Last fall the Queens-based Group Colombia, Love, Strength, and Drive––or Grupo CAFÉ, as it is known by its Spanish-language acronym—put together a drag queen beauty pageant show that rivaled any in recent memory.
Javier Muñoz, one of the top beauty pageant costume designers in Colombia offered his services to the winning contestant and the event was a key topic of conversation throughout Queens for the next few weeks. Most notably, the event did not take place at a gay bar, nor did it draw a mostly gay crowd. The setting was the popular Natives family restaurant on Northern Boulevard, which specializes in Colombian food, and many of the 400 spectators were straight couples with their children.
It’s not the first time. The now-defunct Venezuela Gay and Lesbian Association used to stage drag beauty pageants at a church hall on the Lower East Side which drew similarly mixed straight-gay crowds and, for more than a decade, the Gay and Lesbian Dominican Empowerment organization, or GALDE, has also drawn hundreds to their annual community picnic held under the magnificent George Washington Bridge—and not necessarily just gays and lesbians.
These events never fail to amaze me. When we are constantly reminded that Latinos might be more homophobic than other cultures or that few of us live an open life in our neighborhoods, the moment I see an abuelita––a grandma–– standing up, clapping, and cheering for one of the drag contestants to win in a beauty pageant, it confirms my perception that the community is far more welcoming than we are led to believe. This is why, when I think about these events, I also think about marriage, even if I am also keenly aware that there is no general consensus regarding the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Latino community.
If the marriage issue has crystalized anything about people of color communities so far, it has been the conservative religious right’s masterful use of our media and religious institutions to advance their vitriolic views. By hiring Spanish-language spokespeople such as former Take Back Miami-Dade leader Eladio José Armesto, organizations such as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family took the lead in shaping the dialogue on marriage in Latino communities with little initial opposition.
It took a while for some of the national LGBT advocacy organizations to realize just how quickly the religious right moved in to shape our community’s response to the issue. Give credit to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, and its people of color media director, Monica Taher, who made it possible to organize an informal meeting between New York’s Mano a Mano and Miami’s Unity Coalition and Save Dade to develop a media strategy which enabled us to mount an aggressive early media response.
Similarly, when the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders joined forces with homophobic New York State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. and organized a rally in front of the Bronx Courthouse in March of 2004 that drew more than 5,000 people in support of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, it was also members of local community organizations that responded. Among them: Las Buenas Amigas, Latino Gay Men of New York, Bronx AIDS Services, the Bronx Lesbian & Gay Health Resources Consortium, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, the Audre Lorde Project, Mano a Mano, and Marriage Equality New York. Not all these organizations believe that the right to marry for same-sex couples is a priority, but all certainly understood the importance of challenging the religious right’s inroad into our communities.
It is now 2006 and the landscape has changed. The National Black Justice Coalition and the National Latino Coalition for Justice now fight for marriage equality from a minority community perspective. Lambda Legal, the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and other national advocacy organizations have made it a priority to engage the minority community in their marriage-related efforts. Locally, the Empire State Pride Agenda has launched a “Marriage Ambassadors” community gatekeeper initiative which includes Latino gay and non-gay leaders such as Carolina Cordero-Dyer and Nila Marrone.
I truly believe that the Latino community at large is more open on the issue of same-sex marriage than is perceived and that its members are hungry for information that will shape their views. In this sense, limited campaigns by national organizations targeting Latino communities will hopefully change the view of some people in our communities.
And yet, when I attend events such as those put together by Grupo CAFÉ or GALDE, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. To my knowledge, neither of these local grassroot organizations, nor any of the ones that have given us support in rallies, has received any resources or funding to work specifically on issues related to marriage equality with the communities we know best—our own. And I can’t help but feel that, as commendable as the campaigns by larger state and national organizations may be, we are ultimately bound to fail if grassroots support is not significantly engaged.
Andres Duque is the director of Mano a Mano, a network of New York City based Latino LGBT organizations, and serves on the founding committee of the National Latino Coalition for Justice. He is also a “Marriage Ambassador” for the Empire State Pride Agenda, which—along with Lambda Legal and the ACLU—will be hosting a “Conversations on Marriage” training specifically for people of color community members, on March 17 and 18. For more information on the training, visit prideagenda.org.