A Place in the Sun : Gay Immigrants Who Come From Countries Where Homosexuality Is Taboo Grapple With Some of the Most Difficult Conflicts as They Struggle for Acceptance.

KATHY LEE KNOWS THE BURDEN THAT comes with being reared as a model Korean woman.

After her family immigrated to Southern California from South Korea when she was 7, the pressure was on for her to get good grades, attend a good college, marry a Korean man and eventually have children who would uphold the same traditional values.

The 25-year-old earned respectable grades in school and is now a UCLA graduate student. But there are no wedding plans in her future.

After years of keeping it secret from her family, the Silver Lake resident finally told her parents five years ago that she is bisexual.

"They were very angry and upset because their dreams for me were crushed," said Lee (not her real name), who was accused by her mother of being possessed by the devil and urged to attend church.

"They first tried to cut me off financially, but they realized that didn't work, so now we have a truce. But they still talk about me getting married and say I'm getting to an age where I won't be marriageable."

Gays and lesbians from all backgrounds struggle with their sexual identities, but those who have come from countries and cultures where homosexuality is taboo grapple with some of the most difficult conflicts as they struggle for acceptance. The disdain that many have encountered here from family and friends has its roots in their homelands, where same-sex relations are regarded as a threat to religious and cultural values.

Lee recalled attending a Korean American student conference and overhearing a conversation about gays.

"They were saying, 'Thank God there are no Korean gays,' " said Lee, who is now dating a Chinese American woman. "In Korea, gays are closeted and underground. They can't come out so they tend to get married and do the heterosexual routine."

The discrimination many gay immigrants face does not come just from heterosexuals. Many, particularly those who are recent immigrants and do not speak English well, say racism is widespread in the gay community.

"When I first started attending lesbian support group meetings, most people were fluent in English and I felt very out of place," said Ivania Gonzales, who came to Los Angeles from Nicaragua in 1982 and now lives near Hancock Park. "I felt people looked down on me because I was Spanish-speaking. When I would go to white lesbian clubs, I could feel all the eyes staring at me because I was different."

A history of religious and cultural values that hold homosexuality in contempt--particularly in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East--have made the gay immigrants' plight extremely difficult.

Shortly after Oscar Reconco, 36, moved to Los Angeles in 1977, he started lying to his mother in Honduras about his lovers. He told her he was dating women, and to prove it, he began sending her pictures of female friends.

Although Reconco's mother and other family members eventually learned he was gay, the subject still is rarely discussed.

"My sister sees my friends come to the house and she knows I'm gay, but we never talk about it," said Reconco, who is now project director of the Cara A Cara Latino AIDS Project but has worked as a cocktail waiter at a gay bar and as a manager of El Cholo Restaurant on Western Avenue.

"But I have a good relationship with my family. I don't have any shame to be gay."

Reconco, however, knows that most gay immigrants face much more hostility when coming out to their families than he did.

In an effort to shed light on such struggles, Reconco wrote a play about a Latino immigrant who must tell his mother that he is gay. "Elegia Para un Travesti" ("Elegy for a Transvestite"), which was recently staged at the Complex Theatre in Hollywood, is not based on Reconco's own life, but on the collective experiences of his friends.

In one scene, the main character's mother arrives for a visit and finds gay magazines in her son's home. When he tells her that he is gay and that he performs in drag at a gay bar, she tells him that God hates homosexuals and that AIDS is a justifiable punishment for people like him.

The scene, Reconco said, serves as a painful reminder to many gay Latinos of the uphill battle to gain acceptance.

"The Latino community needs to learn about us," said Reconco, who lives in Echo Park. "They need to know that there are many of us out there and that we have our rights."

At least 68 countries still outlaw sex between men and 26 outlaw sex between women, according to a 1992 survey conducted by the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Assn. Fines, prison or execution await those who are convicted.

"I left Iran for that reason," said a gay immigrant who came to Los Angeles in 1978 and asked that his name not be used.

Those accused four times of being gay in Iran are sentenced to death. "I'm a Shiite Muslim gay Iranian. I have experienced three types of prejudice, but I've learned to accept that as part of my life," he said.

Until the federal ban against "sexually deviant" immigrants was lifted in 1990, he said he lived in fear that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would deport him. And immigrants who test positive for HIV are still denied entrance into the United States.

"I could not express my social and political views (for fear of deportation)," said the Iranian immigrant. "If I were sent back to Iran, my life would be endangered and my entire family would be severely impacted."

In most Latin American countries, where the predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, homosexual acts are considered a sin and openly gay people often are harassed because they are seen as threats to machismo and the revered family unit.

"When I was growing up in El Salvador, I was humiliated by other boys at school because I was different," said Walter Campos, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1981 and knew he was gay when he was 10. "My grandmother told me I should try to behave more masculine."

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Having grown up Catholic, Campos said he still believes in God but stopped going to church because he knew he would not be accepted. Although he suspects that his parents know he is gay, they have never discussed it.

