Balancing two lives: Hispanic LGBT youths cope with Pulse tragedy

Edwin Lopez was sound asleep when his phone blew up.

It was 3 a.m., and he didn’t realize he was losing a dozen of his friends.

“Are you OK? Tell me you’re at home,” his friends and family were saying. They told him to turn on the news. He saw his second home, the gay nightclub Pulse, on screen. There was a massacre on Latin night. If he didn’t have work the next morning, the 26-year-old Puerto Rican probably would have been there.

“I didn’t sleep that whole night,” he later recounted. He followed the news through the day, only slightly distracting himself at his job at a hotel. It later became clear that a man had killed 49 people, 12 of them Lopez’s friends, at a nightclub he considered a second home. It was a safe place where he didn’t have to worry about being himself — a young, proud, Hispanic gay man.


Now, even with strength and support from the local community and so many from afar, it’s difficult to dismiss the hatred in what gunman Omar Mateen did. Pulse was a spot where no matter who you were, you could feel welcome.

“It’s not just a nightclub,” said Heather Wilkie, director of nonprofit Zebra Coalition, which works with LGBT youth. “It’s a gathering place. It’s a place people can feel safe.”

The wound from the attack runs deep for the greater Orlando community, but it horribly gashed a tight-knit LGBT community that already struggles with finding acceptance. Amid the flurry of media coverage of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, members of the community want to make sure LGBT voices are not drowned out in a conversation that has focused more on religious extremism and gun control laws.

Some want to make sure one fact is not forgotten: The vast majority of victims were Hispanics.

“This was not just an LGBT community,” said Zoe Colon, director of Florida and southeast operations for the Hispanic Federation. “This was a Latino LGBT community.”

A difficult conversation has started about the struggle of being an LGBT person of color. For many Hispanics, a traditionally Christian culture laced with machismo and traditional gender roles could foster fear of rejection from one’s own family. That fear can prevent young people from coming out to their loved ones.

“You don’t want to be judged by your family. Those are the only people who have really been supportive of you your entire life,” said Dominique Sanchez. The 19-year-old said she’s known people close to her who are reluctant to be open about their sexuality. “Your friends come and go. So if [your family doesn’t] accept you, then you don’t accept yourself.”

This problem with acceptance can play out in tragedies like this. Colon said some families receiving support services were taken aback by the fact that their loved ones died in a gay bar. In some cases, the family has had trouble accepting the victim’s sexual orientation.

“There needs to also be a sensitivity to this sense of rejection that the LGBT community within the Latino population sometimes feels,” said Samí Haiman-Marrero, a local businesswoman and activist.

The Hispanic Federation is collaborating with the Hispanic Counseling Center and other groups to provide mental health counseling and other resources so families can cope with all the layers of the tragedy. They’ve formed “Proyecto Somos Orlando,” or Project We Are Orlando, to develop a hub for services for the Spanish-speaking community to have a comfortable, culturally sensitive and bilingual resource.

Wilkie said she hopes that this crisis will result in a ripple effect of support “so that families can see we’re all human beings and we need to be together.” She said 47 percent of homeless youths nationally identify on the LGBT spectrum, and 26 percent of LGBT youth locally are homeless because of family rejection.

“There’s going to be, at some point, an opportunity for education,” Colon said. “On gender identity and sexuality and how they intersect with ethnicity and religion.”

That intersection can be a daily struggle even for people who have support from their families. Acceptance can come with caveats, like avoiding physical expressions of love.

“God loves sinners,” said Jose Luis Rivera, a Puerto Rican resident of Kissimmee who is Christian. “But God doesn't love the sinful act.”

Lopez wishes he wouldn’t have to hold back just because he’s gay.

“We need to keep fighting to a future with equality, where you can walk around calmly without anyone criticizing you or disrespecting you,” he said.

Stanley Ramos, a social worker who is gay and Hispanic, traveled back from Atlanta after he learned of the mass shooting. He is training to become a faith leader, and having lived in Orlando before, he knows the struggles of LGBT youth of color.

“A lot of kids will simply say ‘I live in two worlds. I go out dancing with my boyfriend and I go home to Kissimmee, where we just don’t discuss it,’ ” he said.

Ramos spoke at a vigil Wednesday night at the Joy Metropolitan Community Church, an inclusive faith group. He shared his interpretation on a moment he witnessed while watching TV coverage of the shooting. In footage of clubgoers carrying the wounded and dead away for help, he noticed one young man duck when he looked at the TV camera.

“He ducked because mami don’t know that I’m gay. I’m hiding here because papi doesn’t know. Because nobody know,” Ramos said. “I’m telling you, that is a horror. To be on the down low is a horrible oppression.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech