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Latinos and the Fight for LGBT Rights

The lessons of Stonewall Riots inspire the Hispanic LGBT community to confront remaining challenges

En español |  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.

Next: Furthering dialogue at the local level. >>

“But,” Acosta continues, “it’s a Catch-22 situation because family isn’t always as helpful for older LGBTs. That’s why local and state resources are very important to the Hispanic LGBT community.” Looking to those resources, he believes, is easier for Hispanics—especially older LGBTs—when relatives don’t step in. “Dealing with a smaller community,” he explains, “is an easier step from the tradition of family.”

Still Fighting, Still Leading

Cruz and Acosta also acknowledge the need for increased sensitivity about LGBT issues within the Hispanic community. “Phobia comes out of ignorance, so we need to increase awareness and culturally create a space to hold more conversations about gay and lesbian issues,” Cruz says.

In recent years, those conversations have been furthered locally and nationally by Hispanic gay civil rights organizations such as LLEGÓ (National Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization), Unid@s (The National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Human Rights Organization), and the Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida.

LLEGÓ, which began in October 1987 during the march in Washington, D.C., for lesbian and gay rights, was dedicated to building a national network of lesbian and gay Hispanics to educate and sensitize the Latinos and non-Latinos on issues related to homophobia, sexism, and discrimination. Financial constraints forced the organization’s closure in 2004, but in 2007 Unid@s picked up where LLEGÓ left off in terms of advocacy and community outreach. The Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida, founded in 2002, provides LGBT advocacy and services nationwide.

Hispanic political leaders have also supported the movement. In 2004, in one of the most powerful assemblies of Hispanic leaders on the issue, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California) joined Reps. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), Unid@s, and several Hispanic human rights groups in rejecting any attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Becerra stated: “Someone is trying to say that ‘Yes, separate is equal.’... We will fight this because it is the right thing to do. The law demands that of us. Our own conscience demands that of us.

But Latinos are far from united. Strong opposition to equality remains, especially among Hispanic religious groups. As recently as May, Hispanic religious leaders held a rally outside New York Gov. David Paterson’s Manhattan office protesting his advocacy of gay marriage. Among the opponents were State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, Radio Visión Cristiana Internacional, and the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization.

Next: The challenges ahead. >>

Challenges Ahead

LGBT Hispanics 50 and older also face additional obstacles: workplace discrimination, hate crimes, financial/inheritance laws, and greater-than-average lack of health insurance.

Where can older LGBT Hispanics go for help when so few services are tailored or welcoming to them? Language and cultural barriers already keep many LGBT Latinos from using services for the general public. Then within their own culture, they face homophobia. In addition to the macho culture, says Cruz, homophobia is one of the main reasons many Hispanic older LGBT don’t seek services. “They need services where they can openly be who they are and don’t have to hide,” she says.

With so little known about the needs of older LGBT Hispanics, Cruz hopes research might provide more answers. “It’s hard to develop programs [and] to advocate funding and legislation without data.”

And it’s hard to reach the community without visibility, says José Gutierrez, who worked at LLEGÓ and founded the Latino GLBT History Project, which collects and preserves the history of the GLBT community in Washington, D.C., with plans to expand nationally. “Stonewall helped create more visibility for Hispanic LGBT people.” LGBT Hispanics need to remember the role they played in the movement, he says, to both remember the past and build momentum for the future: “It’s important to preserve our history so that new generations empower themselves to make greater positive changes within the community.”

Stonewall’s milestone anniversary serves as a reminder that equality for all is not a given. As Puerto Rican author and activist Carlos Mock wrote after President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office: “We must all fight our fights. These next four years need to be when the rights of LGBTs become as inalienable as anyone else’s—when our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are as indisputable as anyone else’s.”

Acosta, Cruz, and Gutierrez believe the spirit of Stonewall—and its impact—lives on every time someone takes a stand for equality.

“Sometimes it takes a riot for issues to emerge in the public and be taken seriously by society,” Cruz says.

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