Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Queer Brown Voices for Pride Month

During the opening reception for the Association of American University Presses's 2016 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Executive Director Peter Berkery delivered some remarks on the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. After reading an excerpt from a collection of poems by Reinaldo Arenas published by the University of Florida Press, Peter said these words:
University presses play an essential role in the care and feeding of civil society by cultivating and publishing books like this one, works that engage unflinchingly with serious issues like the hateful and persistent persecution of gay and transgender people and the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.
Recognizing the overwhelming impotence of moments of silence, the last few awful days have led many of us to ask ourselves “What can I do to fight the ignorance, the hatred, the violence?”
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Most of the victims of the Orlando massacre were Latina/o. Statistically, LGBT people of color are more likely to be targets of violence than whites. Histories of LGBT activism often reduce the role that Latinas/os played, resulting in misinformation, or they ignore their work entirely, erasing them from history.

Queer Brown Voices is the first book published to counter this trend, documenting the efforts of some of these LGBT Latina/o activists. Comprising essays and oral history interviews that present the experiences of fourteen activists across the United States and in Puerto Rico, the book offers a new perspective on the history of LGBT mobilization and activism. The activists discuss subjects that shed light not only on the organizations they helped to create and operate, but also on their broad-ranging experiences of being racialized and discriminated against, fighting for access to health care during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and struggling for awareness.

We are excerpting a portion of Salvador Vidal-Ortiz's introduction here. Vidal-Ortiz is an associate professor of sociology at American University, where he also teaches in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

Brown Writing Queer: A Composite of Latina/o LGBT Activism

By Salvador Vidal-Ortiz

One Of Many Beginnings And Many Voices

A pink map of the Americas upside down—that was the first visible sign for me that a Latina/o LGBT/queer presence in the United States was strengthening. The year was 1993, and many of us attended the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. That map was a T-shirt from the Latino Caucus of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). In 1993 as we arrived in Washington, D.C., for a third national march, there was already a strong Latina/o queer presence throughout the United States, represented by organizations such as the D.C. Metropolitan Area Coalition of Latino Lesbians and Gays in Washington, D.C.; Ellas en Acción, Asociación Gay Unida Impactando Latinos/Latinas A Superarse, and Proyecto Contra SIDA Por Vida in San Francisco; Las Buenas Amigas (itself derived from Salsa Soul Sisters, a women of color group) in New York, as well as other groups being formalized there, like Latino Gay Men of New York and Latinas and Latinos de Ambiente New York; and the Austin Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization, Gay and Lesbian Coalition de Dallas, and the Gay Chicano Caucus (eventually becoming Gay and Lesbian Hispanics Unidos of Houston) in Texas. Other organizations existed in Puerto Rico, groups such as Colectivo de Concientización Gay (later Colectivo de Lesbianas Feministas), Coalición Orgullo Arcoiris, and Coalición Puertorriqueña de Lesbianas y Homosexuales. By 1993 the first nationwide organization, the National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGÓ), founded in 1988, had begun to offer services, in large part due to health funding provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A large presence of Brown queers who had been visible since the 1970s in their own cities, regions, and states were now, between the second and third “gay and lesbian” marches, becoming more established and visible at the national level. Brown was being written into queer in a slow but steady manner. Yet both Brown and queer still functioned as shameless markers that signaled outsiderness to heteronormativity and whiteness, as I will discuss later on.

As a member of ACT UP Puerto Rico, I was also at the march to address issues of access to treatment for those infected with HIV and, equally important for me and my fellow ACT UP members, to address HIV-related discrimination and to advocate for more prevention and education funds. Walking on the National Mall, where the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed, we could see the countless names—and recognize friends and lovers and family members—of those lost to AIDS because of homophobia, inadequate treatment, and ignorance. While queer Latinas/os, as a movement, weren’t in decline, we were nevertheless affected by HIV/AIDS—and little to nothing was being done then. Just as Brown was becoming visible and organized, the impact of AIDS in our lives was both prompting the establishment of organizations and movements while also taking many of our Latina/o brothers and sisters from us.

