Latinas and Latinos

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The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2005, "Hispanics," including "Black Hispanics," will be the largest ethnic/racial group in the United States after non-Hispanic whites. Thus, it is likely that LGBT Latinas and Latinos (people of Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean descent) will also be the largest LGBT ethnic/racial group after non-Hispanic whites.

The many terms used by Latinas and Latinos to identify themselves vary according to cultural and political identity, degree of assimilation, and other factors. Some are umbrella terms like "Latina" and "Latino" (which may or may not include people from Brazil) and the official government term "Hispanic." Other terms are specific to the country of origin (i.e., Peruvian, Guatemalan). Some people of Mexican descent who were born in the United States prefer the term "Chicana/o," while some Puerto Ricans refer to themselves as Boricuas. Often left out of the mix are LGBT people of Afro/Latina/o, Asian/Latina/o, Judeo/Latina/o, and multicultural descent. Spanish terms (including pejorative ones) for LGBT identities vary from country to country and include joto, maricón, pato, tortillera, marimacha, de ambiente, mariposa, manflora, del otro lado, transvesti, and cachapera.


The complex of cultural, political, and personal issues faced by LGBT Latinas and Latinos includes the homophobia, transphobia, classism, and colorism of non-LGBT Latinas/Latinos; the racism and classism of LGBT whites; lateral prejudice and classism from other people of color; and classism and colorism within LGBT Latina/Latino communities. Latina lesbians must also deal with sexism in GBT and non-GBT communities of all ethnicities. Also relevant are the ways in which an individual's family relates to her or his LGBT identity and the ways in which the larger world relates to an individual's language ability and immigration status. In analyzing the Latina/Latino LGBT experience, one must consider race, class, sexuality, and gender in relation to many other variables, such as where an individual grew up, how long she or he has been in the United States, what the ethnicities of her or his parents are, how much formal education the individual has, and so forth. (For an identity model that considers a number of these permutations, see Yolanda Retter's "Identity Development of Lifelong vs. Catalyzed Latina Lesbians" [1987].)


In the introduction to Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, Mariana Romo Carmona explains, "For many of us the process of acquiring an identity as a lesbian is closely tied to coming to terms with our racial and cultural identity" (Ramos, p. xxii). The same has been the case for GBT people. Attempts by white LGBT people to use an ethnic analogy to explain the oppression of all LGBT people are often met with the argument that the structural power differentials associated with race, class, and gender are asymmetrically different from those associated with LGBT identity.

The literature on identity issues among LGBT Latinas/Latinos includes published and unpublished material by Hilda Hidalgo (1984), Edward Morales (1983), Oliva Espin (1987), and Retter (1987). Because of Latino cultural attitudes toward women, some lesbians like writer Cherríe Moraga negotiate the stresses of identity development, sexism, and misogyny by gravitating toward a butch persona and assuming a malelike stance toward other women (Almaguer, p. 268). Moraga says that at first "I didn't really think of myself as female or male. I thought of myself as this hybrid or something" (Almaguer, p. 268). Activist and writer Jeanne Córdova felt a similar incongruity until her butchness met feminism: "I wasn't cut out to be a girl. Before feminism came along and said 'girls can be anything they want to be,' I had no mental options save thinking I was a boy" (p. 274). She continues, "My parents and Catholicism had taught me to accept the gender dichotomy. By this definition, my little girl-bodied, male-behaving self was 'sick.' Feminism healed the contradictions of my life" (pp. 280–282).

Latina lesbian activists seem to be more accepting of femme/butch culture than their white feminist counterparts and Latina femmes (some of whom identify as bisexual) seem to struggle less with sexual identity issues than Latina butches do. Almaguer has proposed some reasons why many Chicanos do not readily identify as LGBT:

Chicanos have never occupied the social space where a gay or lesbian identity can readily become a primary basis for self-identity. This is due in part to their structural position at the subordinate ends of both the class and racial hierarchies and in a context where ethnicity remains a primary basis for group identity and survival. They are not as free as individuals situated elsewhere in the social structure to redefine their sexual identity in ways that contravene the imperatives of minority family life and its traditional gender expectations. (p. 264)

Gender expectations lead some segments of Latin American and U.S. Latino culture to divide men who have sex with men into pasivos and activos; the former are jotos (homosexual/passive/femalelike) while the latter are chingones (aggressive/virile/not homosexual). Some of the consequences of this dichotomy and the sexism prevalent in Latino culture are that pasivos are devalued, while activos, who may deny their homosexual activities, practice unsafe sex, and be in relationships with women, put their female partners at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.


LGBT Latinas/Latinos are both the targets and perpetrators of race-based prejudice. Due to racism in white-dominated LGBT organizations and projects, people of color often stay away from these groups. Racism in personal relationships is another issue. Most LGBT people of color have experienced the problematic behavior of white "color collectors," who exoticize people of color and intentionally seek them out as sexual partners. In discussing this dynamic, Almaguer has argued that "class coded lust reflects the middle class white or Latino man's colonial desire for the pasivo." Meanwhile the activo is exoticized as a "potent ethnic masculinity that titillates the middle class white man who then plays the passive role" (Almaguer, p. 265).

A variation of racist practices is found in colorism, a complex dynamic whereby many Latinas/Latinos look more favorably upon their light-skinned brethren, while many Anglos favor darker-skinned Latinas/Latinos. In cross-cultural encounters and relationships, the effects and stereotypes of centuries of colonialism and power differentials (what Almaguer calls a "hierarchy of dominance and submission") are often at play and yet are frequently ignored. Although Latina lesbian literature consistently affirms that gender, sexuality, race, and class are inextricably intertwined, white lesbian feminists focus on sexism as the root oppression and ignore how power relations related to race, ethnicity, and class affect women of color. Latino GBT people face similar problems in white-dominated GBT movements where sexual orientation is the focus.

Religion and Familia

Many LGBT Latinas/Latinos come from a Roman Catholic (or, increasingly, a fundamentalist Christian)

tradition. Historically, the homophobia and misogyny of the Roman Catholic Church requires that women be subservient, a notion that many Latina lesbians have resisted. In Retter's study, one respondent comments on this dual oppression: "The culture valued males and undervalued females; the role that women play in relation to men was not acceptable [to me; there was] a conscious rejection of that role; I felt the Catholic church was extremely invested in womyn being subservient—a part of me always turned away from handing my power over" (Retter 1987, p. 117).

Catholics like Maria Dolores Díaz and Jeanne Córdova followed their spiritual inclinations into the convent but left after realizing that these communities of women were too closely tied to the hierarchy and misogyny of the Vatican. They found another kind of community as lesbian activists in Los Angeles. However, the Roman Catholic Church exerts long and deep influence, and feelings of guilt and sinfulness are common among LGBT Latinas and Latinos who are trying to come to terms with their sexual and gender identities. Religion and familia are cornerstones of many Latina/o psyches and rejection by one or both of these institutions has significant effects on LGBT people. One respondent in the Retter study notes, "When familia rejects us it is devastating, because we are brought up to think that familia is forever" (Retter 1987, p. 114).

Sometimes, to avoid shaming their families, LGBT Latinas and Latinos choose to leave home. One U.S.-born gay man of Mexican descent explains, "I would never want to hurt my parents so I left my hometown so they won't find out" (Kirk, p. B3).

Misogyny and Sexism

Heterosexual commitment by a Latina to a Latino is interpreted as proof of her fidelity to her people. Thus, lesbianism challenges the foundation of la familia and La Raza (the race). Those women who do not adhere to the culture's gender norms are considered traitors and become targets for the kind of collective animus aimed at "La Malinche" (an Indian woman who by force or choice consorted with Hernando Cortés and who was later attacked as a betrayer of her people). In Chicano movement groups during the 1960s and 1970s, independent women were held in check by others who called them "lesbians," "vendidas" (sellouts), and "traitors" to La Raza. Thus Moraga, who is of Chicana/Anglo descent, explains, "Resisting sex roles … was far easier in an Anglo context than in a Chicano one" (Almaguer, p. 267).

Other perceived transgressors include women whose calling is outside the bounds of motherhood. Emma Pérez and Deena González were two of the first U.S. Latinas to earn Ph.D.s in history. For several decades, as both Latinas and lesbians, they have served as role models, mentors, and multi-issue advocates. Like a number of other strong Latinas, they have at times been the target of homophobic attacks by Latina/Latino colleagues. Pérez calls these behaviors "invasive or invasionary politics [that] are most often practiced under the guise of sisterhood or brotherhood" (Pérez, p. 110). Even in male-dominated LGBT Latino groups, Latina lesbians must choose to overlook the sexism of their hermanos (brothers) in favor of the benefits and leverage that larger numbers can bring. Others choose to form Latina lesbian groups and then work in alliance with a variety of LGBT and non-LGBT lesbian, cogender, and progressive groups. Although few lesbians of color identify as lesbian separatists, Juana Maria Paz and Naomi Littlebear Morena both contributed to the lesbian separatist anthology For Lesbians Only (1988) and one Latina lesbian separatist was a panelist on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1988.

