If you should ever walk down the street of a major American city with my wife, you should not (by her own admission) listen to her she asks the innocuous question, "What's over there?" Her curiosity about hidden doors and blinking marquees has mistakenly led us into shady dives from coast to coast (imagine my surprise at walking into an S&M bar in Hollywood).
One evening, "what's over there" prompted us to enter a covert LA nightclub, where the doorman smiled and waived the cover charge. I had assumed he did so because it was Ladies Night. But when we walked in, I saw that he had not let us in for free because of my wife. It was because of me. It was a Latino gay bar, and the doorman assumed that I was a non-straight who had brought along my hipster female friend. To make things more interesting, a talent show for drag queens was just starting. What could I do but order a beer and watch the performances? My wife and I agreed that the Christina Aguilera was pretty close to the real thing.
I was not surprised that Hispanic gay men might establish a safe house off the beaten path. Loathing of gays shows hydra-headed persistence within Latino culture. We are the society, after all, that defined the word "macho." The old-school standards for strong Hispanic males include getting into brawls, avoiding the kitchen, and womanizing at will. They do not include an affinity for techno music and an interest in Jennifer Lopez's wardrobe.
As such, possibly the worst insult that one can lob at a Latino male is the dreaded M-word. To call someone a "maricon" is to take the nearest English equivalent ("faggot"), triple its intensity, add several layers of hatred and disgust, and square the result. In my generation at least, nobody jokes about this word or uses it lightly.
In contrast, American gay activists have adopted the words "queer" and "dyke" in an attempt to rob them of their degrading power, similar to the way in which many African Americans throw around the fabled N-word. It's a subject of fierce debate whether these tactics work or are self-sabotaging, but in either case, I'm pretty sure nobody in Latin America is even trying that with "maricon." In fact, being gay in Latin America ranges from affront to God (we're talking about heavily Catholic countries) to active death warrant in the small villages of Central and South America.
But surely American Latinos have progressed beyond the rigid cultural norms of their home countries - right? Well, a golden opportunity to prove this evolution presented itself in the form of Proposition 8 in California.
As we know, the ban on gay marriage received ample support from Obama backers. Much of the coverage of this oxymoronic outcome has focused on the high percentage of black people who shouted, "free at last" when they voted for president and then muttered, "damn the homosexuals" as they revoked a basic civil right.
But California has a high number of Latinos (ask any right-wing demagogue for verification of this fact), and Obama was hugely popular with them, winning their vote by over two to one against McCain. So it is indeed a sad fact that a great many Latinos mimicked their African American brethren on Election Day.
To be specific, 53 percent of California Hispanics voted for the proposition. While this is not an overwhelming majority, it still tops the percentage of overall voters who approved of the ban (52 percent). It is also contradictory to their supposed enthusiasm for a liberal president.
Is it possible that the old boogeyman, the Catholic Church, is somewhat responsible for the invincible strain of homophobia in Latino culture? To the surprise of absolutely no one, the answer is yes.
Statistics from Hispanic Business show that 64 percent of Latino Catholics voted for the proposition. Just 10 percent of non-religious Hispanics voted the same way.
So it's not just burly macho hombres who hate gays that are tipping the vote. It's quiet, polite Latina grandmothers who are willing to overlook Obama's pro-choice tendencies, but can't bring themselves to acknowledge that gay people have rights. Let's be clear: When pundits talk about social conservatism among the otherwise Democratic-friendly Latino population, this is what they're talking about.
However, despite the fact that homophobia is strong in Hispanic culture, Latino gays still find ways to burst out from underground. These manifestations range from the intellectualism of the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas to the pop-culture pabulum of Hank Azaria dancing around in "The Birdcage." And what would a gay-pride parade be without at least one Carmen Miranda impersonator?
It's a broad range of expression. Perhaps it's hopeful, or maybe it's pathetic. I can't tell you, because I'm just a guy who walks obliviously into gay bars.