After Orlando shooting, LA LGBT Latinos seek safe spaces to mourn
Three days after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a small crowd gathered on the steps of San Fernando City Hall.
About 200 mostly Latino attendees listened to a reading of the victims' names – Perez, Mendez, Leon, Velasquez, Carrillo – names that sounded much like their own. While salsa music played in the background, some of them wept.
As the victims were identified in the days following the Orlando shooting, it became clear that many were Latino — about 90 percent when all were counted. Among them were immigrants and children of immigrants.
For many LGBT Latinos in Los Angeles, the massacre of 49 people by a lone gunman hit extremely close to home. The event stirred feelings of fear they too may be targeted, but it also generated emotions tied to sometimes difficult experiences in acknowledging their sexual orientation, especially to family.
“There are people out there feeling isolated," said Kevin Perez, 24, one of the organizers of the San Fernando vigil. "They are in their rooms, they are in in the closet. They are scared to just walk outside that door, next to where their parents are, outside ... They don’t know how to deal with their expression, their identity.”
For many LGBT Latinos, safe spaces are in short supply -- places and events where they can be free to talk about their identity, fears, grief, and sadness that some feel because of their estrangement from parents and other family members.
Last year, Perez co-founded a grassroots LGBT Latino group called Somos Familia Valle to help fill the void.
Over the past several days, Perez and other local Latino LGBT activists have worked to create gatherings like vigils, community meetings, and even discussions in private homes where people can talk about Orlando and the feelings that the tragedy stirred.
“I wanted to have this movement because I didn’t have family acceptance at home," said Perez, who grew up in a Guatemalan immigrant family in the San Fernando Valley.
"What sets us apart is that we come from a culture that really focuses on family," he said of LBGT Latinos. "And then once we are LGBT, it’s not there. That is what makes us sad, and that is what makes us grieve. That is what makes us run away. That is what makes us not feel accepted.”
Maylei Blackwell, an associate professor of Chicano/Chicana studies and gender studies at UCLA, said for some LGBT Latinos, family and social challenges can be overwhelming.
In Latin America, many gay Latinos face discrimination at home and in their communities, she said. A machismo culture dominates and they may face religious, largely Catholic, strictures.
When gay Latinos immigrate to the U.S., the isolation they feel is magnified by the issues of arriving in a new country, perhaps illegally, or after fleeing danger in Latin America.
Discrimination in his native Peru is what led Ronnie Veliz of Somos Familia Valle to the United States in his late teens. In the days since the Orlando massacre, he’s wondered how many of the victims walked a path similar to his.
“My experience as an immigrant was focused on escaping a country that had no rights for me," said Veliz, 31. He said he left Peru because he said he felt unsafe there. "I came here for greater life expectancy, because my people kept dying ... what unites us is the fact that we know what oppression feels like."
Blackwell said the attack at Pulse came as a double blow to LGBT Latinos. Not only did it take place in a gay nightclub that many thought of as safe, but it occurred during an event billed as a “Latin night.”
“I think this really hits a raw note for people because there is a specificity to the kind of gathering it was,” Blackwell said.
Dealing with the shock of the Orlando shooting may be especially hard for young people. Last week, at Mi Centro, a center for gay youth and their parents, LGBT teens and young adults grieved during a weekly meeting.
“We heard a lot of pain,” said Juan Castillo-Alvarado, the center's education director. “We heard a lot of them being distraught, not understanding what is happening. We were looking at the names, names that sounded just like theirs.”
On Tuesday, several organizations will sponsor a community-wide meeting at Boyle Heights City Hall, where the young people and families can share their thoughts about Orlando as they talk about family acceptance, faith, homophobia, bullying and other issues that LGBT youth face.
“We need to create spaces where they can talk about it,” Castillo-Alvarado said. “They are not going to go home and say, ‘Oh, I am feeling this way,’ especially if they are not out. I’m sure they are having conversations, but I don’t know what the conversations are.”
He said he worries that negative conversations may be taking place in LGBT youths' homes, conversations in which the victims may be vilified or marginalized.
“When you hear things and you have no one to talk to about it, you need to grieve, and you need to be able to speak out. So I’m hoping that we… are going to create a safe space for them,” Castillo-Alvarado said.