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Queer Brown Voices

Queer Brown Voices
Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism

Essays chronicling the experiences of fourteen Latina/o LGBT activists present a new perspective on the hitherto-marginalized history of their work in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

September 2015
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
272 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 b&w photos |

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, LGBT Latinas/os faced several forms of discrimination. The greater Latino community did not often accept sexual minorities, and the mainstream LGBT movement expected everyone, regardless of their ethnic and racial background, to adhere to a specific set of priorities so as to accommodate a “unified” agenda. To disrupt the cycle of sexism, racism, and homophobia that they experienced, LGBT Latinas/os organized themselves on local, state, and national levels, forming communities in which they could fight for equal rights while simultaneously staying true to both their ethnic and sexual identities. Yet histories of LGBT activism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s often reduce the role that Latinas/os played, resulting in misinformation, or 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.


2016 Ruth Benedict Prize for “Outstanding Edited Volume”

  • Preface by Letitia Gomez
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Brown Writing Queer: A Composite of Latina/o LGBT Activism, by Salvador Vidal-Ortiz
  • Luz Guerra. Dancing at the Crossroads: Mulata, Mestiza, Macha, Mujer
  • Dennis Medina. We Are a Part of the History of Texas That You Must Not Exclude!
  • Jesús Cháirez. From the Closet to LGBT Radio Host in Dallas
  • Laura M. Esquivel. An East L.A. Warrior Who Bridged the Latina/o and the Gay Worlds
  • Brad Veloz. A South Texas Activist in Washington, D.C., Houston, and San Antonio
  • David Acosta. The Boy in Fear Who Became a Latino/a LGBT Advocate in Philadelphia
  • Letitia Gomez. No te rajes—Don’t Back Down! Daring to Be Out and Visible
  • Mona Noriega. Creating Spaces to Break the Circle of Silence and Denial
  • Gloria A. Ramirez. The Queer Roots of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas
  • Moisés Agosto-Rosario. Latinas/os and the AIDS Treatment Advocacy Movement
  • José Gutiérrez. We Must Preserve Our Latina/o LGBT History
  • Olga Orraca Paredes. All the Identities on the Table: Power, Feminism, and LGBT Activism in Puerto Rico
  • Wilfred W. Labiosa. Visibility, Inclusivity, and the Fight for LGBT Rights in New England
  • Adela Vásquez. Finding a Home in Transgender Activism in San Francisco
  • Conclusion by Uriel Quesada
  • Index

New Orleans, Louisiana

Quesada is associate dean of the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, an associate professor of Spanish, and director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Loyola University New Orleans.

Washington, DC

Gomez has been a Latina lesbian activist for over thirty years. She was a cofounder and an executive director of LLEGÓ, the first national Latina/o LGBT organization.

Washington, DC

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

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.

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 movie Milk. 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.

Queer Brown Voices  fills a gap in the activist literature on multiidentity politics while it links to academic areas such as ethnicity, race, immigration, sexuality, and gender. This book engages sociology, anthropology, history, American studies, women’s and feminist studies, LGBT/sexualities studies, and AIDS cultural studies by weaving these local stories into a minoritarian reading of activism seldom encountered in academic circles. Oftentimes, in academic work that engages the voices of queers of color, LGBT identities are foregrounded, and ethnoracial experiences are ignored; in addition, gender discussions might be suppressed for the sake of unifying the narratives (to produce a singular voice of “unity”). This book aims to incorporate all the “selves” of those telling the first-person accounts; it shows the complex experiences of several activists because those experiences need to be told. It also, and perhaps most importantly, begins to compose a missing history of late twentieth-century Latina/o LGBT movements and community organizing in the United States and Puerto Rico. There are too many first moments, too many organizations, and way too many activists’ his/herstories. We are only beginning to draft such a history here, and we encourage others to continue this work by expanding the timeframe we set out to include in these chapters.

In what follows you will see the chapters ordered chronologically; the activists’ first involvement in Latina/o LGBT activism served as our criteria. These stories address challenges such as lacking family support, growing up facing discrimination (as Latinas/os in predominantly white spaces, as women in predominantly male spaces, and as gay people in predominantly Latina/o spaces), embracing sexuality or gender identity, challenging heteronormative or racist assumptions, and dealing with the impact of AIDS. As you will see, these stories are, and are not, singular voices: while they do not seek to represent the communities from which they come, the stories do bridge groups of activists from many U.S. cities and Puerto Rico, effectively creating a web of social movements through the personal telling of each individual narrative. This telling, however, is multilayered—and intersectionality and queer studies are critical tools for understanding the impact of these complex narratives.

