Last spring, an idea Jesse Garcia had kicked around with colleagues for months suddenly seemed urgent. Controversy was mounting over a U.S. House bill that would make felons of illegal immigrants and those who offered them services, and President Bush was calling for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. As a Latino and a gay man, Garcia felt that he and others of his orientation were under attack.
Six months before, a staff member at the League of United Latin American Citizens had suggested starting a gay LULAC chapter. Longtime members of the Latino civil rights organization say it had been discussed for years, but no one had taken action. It was the House bill and the ensuing outrage that gave Garcia, 35, the final nudge.
"That's when I said, 'You know what? We really need to get this gay LULAC chapter going,'" he says. "'We need to tell the truth, because they're spreading all these lies [about us].'"
His schedule was already packed. He volunteered with the Stonewall Democrats, the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, and Valiente, a gay Latino group that coordinates social and educational events, but in July he and five other interim officers launched the new chapter. According to the founders, it's the first LULAC chapter of its kind nationwide. And while not restricted to Hispanics, the group focuses on political advocacy for gay people who have grown up in a minority culture that stresses traditional gender roles.
"As gay Latinos, we live in two minority worlds," says Garcia, who is the group's interim secretary and plans to run for president in November. "This is bridge-building between two minority communities fighting for equality in the United States, and now that everyone's on this anti-immigrant kick, it's time to share our resources and fight back."
Since July, the group has held monthly meetings with guest speakers such as Lena Levario, who is running for a criminal district court seat. Levario, who is straight, conceded it may be risky to actively support gay rights during the campaign but said she doesn't care. She lauded the creation of Gay LULAC.
"Each [LULAC] council is encouraged to deal with civil rights in whatever area they're interested in," she says. "When you have a likeminded group of people, it's only natural they'll want to get together and speak in a unified voice."
Garcia says the group plans to help with get-out-the-vote efforts in Oak Cliff later this month, organize fund-raisers for youth scholarships and collaborate with political campaigns. There are just around a dozen paid members so far, but those who have joined stress the importance of strengthening the Latino-gay alliance in Dallas and across the country.
"Basically, it's a way to let people know there are resources as a gay Hispanic, that you can be Hispanic and gay and be successful," said Oscar Gutierrez, who coordinates seminars for first-time Hispanic homebuyers and plans to run for Gay LULAC vice president.
At 32, the concept of being gay, Latino and happy is relatively new to Gutierrez. Four years ago, he went through a "deep depression" after discovering he was HIV-positive and tried to kill himself. Though he says his family knew he was gay, they'd never talked about it openly, and he was still technically in the closet.
"Not only was I gay, I had this disease," he says. "I thought I may as well be dead if I can't be what I am." Only after surviving the suicide attempt did he come out to his family and find he could count on their support.
"I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family," he says. "A lot of Hispanics don't have support at home. With machista heads of households, it's 'my way or the highway.' There are a lot of closeted Hispanics." He recalled one Latino friend who told his family he was gay in high school and was thrown out of the house. He spent the next five years living on the streets and wound up prostituting himself in New Orleans. Gutierrez had other gay friends who became addicted to drugs and alcohol and are in and out of jail.
"It's sad, because they were smart individuals, and now it's too late for them," he says. "That's something I'd like to change."
Gutierrez is converting to Judaism because he's found the Jewish community to be more accepting than traditional Roman Catholicism. While attending the University of Saint Thomas in Houston around the time he tested positive for HIV, he says he missed a test and was told by a priest, "If I were you, I wouldn't tell anyone you're gay."
Among Anglos, he says, he's felt double discrimination because of his sexual orientation. "Some see us as taking their jobs, and they're like, 'On top of that, he's queer,'" says Gutierrez. "You hear people talking about you at grocery stores and shopping centers."
Garcia, who has been active in the Dallas gay community for the better part of a decade, still hasn't come out to his family.
"I know they probably know already, but it's not talked about," he says of his mother and sister, who live in Brownsville (his father is dead). "I'm living in this world where I can't be myself when I go home." When he was a kid, he remembers an obviously effeminate cousin who was constantly ridiculed and called a faggot. Garcia plans to come out to his mother and sister, who use the Internet rarely enough to have missed his name posted in connection with gay and lesbian groups, at Christmas.
"I'm proud of all the [community leadership] positions I've held, but I can't go tell my mom. All these accomplishments, I can't share them with my family," he says. He's hoping she'll be as supportive of his sexual identity as she is of his commitment to their Hispanic heritage.
Six months ago during Dallas' "Mega Marcha," in which 500,000 people marched against the House bill and in favor of immigrant rights, Garcia stood in front of the cathedral downtown and called his mother.
"She knew I was there for immigrant rights. She didn't know I was there surrounded by all these gays," he says. "She was watching the march on TV, and she said, 'We're cheering you on.'"
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