The Making of a Latino Gay Movement

Latin music was the soundtrack of this year's gay parade. Half a million people of all races marched to salsa, samba, and their many variations. Rainbow-colored versions of the Puerto Rican flag flew everywhere, and banners represented nearly every Latin American country. This profusion of pride reflects one of the most dynamic developments in the gay movement: its emergence in Hispanic communities. Yet a few days after the parade, gay Latinos were reminded of just how arduous their struggle for visibility remains.

On June 25, an ad for gay and lesbian health services featuring a male Latino couple (lovers in real life) was pulled from bus shelters in the Bronx. Infinity Outdoor, the company that leases those spaces from the city, had objected to the text, which read: "I'm not gay but I sometimes have sex with other guys." Even more ominously, the city's transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, complimented Infinity for yanking the ad. "We feel that good taste can supersede the First Amendment," Weinshall said.

It was a major blow to the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium, which links its clients—many of them closeted—to sympathetic doctors. These clients don't necessarily call themselves gay; some are married men and many would say they are straight. Their sexuality is best expressed in the Cuban motto "Hace todo, dice nada" (Do everything, say nothing). In this tradition, a bugarón (top) can have homosexual sex without regarding himself as gay, while a pato (effeminate male) is stigmatized even if he is straight. This description only hints at the complexity of Latino sexual identity. But one thing is clear: It's hard to reach such men. The consortium's poster was aimed at this group, known to health workers as MSMs (men who have sex with men).

Too hot for the Bronx? This ad was pulled from bus shelters, prompting protests from activists and silence from most pols.
Too hot for the Bronx? This ad was pulled from bus shelters, prompting protests from activists and silence from most pols.

Though this ad was funded by the New York State Department of Health, it was too much for Infinity Outdoor. Citing "significant complaints. . . from families with children," the company demanded that the text be modified. Never mind that its affiliate, Infinity Broadcasting, syndicates Dr. Laura and Howard Stern—or that city bus shelters blazon ads for Sex and the City and Queer as Folk. The sticking points here were the words sex and gay. The consortium has set a July 13 deadline for resolving this dispute, and meanwhile Lambda Legal Defense and the NYCLU are pursuing legal action. Public forums on the issue are being planned by both GLAAD and the consortium for later this month. This could be a catalytic moment for the entire gay movement, one that gives new meaning to the old liberation slogan "We are everywhere."

Long before they were visible, Latinos played a potent role in the gay movement. Sylvia Rivera was among the drag queens who fended off the police at Stonewall. But Latinos have also been among the worst victims of homophobia. When police raided a gay bar in 1970, an Argentinian man was so distraught by the prospect of being deported that he jumped out of a window and landed impaled on a fence.

Oppression still haunts Latino gay life, as it does in most immigrant communities. Activist Andrés Duque remembers why it was necessary to form a gay Colombian group: Too many men were emigrating from his homeland to die of AIDS in Queens. "When you tried to get them to contact their families, they were too embarrassed," Duque says. "They had come here because they didn't want the family to know."

These days, Duque coordinates Mano a Mano, a network of gay groups representing a population that hails from over a dozen countries. In the 15 years since Las Buenas Amigas and Latino Gay Men of New York were founded, tides of immigration have produced a patchwork of Hispanic gay organizations, many of them catering to specific nationalities. This vast diversity is a source of vitality, but it also creates problems. It's not easy for AIDS educators to send a single message when a Caribbean word like pinga (dick) doesn't resonate for Mexicans. "You're not dealing with a monolithic culture," Duque notes. Not only are there conflicting political ideologies, but each nation has its own ideas about sexual identity. "For a while, the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association was very conservative. There was a big debate about accepting transpeople. Eventually they did."

Some Latin cultures have a tradition of sexual tolerance—in Brazil, 200,000 people marched in this year's gay parade—while others are just beginning to celebrate gay pride. The Dominican Republic had its first march this year, a landmark for activists. But one of the marchers was shot to death by someone in the crowd. Violence remains a major threat even in Latin countries with gay rights laws. In Puerto Rico, activists have had problems with the government. But no one expected a backlash in the Bronx.

After all, there's a precedent for the consortium's ad. Last year, Proyecto P.A.P.I., an affiliate of Gay Men's Health Crisis, put up billboards in Spanish featuring two men sitting on a bench with their legs entwined. "They are your sons, friends, or lovers," read the text. "Do you know if they have taken an HIV test? It's easier with your support." Daniel Castellanos, program manager of Proyecto P.A.P.I., explains that these ads were less graphic than the consortium's because they were aimed at a different audience: "We wanted to challenge the silence about sex in Latino families, but they are targeting men who have sex with other men. So the language is essential, because if you take out the words gay and sex, you erase the fact that that these men don't consider themselves gay."

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