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The Hispanic Struggle for LGBT Rights

Latino activists played a key role in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, but their fight for equality goes on.

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."

Next: The importance of local resources to the Hispanic LGBT community. >>

Acosta’s life experience reflects Cruz’s assertions.

As a gay person, he remembered, "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.

"But," Acosta continued, "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 explained, is easier for Hispanics—especially older LGBTs—when relatives don’t step in. Dealing locally—with a smaller community that is closer to a family in size than a faceless bureaucracy—"is an easier step from the tradition of family," he said.

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 said.

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

LLEGO, which began in October 1987 during the national march on 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 Latino and non-Latino communities on issues related to homophobia, sexism, and discrimination. The organization closed in 2004 due to financial constraints. In 2007, Unid@s was created to pick up where LLEGO left off in terms of advocacy and community outreach. The Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida was founded in 2002 and is still operating.

The gay-rights movement has also been supported by Hispanic political leaders. In 2004, in one of the most powerful assemblies of Hispanic leaders on the issue, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) joined Reps. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), 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. As recently as May, Hispanic religious leaders held an anti-gay-marriage 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 the 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. "That’s why many Hispanic older LGBT don’t seek services," Cruz said. "They need services where they can openly be who they are and don’t have to hide."

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," she said. 

And it’s hard to reach the community without visibility, said Jose Gutierrez, who worked at LLEGO 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," he related. LGBT Hispanics need to remember the role they played in the movement, he said, both to 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.