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Coming to America to be gay.

For gays and lesbians from Latin America, coming out often means joining the sexual migration to the U.S.

A few years ago, the Washington, D.C., offices of LLEGO, the national Latino gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender group, received a call from an affluent young Argentine, freshly arrived in Miami and ready to begin his glorious new gay life in the United States--just like he'd seen on television.

"He heard that where LLEGO was, you could be openly gay. So he hopped on a plane, contacted us, and said, `I'm here! And I want to live as a gay man,'" recalls Martin Ornelas-Quintero, 37, the group's executive director. "He showed up that afternoon in our office and really had the expectation that as a gay person you can live the life you see on Will & Grace--like you get a toaster when you join the club."

The young man, who spoke no English, had no working papers, and knew nobody in the United States, still expected "an apartment, a job, a boyfriend, fabulous friends, and to live the happy gay life," says Ornelas-Quintero, whose family moved to the United States from Tijuana when he was 6. "It was funny, but it was so sad."

But the man also sought freedom. "He talked about holding your partner's hand, kissing in public, living openly," Ornelas-Quintero says, adding that the accidental immigrant, on learning that without papers he could do little more than wash dishes, boarded the next flight back to Buenos Aires.

Of course, most gay and lesbian Latin Americans immigrate here for the same reasons straight Latinos do: jobs, education, and family and friends. But there is often an added incentive--even if it's not the overriding one--for the long, sometimes illegal journey. They are coming to the United States to be gay.

The combined pressures of machismo, religion, family, and Latin society on gays and lesbians living south of the border and the allure of a more open life in the big gay cities of the United States--known as El Norte--draw many into a migration that is partly for material reasons, partly for personal ones, not unlike the migration of gays from small U.S. towns.

Class plays a big role. Poor immigrants from Latin America rarely come purely for sexual freedom. Survival is the only motivation they need. But among middle- and upper-class Latinos, who might enjoy economic opportunity at home, the chance to live openly in the United States makes this country a much bigger draw.

Rafael Diaz, research director of the Institute on Sexuality, Inequality, and Health at San Francisco State University, surveyed 912 Latino men at gay Latino/a venues in Miami, New York, and San Francisco. Of them, 73% were immigrants.

Diaz says the desire to escape oppression and family pressures often plays a bigger role in gay Latino immigration than any enticements of the mythically "fabulous" gay life here. But, he notes, it's the same with most immigrants, who feel more "pushed" from their homeland than "pulled" to their new land.

Among gay men claiming that sexuality was a big factor in immigrating, "the first thing they feared was deep shame about dishonoring and hurting their families" by coming out.

Men especially "feel they have to remove themselves from their family, and that's the main motivation of sexual migration, not fabulous bars and clubs," he says, noting that Latin America "has plenty of gay bars."

Diaz argues that sexual migration often happens because "the person couldn't resolve the whole integration of being gay in their own context. These are often people in very homophobic situations, under pressure to remain closeted with jobs, family, or friends."

Carlos Rodriguez, a 32-year-old drama therapist, moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1992 "officially to go to graduate school," he says. "But at that moment I had just acknowledged to myself that I was gay. I needed it as a good excuse to leave home. It was essential to leave so I could figure things out on my own, even though I knew nothing about New York."

Once in the United States, many gay Latinos face new problems, such as racism, alienation, and sexual objectification, says Diaz, adding that 80% of the men he surveyed reported bouts of depression, 44% suffered anxiety, and 17% had thoughts of suicide.

"The gay community isn't very hospitable to immigrants, who come into a world of sex and drugs but don't have the same access and connections" as other gays, says Diaz. "Too many Latin gays feel excluded from the more participatory aspects of the larger community."

Raul Aguilar, 30, who moved to the United States from Mexico City in 1985, has had to confront racism from straight and gay U.S. natives. "In a way, I haven't really adjusted," says Aguilar, an artist who also works at Las Aguilas, a social support group for San Francisco's enormous lesbian and gay Latino population. "It still feels like a balancing act."

When he came out, Aguilar says, "some folks in the commumty at large ignored me or just saw me as an exotic fuck. I was called `stupid' because I have an accent. I have been the only gay Latino in a roomful of gay white men on many occasions. I felt I had to work really hard to make the `scene' my own."

