of role models lay the instrument and a really important piece in my development as an LGBT advocate and as an advocate of safe spaces.

Part two is filled with leadership lessons I wish I had learned really early on in my journey when it came to creating safe spaces, not just for my community but also for myself. Part two includes lessons about setting boundaries, setting a clear vision for yourself and your team, working with organizations and groups and really, set and guidance on community building, self-care and ways that you can engage a community more effectively.

Frank Garza: Okay, lets talk about part one first. Part one is titled, My Journey From The Boy, Brown Boy to a Proud Latino Gay Man and Community Leader”, and lets start with the first part there. How would you describe your life as a kid growing up?

Julio Roman: You know, Frank? As a kid growing up, I felt pretty fortunate that I had a mom that was super supportive of who I was but I often had experienced bullying. When I was pretty young, we moved into a really wealthy part of Newark into some projects, it was the celebrate projects, out of a pretty suburban neighborhood after my parents divorced.

Once I moved into those projects and into that different environment and community, I really began to experience an increase in just bullying and really just violence that was directed towards me. When I was born, I was born with a port-wine stain birthmark that was on my face and was about, I would say, right over my right eye so it made me unmistakably noticed to the neighborhood bullies.

I had experienced that really early on and so, in the first part of the book is really how I navigated through those spaces, how I dealt with my bullies and how I really utilize the people around me as a support system to create those safe spaces. In sharing some of my stories, I wanted to create a book that would be worthwhile to other young Latino LGBT people who may have experienced bullying in their own unique way and not so unique way.

Frank Garza: Right. What would you say are some of the ways that you were able to overcome the bullying that you experienced?

Julio Roman: A big part of what helped me in really staying positive on those really bad days of going to school and experiencing this physical assault or verbal assault was to really lean on the few friends that I did have at that time and really both my friendships with one or two individuals that I was that I was able to feel safe with and so what I saw myself doing really early on was making sure that I kind of just built that bond. 

I also saw teachers around me who were a constant support. Growing up, I grew up in a predominantly black community and being the only Latino person there, I sometimes felt like I really didnt fit in. I would constantly seek out my teachers and I would constantly seek out time with them as a way to find refuge from some of that bullying and some of that name-calling. Early on, I kind of realized that when I couldnt find a safe space, I needed to find safe people.

Navigating Two Worlds

Frank Garza: Another key part of part one is you, coming out as a gay man and realizing that part of your life, you know, chapter one, this child growing up different, chapter three, leading a double life, chapter four, coming out to my mother. Can you talk about that journey?

Julio Roman: I always sensed that I was different. I always sensed that there was something that was different about me and the other neighborhood boys or the other neighborhood kids and I really didnt realize what that was until about 12 and 13. As I think like most kids who are influenced by television, I began to really be drawn to the male characters in a way that wasnt really familiar to me, right?

I was looking at male actors and male celebrities like Macaulay Culkin and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, all these young actors on TGIF and I began to realize that I liked them in a whole different way and it was pretty hard to conceptualize, even really verbally what that attraction was but I knew that it wasnt just a friendly attraction of just wanting to be friends. I knew there was a level of intimacy that I saw on television that I kind of wanted to act out as a kid.

I guess, to show affection if you may. And so, I knew that that was different because — and I knew that it probably wouldnt be so celebrated in my family because I grew up in a pretty Puerto Rican traditional Catholic family. There are no other LGBT identified people in my family and so growing up, I wasnt able to reference a gay uncle that was gay, it was something that was really foreign to me. So, I felt like I really couldnt talk about it or I felt like I couldnt take the attractions and really be open with it.

As I grew up and I kind of hid those feelings, I found myself struggling more and more with how I felt inside and how I wanted to express myself and not being able to because of that traditional strict environment that I was brought up in. As all my journey in to becoming a teenager at about the age of 14, I was actually fortunate enough to join a church that I had just so happened to walk by one day and stick my head into.

That was really one of the first safe places that I had identified outside of my home environment and so in chapter two of my book, I really wanted to talk about what my experience was like in church because I feel like theres so many other people who are dealing with being LGBT, being at a church or coming from a family thats rooted in the church, who may feel as if they cannot be their true selves.

