Every year, as we approach LGBT History Month and national coming out day, we’re reminded of just how difficult it is for a large number of people to reveal who they really are to those they love the most. This is especially true within communities where traditions are strong, religion runs deep and change has been slow to come. But appearances can be deceiving. And while the Latino community has often been viewed as a breeding ground of homophobia, many in the LGBT community have found that stereotypes — of all kinds — need to be challenged.
Facts and Figures
“In any culture, American or Latino, we tend to grow up hearing homophobic jokes and insults,” says Monica Trasandes, the Programs Director for Spanish-Language and Latino Media for GLAAD. “[We’re] being taught essentially that gay and transgender people are different. We’re not. We’ve always been part of all cultures, including the Latino culture.”
Trasandes has appeared on CNN en Español, Telemundo, Univision and a number of popular radio programs, focusing predominantly on GLAAD’s mission — “Leading the conversation. Shaping the media narrative. Changing the culture.” The idea is to change hearts and minds by putting faces to the stories.
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“I think in all communities there’s a lack of information about who we are as LGBT people,” she says. “People have seen a lot of stereotypes in media and elsewhere and that’s what they sometimes default to, but as more and more Latino/as come out to their families, that’s quickly changing.”
And the numbers support that sentiment. A 2013 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll found that 55 percent of Latinos supported same-sex marriage, which is an incredible leap from the 2006 Pew Research poll that found nearly the same number — 56 percent — were opposed.
Because the shift in attitude is particularly pronounced among millenials, who are open to LGBT rights that include much more than just marriage, it should come as little surprise that the general view among Latinos is more nuanced than a simple percentage number would suggest. According to the same 2013 PRRI poll, while a majority of Latinos support equal marriage rights, some “hold reservations about the morality of sex between two adults of the same gender.”
According to Trasandes, the key is in the courage to stand up for the whole community by openly becoming a part of it. “Instead of our orientation or gender identity being something we don’t talk about out of a sense of respect, I think we’re seeing, more and more, what a disservice it does to us and to our families to have to hide who we are,” she says. “It can be really frightening, of course, to think you might lose your family if you come out. But a lot of people are surprised and very happy to see that, actually, they gain a much deeper relationship with their families when they come out.”
But that very tradition of strong, closely-knit families has sometimes made some members of the Latino community resistant to reevaluate their view of LGBT people. For many, long-held beliefs inherited from strict religious doctrine and institutionalized social persecution of LGBT people have proven difficult to shake. In many places, draconian laws, like Cuba’s Public Ostentation Law, actively encouraged the harassment and humiliation of LGBT individuals who did not “hide.” Under the Castro regime, gay men were regularly imprisoned for their sexual encounters, people lost their jobs because of their orientation and gay artists were censored. In fact, between 1965 and 1968, openly homosexual men were sent to military labor camps to undergo conversion therapy (though all they really experienced were inhumane living conditions).
Even today, the U.S. State Department regularly recognizes international LGBT individuals as “under attack” and grants asylum to some. Most of these cases are from several Latin American countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.
“I think the Latino community is a little behind in the movement,” says Arianna Lint, the South East co-chair for the TransLatin@ Coalition. “It’s very difficult to be in the Latino community, and [the community is] not too involved because of the values, the morals, the stigma.” Though she earned a law degree in her native Peru, she too became an asylum-seeker because of persecution.
This difficulty is most evident among older generations. Latino LGBT individuals in their 50s and 60s find it much more challenging to come out to their families, who often refuse to recognize them or their partnerships according to Susanna Taddei, Spanish-language spokesperson for Equality Florida.
Of course, slow to change does not mean devoid of changes. While the United States was deliberating on whether to extend equal marriage rights to all, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay had forged ahead several years before, as had a number of states in Mexico. And throughout Latin America a conversation has taken root that reflects the changing times.
Some shifts in thought have been downright seismic. For a predominantly Roman Catholic population, no other voice has made more of a difference than that of Pope Francis, himself an Argentine. With a few simple words he has single-handedly opened the floodgates for many people who seemed poised to move in a new direction, but who preferred to wait for the proverbial blessing. After all, for many marriage and sexuality are closely tied to their religious beliefs.
During an interview aboard the papal plane returning from his visit to Brazil in 2013, the pontiff said, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” In line with many of the other progressive actions he has been known for, the subtle appeal to humility and mercy went a long way with many of his followers.
And Latinos are looking for more signs. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the U.S. in late September, after a historic stop in Cuba, to attend the eighth annual World Meeting of Families. His six-city tour is titled Love is Our Mission. No other subject could be more appropriate.
In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Fidel Castro — the same man who famously stated, “in the country, there are no homosexuals” — took personal responsibility for the persecution of LGBT individuals in his country. He went as far as saying that the treatment of homosexuals during his tenure was, “a great injustice.” It is also telling that the most outspoken LGBT rights advocate in Cuba’s current government is none other than the former dictator’s niece, Mariela Castro, who heads Cuba’s Center for Sex Education. Her support of and participation in LGBT activities have caused a ripple effect that led the historically hostile regime to observe its first International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in 2013 with a week of drag shows and lively marches. Earlier this year, she sponsored a blessing ceremony for LGBT couples and had previously voted against a workers’ rights bill that did not include the protections for HIV positive people or those with differing gender identities that she felt were necessary and appropriate.
In mid-August, during the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco recited his poem, “Matters of the Sea.” Blanco was thrust into the spotlight when he became the first Latino, as well as the first openly gay man, to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration in 2013.
It’s difficult to make an overarching generalization. After all, Latinos encompass a racially diverse group that spans several generations and can trace their roots back to about 20 different countries. And yet, across the United States the Latino community is an increasingly unified force that successfully rallies for causes that reflect its needs and experience.
Increasingly, leaders from Latino and LGBT organizations have worked together to address some of the most pressing matters that affect people across both groups. Orgullo celebrations are now commonplace throughout the hemisphere in major cities like Miami, New York and Chicago. Some, like the Pride parades in Brazil, have grown so much in size and appeal that they have become destination events in their own right. Beyond the celebrations, projects like the Latino GLBT History Project in Washington DC, the Latino Queer Arts and Film Festival in Los Angeles and Equality Florida’s Unete a Nosotros campaign are raising awareness within the Latino community about LGBT issues. Groups like the Coming Out Cuba Foundation work to restore their long-silenced national gay culture and help build a new one, and films like Antonio Santini’s and Dan Sickles’ MALA MALA have documented the dynamic transgender community in Puerto Rico.
“I’d like to see more family acceptance,” says GLAAD’s Trasandes. “If your family loves and accepts you, there is nothing you can’t do in this world. I get so proud and emotional when I see mamás and papás and abuelas and abuelos accepting their LGBT kids. That’s a wonderful change.”
In the very act of coming out, Latinos have created their own social inoculation to injustice. As more faces can be recognized in the crowd, society is fast becoming familia.
If you want to become an active part of the Latino LGBT movement or just wish to meet other folks like you, visit unitycoalition.org.