LAS VEGAS -- When David Damien Figueroa took his turn at a microphone near the front of an airplane hanger-sized hotel exhibition hall Sunday, he shared a short, unvarnished version of his life.
"I am the first openly gay vice president of MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense Fund], the legal voice for Latino civil rights," said Figueroa, who paused and smiled broadly as a nearby group of about 40 gay and straight civil rights advocates and onlookers applauded. Most had come to the hotel for more sedate workshops and strategy sessions coordinated by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Latino civil rights organization, as part of its annual convention.
In its simplicity, Figueroa's story pointed to the at-times-complicated and, until this year, often less-than-full support for matters of LGBT equality demonstrated by some of the nation’s most influential civil rights organizations and also, some public opinion analysts say, by Latino families.
In the weeks since President Barack Obama detailed his personal evolution on the issue of gay marriage in a May ABC News interview, a series of national polls indicate that a slight majorty of Americans have also come to support same-sex marriage. By June, members of the NAACP's executive board had approved a resolution making support for gay marriage a part of the organization’s platform. NCLR, the League of Latin American Citizens and other Latino civil rights, labor and trade organizations soon followed. Despite some dissention in the ranks, executives inside several national organizations dominated by people of color have, in recent months, identified same-sex marriage as a part of their 21st century civil-rights agenda.
The groups' endorsements challenge prevailing notions that communities of color are strongholds of opposition in the marriage rights war, Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogués, president of Dignity USA, told a group of mostly Latino activists gathered in another section of the same Las Vegas hotel Sunday. Dignity USA is a Boston-based organization of gay and lesbian Catholics.
Latino disdain for same-sex marriage and other legal protections for gay individuals has also been overstated, she said.
"The data shows much higher levels of support for gay marriage in the Latino community than assumed and often reported,” Rodriguez-Nogués said. “I think what we are seeing is an issue and a conversation that needs a little more light and air."
In fact, Latinos are slightly more likely than the general public to support legalizing gay marriage and strongly endorse hate crimes protections and civil union options for homosexual couples, according to an April poll released by NCLR and the public opinion research company Social Science Research Solutions.
Before issuing the report, “LGBT Acceptance and Support: The Hispanic Perspective,” researchers surveyed 1,001 Latinos ages 18 and older in early 2011. About 54 percent of Latinos indicated that they support same-sex marriage. A May Gallup poll found that 53 percent of the general population supports legalized gay marriage.
“I have also done quite a bit of Jewish demographic research,” said David Dutwin, a vice president at Social Science Research who oversaw the study. “And there is a saying in that world that Jews are just like everyone else, only more so. Well, what we found here is that Latinos are not like everyone else on gay rights and acceptance issues at all.”
In fact, while in the general population support for gay marriage is highest among those who identify as liberals or Democrats, the same is not true among Latinos, the study found. Nearly 40 percent of self-identified Latino Republicans support legalized same-sex marriage, according to the study. Just 23 percent of Hispanic self-identified Democrats said the same.
The April study also found that Latinos with lower "acculturation scores" -- a composite measure of the extent to which they operate in Spanish, when they or their families arrived in the United States -- and those who indicated deep support for a ban on abortion or membership in a born-again evangelical church, were less likely to support gay rights.
Back inside the expo center as Figueroa, MALDEF's vice president, spoke, a booth offering attendees the opportunity to pose for a personal photo with a life-sized cut-out of Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney drew the largest crowds. A hybrid car and an organic-vs.-non-organic vegetable taste-test stand also competed for attention. Undeterred, Figueroa pointed out three nearby colleagues who, like him, are openly gay with co-workers in the office and with their extended families at home.
“Yes, we are just all the way out there,” Figueroa said, throwing his hands toward the hotel expo center's ceiling.
As Figueroa and other representatives for 21 Latino civil rights, labor and trade organizations lined up to demonstrate their support for a related new public education campaign, "Familia es Familia," four people -- a man, woman and two children -- stopped to listen.
Then, they quickly moved away.
"Oh no, we're going," the woman said, in Spanish. "I don't need to hear this."
Familia es Familia is a public education initiative that aims to decrease the social stigma around homosexuality inside of Latino families.
Charles Rice-Gonzalez, born in Puerto Rico, is a writer and LGBT activist. He published his first novel, "Chulito," in October. Set in the Bronx, where Rice-Gonzalez grew up, "Chulito" (cutie) is a coming out story about a young Latino who grows up in an environment that is very oppressive of gay culture. His second book, which he is currently working on, shares a similar focus on the queer Latino community, though the story will take place in the South Bronx. Rice-Gonzalez is also an active playwright and has had his work published in a variety of reviews and anthologies.