Intersectionality And Latina/o, Queer, And Feminist Theory

As editors, we initially approached this project through a lens of intersectionality, which we take to mean the connecting and coproducing ways in which a difference-turned-inequality is enacted, either conceptually (in terms of prejudice and stereotyping) or behaviorally (in terms of discrimination) (for a similar interpretation, see Grzanka 2014). Intersectionality as a concept operates in terms of both multiple identities (and more importantly, the crossing and connecting of these identities to make for a complex social location faced with layers of privilege and oppression) as well as the structural elements that impact someone’s life.

Although intersectionality was initially a feminist of color project developed by Crenshaw (1991) and Collins (2000), it is oftentimes presented as a strictly feminist project devoid of any racial markings. A complex proposal indeed, intersectionality aims to show the praxis, the method, and the theory of these multiply-lived locations, power-based structures, and related social arrangements. Its value perhaps resides in the instability of its aim in seeking to locate a multiply-layered subject, its sources of oppression, the possibilities for liberation, and the systems through which that power is set up and sustained.

While debate exists about the possible reach of the field and whether or not sexuality is an appropriate dimension of intersectionality, the theory, as a framework, has influenced the work of queer scholars. Of particular note are examinations of queer diasporas (Patton and Sánchez-Eppler 2000; Gopinath 2005), queer migrations (Luibheid and Cantú 2005; Cantú 2009), and the queer of color critique (Ferguson 2004; Muñoz 1999; see also Muñoz 2009). The latter becomes central to our understanding not of identity crossings and structural issues but of oppressive systems of heteronormativity, whiteness, and misogyny, as noted in Muñoz (1999). This book thus grounds its work not only on intersectionality for the sake of speaking to multiple identities, as intersectionality might be read by some, but on the queer of color critique for simultaneously thinking of racial and sexual formations in the United States (Ferguson 2004) and on the promise of a possible better future, always unattainable and yet conceptually feasible—a set of actions, hopes, and thoughts that reach for the “then and there” of Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (2009). This book enacts the quest for a more equal world, one where Latina/o LGBT people are not effaced by such pervasive whiteness in social movements (Bérubé 2001) or for the sake of more recent attempts to multiculturalize difference and thus render racism, sexism, and other elements out of a register with gayness.

Queer Brown Voices, like an array of other recent work, puts Latina/o studies and queer studies in conversation with one another (Lima and Picano 2011; Cantú 2009; Hames-García and Martínez 2011). Partly because of differences in genre, partly because of our focus on a balance that incorporates cisgender male, cisgender female, and trans Latinas/os, and partly because our book views social movements through a personal lens, our method of using first-person accounts loops back into Moraga and Anzaldúa’s work (1981; see also Alexander 2005; Guzmán 2006; and Perez 2005). The next section elaborates on the use of personal accounts to theorize the social.

From Personal Stories To Social Movements

By telling the his/herstory of Latina/o LGBT activism through first-person accounts in the form of testimonios, autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories, we aim to show a composite of stories that link to each other in different ways: through shared political issues, other activists and organizations, or discriminatory practices experienced by more than one activist. Thus this volume follows in a tradition of Latina/o writings (Latina Feminist Group 2001), Latina lesbian writings (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981), and first-person narratives (Berger and Quinney 2005), including LGBT narratives, in which the personal evokes the social; a story may begin with an individual, but it is more than just the sole narrative of the individual. (Leti Gomez addresses the issues of testimonial writing and authorship more fully in the preface.)

Personal narratives are, by necessity, a central element of the book. It was our belief that a collection of stories, along with archival-based visual documentation (of the contributors or the organizations they were involved with) would provide the book with a significantly new and perhaps more complex version of events while remaining, as other oral history scholars have suggested, simple in its implementation (Janesick 2007; 2011). We sought stories that, if powerfully told, would provide enough detail and description to illustrate broader social issues through first-person accounts. We caution the reader that even though these stories use the concept of “I” in their making, they are not just singular stories; instead they represent a complex set of elements, including experiences of social marginalization (based on gender, sexuality, or ethnoracial identification); of living in the flesh and of desire; of growing pains and successful turnarounds; and of organizing people from different backgrounds to work for a cause (or set of causes).

