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Minority Gays Find Strength in Unity

Times Staff Writer

‘The gay movement is not only in West Hollywood. It has spread to black neighborhoods in South-Central (Los Angeles), Latino neighborhoods in East L.A. and Asian areas like Chinatown.’ --Deborah Johnson, black lesbian activist

Cleo Manago grew up in Watts hearing friends and relatives say that homosexuality was “something only scrawny white boys got.”

He remembers his minister saying, “God’s love didn’t apply to faggots,” and he saw many effeminate boys beaten for “trying to be women.” The clamor frightened him so much that he kept his homosexuality a secret for much of his life.

But two years ago, the 27-year-old social worker said he became so frustrated by such “backwards” attitudes that he organized a black gay group to demand recognition from churches and service groups.

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Tak Yamamoto, a 51-year-old Japanese American, has faced similar struggles. Two years ago, he stopped going to gay bars in West Hollywood because, he said, they catered to a white clientele and he consistently got the cold shoulder.

He Wasn’t Wanted

“No one wanted to meet people like me in those bars,” said Yamamoto, an Arleta resident. “They wanted to meet blondes, with blue eyes and big, beautiful bodies.”

So, Yamamoto, a supervisor at the county registrar-recorder’s office, organized a social group for gay Asians and Pacific Islanders to allow its 200 members to openly discuss their homosexuality and cultivate their cultural identity.

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Such fledgling groups are slowly cropping up throughout the country as the gay liberation movement of the 1970s begins to take hold among many minority homosexuals who had hidden in the closet. Spurned by their ethnic communities and fed up with the lack of attention from the gay establishment, gay minorities are turning to each other for support. Over the last few years, they have organized their own churches, social groups and political coalitions to express pride in their life style and break through their isolation.

Authorities say the movement is especially evident in Southern California with its rich ethnic stew and social mobility.

“The gay movement is not only in West Hollywood,” said Deborah Johnson, 33, a black lesbian activist. “It has spread to black neighborhoods in South-Central (Los Angeles), Latino neighborhoods in East L.A. and Asian areas like Chinatown.”

The movement was fueled by the AIDS epidemic, which infects minority communities at a disproportionate rate. Federal statistics show that 43% of all people with AIDS are members of minority groups, and more than 70% of them acquired the disease through homosexual or bisexual affairs.

“Most people thought minorities got the disease from IV drug use, but AIDS took the cloak off for the world that homosexuality exists, especially for minorities,” said the Rev. Carl Bean, a black homosexual who founded the Minority AIDS Project in South-Central Los Angeles three years ago. “People who wanted to think there was no such thing as a gay black man or a gay Latino had a rude awakening.”

“We could no longer have pockets of the population hiding in the closet, uninformed about the disease,” said Johnson, a management consultant. “We realized that to reach minority gays there needed to be culturally sensitive support groups where they could come out of the closet and talk about AIDS or their homosexuality.”

To provide such forums, minority gays have organized groups such as the Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO--which means “arrived” in Spanish) in Washington, and the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in Los Angeles.

In a variety of ways, these efforts seek to address what gay minorities see as their special predicament.

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“For so long, the gay and lesbian community has not been able to incorporate us because it hasn’t known how to deal with our blackness. The black community, on the other hand, could not handle our gayness,” Johnson said. “So most of us have been the proverbial ‘them’ that everyone is talking about--the ones on the fringes, the periphery, the outskirts of society that no one ever deals with until there is some kind of uprising.”

Don’t Have to Choose

Phill Wilson, 32, who founded the black coalition two years ago, said hundreds of black homosexuals from throughout the nation attended the group’s second conference, held in Los Angeles last February to discuss “issues of empowerment.” The gathering focused on ways to launch social and charitable organizations and strategies for getting openly black gays and lesbians elected to office.

“Groups like these,” Johnson said, “allow us to be both black and lesbian or gay, without having to choose between the two in our activism.”

Minority gay newspapers and newsletters such as BLK (short for black) and Unidad (unity in Spanish) are distributed throughout minority communities in Los Angeles, urging gays to come out of the closet and informing them about support groups and social events.

BLK, first published six months ago, features a mix of news, pictures of nude men in raunchy party-line advertisements and risque profiles of porn stars. Editor Alan Bell said he designed the magazine to attract “the man on the street.”

“I am not trying to reach people like me who are informed on what’s happening in the black gay community,” he said. “I want to reach those people who are sneaking into gay bars, so that they will learn about this new support system that is developing.”

However, the progress of these groups has been stalled by a lack of support both from traditional minority institutions and largely white gay organizations.

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For example, many minority gays said their families are particularly intolerant of homosexuality because it conflicts with cultural norms, although such conflicts differ in each ethnic community.

Cheryl Anne Mendoza, a 36-year-old Filipina who is deputy director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood, said she never told her parents she is a lesbian because sex is not discussed in many Asian families and homosexuality “is just about taboo.”

“Asians are supposed to be this model minority and they are vehemently opposed to any type of activity that shatters that image,” she said.

Manago, who heads Black Lesbians and Gays for Health and Justice, said that when he was 15, his father took him out for “heterosexuality classes.”

