En español | 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.
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The Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969 mark a milestone in the history of civil rights, one in which Hispanics have played a key role. On that date, 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 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," said 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 said.
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 said, the idea of Hispanics being LGBT is a relatively new concept. "In our culture," she related, "family is so important that no one wants to risk the rejection of family."
Second, the reality is that many still reject differences. "For example," she said, "mental-health [issues are] 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 explained, is the effect of macho culture. "Machismo is at the root of homophobia," she said. 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 said, is religion. "Our community has been heavily Catholic," she said. "While the role of church is still prevalent, this is changing rapidly. But a lot of the moral and religious objections come from church."