Dennis Medina (in gay Latino sweatshirt) marching with Gay and Lesbian Tejanos (GLT) at 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Courtesy of Gloria A. Ramirez.

This first moment marked my beginning of Latina/o activism at the U.S. national level, but many elements of change existed before and after. In the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to the discrimination and hatred faced by Latina/o queers in housing, employment, education, and access to health care, gays and lesbians also faced homophobic violence. In the 1990s fighting homophobia in the health-care system became increasingly important, as breast cancer and other health concerns impacted many of our sisters and brothers. And all the while, as these internal processes of reconfiguration and change, of loss and rebirth, were taking place, Brown queer people were visible organizing and fighting for equal rights. Brown queer activists confronted these issues in their neighborhoods, in community-based organizations, in political movements, on college campuses, and in the government. As referenced in the title, Queer Brown Voices, Brown is not a mere color but a way of seeing (and of being seen by) the world; it is a form of identification that supersedes both “Hispanic” and “Latino” ethnoracial categories. Indeed, as I note later on in this introduction, Brown (capitalized) often becomes queer.

The histories of Latina/o LGBT activism have not been told as graciously as those of the “mainstream” LGBT movement (with mainstream being a term to use with apprehension, of course, but one that points to a primary, often hegemonic, way of producing a “common” agenda). The former have been rewritten in the service of simpler projects of visibility (for the sake of portraying a mainstream Latina/o community devoid of sexual minorities or of portraying national LGBT organizing—and leadership—as white). Organizations bolster a racial politics that generally stays within a black-and-white binary, effectively erasing Latinas/os (and Asians and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and multiracial LGBT people) from the process, while a heteronormative Latina/o mainstream agenda also ignores LGBT populations. While the U.S. homophile movement of the past forty to fifty years is well documented, Latina/o LGBT people have received little attention in these historical accounts, even though people like José Sarria, Sylvia Rivera, and Jeanne Córdova were activists and leaders before Harvey Milk and others of their era (on José Sarria and Sylvia Rivera, see Retzloff 2007; on Jeanne Córdova, see Faderman and Timmons 2006 and Gallo 2007; on all three, see Stein 2012). History books (see Katz 1992 and D’Emilio 1983) do not reflect the fact that numerous LGBT Latina/o organizations were extremely active in their local communities from the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, working on issues of immigration, health care, HIV/AIDS, and inclusion in the gay and lesbian movement for equal rights. Other foundational readers on lesbian and gay history used in universities (Chauncey 1995; Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey 1989) rarely document the presence of queer people of color active in the movement. In visual media, sometimes the portrayal of a racially marked LGBT person is distinctive from the (majoritarian) “rest”—a good example is the portrayal of Harvey Milk’s Mexican lover (Jack Lira) in the movieMilk. Or worse, when a history does mention LGBT Latinas/os who were active in the movement, the reference is factually incorrect, leaving the unknowing reader to believe it historically accurate.

As a case in point, recent books such as Amin Ghaziani’s The Dividends of Dissent (on the four gay and lesbian national marches in Washington, D.C.) incorrectly credit a single individual with the founding of LLEGÓ. Like Dividends, other books addressing the historical LGBT movements misrepresent histories of activism. Sometimes such works portray ethnoracial minorities as contesting mobilization among other gay and lesbian activists; as a result of this view (from outside), queer activists of color are deemed disruptive of a “national” agenda (one selected by a few leaders). And in the process, the contributions of and challenges faced by those who are “multiply minoritized” seldom get to be read as part of history.

Queer Brown Voices utilizes personal narratives and oral histories to document community-organizing efforts among Latina/o queer activists during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and to counter that movement’s invisibility. The first-person stories serve as historical, counterhegemonic accounts of activism outside of mainstream “gay and lesbian” organizing, and as such they shift the dialogue away from pervasive national mainstream issues (such as same-sex marriage). In weaving this web of stories we, the editors, seek to develop a new type of history that counters the invisibility of Latina/o queers in U.S. mainstream history and LGBT studies. Moreover, we intend this book to offer more than a response to that invisibility, aiming for it to be read as a newer kind of cultural history making, one that offers the reader insights into the social movements of that era and the interconnectedness of many of these stories. More than giving visibility to Latina/o LGBT subjects, we seek to trouble assumptions about homogeneity within social movements. Even these fourteen narratives show heterogeneity within a “Latina/o LGBT” movement; those differences range from national/cultural identifications, to gender, gender identity and expression, to socio-economic status, racial background, age, and the relationship between politics and sociocultural activism.