The “classroom,” a dark street corner in the heart of South Los Angeles, turned out to be something out of a low-budget porn film: The “teachers” were women who wore low-cut blouses and high-hemmed skirts, sauntering along the street and thrusting their cleavage into car windows.

“I pleaded with him to take me home,” Manago said, “and he kept asking me, ‘What’s wrong with you, boy?’ ”

Arturo Olivas, 32, told his parents that he is gay three years ago and said his father still refuses to talk about his homosexuality.

“Machismo and ‘Marialismo’ are alive and well in Latino families,” said Olivas, who heads the Cara a Cara Latino AIDS Project in Hollywood. “Men are supposed to be super-masculine and women are supposed to be pure as virgins.”

Churches, considered the core of many minority communities, have also been generally intolerant of homosexuality.

Father Brad Dusak, who heads the AIDS ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the Catholic Church understands that homosexual attractions exist, but instructs members not to act on those attractions. “You can be a dancer and not dance, or a truck driver and not drive trucks,” he explained.

Other religious leaders are a bit harsher. Speaking to more than 2,000 followers in Los Angeles last month, Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan said, “Society is on the decline when men start inclining towards other men and women incline towards other women.” The popular black leader declared: “God don’t make freaks. That comes from something you were fed while growing up. Don’t blame that on God.”

Rev. Bean remembers such sermons. Once his parents’ pride, Bean became their “disgrace” after he told them he is gay. He turned to his minister for support, only to be informed that if he did not mend his ways, he would go to hell.

“All of a sudden, I--the boy who had been smart in school and devoted to God--became lower than thieves and killers,” he said.

Some minority gays also complain of receiving limited support from traditional civil rights groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).

In a telephone interview, Althea Simmons, chief lobbyist for the NAACP, said, ‘We have no position on homosexuality, period.”

Diane Palmiotti, a spokeswoman for MALDEF said: “There are so many issues that Latinos have to deal with like economic survival, having the same educational opportunities and being able to get politicians elected. Those are the issues that our board of directors has set as priorities.”

Gay minorities also expressed frustration at the attitude of many white gay organizations.

For example, until recent years, bars in West Hollywood often required minorities to show three photo IDs to be admitted, said City Councilman Steve Schulte, one of the council’s two white gay members. However, after protests by Black and White Men Together, the council in 1985 passed an ordinance prohibiting this practice.

Issues Rarely Discussed

Otherwise, Schulte said, minority issues are rarely discussed by the council, which has denied grants to the Minority AIDS Project while it helps finance other mainstream AIDS groups, including AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Lydia Otero, a 32-year-old gay Latina who heads Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos, said: “The white-boys network exists in the gay community too. It was very hard for us to get AIDS information or pamphlets on gay services translated into Spanish because it was not considered important enough.”

Thus, said black activist Wilson, gay minorities were left with no “safe spaces.” Leaders said that many turned to drugs and alcohol to escape the isolation.

“For most minorities, the safe space is with their families,” he said. “When the world beats you up for being black, then you could turn to your family for emotional strength. But when the world beats you up for being black and gay, you have no place to turn.”

More and more gay minorities are now finding such “safe spaces.” They are meeting each other in discos like the Catch One in South Los Angeles and the Circus Bar in Silver Lake.

They comfort and support each other in churches like Unity Fellowship, established by Bean three years ago with about 20 people who met in the home of a lesbian member. Since then, the church has moved into a modest office on West Jefferson Boulevard to accommodate the 250 people who attend weekly services.

During a celebration of the church’s anniversary, Bean asked members of the congregation to stand if they had abused drugs and alcohol, but were on the road to recovery. Nearly half of the group, a mix of professionals and laborers from all over the city, nervously rose to their feet.

“God loves you all,” Bean told the tearful group. “He created you. He created me. And believe me, God don’t make mistakes.”

These attitudes are attracting attention from some politicians. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was the first major politician to address a minority gay audience last year when he spoke to nearly 1,000 people at Catch One on the eve of the California primary election.

“Share in the Power”

“I understand power, and when people begin to feel good about themselves, begin to feel like they are somebody and that they deserve equal treatment, then they begin to build their own institutions to share in the power,” Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) told an audience at Unity Fellowship Church last month. “I see that happening here and it’s long overdue.”

Torie Osborn, the first woman director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, where the number of minority group members on the staff has doubled over the last few years, said she is not worried that the movement among minorities will weaken mainstream gay efforts.

“It is actually bringing more minorities into the mainstream groups and making the groups stronger,” she said.

However, even the leaders concede that this movement has a long way to go.

Yamamoto, of the Asian/Pacific American Lesbians and Gays, said the group avoids meeting in predominantly Asian communities because many members still fear that their friends or neighbors will discover their sexual orientation.

And one black lesbian, a computer trainer for Los Angeles County who asked not to be identified, said: “People like Rev. Bean can come out because they do not depend on society to live. I need my job. I have a mortgage to pay, and I can’t lose all that.

“I never wanted to be a crusader. I just want to live a peaceful life. Maybe if I won the lottery I could come out of the closet. Until then, it’s my business.”


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