Gay and Latino in Georgia

A federal judge had not decided by GA Voice press time if an injunction would be placed on the law, following a June 20 hearing in the class action suit naming Gov. Nathan Deal and state Attorney General Sam Olens among the defendants.

Those who filed the suit — including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of plaintiffs including the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights — say Georgia’s immigration law is unconstitutional because the federal government is in charge of immigration.

Those who favor the bill say illegal immigrants are putting a drain on public school systems, hospitals and even jails.

Although only 17, Palacios is out to his family and friends and is an active member of the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance that seeks “dignity and justice for the immigrant community in the state of Georgia.”

“I’m not afraid to stand to anyone so that’s a plus,” he said in an email interview.

Like many families from Mexico who moved to the U.S., Palacio’s father came first, found stable employment and a home and then the rest of the family followed.

Palacio’s father currently works as a car salesman and his mother works for a cleaning service. He came out to them when he was 15.

“My mom said she could always tell I had a ‘girly’ side to me. My dad accepts me, but he dislikes it when I ‘show it off,’” he said.

Palacios said he doesn’t know how to correct his immigration status and doesn’t want to leave the country where he has grown up.

“When someone comes to the USA, many look for the ‘American Dream’ without knowledge of some of the procedures,” he said. “My mother brought me after my dad arrived here. Their main concern was finding a roof for me and a job for them to help pay for everything. Back then immigration status wasn’t such a concern … they didn’t see it as a priority. Now I don’t even know if I can apply for anything with all of this going on.”

Parallels between immigration, anti-LGBT laws

Paulina Hernandez, 29, identifies as a queer Chicana and is co-director of Southerners on New Ground, a community organization working for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people living in the South. Hernandez and SONG have been active in working against HB 87, holding workshops for LGBT people to learn about the law and how to participate in fighting against it.

She was born in Mexico and moved to North Carolina with her mother and three brothers when she was 12. Her father, who was an engineer in Mexico, was already working on a farm in North Carolina, saving money and establishing a home.

“After NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was passed in 1993, a lot of families moved here [to the U.S.],” she said. “We ended up following him after getting all the paper work done.”

The Social Science Research Council, an independent nonprofit organization, reported on the impact of NAFTA and the South in a 2006 study. While the law passed by Congress was supposed to help Mexico’s economy, it had the opposite effect, especially on farmers who came to the U.S. looking for steady work.

“In Georgia, for example, the Latin-origin population went from 1.7 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000, a 312 percent increase due to an inflow of 300,000 persons, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, whose ‘Hispanics’ in 1990 consisted of a few wealthy Cuban and South American professionals, now have upwards of 80,000, mostly undocumented Mexican laborers,” the report stated.

At 14, Hernandez became involved in organizing for children of farm workers.

“We were first generation immigrants, we learned English for our parents,” she said.

At 19, Hernandez got a job at the Highlander Research & Education Center near New Market, Tenn., and learned about feminist organizing. She also came to grips with being queer — or at least finding a word for who she is.

“I knew I was queer. I came out in a political community. Being queer is my political identity,” she said.

However, her traditional Latino parents were not happy with this news at first.

“Your parents didn’t bring you to the U.S. to come out,” she said. “It’s not what they think your life is going to be like.”

Being out and in such a public way was also difficult for her parents, but Hernandez said they do accept her and are in no way politically conservative.

“My dad has come such a long way. I always joke with him that I’m going to get him into PFLAG,” she said. “He watches the Latin American news and calls me all the time about LGBT media in Latin America. It’s his way of being affirming to me.”

Hernandez began working for SONG five years ago and is part of the immigration activist community calling for a boycott of Georgia because of HB 87.

SONG is also among the groups backing “sanctuary zones” and “Georgia Buy Spots” — places that offer space to immigrants. They also urge people not to shop at places that are not “Buy Spots.”

Atlanta LGBT businesses, organizations and churches were among the first to sign on to be sanctuary zones and Buy Spots, including Charis Books & More, Radial Café, Mondo Homo music and arts fest, Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeeshop, Gentle Spirit Christian Church and the Queer Justice League.

