The Association of Latino Men for Action Co-Founder Julio Rodriguez has been advocating for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community among Latinos since 1989. Photo by Marc Monaghan.

In June 1994, more than 30 gay Latino men set out to march in the Chicago Puerto Rican Parade, carrying for the first time the banner for The Association of Latino Men for Action. By the time the procession reached the finish line, only 20 remained. The others dropped out one by one, realizing that each step they took was a step toward coming out—a process that was and still is controversial in Latino culture.

Julio Rodriguez, co-founder and board president of the association, was at the front of that parade and is at the forefront of LGBT Latino activism today. As a gay Puerto Rican man who was reluctant to come out to his own family, Rodriguez understands the fear and anxiety that many Latino men feel when trying to express their sexuality. That was the motivation behind his decision to found the association in 1989.

The association’s acronym, “alma,” means “spirit” or “soul” in Spanish—symbolizing the coming together of the gay and Latino communities, Rodriguez said.

“There were coming-out groups—but [not for those] who could speak Spanish or understood the cultural context for coming out for somebody who was born Puerto Rican or Cuban or Mexican and how that skewed their whole sense of sexuality and gender,” Rodriguez said.

Since its inception, the association has been working to fill a void in services that Rodriguez saw for gay Latino men, helping them to chip away at family issues and discriminatory policies that prevent them from living full and healthy lives. Through advocacy and scholarship programs, Rodriguez has put a brown face to Chicago’s LGBT community, reaching about 400 Latino men and bringing visibility to a previously neglected demographic.

Rodriguez does his work in Boystown on the city’s North Side with only one full-time and one part-time staffer—one for the LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Project and one for Strength in Unity, a partner organization with a focus on health care. The association received its initial funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but now works off individual donations and relies on volunteers to help execute programming.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Rodriguez to talk about his work.

How does coming out to a Latino family differ from coming out to, say, a white family?

Probably, the hardest thing people had to deal with is this sense of ‘coming out means I leave my family.’ We had to reorient our coming-out groups to say, ‘No, it’s about integrating your family with who you really are and finding ways to help your family to accept [it]—if not accept that you’re gay, accept that you’re going to be who you are [and] you’re still going to be part of the family.’

What is the first step in dealing with HIV/AIDS in the Latino community?

One of the risk factors to infection was really how people felt about themselves. The less confident you felt about yourself, the less loved you felt about yourself, the more likely it is that you would seek partners in high-risk situations. The support groups were about building self-esteem and self-confidence and to recognize that being in a gay relationship was just as valid as being in a heterosexual relationship, and you should respect your body. This is particularly true for Latino men who were more effeminate and who very much had identification with Latino women—which is that men and macho men are in control of the relationship. So they too played very passive roles, which also meant that they allowed themselves to be dictated on how the sex was going to be, and often times it was unprotected.

Where does the language barrier come in?

In Latino culture, it’s really hard because I’m throwing out the word ‘gay,’ and it’s just flying off of my tongue. But in Spanish you have two options. You have very clinical options or very, very derogatory terms. So when you’re trying to tell your parents that you’re gay, you don’t have the luxury of using terminology that softens the blow. One of the things that I think is probably undervalued is how important it is to help families realize that when you have a gay or bisexual child, that when they come out, you come out, too. And that’s probably the hardest thing. And when you take Latino culture, where families are so close, my telling my dad that, I remember him thinking, ‘I’m going to have to defend you to all of these people who’ve known you for so long.’

What can be done in the LGBT Latino community in regards to immigration issues?

There are a lot of binational couples in the gay community, and they’re kind of invisible because nobody talks about them. We started to push on the fact that, because of the way immigration law defines families and couples, many gay couples are excluded from that. You can have a couple who’s straight and, because they’re married, that other partner won’t get deported. But for a gay couple, your relationship isn’t recognized. We have couples who actually move to Mexico because they have to be with their partner because they can’t stay here because their partner’s going to be deported. We’ve worked in [President  Barack] Obama’s administration, and the one positive thing they’ve done is a new review process for those couples. If you can show that you’re in a civil union, you can use the same kind of reasoning, that ‘I’m in a committed relationship, so if you deport me, you’re dissolving our family.’

How does this fit into what’s going on in the LGBT community as a whole?

The immigration doesn’t even scratch the surface to the kind of homophobia that’s out there, that has pushed a lot of people into the closet for fear that they’ll be deported. I think of Priscilla who’s on the Broadway stage, and everyone thinks, ‘Isn’t that amazing, isn’t that fabulous?’ Right. But that same drag queen, if she walks out on Broadway and 5th Avenue and does anything wrong, a cop will push her into a car, rape her, throw her into a cell with a group of men, and nobody will say, ‘Oh well, that’s too bad, somebody should be doing something about that.’

That’s what the real travesty is. It’s all a lie that people really have come a long way around the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issue. I think that sometimes people see the progress we’ve made as a gay community, but what they don’t realize is that while we’ve made a lot of progress in the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, you still have presidential campaigns where people can still scapegoat us. They can make deliberate statements about us in ways that no one else would tolerate. The only thing we can do is continue to try to work with other organizations so that we can refer them places. Right now what we do is we work with organizations that we think at least will be sensitive to them, but I can tell you they’re few and far between.

What are some specific problems in this community in terms of health care?

Imagine somebody who’s monolingual Spanish-speaking who’s sick. Maybe early stages of HIV, maybe because they have an STD. They won’t go to a primary-care clinic because when they walk in there, the person sitting on the other side of the table is going to say, ‘So tell me how did you get this STD?’ They’re like, ‘I’m not going down that road because not only do you know me because you see me all the time in the community, but if I tell you, you’re going to tell everyone else.’ When I used to go to a straight doctor, the first thing he would ask me is, ‘OK, are you protecting yourself against HIV?’ ’Cause I’m a gay man, that doesn’t necessarily mean the only health issue I have to worry about is HIV. Why aren’t you talking to me about the fact that I’m Latino, and Latinos have a higher rate of diabetes? It’s because your sexuality now defines the kind of health care you’re going to get. Undocumented, gay, Latino men wait until they have full-blown AIDS before they get help. So many of those guys will die.

How is the association financed?

Even in Chicago, the third-largest city in the country, getting funding to do work in the gay community is like pulling teeth—let alone public funding. I work for the State of Illinois, the biggest funding source for all not-for-profits, and yet you can probably count on one hand the number of organizations that get state funding to do gay-specific work. And that’s a travesty. That’s just ridiculous. Right now, I’m having to basically sell people on the concept that there’s a need for a gay and immigration group to come together to address issues of detention for transgender people. I have to convince people that that has to be done, even though there are trans people right now being raped in centers all over the country.