"As gay Latinos, we deserve the same rights as everyone else," said Campos, who works as a research specialist at Avance Human Services, an Eastside social services agency that operates a bilingual AIDS information hot line. "We're not all perverts and misogynists. We represent another culture that people should try to understand."

Father Peter Liuzzi, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' liaison to the gay and lesbian community, said many people have the misperception that the Catholic Church condemns all homosexuals. The church believes that being a homosexual, in itself, is not sinful, Liuzzi said. But it does not approve of any gay sex, as well as any sex outside of marriage, he said. In other words, gays and lesbians who wish to remain true to the church's doctrines must practice celibacy.

"I left the church because of its dogma about sexuality," said Jose Gonzales, who came to Los Angeles from Chile in 1991 and once studied to be a Catholic priest. "Being gay, I couldn't agree with the church's views about abortion and homosexuality."

Gonzales is now the pastor of a Spanish-speaking service at the Metropolitan Church of Los Angeles, a predominantly gay and lesbian church in Culver City. "We believe God loves everyone, no matter what your sexual orientation is," Gonzales said.

Although Liuzzi acknowledged that there are some within his church who believe God dislikes all homosexuals, part of his job is to steer gays to supportive parishes. But out of 284 parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, only six welcome gays and none are in Central Los Angeles.

"We need to have a committed Latino parish (accepting of gays) on the Eastside," Liuzzi said. "We're working on that."

Like their Latino counterparts, many gay Asians struggle with their homosexuality for the same reasons.

Jeff Kim, co-chairman of the Gay Asian Pacific Support Network, said most of the group's 120 members--whether they are recent immigrants or were born in this country--face the same family conflicts.

"We all come from relatively similar families who put pressure on us to get married and have families," said Kim, a second-generation Korean American.

Last August, the KoreAm Journal, a monthly Korean American publication based in Gardena, addressed the issue of gay Korean Americans. James Ryu, editor of the journal, said the response to the issue was mixed.

"Some people said we were brave for bringing up this issue," he said. "Other people said they know gay people have rights, but they don't want them as friends. They said they would rather not talk about it because they don't accept it, but don't want to seem closed-minded."

Antonina Barraquiel, a native of the Philippines, said she initially blamed her son's homosexuality on the fact that she raised him without a father. But she soon accepted it and now offers her full support.

During a support group meeting for Los Angeles parents of gay and lesbian Asian Americans, Barraquiel said she once got into an argument with a father who could not accept his gay, HIV-positive son.

"He said that being an Asian is already a disadvantage and that he could not tolerate this," she said. "I told him: That's a good reason why you should show more love and support.' Asian parents have trouble accepting this."

In recent years, minority communities--Latinos in particular--have been forced to address the issue of homosexuality because many from within their own communities are dying of AIDS. Latinos accounted for 17% of all AIDS cases nationwide in 1992, although Latinos make up just 9% of the population, according to the National Commission on AIDS.

"There's still a huge need to educate Latinos," said Juan LeDesma, director of health services at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood. "Many Latinos are afraid and embarrassed to talk about sex. Whenever we say things like penis, vagina or semen, people are always giggling."

Because of the discrimination they face, many gay immigrants believe they must fend for themselves.

"What happens to gay immigrants is that they're often divorced from their families, which is a very important support network," said J Craig Fong, director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's Western Regional Office. "They're forced to forge a new identity for themselves and create a new way to be Latino or Asian.

"That's really tough."

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Gay immigrants of color also are struggling to find their niche in the gay community, said Joel Tan, Barraquiel's son, who came to the United States from the Philippines in 1976.

The gay community is very male and Eurocentric, said Tan, who serves as program coordinator of the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team near Downtown. "The norms being established are very white-oriented, and Asian males are often stereotyped as exotic and passive."

While working as a bartender at a gay club, Tan said many white men were condescending toward him when they talked to him or tried to pick him up.

"It got so bad, I developed a reputation for hating white men," he said.

Other gays said nonwhites used to be asked for several forms of identification before they could enter gay bars that served mostly whites. Those who could not speak English were even more harassed at the doors of some gay clubs, they said.

Although the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center has expanded its efforts to serve and hire more people of color, it still has a way to go before it truly serves the community, immigrant activists say. The center, which is the nation's largest gay and lesbian center, offers counseling, health and legal services in Spanish, but has only limited services in Asian and other languages.

"It certainly is an issue for us," said Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the center. "Because of language barriers, trying to hook into the gay and lesbian community is often difficult."

On the Cover

Ivania Gonzales, right, and Marta Martinez recently celebrated 12 years of living as a couple in their home near Hancock Park. Gonzales, who arrived here from Nicaragua in 1982, said it has been difficult to fit into Los Angeles' gay community:

"I felt people looked down on me because I was Spanish-speaking. When I would go to white lesbian clubs, I could feel all the eyes staring at me because I was different."

Support Groups

Here are some organizations that assist gay and lesbian immigrants:

* Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (213) 660-9681

* Gay Asian Pacific Support Network (213) 993-7674

* Los Angeles Asian Pacific Islander Sisters

(213) 665-6324

* United Lesbians of African Heritage (213) 993-7433

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