Roland Palencia is an activist who represents a variety of populations from the undocumented to the uninsured to the LGBT community. Palencia, who is Guatemalan, currently works as the community benefits director at the L.A. Care Health Plan. He retained the position of executive director of Equality California, which was a major powerhouse in the opposition of Proposition 8, but resigned a few months into the job in October. Palencia also served as the vice president and chief of operations of the international AIDS Healthcare Foundation from 1992 to 1998. Aside from his full-time positions, Palencia has also founded a number of community-based organizations, such as Gay and Lesbian Latinos, and serves on the board of others including HONOR PAC, the LGBT Latino Political Action Committee.
Singer Ricky Martin began his career at an early age with the teen group Menudo. Once he reached 18 and finished high school in Puerto Rico, Martin relocated to New York to launch his solo career, releasing his first album in 1988. But he didn't achieve international fame until the debut of his first English single, "Living? La Vida Loco," which helped bring Latino culture into mainstream pop music. Martin first came out to the public in 2010 after posting a statement on his website. Since then, he has taken up the crusade as a gay Latino advocate, often speaking out on issues that effect both communities.
Cuban-American Jarrett Barrios (pictured here with Gavin Creel, right) is the former president and chief executive officer of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He began his professional career as an attorney, before turning on a political path and rising to the Massachusetts State Senate. Barrios held dual honors as the first Latino and first openly gay man elected to the Massachusetts Senate. In this position, he spearheaded the legislation for equal marriage rights in Massachusetts. When the state became the first in the nation to allow same-sex marriage, Barrios married his partner and became one of the first elected officials in the country to do so. Barrios currently serves as the chief executive of operations/regional executive at the American Red Cross in Massachusetts.
Jesus Ramirez-Valles, born in Mexico, is a scholar and an advocate for Latino and LGBT health. Currently a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ramirez-Valles has worked in the public health field in the U.S. and Latin America for more than 20 years and holds a Ph.D. and a M.P.H. Ramirez-Valles published his first book, "Companeros: Latino Activists in the Face of Aids," in 2011, but has also authored and co-authored numerous research papers on gay Latino men. Ramirez-Valles also has experience as a filmmaker. His 2007 documentary, "Tal Como Somos," (Just as We Are), was selected for several international and national LGBT film festivals.
Jose Gutierrez is the founder and president of the Latino GLBT History Project, a non-profit organization that preserves and educates the history of the gay Latino population. Working as a human rights and AIDS activist since 1989, Gutierrez advocates for the gay Latino community. He organized the first DC Latino Pride in 2007, which has since become an annual celebration. He also works at LA Clinica Del Pueblo and serves a member of the LGBT advisory committee for the mayor of Washington, D.C.
As a child, Jorge Gutierrez was brought across the U.S.-Mexico border by his parents illegally. Today, he works as an undocumented queer activist, trying to bridge the gap between LGBT and pro-immigration groups. His efforts have been focused primarily on the DREAM Act movement. Gutierrez currently serves on the board of directors of United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization with a focus on equal access to higher education for all. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/undocumented-queer-latino-teens_n_1270994.html" target="_hplink">Check out Jorge Gutierrez's full story.</a>
Los Angeles native Jorge Amaro (pictured here with Kathy Griffin) is a LGBT and Latino rights activist. Amaro actively advocates for members of the gay Latino community online, often taking to the blogs to proclaim his pride as a gay man with Mexican roots. He currently serves as the communications manager for Equality California, the major opponent of Proposition 8.
Anthony D. Romero
Anthony Romero, of Puerto Rican descent, is an attorney with a background in public-interest activism. He currently serves as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union -- a role he took four days before 9/11 -- and is the first Latino and openly gay man to hold the position. Romero was named one of Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America in 2005 and was also featured in the recent <em>HBO</em> documentary "The Latino List."
Larry Baza, of Mexican and Chamorro heritage, is a LGBT and Latino rights activist. His first forte into the arena was with the Gay Liberation Movement's opposition of the Briggs Initiative, a California proposition of a ban of gays and lesbians from working in public schools. He produced the first major AIDS fundraiser in the arts community, Artists for Aids Assistance, and has served as executive director and board member of a number of California-based arts organizations. Baza currently serves as immediate past-president and board member of the San Diego Democratic Club. He currently serves on the City of San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture, he is also a past board member of Honor PAC, the first statewide Latino LGBT political action committee in California. <em><strong>CORRECTION</strong>: An earlier version of this slide identified Baza as Executive Vice President of the San Diego Democratic Club.</em>
Perez Hilton, whose actual name is Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr., has made himself a household name for celebrity-news junkies with his blog, Perezhilton.com. Through his website, Hilton often calls out celebrities and members of the entertainment industry for everything from their fashion sense to discriminatory remarks made. In 2009, Hilton was named "Hispanic of the Year" by Hispanic magazine.