Homophobia and Transphobia

Before and after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, LGBT people worked in Latina/Latino causes such as César Chávez's farm workers' movement, but many, with good reason, stayed in the closet. Frank Mendiola helped organize a number of boycotts against growers who exploited farm workers. His good relations with another organizer couple soured after they learned that he was gay. In her study of Puerto Rican lesbians, Hilda Hidalgo found that there were many closeted lesbians in leadership positions in major Puerto Rican organizations (p. 110).

Feelings toward those who contravene cultural expectations are harsh and can be inferred from how Latinas/Latinos in a 1992 poll ranked LGBT people. Mexicans and Cubans in the United States ranked lesbians and gays as the fourth most disliked group after communists, Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. Puerto Ricans ranked them as third most disliked (21 percent) since only 10 percent disliked Nazis (Aponte/Merced, p. 300). These attitudes have proven lethal to some LGBT Latinas and Latinos. In 1980 Fred Paez, a gay activist investigating police brutality in Houston, was shot in the back of the head and his death was ruled an accident. Ana Maria Rosales was murdered in front of a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 1993, while Eddie Araujo, a seventeen-year-old transgender youth, was murdered in California in 2003. Some, like California high school student Alana Flores, have successfully fought back. Flores was a plaintiff in a lawsuit that in 2003 won the right for LGBT students to be protected from harassment at school. She was the only plaintiff willing to reveal her name.

In spite of widespread homophobia and transphobia in the Latina/Latino community, some non-LGBT Latina and Latino notables have been publicly supportive, thus helping to reduce negative attitudes. César Chávez spoke at the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and show host Cristina Saralegui has helped raise consciousness about Latina/Latino LGBT issues on her popular television show "El Show de Cristina." Collaborative and supportive relationships between LGBT Latina/Latino and non-LGBT Latina/Latino groups and organizations have developed more slowly. Martha Duffer, the executive director of ALLGO (Austin Latina/o Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization), has noted that mainstream Latino groups hesitate to align with LGBT Latinas and Latinos because they fear alienating homophobic sectors of their constituencies. As an example, in 2003 Hispanic Magazine ran a cover story on Cuban American playwright Nilo Cruz (who is "out") and who won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a Latino. The article did not mention that he is gay.


The late sociologist Lionel Cantú points out in an article on gay and lesbian immigration that "immigration restrictions and exclusions are organized along five distinct but intersecting dimensions: race, class, gender, ideology and sexuality" (p. 446). Research on the exclusion of LGBT people seeking to immigrate to the United States has been carried out by, among others, ethnic studies scholar Eithne Luibheid, who has examined "the organization of sexual monitoring at the United States–Mexican border," focusing on the case of Sara Harb Quiroz, who was deported from the United States in the early 1960s for "looking like a lesbian" (p. 477).

While LGBT immigrants may come to the United States for economic or political reasons, they may also come because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They may wish to avoid shaming their families or may want to escape from violent homophobia and transphobia in their countries. In 1980, when Cuba's president Fidel Castro announced that he would allow open emigration, an estimated 10,000 self-identified lesbians and gays left Cuba. Until the late 1980s, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not consider sexual orientation a valid reason for granting asylum. In 1986 a Houston judge barred the INS from deporting a gay Cubano who claimed that were he returned to Cuba he would be persecuted due to his sexual orientation. In 1990 the INS suspended its policy of barring LGBT people who declared an LGBT identity. Three years later, a San Francisco judge granted the asylum petition of a gay Brazilian. In 1994 the INS granted asylum to a gay Mexicano, and Attorney General Janet Reno announced that LGBT people could henceforth qualify for asylum status. However, since 1987 people who are HIV positive cannot immigrate to the United States and, while exceptions are made for non-transgender heterosexual spouses, no such exemption exists for LGB and known-transgender partners and spouses.


LGBT Latinas and Latinos may lack the ability to access health care due to their immigration status and may lack health insurance due to their economic status. Some may avoid health care providers due to a fear of homophobic, transphobic, and racist attitudes. Research and outreach are slowly changing the attitudes of non-LGBT care providers and health organizations. Recent examples include Roland (o) Palencia, a former Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos president who has served as the director of Clinica Monseñor Oscar Romero in Los Angeles. Clinica is one of few sources of medical care for noninsured Latina/os in Los Angeles. Another is the March of Dimes, which chose a Latina lesbian couple and their twins (who were born prematurely) as its Ambassador Family for 2003.