“When we heard about Arizona we knew it was a warning call of what was to come,” Hernandez said.

“Using words like ‘illegal alien’ — that’s dehumanizing people. It’s like calling those in the queer community predators, molesters. People will do anything they can do for survival and queer people know this and we can’t separate ourselves from that narrative,” she added.

But without the proper papers, people are living in this country illegally according to federal law, say some LGBT people who support HB 87. That is a weak argument, Hernandez said.

“It’s still illegal for us to get married,” she said. “Letting the political majority decide what is illegal is not right. You don’t throw people away. Everyone has a role to play.”

Coming out in ‘macho’ Latino culture

Noel Alba, who performs in drag as Jaky Alba, is 25 and from a rural city in Mexico. He moved to Atlanta with his uncle five years ago. He’s known he is gay since he was a pre-teen, he said, and feels so free to be in the U.S. and living out and proud. But among his family, only his sister knows he is gay.

“She really loves me … and she can wear my clothes. She loves me the way I am,” he said. “My parents don’t know. They are not ready for this.”

Recent performances at Dragnique and the East Point Possums show helped Alba reach beyond only a gay Latino following — although the gay Latino gay community in Atlanta showed up in force at Jungle nightclub to try to help Alba win the Dragnique competition. Alba lost to Rapture Divine Cox.

Growing up in Mexico, Alba said he was bullied and taunted, called “faggot” and told he was going to hell for being gay. Living in Atlanta, with his boyfriend of three years, is like living in a different world. His boyfriend is also Mexican.

“I’m really a shy guy. I would go to high school and back to the house. I was really afraid,” he said. “Now I have a boyfriend, I’m living a gay life. I feel more free. Mexican people are sometimes close-minded.”

Currently looking for a full-time job as a drag artist, Alba said he is also very aware of HB 87 and how it impacts the Latino community, including friends. The lack of an LGBT Latino organization is frustrating, he said.

“First of all, the Latino community here, there is no organization. We really need this,” said Alba, who also urged gay Latinos to come out.

“When we act together, we do help each other,” he said.

Oscar Valdivieso, owner of Las Margarita's
Oscar ‘Papi’ Valdivieso (by Dyana Bagby)

Oscar Valdivieso, 32, who is known to many in Atlanta’s LGBT community simply as Papi, owns Las Margaritas with his mother. His parents are from Colombia in South America but moved to New York where he was born. He has lived in Atlanta for 19 years.

His parents owned cafeterias in New York, instilling in him the love of food and the restaurant business. That eventually led to him and his mother opening Las Margaritas together after she opened Taco Cabana.

Valdivieso came out to his parents when he was 17. His father told him to get a college education. His mother wanted him to consider his proclamation.

“My mother was a little bit weird. She said to go to South America and to think about it,” he said. “A year went by and when she decided it was real, she was cool with it. In the Latino community, it’s very macho and traditional and being gay is hard to accept. But I was lucky. My family — they didn’t really have a choice. They are very accepting.”

Valdivieso said while he doesn’t agree with HB 87, there is a law in place that people cannot enter the U.S. without proper documentation.

“There are a lot of people who have been living here, working here, were born here. This law is breaking up families,” he added. “You need to find some kind of way that will help them follow the law but somehow not kick everyone out. There are a lot of immigrants here,” he said.

Valdivieso embraces his Latino heritage but like Alba he said he wishes there was a stronger, more organized Latino gay community.

“Even in the Latino community itself it’s not as together and united,” he said. “I would like to start doing things with the Latino gay community. But it’s hard.”
The segregation in Atlanta also puzzles Valdivieso, he said.

“One of the things I’ve noticed about Atlanta is everything is segregated. There is a Latino community but it’s separated from the black community, the white community. I’m from New York, I’ve lived in Miami — it’s all very mixed. Here there are white clubs, black clubs, Latino nights. I’d rather it not be that way. But that’s what it is.”

He said he is fortunate to be doing what he loves — working in the restaurant industry and being part of Atlanta’s larger gay community.