We sought to avoid the social/cultural history division as framed by, on the one hand, memory studies (where wars, the Holocaust, and the ending of communism in Eastern Europe serve as significant markers—what is, for some, the official history) and, on the other, the tradition of oral history (itself rooted in democratization processes, decolonization, and the feminist movement from the 1960s) and the ways both of these approaches have been used (Hamilton and Shopes 2008, ix–xi). We view these first-person accounts as bridging from the phenomenological sense of experience and the stories told by individuals (important in oral histories) to the broader purpose of accounting for social, economic, cultural, geopolitical, and other structural elements (key to memory studies). This bridge between the individual and the social is a central reason for our use of personal narratives to tell the story.

First-person accounts have been common for gays and lesbians as a “self-writing” of one’s biography (Cohler 2008) that documents experiences of being a member of a minority group, living with HIV, or having someone near to oneself die of AIDS; sexual stories, in particular, have a longstanding value for sexual minorities as telling both the everyday and the so-called intimate (Plummer 1995). We conceived of oral history in particular, a qualitative research method, as a great way to articulate the struggles, successes, and historical elements of any given organization or movement; and we thought the first-person narratives would provide an exercise resembling autoethnography (see Ruiz-Junco and Vidal-Ortiz 2011), an increasingly recognized method in the humanities and the social sciences. Writing first-person accounts resulted in an exercise of verifying facts, as did the oral histories.

In particular, we wanted to bridge previous work on the use of personal stories in order to discuss social issues that were relevant to Latina/o LGBT activists from the 1970s to the 1990s, thus considering social movements beyond “mainstream” portrayals. First-person accounts that illustrate a narrative development, a series of struggles, a link (as indirect as it may be) between a person’s formation and his or her participation in a movement or organization, or a significant outcome on the notion of the “self ” based on that participation are the type of accounts that help social science and humanities scholars, as well as activists (and the scholar-activists “caught” in between), to understand the impact of a given movement. In sum, we view oral history, like Janesick (2007; 2011), as a social-justice project and value the use of first-person narratives as sources to better understand inequality, and pride, today.

We wished to connect the workings of small-scale social movements (of social, cultural, and political groups composed of Latina/o LGBT people) with that historical moment of the last decades of the twentieth century: the proliferation of movements and 501(c)(3) community-based organizations on a quest for LGBT Latina/o rights. And so these stories undoubtedly have to address what we call the “corporatization” of movements and activism, which, along with an understanding of the workings of social-movement groups, is the topic to which we turn next.

Movements For Social Change in The Late Twentieth Century

As you will see in some of these chapters, the work in the 1970s and 1980s was done by word of mouth, with little resources. Meetings and conferences at that time depended on personal funds and the dovetailing of objectives (e.g., activists attending a “gay and lesbian” March on Washington would also convene for the purposes of international or U.S. Latina/o organizing). Cell phones were of course not yet developed, and the lack of networking technology impacted the level of organizing done locally.

Undoubtedly, too, the impact of AIDS was felt among all communities of color beginning in the 1980s. The sources of AIDS-related funds (for prevention, technical assistance, care, etc.) that emerged in the late 1980s were instrumental in funding (and sometimes organizing) LGBT Latina/o groups. In addition, the world of philanthropy and foundations supported a lot of sustainable development of these groups. While major donors funded (sometimes after dying) “mainstream” organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Latina/o LGBT groups faced limited funding due to lack of available resources in an economically disadvantaged community. Our communities responded in innovative ways to support the already visible work of organizations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. LLEGÓ, for instance, utilized some of the funding they received in the mid-1990s to offer seed funds as technical assistance to community-based Latina/o LGBT groups.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there seemed to be a boom in the number of local Latina/o LGBT groups emerging. At that time a lot of people, myself included, were paid to be “professional Latina/o queers.” (While the term “queer” was still potentially radical in the mid-1990s, it was, to some extent, used as shorthand for LGBT.) The government and corporations began to pitch in—although not everyone benefited, since not a lot of lesbianand trans-specific funding was available, and there were politics around funding for HIV/AIDS that only or mostly affected (nontrans) gay men. For instance, Adela Vázquez notes how she was the first trans woman hired at Proyecto Contra SIDA Por Vida—with funding allocated for “men who have sex with men” (MSM), which brought significant challenges to activists who believed that such funding needed to only go to gay men’s services.¹8 Laura Esquivel, too, talks about the challenges of the professionalization of the Latina/o LGBT movement in Los Angeles, precisely at a historical moment when local groups were facing a transition from grassroots to professional networking. That change is discussed next.