AIDS has had a deep impact on the GBT Latino community. In 2000 the rate of AIDS among Latinos was 22.5 per 100,000 (representing 19 percent of U.S. AIDS cases at a time when Latinos were 13 percent of the U.S. population). According to one study, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation are contributing factors to these rates. According to Erika Hayasaki, "Gay Latino men living in poverty and subjected to racism and homophobia are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior and have higher rates of HIV" (2001). Programs to provide culturally sensitive services to Latina/os dealing with HIV/AIDS include Proyecto Contra Sida Por Vida (PCPV) in San Francisco and Bienestar in Southern California.

Mixed Agendas

Most Latina/Latino LGBT people do not separate their ethnic identity from their LGBT identity. Playwright Luis Alfaro recalls being asked, "Are you a gay Latino or a Latino gay?" His response: "As if these parts of oneself could be separated" (Glitz). The pluralistic agenda of LGBT Latinas/Latinos is problematic for white-dominated LGBT groups. Martha Duffer notes that "Mainstream [LGBT] groups are not interested in working with people of color beyond tokenism, particularly when [they bring in] economic and other social justice issues, which [mainstream LGBT groups] tend to mistakenly believe to be unrelated to their focus" (Smith, 2003). Recently, the National Latina/Latino Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization (LLEGÓ) was the only LGBT organization to attempt significant outreach to Latinos in Dade County, Florida, where an anti-LGBT measure was on the ballot. Although the measure was defeated in 2002, 62.9 percent of Latinos voted in favor of it. Martin Ornelas-Quintero, LLEGÓ's executive director, notes that the same pattern (a lack of outreach to Latinos on the part of other LGBT organizations) was seen in California, where the anti–same-sex marriage Knight Initiative easily won in 2000.

Some Latinas/Latinos have resolved these political and cultural conflicts and paradoxes by choosing to work in multi-issue organizations that are LGBT friendly. Olga Vives, a Cubana, has worked in the National Organization for Women (NOW) where she can focus on the mix of issues that affect her life as a "Latina, immigrant, mother and lesbian from the Midwest" (Smith, 2002). In 2000 she was elected NOW Vice President of Action. She says she "sees the needs of Latinas-Latinos as extending beyond a unilateral focus on LGBT issues" (Smith, 2002).

As white-dominated LGBT groups have developed a need to gain support from people of color in governmental and non-governmental organizations, they have sought help from LGBT Latinas and Latinos. Ingrid Durán, the leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, has been approached by LGBT groups that historically have done little outreach to LGBT people of color. One example is the Human Rights Campaign, which asked Durán to help it develop connections to people-of-color groups and lobbies on Capitol Hill. Durán also works to increase tolerance in non-LGBT Latina/Latino organizations. She helped persuade the influential National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) to help vote LLEGÓ into NHLA.

LLEGÓ Director Martin Ornelas-Quintero notes that for LGBT and non-LGBT Latinas/Latinos, one "point of convergence" is the Permanent Partners Immigration Act. In 2003 the Mexican American Legal and Education Fund endorsed the legislation. Another point of convergence is leverage activism whereby LGBT Latinas/Latinos help elect LGBT–friendly politicians, thereby collecting political goodwill. Their support has been a key factor in several elections and appointments. Attorney and activist Elena Popp was among a group of LGBT Latinas/Latinos that helped elect former California State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa to a seat on the Los Angeles City Council (2003). Sam Zamarripa, Georgia State Senator, acknowledged in 2002 the help he received from LGBT constituents, including the organization Latino Gay Community of Atlanta. Ellas en Acción helped promote the appointment of lesbian Susan Leal to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1993. In Massachusetts, Jarrett Barrios put together a coalition of LGBT and non-LGBT supporters and became the first out gay Latino to be elected a state senator (2002). In New York City, Margarita López, a former housing rights organizer, was elected to the City Council (1997).


Without benefit of a social movement or support groups, few LGBT Latinas and Latinos before the 1970s left overt evidence of their affectional-sexual orientations or gender identities. Historians must often read between the lines of scientific, religious, legal, and photographic materials to infer the presence of LGBT Latinas/Latinos. What exists is slowly being uncovered and examined by researchers, scholars, students, and historians.