“I’m successful at what I do. I’m using my business to start doing things for nonprofit groups and giving back to the community,” he said.

And he loves his heritage.

“I wouldn’t be anything else but be Latino. Latino people — we’re loud, obnoxious and aggressive and I’m proud of that,” he said with a smile.

Public health risks

At AID Gwinnett, soon to be renamed the Ric Crawford Clinic, 20 percent of clients are Latino, which equals close to 200 people. The clinic, which focuses on HIV prevention and treatment for AIDS, also serves five transgender clients — all of whom are Latino, said Tomi Stultz, director of client services. Fifty percent of the Latino men treated at AID Gwinnett are men who have sex with men, she added.

The Latino gay community has to deal with strong religious and family ties that might make it more difficult for them to be open, she said. When many gay Latino clients reach AID Gwinnett they are already very sick with HIV and have been referred there after being hospitalized.

“Most men — their priority is not their health but providing for their family,” Stultz said. As a result, they work until they are so sick they have to be hospitalized where they discover they are HIV positive.

Clients are treated whether they are documented or not because federal Ryan White funding does not require paperwork to be treated for HIV, Stultz explained.

AID Gwinnett provides a Latino HIV support group led by counselors from Positive Impact and also does outreach on HIV prevention with churches, clinics and Latino organizations. There is also a program for gay laborers.

The new law could set a bad precedent for people who need care but will not seek it out because they are afraid of being deported, activists fear.

“It’s going to make it very difficult,” Stultz said. “People are already fearful. If they can’t come to us … it will fall on hospitals. In my mind it’s like TB — you would treat it. But the law worries people. People will stay away, drop out of care, stop taking their meds.”

And at the same time these people are still capable of spreading HIV.

“This is a public health concern. People should want to treat this for anyone who has HIV,” she said.

Seeking ‘beloved community’

As the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, Jerry Gonzalez has been heavily involved in the fight against HB 87. His organization takes a different strategy than the LGBT organization SONG in that it doesn’t support a boycott of the state. But as an openly gay man leading a Latino organization, Gonzalez knows he has an important role to play.

“In the broader community. I treat [being gay] as a non-issue. We work with a lot with different faith organizations. It’s not like I hide who I am. I have no shame in being who I am,” he said.

Gonzalez came out to his mother in 1996 — after the tragic suicide of his younger brother.

“Her immediate reaction was concern for my health. There was a lot of talk about AIDS and she wanted to make sure I took care of myself,” he said.

The fact his mother worked in cosmetics and in retail and had been around many gay people her entire career made acceptance of her gay son easier, he said.

Gonzalez, 40, is a third generation immigrant, born in Laredo, Texas. With that comes privilege many other immigrants don’t have.

“Because of that I am very culturalized in the American way of thinking and being. The Average Latino immigrant doesn’t have that same luxury,” he said. “The fact I’m a citizen, third generation, from a loving family, is the exception but not the norm particularly.”

Being Latino and gay in Georgia today is like a “double whammy,” Gonzalez added. “You have in Georgia a harsh anti-immigrant law and a not-friendly environment for being gay.”

He and Paulina Hernandez agree that it is the same people pushing for both the stringent immigration law and restrictions on LGBT rights.

“I think this law was passed for the same reason the gay marriage ban was passed [in 2004]. Politicians are stroking the ultra right for the upcoming election. The law is likely unconstitutional. It is backwards thinking for Georgia,” Gonzalez said.

And, yes, LGBT people should care about this law, Gonzalez added, because it directly impacts them as well.

“Gay people can’t marry, can’t serve in military. Denying their human dignity is not OK. Whatever form that takes place, we need to recognize the similarities of denial of human dignity and stand against it,” he said.

“It is a gay issue because we are talking about the fundamental civil and human rights of people. As part of the gay community, we can understand what that means for rights to be denied. We need to look outside our boxes, too,” he said. “We are all part of the beloved community.”


Top photo: Paulina Hernandez of Southerns On New Ground and Jerry Gonzalez of Georgia Association of Latin Elected Officials have different strategies in fighting the state’s new immigration law. (by Bo Shell)