One of our PISSWIFE members is in San Fransisco on a 5 month exchange at the moment. While Tessel is studying at San Francisco State University, she is contributing to the university’s exchange council blog, and she continues to write for PISSWIFE from overseas.
“The love that dares not speak its name, dares even less to speak it en español.” – Rodrigo Reyes
At San Francisco State University, I follow a course called LGBTQ Cultures and Society which introduces me to the long and impressive history of LGBTQ+ emancipation in the United States. Following PISSWIFE’s tradition of making academics more accessible (originating from ‘Academics Unpacked’ by Esther Eumann in PISSWIFE issue #1), I decided to share with you what I learned about LGBTQ+ emancipation in the US from a rather interesting essay by Horacio N. Roque Ramirez. It is not only interesting to read about queer struggle & activism, it is also important to know how the efforts of the LGBTQ heroes before us paved the way for emancipation today.
“That’s My Place!”: Negotiating Racial, Sexual, and Gender Politics in San Francisco’s Gay Latino Alliance by Roque Ramirez describes how the GALA (Gay Latino/Latina Alliance) originated, what actions they undertook in 1970’s San Francisco and what eventually led to the end of the GALA. Between 1975 and 1983, San Francisco and surrounding areas were a popular destination for “sexiles”, people who fled their area of origin because of discrimination based on their sexuality. This essay tells the story of Jesús Barrâgan who became conscious of his queerness and his race when he returned to California in 1969 after serving in the military. Within gay spaces, Jesús grew irritated with the relationships Latino gays had with one another: The Latino queer bar scene consisted of Latino gay’s competing with each other to take the white boys home. Jesús called out this behavior: “As long as you have someone up there on a pedestal above you, you’re gonna be second-class. And I am not saying knock them off, but step up there with them.” (Interview with Barrâgan, 2001)
Jesús’ story shows resemblance to the story of Manuel Hernández Valadéz, a gay man from San José who attended the Gay Freedom Day parade in San Francisco and felt it was the only place where “he could be both gay and latino, even if only on the sidelines.” (Roque Ramirez, 230) Eventually Manuel en Jesús met Rodrigo Reyez who had placed an ad in the Bay Area Reporter. Rodrigo, like Jesús, was increasingly unsatisfied with the queer club culture. Bouncers at gay clubs would ask people of color for multiple identification papers before eventually letting them enter, sometimes people of color would not get in at all. At a certain point, Rodrigo was invited to Los Angeles by a lover who showed him the Bush Gardens, a bar that was frequented by mostly Latino queer folk. “So for the first time in my life I find myself as a gay man and as a Chicano at the same place, at the same time, and all of a sudden all those people that I grew up with, all my ideal types, all the people that I used to have crushes with, were there, present, in this place.” (Interview with Reyes, 1991, by Richard Marquez)
Rodrigo returned to San Francisco, determined to share this feeling and this vision with his fellow Latino queer people. In te mid-1970’s, most Latino’s in San Francisco were living in the Mission District, “where they were able to build upon a neighborhood culture that had Latino roots, was relatively contained, and possessed a tradition of labor and progressive organizing.” (Roque Ramirez, 235) Rodrigo, Manuel and Jesús decided to team up and make this space for Latino queer folk happen. At this point, their team consisted of only men. A few meetings after the initial one, Diane Felix, a lesbian Latina woman, joined the group of people. She felt let down by her activist circles who abandoned her when she came out of the closet.
GALA began to be an established activist group who also hosted parties for Latino/Latina gay men and lesbians. Up to this point, there is no mention of bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals or gender non-conforming Latinx people in the article. “Politics and dancing mutually supported one another; the funds GALA raised through the dances and other social events underwrote political activism.” (Roque Ramirez, 241) GALA was a powerful group, however they always experienced the intersectional oppression of being both gay and Latino/Latina. Often times, GALA was not accepted by the predominantly white gay movement on the one hand, and not accepted by the straight Latino/Latina community on the other hand. However at a certain point, “GALA’s involvement in nongay causes convinced many in the Latino community that GALA ‘belonged’.” (Roque Ramirez, 246) Acceptance from white queer folk was still nowhere to be found and white gays often fetishized Latino gays and appropriated their music and culture.
However powerful and influential, GALA was not a perfect political movement. Diane and other lesbians in the alliance did not feel respected and listened to on a number of occasions. Issues specific to queer women’s lives were not regularly the topic of discussion, and queer nightlife also often excluded women from their spaces. Diane argued that women were reluctant to join GALA because of the masculine atmosphere and male-centre actions the alliance undertook. Even though this is understandable, the lack of female (and gender non conforming) voices in the alliance also resulted in less advocacy for their identities. Eventually, the opening of gay bar Esta Noche was the downfall of GALA. GALA funded this bar and proclaimed it was the new Latino/Latina queer space. However, the space was frequently visited by straight men who would harass the lesbians in this “queer” space. When the Latina lesbians complained about the incidents, they would be told that this was now a bar, no longer a political space.
Text: Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Isabel Sijbrandij