Literature on the subject includes Pablo Mitchell's exploration of an Anglo-Native gay son at the center of an Anglo-Native-Hispano family inheritance dispute in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century New Mexico. Mitchell uses this case to illustrate the ways that "strategic marriage and intermarriage" were central to elite Anglo and Hispano rule (p. 333). Louis Sullivan has researched the life of Jack Bee Garland (1869–1936), born Elvira Mugarrieta to a Mexican diplomat in San Francisco. Garland passed as a male, worked as a journalist during the Spanish–American War, as a nurse after the San Francisco earthquake, and with homeless men in his native city. George Chauncey's book on gay life in New York argues that, "in the 1940s and 1950s, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans would become the primary targets of sodomy prosecutions," a continuation of earlier patterns that targeted "immigrants in the poorest sections of the city" (pp. 140–141).

Marc Stein's book on Philadelphia refers to local media stories that suggested that there was a "sex angle" to the murder in 1950 of Mexican American Robert Prado; Puerto Rican men were accused, though not convicted, of the murder (p. 119). The Latina Lesbian Oral History Project at the ONE Institute and Archives (Los Angeles) includes an interview with Nancy Valverde, who remembers the 1950s as a time when Los Angeles police harassed and arrested her on numerous occasions and charged her with masquerading (not wearing the required number of articles of female clothing). According to Esther Newton's study of Cherry Grove, Fire Island, small numbers of Hispanics began coming to this LGB resort in the 1960s, but generally as "hotel and restaurant workers, entertainers, or friends/lovers of whites who were renters or property owners" (p. 154). Joanne Meyerowitz's book on the history of transsexuals mentions a late 1960s New York counseling group for female-to-male transsexuals that included several Puerto Ricans, one Colombian, and one Cuban. Horacio Roque Ramírez's study of San Francisco Queer Latinas/Latinos in San Francisco (1960s–1990s) examines the formation of LGBT/queer community, while Yolanda Retter's study of lesbian activism in Los Angeles (1970–1990) includes material on Latina lesbians. In John Preston's Hometowns, Jessie Monteagudo and Michael Nava reminisce about their experiences growing up gay in Miami and Sacramento.

Part of the effort to make LGBT Latina/Latino history visible includes the collection and preservation of Latina/Latino LGBT historical materials, which then must be made accessible to the public. Over the years Juanita Díaz-Cotto in New York and Yolanda Leyva in Arizona have gathered materials on Latina lesbian history. At the ONE Institute and Archives in Los Angeles, Yolanda Retter is compiling an historical LGBT Latina/Latino database. Northeastern University sponsored an exhibit and online chronology that highlights Boston-area LGBT Latina/Latino history. A unique archive is the Berkeley-based Archivo Rodrigo Reyes, named after the late activist and artist. The Archivo includes LGBT Latino (and some Latina) photographs and ephemera from the San Francisco Bay Area, which Reyes began collecting in the 1970s. While many LGBT and non-LGBT archives and collections have some materials related to Latina/Latino LGBT history (for example, Princeton has an extensive collection on writer Reinaldo Arenas), none has a major general collection on LGBT Latinas/Latinos. Meanwhile Latina/o archives and collections fail to focus on LGBT materials. This reflects both a lack of research on the subject and a lack of interest on the part of most archives and collections.

Future Directions

LGBT Latinas/Latinos continue to struggle against prejudice within their ethnic cultures, within other LGBT communities, and within their own diverse LGBT Latina/Latino communities. These unresolved struggles are part of a collective crisis. In the first part of the twenty-first century, the melting pot mentality in the United States is still unable to process the pressures created by unassimilatable "difference." Yet adapting to the pressures created by difference is something that colonized people learned how to do long ago. Preferring acculturation to assimilation, Gloria Anzaldúa's "new mestiza" uses her experience of both belonging and not belonging to create new paradigms:

As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out, yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer in me in all races). I am cultureless because as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it. (Anzaldúa, pp. 80–81)


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Yolanda Retter Vargas

see alsoalarcon, francisco; anzaldÚa, gloria; arenas, reinaldo; baca, judy; bourbon, ray (rae); cÓrdova, jeanne; diaz-cotto, juanita; islas, arturo; latina and latino studies; migration, immigration, and diaspora; moraga, cherrÍe; piÑero, miguel; poma, edgar; puerto rico; race and racism; rechy, john; reyes, rodrigo; rivera, sylvia; sarria, josÉsolanas, valerie; tavera, hank; zulma.

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