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).

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.”

One reason Proyecto P.A.P.I. never got flak is that the city health department funded its campaign and put the billboards up, so no private company was involved. But the consortium, with no city money, had to deal with Infinity and its corporate homophobia. “It’s not over for us,” says Charles Rice-González, the consortium’s publicist. Its next round of bus-shelter ads targets trannies, youngsters, and the elderly. “These people on the fringes of the gay community are the ones who need our services, and we’re not gonna shy away from trying to reach them.”

There’s one ray of light in this struggle. The Bronx is a borough where, as Rice-González notes, “there are as many churches as bodegas.” Clergymen are powerful figures here, and they have long been the bane of gay activists. “We had a march years ago for a transvestite who was murdered, and the church was against it,” Rice-González recalls. “They clashed with us when Ruben Diaz Sr. [a homophobic minister] was appointed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” But not a single church supported the decision to remove the ad. “The only person who backed Infinity was the transportation commissioner.”

On the other hand, not a single politician—except for Freddie Ferrer—stepped forward to back the consortium. [See sidebar.] Nor did the City Council’s two gay people of color, Margarita Lopez and Phil Reed, appear at the consortium’s press conferences. Reed’s absence was especially glaring, since he ran as a gay man with HIV and promised to represent that constituency. An aide told the Voice that Reed had been unable to attend because he was leaving town on vacation. Lopez did not return several phone calls (an aide explained that she was busy campaigning). Lisa Winters, the consortium’s founder, notes that she never reached out to these two councilmembers. But after the story was widely reported, Tom Duane, a gay state senator, reached out to her. “He asked what he could do, and he and Christine Quinn [a gay councilmember from Greenwich Village] got their butts right up here.”

The real villain here could be fear more than loathing. Lopez and Reed both represent heavily Hispanic districts, and they may feel a need to prove that their sexuality doesn’t threaten traditional values. For that matter, Infinity may have been moved by undue apprehension about the complaints it received (only between two and five people objected, according to the consortium). But on the ground, there’s a more complex reality, in which bigotry coexists with solidarity. Castellanos tells an instructive story: The men in his group’s billboard were volunteers, not models, and one of them effectively came out when his image loomed over his neighborhood. “All his friends congratulated him for his courage,” Castellanos says. “His life completely changed.”

The homophobia and sexual secrecy that come with machismo cannot be denied. But there’s another Latino tradition embodied in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the few ethnic celebrations that never had a problem with maricones marching under their own banner. This spirit of fusion and inclusion bodes well for gay Latinos, especially if they ally with other progressive forces. Already a lesbian-led group is forming to educate all Latina women about the political process. If women awaken to their power, all the assumptions about Hispanic culture are up for grabs.

But nothing breeds rigidity like poverty, and right now Latinos are the poorest New Yorkers. So the struggle for gay Latinos is entwined with the fortunes of their entire community. The solution is spelled out by the acronym in Proyecto P.A.P.I.’s name: P for poder (power), A for ayuda (support), P for prevención, I for identidad. But since this is New York, let’s add another crucial letter: V for visibilidad.

Plus: Find out what the mayoral candidates think about the bus shelter flap.

Research: Ben Silverbush