How Organizations Change And Shape A Movement

The 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence and professionalization of a movement that was originally focused on action and activist mobilization. While the midand late 1970s witnessed small grassroots efforts to organize locally, because of a number of factors addressed below, the last two decades of the twentieth century became a battleground for the establishment and institutionalization of larger units that sought to give the broadest possible visibility to Latina/o LGBT people, as well as to other people of color groups, through the nonprofit system. This process began before the 1980s, in the 1950s and 1960s, but was rooted in previous historical moments.

As Luz Guerra, one of our contributors and a consultant for many progressive organizations, notes in her evaluation of progressive funders and the designation of technical-assistance services for communities of color,¹9 this move to become “official” is the inherent process of “internalization of structures of domination” (Guerra 1999, 34) to which many movements fall prey (domination here might be read as a certain domesticity that suppresses different cultural or operational values). Even groups that are not trying to operate as nonprofits are often coached (through technical assistance, training, and strategic-planning processes, for instance) to imitate corporate models of the agencies that do register and apply for 501(c)(3) status. According to Guerra’s report, this process is part and parcel of the “NGOization” of the movements that started much earlier in the century with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which eliminated traditional forms of indigenous governance by imposing, for instance, corporate-board-style leadership and majority voting (35). Guerra points to a link between government reorganization of indigenous groups and the reorganization of the social movements fighting for radical change; the founding, and later funding, of nonprofit organizations was one way of engaging with a forced restructuring to adhere to the “mainstream” (in this case, legal, capitalist-driven goals) expectations of governance and leadership that Guerra deems colonizing (including, as noted before, styles of leadership and forms of decision making). Moreover, because the 501(c)(3) status of nonprofits prohibits direct involvement in political activity (Smith 2007), the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that achieve 501(c)(3) status are made to act in docile ways toward the capitalist agents that, oftentimes, such communities organized against in the first place.

This “NGOization” requires shifting goals and developing agendas with aims, deliverables, and outcomes. It also requires donors, external funding (often in the form of external grants, a time-consuming enterprise in and of itself), and a board or advisory body that may oversee the implementation of the vision and mission of the organization. The people involved in the everyday operations of NGOs have what Guerra calls “the pressure to manage two different spheres of work”:

One sphere has to do with developing organizational capacity, and building and maintaining institutions. These are skills that are typically considered under the rubric of “organizational development,” and include how to run an activist nonprofit organization, how to structure and work with that organization’s leadership, how to ensure that staff and volunteers have the skills needed for their day-to-day work—both internal to the organization and in their program work—and how to finance our activist work and sustain our organizations. The second sphere of work extends outside of our organizations to the broader movements for social change; rather than institutional capacity, it is concerned with “movement building for the long haul.” This sphere includes how we gain the skills we need to maintain ourselves and our communities beyond our organization, how to collectively plan and work for social change, and how to build massbased movements to sustain our vision. (Guerra 1999, 27)

From the interviews she conducted, Guerra noted how activists, funders, and technical-assistance providers all spoke about the challenges of developing a radical “world changing” agenda (political education) while working toward the next payroll commitment (running an agency). Moreover, there is a challenge to consciously fight racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia among the staff of an organization, the executive office, the board of directors (or any other body serving in an advisory or “oversight” capacity), and the organization’s constituents. It is this dual project of serving broader social-change goals while paying staff ’s salary and the office rent that is (to some) a necessary evil (for a debate, see Smith 2007), one that absolutely changes the conditions of sustaining a social-change agenda. In the following chapters you will see how this applies to LLEGÓ as a federally funded agency, but you will also read about it in terms of the toll taken on the lives, relationships, and social worlds of these Latina/o LGBT activists. This “NGOization” is only one of the elements linked to the corporatization of LGBT Latina/o movements, the topic discussed below.

