| Arts & Culture
Queer Life Learning to Hate Yourself in Los Angeles
They told me, “Gay people are all in WeHo. There are no gay people in Inglewood.” To be gay was not only to be Other, but to be white.
The first bigots I met were people who looked like me.
We were Mexicanos, Chicanos, Salvadoreños, Hondureño, Chapin; great huddled brown and black masses that America is satisfied with calling “Hispanic or Latino” on census forms and when our voting patterns become of interest during major elections.
I grew up with them in Los Angeles, in Inglewood, next to Compton, next to Hawthorne. The Los Angeles of the ’90s was a dystopian nightmare crafted by these familiar twin devils: redlining and white flight. We were surrounded by pandilleros , violence, turf wars, and then uprisings. America had done a good job of isolating us, turning us against one another and forcing neighborhoods to fight for scraps along racial lines.
I grew up in the shadow of the Los Angeles Forum, along a street called Prairie, a major vein and bus route to all the important locations across South Los Angeles. My mother once told me that she walked along this street with me in her belly when some dudes knocked her off the sidewalk and into a mound of grass. Fortunately, her mother, my grandmother Exelizpua, was with her during the walk. She was a former tomboy campesina who had no fear in her heart. She attacked the men who pushed my mother and me, and her ferocity scared them away into the night. Despite this incident, Exelizpua and her three children had agreed: Compared to their old world, America was the better life, the better country.
It was in this climate that I came to know the very first bigots in my life. For years, I could see their nose was my nose. Their plump lips were mine. My curled eyelashes, my brown eyes and skin, shared between us like a curse.
I didn’t grow up with a father because he was a coward, yet another man living in fear, but I did grow up with an uncle who was my north star into manhood. He taught me that a man should primarily be mischievous. He listened to Iron Maiden, a band my mother forbade me from hearing because their grinning mascot—Eddie—reminded her of Satan. My uncle knew this, but listened to them anyway, playing VHS tapes of their shows when I was in the room. I would turn to steal a glance, and there he was—Eddie—in all of his Satanic glory.
My uncle would offer the family stories of lewd maricones who desperately hit on him. One such story he told all of us, about a man who pawed at his knee while he drove him from the airport. I doubt he remembers the story, but I do, and I remember it as a warning, an imaginary cliff that I shouldn’t ever approach. I shouldn’t ever think about being anything like those people.
My friends also looked like me, and acted like me, until there started to be a slow separation between us. When the film Boys Don’t Cry came out, my friends half-jokingly sided with Brandon Teena’s murderers. If anything like that happened here, if they were fooled by a queer person, they would do what was done to Brandon as well. The half-jokes were serious to me. I knew that I could never reveal myself to my friends, because in keeping myself secret, I was already a queer person fooling them, just like Brandon.
I wish I knew then what I know now: that white queer people were killed in public, but brown queer people were killed in secret. It took time, but the more I researched our history the more the names of the victims began to unfurl as if history was finally confessing its sins: Nick Moraida, Julio Rivera, Gwen Araujo, and the many local brown and Black trans people who were misgendered during the nightly news obituaries. The list of victims only grows longer with the passing of time.
Some of these victims were people who looked like me, and some of their murderers were people who looked like me, and like my friends, simply doing what they always described they would do if they were hit on by the wrong person. I felt an almost instant alienation from my own community as I grew into my queerness, as if my identity had forced a new language on me that I couldn’t translate. And I wonder now if all that alienation was by design.
I could not picture coming out to my family because I had no way to say “gay” in Spanish without speaking a slur. I could not disentangle myself from the leering man who groped my uncle, or from Brandon Teena. To be gay was not only to be Other, but to be white.
“Being gay is a white thing,” a friend of mine once said.
“Gay people are all in WeHo,” another friend said. “There are no gay people in Inglewood.”
I didn’t have the language or articulation then to argue back, to actively push against the erasure of my own people by my own people. As a consequence of this erasure, I couldn’t picture my adult life — my future . I couldn’t see myself as a Latino gay adult. I could only picture my future as Other, as a “lifestyle” incompatible with my upbringing. Whatever I would become would be something that my friends and my uncle would disavow: Some white predatory queen in WeHo detached from his own heritage.
I hated myself and the man I would become, and it was because the men who looked like me had defined me — consciously — as Other, different from them. Eventually, I learned about the ways in which white supremacist European beauty standards (and Nazi imagery) influenced how queerness was tied to whiteness, but I wonder if the white imagery of gayness was also weaponized against me by my own community? And to what cruel end?
If machismo was a tactic employed by people who look like me to create an army capable enough to protect our neighborhoods, then the tactic backfired. Machismo is fear. Our immigrant men ventured into Los Angeles like settlers with their families in tow, and they were afraid that they could not shelter them. This fear governed the lives and the outlooks of the men who looked like me, and it failed them time and time again. It directly contributed to our death rate during the AIDS epidemic by separating out the victims of the epidemic from the survivors. Instead of caring for each other, and standing up for our lost ones, our own fathers, uncles, and friends turned on the victims, adopted a tangential white supremacist fantasy, and marked some of us as weaker, and even worse, forced us all to pretend that our queerness did not exist.
