gay latinos out of the shadows
- Southern Voice (glbt), January 31, 2003
1095 Zonolite Road, Atlanta, GA 30306
(E-Mail: editor@... )( http://www.southernvoice.com/ )
Gay Latinos stepping out of shadows
Census names ethnic group largest minority in U.S. as gay faction
By Jennifer J. Smith
Alexis Markova took to the stage on a recent Friday night,
appearing before a crowd of a few hundred people tightly packed
around the dance floor of a Buford Highway club.
A male-to-female transgender, Markova performs in the weekly
drag show at Chaparral, which once a week draws a mixed, but mostly
gay, crowd to the otherwise straight Hispanic nightclub.
Markova and the drag show during Chaparral's popular gay night
on Fridays provides an example of the growing gay Hispanic population
in Atlanta and its struggle for acceptance in a conservative ethnic
"There are a lot of gay Latinos here, but there are a lot of
straight Latinos too," said Markova, a Texas native. "We're totally
accepted by our community straight guys blow kisses and ask for my
phone number all the time."
Gay Latinos are struggling to create an identity, a break from
their mostly low-profile past as a double minority, at a time when
Hispanics have become the nation's largest minority group.
Numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week show that
the Latino population surged to 37 million as of July 2001, 13
percent of the U.S. population of 284.8 million and slightly
outstripping the 36.2 million or 12.7 percent of African
"We've known for a long while about the dramatic rise in the
community, and the Census has provided the strong focus we've
needed," said Martin Ornelas-Quintero, executive director of the
National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organization
(LLEGÓ), the nation's largest and oldest gay Latino civil rights
"Now it is our job to make people focus on the Census and
respond to it," he said.
The importance of the Census results on the future of Latinos
including gay Latinos should not be underestimated, Ornelas-
"It's a way for us to be able to build our political clout and
in a real way improve the day to day lives of those in our
community," he said.
While the federal government officially counts Hispanics,
putting a number on gay Hispanics is not nearly as simple, according
to Ornelas-Quintero. The group does not try to estimate the gay
Latino population in the U.S., but when pushed, he said, the
group "uses the same three to 10 percent of the population range
everyone else uses."
"In the GLBT community, how accurately does the Census capture
gays and lesbians?" Ornelas-Quintero said. "The closet is real, but
for us as Latinos we can make the reasonable conclusion that if the
Latino community is the largest minority, the Latino GLBT community
is the largest minority gay group."
Gay Latinos share concerns with other gay civil rights
organizations, like HIV/AIDS, hate crimes and bias and
misrepresentation in the media, Latino activists across the country
said. But they also are concerned about issues specific to their
ethnic group, like immigration and support from mainstream gay civil
"I think there are issues of convergence that a number of
organizations and individuals can agree on," Ornelas-Quintero
said. "It's like hate crimes it's a top issue for mainstream GLBT
groups, but it ranks lower down for Latino groups. Immigration is a
top mainstream Latino issue, and for GLBT Latino groups, too. The
point of convergence is the Permanent Partners Immigration Act."
The legislation would modify the federal Immigration &
Nationality Act to provide same-sex partners of U.S. citizens the
same immigration rights currently awarded to legal spouses of U.S.
citizens. It would expand the federal definition of family to
include permanent partners.
The growth of a movement
Most activists agree that the current gay Latino movement
began to take form in the mid-1970s in San Francisco when Rodrigo
Reyes formed the Gay & Lesbian Latino Alliance (GALLA). When Reyes
died of AIDS in 1992, the movement temporarily faltered, but several
satellite groups sprang up around the country in the mid-to-late
While LLEGÓ remains the only national group for gay Hispanics,
it is far from the only organization focusing on gay Latino
interests. States with large Latino populations like California, New
York and Texas are home to smaller groups.
Many states have at least one gay Latino service organization,
according to resource guides maintained by qvMagazine and
Tentaciones, two of the leading gay Latino magazines in the U.S.
Mano y Mano, a coalition of New York Latino gay organizations,
is an example of the size and focus of gay Latino groups today.
Founded in 1997, the group gets its focus and a large amount
of its strength from HIV/AIDS funding. Based out of the Latino
Commission on AIDS office, the group is currently fighting two
fronts, according to Director Andres Duque.