One could indeed just focus on the basic question of visibility: were lesbian and gay, and later on LGBT, Latinas/os involved in the LGBT movement? The chapters in this book unequivocally show we were. If we take the second half of the twentieth century, from the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, where there is little documented presence of queer Brown members; to the next four lesbian and gay marches; to the shortage of leadership positions for Latina/o queers at organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), we can indeed see a general pattern of marginal participation, although that pattern is beginning to shift. Queer Brown Voices builds on the initial issue of invisibility (the yes or no type of question), and moves beyond it to explore the factors, political atmosphere, and social elements that fostered the emergence of queer Latina/o organizing in the last three decades of the twentieth century (the how and where—in other words, which forces influenced such emergence). We seek to show that the contemporary gay movement, emergent since the 1960s–1970s, as well as the fight for civil rights, the quest for social justice in Central America, the relationship some queer Latinas/os had to solidarity in Cuba and proindependence in Puerto Rico, and the challenges they faced in their work with the struggles of “third-world women,” were elements that influenced some of these activists’ paths, a conclusion not only manifest in this volume but also in others (see Ramirez-Valles 2011). In these, and in other personal narratives, it becomes evident that work within other progressive movements influenced the decision of Latina/o queers to organize around sexuality, gender, and race.

. . .

Queering Brown Issues

Anger fueled many of this book’s contributors (see the chapter by José Gutiérrez particularly, but also David Acosta, Dennis Medina, and Moisés Agosto-Rosario), as did frustration and first-hand experiences with discrimination (see chapters by Olga Orraca Paredes, Gloria Ramirez, Luz Guerra, and Leti Gomez). Refusing to serve as a translator (as Moisés Agosto-Rosario did with ACT UP) and instead forming one’s own political platform are queer acts based on anger at being reduced to a peripheral role rather than being given an equal chance to hold a position of leadership. Queer in this case is about establishing an area of expertise and interest by and for oneself and not coordinated or decided by others—and doing so without apology.

Some of the chapters illustrate processes of racialization (the act of being marked, some say raced, by virtue of one’s phenotypic characteristics, accent, way of dressing, etc.) that clearly go beyond national identity. Moisés Agosto-Rosario, a very light-skinned, blue-eyed Puerto Rican, illustrates the challenges of moving to the United States and beginning to identify not only as Latina/o but as a person of color;²0 Adela Vázquez, too, describes the processes of being marked as a person of color in U.S. society, while noting that for many Latinas/os there is a common erasure of the blackness inherited by many of us. And in various narratives from activists in Texas (Cháirez, Medina, and Gomez), we see the necessary move from one’s social location as Chicana/o or Tejana/o to becoming Latina/o in order to build a movement based on Latina/o experience. These stories queer what it means to be racialized in U.S. society when you are not a white or a black USAmerican. More broadly, the politics of race and people of color, not as a skin color– based identity, but as a coalitional one, are seen in the contributions of David Acosta, Gloria Ramirez, Luz Guerra, Mona Noriega, and Laura Esquivel.

The topic of gender equality and the need for gender spaces is something we see implicitly in Gloria Ramirez’s chapter, but it is most explicit in Laura Esquivel’s contribution. We also see this in the context of Latina/o spaces—how leadership and retreat events were often organized for Latinas/os only and the negotiations that were required with participants’ non-Latina/o partners. These processes of enunciation of one’s own space offered opportunities to talk, to truly discuss the meaning of diversity and of organizing along gender or ethnic lines, and thus enhanced organizing for LGBT Latina/o communities.

Queer and Brown are here ways of twisting and troubling the normal assumptions about both sexuality and race, for LGBT Latinas/os initially, but in the long run for all. We saw these processes take place as we edited and compiled this work. And as such, we see the challenges and richness that result when organizing is embedded with processes of queering Brown and when organizers challenge, by merely being nonnormative, the status quo in Latina/o spaces and in “mainstream” LGBT spaces. We conclude by turning to our process of reconstructing this history through these narratives.

Continuing To Document Our Histories

Whether oral history interview or first-person written narrative, the storytelling in these chapters is but a fraction of the history being told. Reconstructing history through checking facts is not the same strategy as remembering events and naming names. We have sought to do both in order to stay true to the recollection of events and, to the extent possible, have verified through other sources the veracity of many of these events. We have contacted additional activists, sought archives (in Austin and San Francisco), and repeatedly asked the contributors to do the same in order to guarantee a triangulation of information. But memory is never complete; it never is the now, the present, nor can it be fully recaptured. These are, in the end, incomplete pieces of a puzzle that merits the effort of pulling them together in order to achieve a queer futurity of then and there (Muñoz 2009).

Queer Brown Voices’ contributors are Latina/o lesbian, gay, and transgender activists from cities such as Houston, San Francisco, New York, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Austin, and Chicago. Some talk about their experiences of living in Puerto Rico, a country with a highly complex relationship with the United States and linked in many ways to its Latina/o queer politics.²¹ The contributors are Mexican American, Chicana/o, Tejana/o, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, and Cuban. They have been involved with LGBT-advocacy groups, human-rights groups, and other movements since the late 1970s through to the 1990s (and many continue such work in the present). Most of our contributors have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, with many being exposed to an exchange of ideas common in educational (and related progressive) settings. We sought gender parity, trans inclusion, and various levels of socioeconomic experiences. Yet as editors, we must insist that this book is a primer for the work ahead and that we need many more volumes, archives, and published works that show the value of these earlier generations of LGBT Latina/o activists.

In the stories that follow, the discrimination experienced by the contributors is divided almost in half in terms of discrimination based on Latina/o identity versus discrimination based on gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation. But there is also a strong sense of pride, of participation in a shared Latina/o culture that in many instances cuts through the discrimination faced. It is that richness that we envision will offer a more grounded sense of what organizing meant for Latina/o LGBT people during the decades covered in this book. Some chapters center on the story of a person, and how that individual’s sense of life and commitment to justice came about and influenced his or her work in an organization or as part of a movement; others showcase the history of an organization and weave the individual’s life and personal story as a secondary telling that emerges through the organization’s story. In either scenario you can see issues such as micropolitics, discrimination (on account of being a woman, LGBT, or Latina/o in male, mainstream Latina/o, or gay white spaces), and strategic mobilization across the work of the organization or movement. Some of the chapters show coalition building among feminists, women of color, and people of color, a type of organizing that was less common than other types in gay and lesbian circles at the time, and still is.

Like the incredible work produced by Horacio Roque Ramírez, both alone ([2015], 2011, 2008, 2007, 2005) and in collaboration (Roque Ramírez and Boyd 2012), as well as newer oral history and archives scholarship (for a recent case, see Torres 2014), we aim to promote greater recognition of the socially relevant issues found in these personal, yet never individual, accounts. Again, our focus on these activists should only be considered a primer for more scholarship and activist work to intersect. At the same time, we consider these contributors to be an incredible source of resilience; simply, a combined force of greater magnitude—larger than each of their individual narratives. Herein lies the power of the research and writing we share with you, the perseverance of an insightful and resourceful multilayered activism.

We count on a generation of scholars, activists, scholar-activists, curators, and archivists to continue to ask questions, to gently probe the stories told, and to insist on writing queer—in brown ink. More than for mere enjoyment, the pages ahead remember, recount, and reconstitute the critical junctures Latina/o LGBT activists faced in their work in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Of course, the stories we compile here are provided for readers to discuss, to dissent, and in sum to engage with— that is ultimately a radical way of making history. Enjoy these other, less told histories.

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