I wanted to make sure that in writing, that I really shared what that experience was like. The church really, for me, was a place that was a safe space because I had never experienced the love that I had experienced home from strangers. That really made me feel valued and it made me feel appreciated from that community as I got older; I was 14 when I joined. At about the age of 16, I was still struggling with me having these attractions to men and at this point, I was already realizing that, You know what? I am gay.”

I was struggling with God and asking God to fix me and you know, Please take this away from me because I want to serve you and I know its wrong.” And so the constant struggle in my life as a teenager between wanting to serve God and also really trying to fight against myself and who I believe myself to be. That journey for me was — it was a lonely journey because it was a time whereas safe as the church was, I couldn’t really talk to them about the feelings that I was having. 

As safe as my mom was, I really didnt feel that I could express or I didnt know how to express those things like attraction without feeling that I was doing or saying something wrong. Slowly as I began to take on a more leadership role in the church, those same desires really began to conflict with what I was portraying publicly and, I had experienced some trauma with them as the words that were being used by the leadership and the ministry and it had really caused me to stop going to church altogether. 

The space that was safe was now becoming unsafe for me and I say that because the messaging from leadership in the pulpit was that if youre gay, youre going to hell. If you are LGBT theres really not a place for you in heaven and so you have to kind of repent and change your whole life around and as a 17-year-old, I was in so much conflict because I didnt even really started the journey of being gay or living that life and I already felt like I had to kind of almost erase a future that I could see or that I had always seen as a young kid. 

So as rewarding as being in church was and having those great relationships, there was still some aspects of it as I got older and became more confident in who I was that really challenged my own belief system and made church not the safest place any longer. I think as a part of growing up in church, not being able to talk about who you are and who you want to be, I think it kind of makes you hide in the dark and it makes you kind of behave in secrecy. So, I say that to say, at 17 I made my first trip to The Village in New York City. 

When I went to The Village, it was like a spy movie. I had on my shades, I had on my hat, I had on a hoodie and I had really tried to hide myself and really tried to explore what The Village in New York City was all about. That really just led to more risky behavior and that led to me not being able to speak to many people for support and it really led me to feel isolated. You know, living one life and then going into this as a straight person at home and then going into The Village and living another life as a gay man coming to terms of who he is was like two very, very different worlds. 

It was two worlds that I was getting really — I would say not tired of living in but I would say exhausted in living in. I knew that I couldnt continue to live this way. I knew I couldnt continue to have two identities and live a double life any longer and so it was imperative for me and I began to contemplate the idea of what it would look like if I was to come out to my mom, what would that conversation look like. 

What would her reaction be to me and in the beginning, I just contemplated. It was just an idea but slowly and surely that idea as I began to think more about it and not wanting to live a double life any longer really led me to being honest with my mother and actually coming out to my mother at the sanctuary of our church. So it was a pretty full-circle moment for me because I went into church as like this straight person and you know, was going to be a leader of the church and I had a girlfriend who was like the ministers daughter. 

Living this whole other life and here now I was back again at the sanctuary, coming out to my mother and expressing to her who I really am, the type of life I wanted to live as a gay Latino male. 

Frank Garza: How did your mother respond when you told her? 

Julio Roman: My mother actually was not surprised. So, prior to me coming out to my mom, I had already moved out of my moms home. I was already living on my own. I had already started going into the city and going to clubs and things of that nature and I [would] typically be by myself but back in that time, you could sign up like mailing list and things of that nature. 

Me, in my excitement and probably not thinking clearly ended up putting my home address and so coming out to my mom was different for me because my mom was already aware that I was already venturing out to the city by some of the mailings that she was getting from different establishments in New York City. So my mom cried, she understood why now I had stayed away for so long. 

She thought that it was something that she had done to me, that maybe she had offended me as to why I had totally left home and really stayed away. She really began to understand now that it was a struggle within that I was having with myself and then I was afraid to really share with her. 