The Somos Project seeks to combat homophobia among Latinos,
while the Capacity Building Project provides grants to smaller gay
Hispanic organizations in New York, he said. The group also
maintains active e-mail lists and monitors media outlets, similar to
other gay Latino organizations.
LLEGÓ raises the profile of gay Latinos as a whole, but it is
difficult for a national organization to speak for the diversity that
defines individual gay Latinos, Duque said.
"While we support and celebrate the incredible diversity and
number of Latino gay organizations that exist just in New York and
see strength in having these organization do collaborative and
individual work, mainstream organizations often interpret this as
weakness and get confused when they cannot identify one person or
institution that can act as a spokesperson for the whole," he said.
Duque does not eschew partnerships with more mainstream
groups Mano a Mano has partnered with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation, a media watchdog group but lack of outside
recognition does not preclude "doing our own work our way," he said.
But that confusion among mainstream groups can impact
fundraising, Duque said.
While LLEGÓ boasts a $2.8 million budget, most of the smaller
gay Latino groups operate on much less, according to activists.
Focus on Latino issues?
Lack of attention to Latino issues by mainstream gay
organizations helped motivate the founding of some gay Latino groups,
said Martha Duffer, executive director of ALLGO, a gay Latino group
in Austin, Texas.
"Mainstream gay groups are not interested in working with
people of color beyond tokenism, particularly when it brings in
economic and other social justice issues, which they tend to
mistakenly believe to be unrelated to their focus," Duffer said.
"Similarly, mainstream Latino groups are hesitant to
compromise their 'causes' by visibly aligning with GLBT Latinos/as
due to fear of alienating some of their supporters," she said.
But that appears to be changing as groups like the Human
Rights Campaign, GLAAD and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force
point to recent outreach efforts to gay Hispanics.
Officials with GLAAD attended the 2002 Latin Pride Festival in
Los Angeles and held it's first Latino Media Symposium focusing on
gay coverage, according to Mónica Taher, GLAAD's western regional
The Washington, D.C.-based HRC, the nation's largest gay civil
rights group, reached out to Latinos last year, according to Donna
Payne, HRC's constituent field organizer.
HRC partnered with LLEGÓ for the last five years and sponsored
two Latin Pride celebrations in 2002, Payne said. HRC also lobbies
members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on gay issues.
Mainstream Latino civil rights groups also appear to be
warming to gay issues, activists said.
The National Council of La Raza, the largest and oldest
national Latino civil rights organization in the U.S., drew fire last
year when an official said the group does not "condone Latinos that
are lesbian or gay."
The statement prompted a public conflict with LLEGÓ, which
demanded a public apology. La Raza officials later characterized the
statement and its ensuing controversy as a misunderstanding.
"La Raza has very strong ties to GLBT issues," said Lisa
Navarrette, public relations director for the organization. "We have
supported ENDA and hate crimes legislation from the beginning, and we
were the first Latino civil rights group to become involved in the
fight against HIV and AIDS in the mid-1980s.
"There is absolutely nothing anti-gay about the organization,"
LLEGÓ representatives agreed with La Raza's assessment of the
La Raza promotes gay issues, but not all Latino families are
"Gay activity is more accepted as a pasttime among Latinos
than Caucasians," said Carlos Munos, a gay activist in Dallas. "Many
Latino mothers have a saying: "He got stung by a bug, and he'll be
over it soon.
"The only problem is if the 'gay activity' becomes permanent,"
he said. "Then it's like many other ethnic communities, where all
you hear is how you've shamed the family."
In some Latino communities, gays still find the slur "jota,"
hurled at them the Spanish equivalent of dyke or faggot, activists
Some gay Latino activists decry perceptions of a low profile
"Invisible to whom? We've always been able to see each other,"
Ornelas-Quintero said but others point to poor portrayals of gay
Hispanics in both gay publications and daily newspapers.
In gay publications such as Out, Genre and the Advocate, as
well as TV shows like Showtime's "Queer as Folk" and NBC's hit
sitcom "Will & Grace," images are overwhelmingly white, according to
GLAAD's Media Reference Guide.