My alienation was a product of this convoluted history. I could not hold an idea of my future queer life because I believed this would expose a weakness that could kill me. And so, the men who looked like me hated the gay man I could become, and so I hated myself.
I could not picture coming out to my family because I had no way to say “gay” in Spanish without speaking a slur.
In 2015, a mural depicting Chicano LGBT people by Manuel Paul was defaced in San Francisco’s Mission District. Internet haters of the mural noted that the defacement was justified because Chicano culture did not include queer people despite them all sharing the same face, the same features. This was the same year that same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States and the same year when I married my husband in New York miles away from Los Angeles, decades away from any sense of shame or doubt.
We married on a sunny September day on a rooftop overlooking McCarren Park. My family arrived late, missing our vows, but arrived just in time for the food and the party. It was a rager, a mischievous affair. As a child, I couldn’t imagine my mother attending my wedding and signing off after every call by saying “tell your husband I said hello” over the phone, but she did every time. I was in awe of how easily they loved and accepted me.
I had, by then, held close to my heritage due to the enormous work my younger sister had done on the family after I came out. She helped my mother and my aunt to disentangle themselves from the bigotry of my extended family and reminded them that we were their children first. We all shared my grandmother’s tenacity and fighting spirit, and I fought for a queer life and future without having to imagine it first, the same way she fought for our future in America.
On the day of my wedding, I took one photo with me and my family that I uploaded to my private social media account. My mother ended one of our calls in a hushed tone.
“Your uncle heard about the photo you put online and he was upset because my face was visible,” she explained in Spanish.
He wasn’t present at the wedding. I hadn’t invited him. We didn’t even follow each other on that social media account.
“If he’s angry at me, maybe he should speak to me directly,” I said, “because this doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“I understand. I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“It’s fine. I’m just done worrying what he thinks about me.”
My uncle once said that I and the man I loved could not stay with him and his family at his house, and we did not speak since his unwelcome pronouncement. Behavior like this reinforced the idea that it was the correct decision for me to stay in the closet for years. I was worn out from years of doubting my own place in my own community by men like my uncle. My world in Los Angeles, embodied in my uncle, had now shrunk to a tiny bothersome voice stuck in the past.
I’m often asked what kind of stupid person I am to have moved from Los Angeles to New York, because for many people the weather is the only thing worth thinking about. I get it. I have a stock answer: I’m not an actor. I’m a writer.
But what is my real answer? I think it may be that I had to move to New York to find my people here. I found the men who look like me, who do not hate me. They are Boricua, Hondureño, Dominicano, and more. Becoming a professional here put me on the path of Latinx employee resource groups and a growing circle of friends who regularly attended Latin Nights at clubs like Escuelita and Club Evolution. These nights were not just meat market events; they were also ritualistic bonding and healing spaces. In these spaces, I could see myself as a part of this community. I could heal the artificial divide between my own queerness and brownness.
A 2018 survey conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that Latinx millennials were the ethnic group most likely to identify as LGBT. My immediate reaction was that the unthinkable had happened, that my generation, raised in fear, had found courage despite all opposition. And then I wondered if many of them had experienced the same painful split in identity that I had.
Being in conversation with other Latinx people, I have found that we doubt our reality, our census grouping. We question if we are actually in community with each other or even with our fathers. It hasn’t escaped me that my husband doesn’t look like me. I have a son now, and he doesn’t look like me. When I was little, I once saw myself in a mirror and saw the men who hated me staring back. What is that shame I carry every day that I have to work hard to destroy? These scars are not just healed with self-acceptance, they are deep, and they linger.
I visited Los Angeles one Christmas to surprise my mother. My uncle heard that I was home and called her in order to force me into a phone conversation with him (a tactic my absent father had employed in the past as well).
“I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve been wrong before. I just wanted to say that I love you, son.”
My uncle offered peace without justice. For my mother’s sake, I took my uncle’s meager apology.
“Thank you. I love you too. Merry Christmas.”
What is that shame I carry every day that I have to work hard to destroy?
These eleventh-hour mea culpas never play out quite like how men plan them. It wasn’t even an apology, let alone a reckoning for years worth of self-doubt. My true feelings were never just about my uncle or what he said, but about the people my uncle represented, those real and imagined groups of people who never made me feel as treasured as I should have.
After that trip, I returned to New York an even stranger creature than before. The 2020 election thrust “Latinos or Hispanics” back into the spotlight, exposing us as an often conflicted grouping of divided self-interests. We are often described as America’s future, my generation and people like me, but how will we establish a stable future when our identities and relationships are in flux?
At our next ERG meeting, which took place after the election, we discussed anti-Blackness in Latinx communities. “My family has said anti-Black things to me all my life. They asked me to marry a white person and help to lighten up the race,” one person said. “My family used to call me names saying my hair was too Negro, too Black.”
I realized with some frustration that I was not the only person who had experienced a divide between my community and myself. I was not the only one bearing this particular shame. After someone shared that they knew a brown relative of theirs had voted for Trump, I found myself saying, “Are we even the same people? Are we even the same political alliance?”
The group didn’t push back. Instead, they nodded. I faced my laptop and looked into the eyes of people in tiny Zoom boxes, people who looked like me. For the first time, though we had our conflicted selves, I felt we were united.