Corporatization Of Movements And Activism

Jane Ward’s Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations (2008) is relevant to this discussion as well. Her research, based on ethnographic participation and interviews, links three Greater Los Angeles nonprofits: the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center (the country’s oldest LGBT community-service center), Christopher Street West (the organization in charge of organizing the city’s Pride events), and Bienestar (a Latina/o health initiative focused primarily on Latino gay men). Ward’s goal is to push the envelope in terms of the (already discussed) concept of intersectionality by looking at the challenges that diversity poses in these organizations. She also exposes neoliberal ideology in an identity-politics framework based on sexuality (the three organizations focus on LGBT or sexuality issues), where diversity becomes consumption (of otherness), different class status becomes a deficit (for the working class), and gender inequality is not an element addressed in such spaces (rendering women’s health issues, and women, invisible). Diversity is commodified in these LGBT spaces through an effort to professionalize and legitimize the organizations within a businesslike model so as to enhance their public image. Ward asks, “What is (still) queer about queer approaches to difference?” In posing that question she bridges the limits of intersectionality (the classic study of race, class, and gender as the central axes of social life and analysis) with the three empirical sites, which focus primarily on sexuality and thus with a queer theoretical formulation of identity slippages and elusiveness. And she notes the challenges of intersectionality at every turn of the research, in that multi-issue politics are quite difficult to manage in these sites. Her concept of “queer intersectionality” inspires our thoughts about the organizing challenges, and community successes, of the communities represented in this volume’s narratives.

Laura Esquivel recounts here her experiences of racism at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center; fast forward two decades and we see the establishment of a “diversity day” at the center, which most people of color interviewed by Ward viewed as an imposition of corporate cultural values (to respect diversity), while the organization’s structural elements (who held the decision-making power) remained untouched. (Work on organizations shows that there is no change, and that institutions remain as racist as they were before, when they only include people of color in front-desk and low-managerial positions.) The businesslike model of treating diversity issues like a written quarterly report is instrumental in understanding how the corporatization of these LGBT organizations impacts queer people of color.

Taken together, Guerra’s report and Ward’s research articulate some of the same challenges faced by the contributors to this book: Olga Orraca Paredes shows the tension created by having to prioritize between organizational sustainment and social change in her work as a LLEGÓ board member; we also see this in Adela Vázquez’s narrative about working for a project that struggled to provide services while having a social-change agenda; and Letitia Gomez articulates the challenges of activists becoming professionalized while lacking the necessary tools to run an agency.

LLEGÓ and other, more local, organizations faced these challenges—and endured them—for decades; some organizations morphed into new projects (Proyecto Contra SIDA Por Vida, for example, has been revived through El/La, a trans-Latina group in San Francisco’s Mission District), while others closed their doors—with LLEGÓ doing so in 2004. Many of these groups were social, sociocultural, and political (non-AIDS-service organizations or nongovernmental organizations). While many of these movements owe much funding, technical assistance, and even their very existence to HIV/AIDS funding, a lot of other (nonpaid) organizing has also taken place—and remains. Perhaps because there were multiple types of mobilizations during the 1980s and 1990s (from AIDS activism, community organizing, NGOs, and politics, to someone’s home cooking as a basis for mobilization), some have survived. Mona Noriega’s chapter, for instance, discusses social gatherings and food preparation for Latina lesbian peers, a model that continues to be used to this day.

Ward’s and Guerra’s work invites us, as editors, to think about a queerness that is not implicitly white, but intentionally Brown—and a Brownness that shows the intersectional limitations of the people and organizing efforts we illustrate here. Because of the uses and applicability of “queer” in these chapters, what follows is a discussion of complicating queer and Brown as elements that articulate each other, sometimes in and through each other.

Ways Of Doing Queer And Brown

Queer Brown Voices takes inspiration from the possibilities of queer as a destabilizer of identities, or as an indicator of what is slippery, excessive, and thus uncontainable by identity frameworks (such as LGBT). Queer has two meanings in this volume: first, the common usage, as shorthand for LGBT (a nontheoretical use), and second, as a verb, to mean the act of queering something. The instances when an action does queer something are most productive to us in this book. Queer is also a concept that responds to, although almost in opposition, homonormative forms of being gay (and of living gayness), forms that reproduce normative binary forms of gender (male/masculine, female/feminine), sexuality (monogamous, within marriage/the couple, etc.), and even race and class (well-to-do-white as a norm of what is read socially and culturally as being gay).