HBO's hit drama "The Sopranos" did go against the grain and
showcase gay Latinos last year, but as drug dealers. "Will & Grace,"
considered by some gay activists as the standard bearer for gay
television shows, includes a Latino character, but she's a maid with
ongoing immigration troubles.
"When they are included in television shows that represent gay
life, it is often by focusing on racial stereotypes or using them for
humor which can affect self-esteem," said Loren Javier, cultural
interest manager for GLAAD.
"We are, however, seeing more recently positive representation
of LGBT Latinos on television shows such as 'Resurrection Blvd.' and
the 'George Lopez Show,' which hopefully is a sign that the media is
starting to value our community's diversity," she said.
With increasing numbers and growing visibility, gay Latinos
are flexing their political muscle.
On Tuesday, gay Latinos held their first event on Capitol Hill
when dozens of executives from health agencies that serve Latinos and
gays met with members of Congress, according to Noemí Pérez, LLEGÓ's
director of policy and public affairs.
"We are stepping up our involvement on the Hill," said Pérez,
who called the event a major success.
Included in the session were gay Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)
and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), as well as Reps. Linda Sanchez and Xavier
Becerra, both Democrats from California, and Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
Frank thanked LLEGÓ and other Latino gay advocates for
opposing efforts to "drive a wedge" among Latinos over social issues
like gay rights, according to Pérez.
"It's important to know the role you play in preventing the
right wing from breaking us apart," Frank said.
This month LLEGÓ will host a workshop on lobbying legislators
about gay Latino concerns, an important step, according to Ornelas-
Other groups are finding different ways to take their first
In Georgia, state Sen. Sam Zamarripa (D-Atlanta) became the
first Latino in the General Assembly when he was elected last
November in part through support from gay and gay Latino voters.
While the long-time Latino activist is not gay, "I represent the most
diverse district in the Southeast, including a large gay contingent."
Representing the interests of gays and Latinos shouldn't be
difficult, he said.
"I represent civil rights and human rights, and both groups
don't care who those rights are applied to because they've been
discriminated against," he said.
Some 100 gay Latinos formed the Latino Gay Community of
Atlanta last June and one of its first organized events was
campaigning for Zamarripa, according to member Rolando Santiago.
With Zamarripa in office, Santiago hopes they have a friendly
ear in state politics to hear their concerns, including HIV
prevention efforts targeted to gay Latinos.
"There's a lot of ignorance; it's a large problem," Santiago
said through an interpreter.
In 2000, Latinos represented 19 percent of new reported AIDS
cases in the U.S., though they constituted less than 13 percent of
the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control &
The rate of AIDS per 100,000 Latinos was 22.5, compared to 6.6
for whites and 58.1 for blacks.
In Massachusetts, Sen. Jarrett Barrios turned two terms in the
state House of Representatives in to a successful run for state
Senate, becoming one of the few openly gay statewide elected Latino
officials in history.
He won the race "without my sexual orientation ever being an
issue for me," he said.
Being openly gay and Latino "absolutely" affects how Barrios
represents his district, which includes portions of Cambridge and
Boston, he said.
"My commitment to civil rights, health care and other issues
with impact people's lives, addressing people who are often
forgotten, it's much more real for those two things," he said.
Barrios was arrested for civil disobedience in September
during a public demonstration for a janitor's union, and he recently
introduced legislation calling for civil unions in Massachusetts.
"I suspect there are people in my community who are troubled
by my sexual orientation or some of the things that I have done," he
said. "But they've never spoken to me about it."
Gay Latinos in New York and elsewhere hope for gay and gay-
friendly elected Latinos.
"I feel very comfortable being a gay Latino in the health care
field in New York," said Raul Plasencia of Bailey House in New York
City. "I treat a large number of Latinos, and New York is
traditionally very tolerant of gays, even if the Latino community
sometimes is not."
But in seeking out elected officials that "look like me" in
statewide office, "there is no one like that," he said. "We still
have a long way to go."
National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender
Organization, 1420 K St. NW Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006; call:
202-466-8240; fax: 202-466-8530; Web: www.llego.org
National Council of La Raza, 1111 19th St. NW #1000,
Washington, DC 20036-3622; 202-785-1670; Web: www.nclr.org