As a teenager, Ruben Reyes studied for the priesthood in Mexico, as his strict Catholic family wanted. What Reyes wanted was something very different--especially for a good Latino kid.
He longed to live an openly gay life.
As an adult, Reyes found himself cruising West Hollywood, but he still felt culturally out of place.
A year ago, when he walked into La Casa in East Los Angeles, he finally found people like himself.
"I used to think that being gay and being Latino had to be two separate things, that you couldn't be both," said the 22-year-old Compton resident. La Casa "has shown me that I don't have to give up one to be the other, and I have a better sense of who I am because of that."
Gay Latinos from throughout Southern California gather at the 17-month-old center on Beverly Boulevard for cultural events, group counseling or socializing. Its founders say it is the only gay and lesbian community center in the nation that specifically serves the Latino community.
"I wanted to give gay and lesbian Latino role models to young people, to give them a safe place to turn to," said Victor Sanchez, La Casa's youth programs director.
Sanchez created La Casa as part of the nonprofit Bienestar social services agency with the help of foundation grants and government funding. Bienestar, Spanish for "well-being," consists of six centers in Los Angeles County focusing on health issues in the Latino community.
Experts say being a gay Latino brings unique challenges.
"The church says family, children and marriage is godly and that homosexuality is evil, making many gay Latinos feel guilty," said Rafael Diaz, associate professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and author of a book about Latino gays.
"Programs like Bienestar help Latinos feel connected to a gay family and allow them to speak out about how they feel and think about sex and their culture."
Diaz said many gay Latinos feel less masculine or ashamed about having sex, more so than gays of other ethnicities.
Robbie Flores says he went into a deep depression last year when he realized he was gay, becoming anorexic and bulimic.
In January, he started going to weekly support group meetings at La Casa, hoping to find a way to accept his sexuality.
The discussions "helped me realize I was dealing with my sexuality the wrong way," said Flores, 20, of Rowland Heights. "It's like a blind person being able to see. I see life in a totally different way now."
Just inside the door of La Casa, Mexican artifacts and a rainbow flag--a gay symbol--adorn the walls, a reminder that the community center blends culture with sexuality. A mural of Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo, Benito Juarez and others pays tribute to prominent Latinos who overcame oppression and pain. A painting of kissing lesbians shares a wall with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
To many, La Casa is a comfort zone outside mostly white West Hollywood, where many gay and lesbian Latinos say they have encountered racism.
"I am not comfortable in West Hollywood because of the exotic or erotic role Latinos take on in many white men's eyes, and because of the blatant racism and racial slurs I have experienced there," said Sanchez, 25, of Whittier. "Being gay is not enough to dissolve racial barriers."
Gay Latino men face homophobia and racism. Latina lesbians say they deal with those issues topped with sexism.
"There aren't many spaces where women can be socially accepted while relating to other women," said Stacy Macias, 24, the women's program coordinator at La Casa. "The men have been able to develop close friendships with each other. . . . It's that kind of good, wholesome feeling that I want the women to have too."
But East Los Angeles, where Catholic roots run deep and the majority of the residents are lower-income Latinos, has not been entirely welcoming.
In February, anti-gay slurs were spray-painted across an outside wall of La Casa's building. Weeks later, Sanchez found expletives carved into the center's front door. In October, epithets were painted there again.
Of the 220 hate crimes against homosexuals of all races reported in 1997, 30% were committed by Latinos, according to Reva Trevino, who documents such crimes for the county Human Relations Commission.
She has organized a symposium of Latino community leaders today to address the cultural factors leading to such crimes.
"We need to take a look at what influences are around [Latinos] that create homophobia," Trevino said. "Most of us would never think to throw a rock at someone who is gay or lesbian, but there are influences in our homes that are obviously moving others to do that."
The isolated incidents against La Casa haven't altered Sanchez's determination to make the center a part of the neighborhood.
"It reminds us of where we are, and that there's a lot of ignorance out there," he said. "But it just encourages our determination to continue to educate our community."
Part of that is educating young men about safer sex. In 1985, Latinos accounted for less than 15% of the total AIDS cases in Los Angeles County. Last year, that number jumped to 36%, according to Los Angeles County epidemiologists.
Sanchez says he now plans to expand La Casa's services to drug and alcohol intervention, mental and physical health referrals and an arts program.
"We just want to offer what the agency's name implies--good health that helps the mind, body and spirit," Sanchez said.
On Mondays, more than 30 young men crowd into the center to attend the 20-Something for Him support group. For those rejected by their families, the group acts as a surrogate.
"I try to keep the discussion topics interesting," Sanchez said. "I have to be both Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey to keep their interest."
He has kept Reyes' interest, and the center has afforded him the friends and acceptance he was looking for.
"I thought that being gay always had to have sexual connections," Reyes said. "But coming to Bienestar adds depth to being gay for me."