Along the same lines, we see Brown as queer because it serves to destabilize categories too: in the case of the United States, Brown serves as a rupture between the white/black binary of its racial system. Brown bodies are those bodies that break away from the expectation of whiteness as the norm. Yet Brown bodies are also queered in that they are seen as suspicious, as already delinquent, especially in relation to immigration but also to not fully participating in U.S. citizenry. As Gomez illustrates in her chapter when talking about the Washington, D.C., of the 1980s, to be either queer or Brown was a source of potential harassment; either one was enough of an outsider marker to place people at risk of facing violence. Brown also helps us debunk the simple gayequals-white perception of gay movements; by refuting the invisibility of Latina/o queers, Brown emerges as a new form of thinking beyond gayness (even when Latina/o bodies may inhabit the sign of gayness).

Among our contributors, most squarely assume a gay or lesbian identity. (A minority used queer to denote their identity, or moved from gay or lesbian to queer.) Yet there are several ways in which that gay or lesbian identity is destabilized: the contributors’ Latina/o backgrounds impact the ways they experience gayness and how they assume their identities; their sense of being gay or lesbian is impacted by the ways in which whiteness erases their own sense of self; finally, they expressed that they have to exclude a part of their selves in order to participate in the normative ways gayness is portrayed in contemporary U.S. society. But the contributors often queer Brown by way of their acts— from simple forms of socializing and organizing (with queer acts such as sponsoring bailes with rancheras and other Latina/o music, and doing so in Latina/o neighborhoods despite being cautioned of supposed homophobia in Latina/o communities) to their broader vision of the movement.

As activists, many of the contributors whose identities might have been noted as gay or lesbian were thinking of queerness within a political milieu that assumed sexuality as the beginning, not the end point of their activism (see chapters by Dennis Medina and Gloria Ramirez). They queer Brown as they make sense of a political agenda that may be about, at the time, Central American or Cuban solidarity, gender parity, transnational linkages, or even pornography and the erotic (we see these most saliently in the contributions of Gloria Ramirez and Luz Guerra, although we see the sense of political urgency to connect U.S. sexuality struggles with other struggles in chapters by David Acosta, Jesús Cháirez, and other contributors).

Queer Brown organizing almost always responds to the (seemingly innocent) question posed by white gays and lesbians: “Why would you organize by yourselves? You are being separatists!” Many of us have experienced the anger that erupts after that demand for “unity,” even more so when an answer has been offered to try and explain why it is necessary. Brown thus serves as a reminder to “mainstream” LGBT movements that there are other issues besides sexuality—and as we see in Ward’s work, those who challenge that (white) norm by bringing up race, ethnicity, gender, or class may feel the response from entitled white LGBT “leaders” whose job becomes to mark queer Brown organizing as delinquent.

Take multi-issue women-led organizing as a prime example. The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has always been a queer Brown space, not an LGBT space—and has been made to pay for it by some in the San Antonio white gay establishment who attempted to censor and defund the center’s work. Queer there, as in other chapters, is a political formation that connects sexuality to many other issues and does not privilege sexuality, or sexual orientation, as the prime reason for organizing. In a way, what fuels the anger of many white gay leaders in these instances is that sexuality is not voiced centrally, in what Manolo Guzmán (2006) has noted as “the love that cannot stand not being not named.”

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.


“While Queer Brown Voices is likely to become a seminal text in college and university queer studies programs, its conversational tone makes it compelling for a general reader as well.”
The Guardian

“The creation of Queer Brown Voices is itself a kind of activism; it renders visible the challenges faced by Latina/o queer communities in decades past as well as their robust efforts to pave the way for a more just future.”
Texas Observer

“Filled with insights.”
Bitch Media

Queer Brown Voices is a unique book that does a good job in documenting Latina/o LGBT experiences with grassroots organizations, local, state, and federally funded programs. This book is recommended if you are interested in learning about the 1980s, and 1990s organizing and issues faced by LGBT Latina/o activists. ”
QED Journal

“A major contribution to feminist and queer Latin@ activist thinking. It will be a very pleasurable text to teach in courses ranging from queer theory, to introduction to LGBT studies, to introduction to Latino studies.”
Carlos Ulises Decena, Associate Professor, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University, and author of Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men

“These narratives are powerful expressions of the experiences of lesbians, gay men, and trans activists from a variety of Latina/o communities. This history exists nowhere else.”
Marcia M. Gallo, Assistant Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement