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Hispanics and the Fight for LGBT Civil Rights: The Stonewall Riots: 40 Years Later, A Milestone Anniversary

Editor's note: June 28 marks a milestone in the history of civil rights, one in which Hispanics have played a key role. On that date in 1969, the gay rights movement galvanized in New York’s Greenwich Village to stage what is now known as the Stonewall riots. Here we take a look back at the role Hispanics played, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

It’s difficult to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, and arresting gay people just for gathering in public. For younger people who’ve grown up in a world with increasing legal protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, it’s hard to believe that just four decades ago, people’s jobs, families, and homes were threatened, their lives restricted and, even worse, ruined.

June 28 marks a milestone in the history of civil rights, one in which Hispanics have played a key role. On that date in 1969, the gay rights movement galvanized in spectacular fashion in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, with participation from Hispanics such as Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican/Venezuelan transgendered woman.

The gay rights movement has come a long way, but the fight for equality continues. As our nation looks back on Stonewall—and on its impact on gay rights globally—Latinos today are leading the charge to help society move past violence, intolerance, and inequality toward a more open culture that increasingly accepts and embraces LGBTs.

Milestone and Metaphor

When police tried to arrest people gathered in and around the Stonewall Inn—a bar catering to gays, including many Latinos—LGBTs fought back, refusing to accept one more infringement on their civil rights. Riots ensued.

“The Stonewall riots were a wake-up call for the LGBT community that we needed to get together,” says John D. Acosta, 55, founder of the AZTECA Project,  a support and referral organization for LGBT seniors in Southern California. “We always existed but never united. We were afraid of being harassed, arrested, fired, court-martialed, and evicted. It’s been particularly challenging in some ways for the Hispanic community.”

Dr. Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging, considers Stonewall both a historical milestone and a metaphor for struggles that continue. “As I reflect on Stonewall, [I see that] we’re still struggling through similar conflicts,” she says.

Hispanic culture, Cruz has found, often makes it especially hard for the older LGBT community to be out and open about their sexuality, and she cites four reasons.

First, she says, the idea of Hispanic LGBT is a relatively new concept. “In our culture,” she says, “family is so important that no one wants to risk the rejection of family.”

Second, the reality is that many Latinos still reject differences. “For example,” she says, “mental health is also a taboo in the Hispanic community. Anything that is different or has a social stigma we want to hide under the carpet.”

Third, she says, is the effect of macho culture. “Machismo is at the root of homophobia,” she says. Because macho men don’t generally ask for help, older LGBT males especially avoid seeking services such as health-care support, assisted living and caregiving, and financial advice.

The fourth challenge, she says, is religion. “Our community has been heavily Catholic,” she says. “While the role of church is still prevalent, this is changing rapidly. But a lot of the moral and religious objections come from church.”

Acosta’s life experience reflects Cruz’s assertions.

As a gay person, he says, “I was told by the church, ‘You will go to hell.’ Family said I should get married and live a traditional life. I completely understand why older LGBTs don’t like to be seen as gay. LGBT seniors don’t look for help as much. It’s ingrained training that tells you to depend on your family.

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