Leadership Lessons

Frank Garza: Great, and so the rest of part one is you kind of talking about how you became a community leader and then we get in part two of your book and you talk about eleven different leadership lessons that youve learned. Id loved to dig into just a few of those leadership lessons and the first one that caught my eye was lesson number two, stay in your lane and protect your piece. Can you talk to me about what that one is about? 

Julio Roman: Sure, so you know I thought part two was really going to be helpful for folks that were like just starting to get into the work and creating safe spaces and were really looking to actively create. [The] lesson to stay in your lane was really about understanding what your mission is in life and understanding what your vision is and being able to stay focused on what those missions and that vision is. 

Many times especially in community organizing, we tend to lead with our hearts and we tend to join causes and do work that is not really aligned with our mission because its good work to do. Lesson two is really about staying focused on what your mission is and making sure that before you decide to work with other community organizations or other community advocates that you do your homework and really understanding who you are working with, what their reputations are in the community.

I say protect your peace because in my experience, Ive had times where organizations have not been so great or maybe some advocates, you know, havent been the most positive experience and if I would have just done a little bit more homework and asked around about who some of these organizations were or advocates were, I could have protect my peace and avoided a lot of unnecessary — I dont want to say issues but unnecessary, I want to say misalignment, if that makes sense. 

Two, its really just about making sure that when youre beginning to do the work that you understand whats your role and that you are constantly aware of how to move that within that role. Its really about making sure that when you connect with other individuals and other organizations that you are serving the purpose within their mission and that is serving a purpose of it with your mission. 

Frank Garza: I liked how you named lesson number six, its called, Dont miss happy hour.” Can you tell me about that one? 

Julio Roman: In my attempt to do a little tongue and cheek name within my chapter, I thought it was important to really just talk and take a moment out to really talk about self-care and what self-care means to an advocate or an individual who is consistently giving themselves to the cause and to the community. 

So [in] that chapter I highlight my mom and how my mother was an extremely hard worker, but she had always taken time, at least once a week or once every two weeks to be able to focus on time for herself by going to the salon and being able to go to the gym and take walks to the park and also making sure that we had a chance to spend time with her as well. 

So that chapter is really about identifying how is it that you decompress, how is it that you relax, how is it that you find time for yourself as an advocate and how do you give back to yourself?

So, the Dont miss happy hour” is about making sure that you focus on you and then you take the opportunities as you give out to the world to give back to yourself so that you have a greatness that you can share. 

Affirming Your Voice

Frank Garza: Okay, lesson number 11 is called, Affirmations will sustain and uplift you.” Would you be willing to share what some of the personal daily affirmations have been your life that you found to have really been helpful?

Julio Roman: One of the biggest affirmations probably would be in writing this book is that I always say to myself as, Julio, you are a writer. You are an author.” Many times, I think we deal with a lot of negative self-talk and so for me, affirmations have been so important in being able to just reinforce the positive. There are times when I look at myself in the mirror and I say, You know what? You are an advocate, you are a community leader, your voice matters.” 

Your voice matters, your representation matters at the table and those are kind of the things that I constantly drill into myself only because I think sometimes you are used to not having a voice. You forgot how valuable it can really be if you use it and some of those affirmations besides whether you are a leader and you are an advocate is, Julio, you are a person that has an idea that is worth sharing with the world.” 

 “Julio, you are kind and you are considerate.” I think having those affirmations and saying that to myself just reinforces those behaviors that I want to share with the world, that I want folks to take with them into their places up in the world to ride with that, these messages. 

Frank Garza: Well, writing a book is such a feat, so congratulations on getting this done and putting it out into the world. Before we wrap up, is there anything else about you or the book that you want to make sure our listeners know? 

Julio Roman: I would just say I will want all the listeners to know is that each and every one of them have a story worth telling as well and that if you feel you have a message to share with the world, begin to write it down and begin to express that in whichever way it feels most natural to you but if you have a message, share it and share it clearly. 

Frank Garza: Julio, this has been such a pleasure. The book is called, Out of Space: Creating Safe Spaces in Unlikely Places. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you? 

Julio Roman: You can find me at www.juliocroman.com. Thats www.juliocroman.com. Thank you so much for having me, this has been my pleasure. 

Frank Garza: Thank you, Julio.