For young gay men terrified of coming out in a hostile society, options are often limited to the closet (and marriage) or escape routes like the military, priesthood, or El Norte. For lesbians, options are even more limited.

"For a woman to leave because she is a lesbian, well, it would have to be unique circumstances even for her to have that lesbian identity," says Ornelas-Quintero. "Whereas for men, who have more privilege, it's easier to make that acknowledgment and make the migration. But women aren't supposed to leave unless they're married. Otherwise they're being scandalous, shattering prescribed gender patterns."

Silvia Evans, 37, director of conference and meeting services at LLEGO, gladly shattered the gender patterns of her native Bolivia by emigrating alone in 1991. "I was escaping rejection from my family, school, friends, and neighbors," she recalls. "I wasn't able to get a job because I didn't like to wear lipstick and high heels." She remembers not being "femme enough" to participate in college graduation. "And I was always afraid of men who wanted to teach me how to be a `real' woman."

Irene Sosa, a 45-year-old videomaker and assistant professor at Brooklyn College, didn't realize she was escaping when she left Venezuela at 27 on a scholarship. She'd been in a steady relationship with a woman in Caracas but was so closeted that she never even uttered the word "lesbian." Coming to the United States was an epiphany. She fell in love with another woman, moved in with her, and never looked back.

"I never imagined life for lesbians would be different in another place, that you could live openly as a couple," says Sosa, who directed the 1999 documentary Sexual Exiles, about gays and lesbians worldwide who come out against all odds. "I didn't have that in Venezuela at all. I had gay friends, but my family made jokes about them. I was very depressed. I was drinking a lot. I needed to get out."

Sosa knows several gay Venezuelans who came here on scholarships in the 1980s and found the sexual freedom irresistible. "Nearly all the straight students went back, but none of the gays did," she says.

Now, a second wave of young gay Venezuelans is heading north, fleeing violence and police oppression, Sosa notes. Also, gay men from Venezuela and all over Latin America find their way to the United States for access to HIV medical services virtually unheard-of in their countries.

Once here, gay Latino immigrants face new, more complex pressures: coming out, assimilating with the larger gay culture without succumbing to its excesses, and somehow retaining ties with their hispanidad.

"It can be tough," says Demetrio Roldan, editor of QV Magazine, which is aimed at gay Latinos. He says most gay Latinos migrate first to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, where machismo, religion, and homophobia are strong. "They face the same pressures to be in closet," he says. "But then there's a progression. They start moving out on their own and entering the gay culture. Most put their little toe into the scene, some jump into it cold turkey."

Pressure to assimilate can be awesome. "It's a survival skill they learn," says Roldan. "Many of them come here and change their names and learn English really fast and try to assimilate as quickly as they can. But they sort of drop their families and lose touch with their history and culture. It's like they become totally different people."

The urge to fit in takes its toll. "Gay immigrant participation lends itself to venues with substance abuse and lots of sex," says Diaz. "The other venues--religious, spiritual, cultural-are pretty much closed to Latin immigrants, who tend not to have extended gay families or institutions to support them. Those things tend to be closed for reasons of race, class, and language."

Diaz says that the longer a gay Latino is in the United States, the more likely he will be to engage in drug abuse and risky sexual behavior. But he adds that men who come here for sexual liberty tend to be riskier from the get-go: "They're like kids in a candy store; there's a great sense of freedom but great risk too."

Despite the hardships of immigration, many still feel it was well worth it. "I'm thankful to this country," says Evans. "The U.S. gave me a second chance on life, like I was born again. I'm lucky. Not everyone has a second chance." She's quick to add, "It's not perfect--I cannot get married yet to the person I'm in love with. But someday. That is why I'm an activist."


Do you think the gay community welcomes gay Latino immigrants?

Sign on to The Advocate's Web site before March 27 to cast your vote and leave your comments, Results will appear in the April 24 issue,

To find more information about gay and lesbian Latinos, visit

Kirby is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:migration to United States of gay Latin Americans
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 27, 2001
Previous Article:Across the political divide.
Next Article:THE NEW Latin FOCUS.

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