Gay Families Gaining Acceptance in Latino Community


The Mantilla family
By Wayne Jebian
Familiar homophobic epithets punctuated the conversation among a mixed group of a dozen or so heterosexual men – black, white and Latino – gathered in a small room in Middletown. This was a court-mandated domestic batterers group, and as such, an illustration that lingering homophobia in Connecticut might exist more on the fringes of society than in the mainstream.
However, if once-widespread fears of overt bigotry and outright violence are on the wane, more subtle concerns may yet be driving gay and lesbian parents to be less than forthcoming about their sexual identities. Some parents might be concerned about residual prejudice in schools or on the playground being visited upon their children.
Accepting Two Mommies
Evelyn Mantilla has two daughters, ages 6 and 11. Mantilla has battled homophobia in its many forms over the years, but she claims that parents need not fear bullying among the younger set over this issue. “Both of our children have had the experience where another child with whom they were playing has noticed that there were two women at the playground, one named ‘mommy’ and the other one ‘mama’,” she recounts. “The other child then asks, ‘You have two mommies?’ My daughter says, ‘yeah,’ and without fail the other child says ‘OK’ or something to that effect and goes right on playing. This is usually around age five.”
When it comes to attitudes toward gay and lesbian families, many people cite a correlation between acceptance and age. Mantilla’s wife, Babette, observes how even their older daughter, as she approaches the ’tween years, wants less and less to do with anything her parents stand for. “They are just discovering their own sexuality and want nothing to do with anything perceived as deviant behavior.”
Not So Negative
In regard to the age-acceptance relationship, the perception doesn’t always hold up. In 1998, Evelyn Mantilla was running for re-election as state representative in the Hartford’s 4th district, which encompasses the heavily Puerto Rican southern part of the city. Her opponent was trying to get as much mileage as possible out of Mantilla’s lesbian identity, trying to leverage the idea that Hispanic voters, especially older voters, could be swayed with messages of intolerance. “He ran an extremely homophobic campaign against me, but it didn’t work. I was elected five times by a community that knew I was open about my sexual orientation.”
Evelyn continues: “People make assumptions about our community, and while there is some basis for it – strong Catholicism, family orientation – the bottom line is that when people get to know us individually and what we’re about, our experiences really have not been that negative.”
Some are Hesitant
Not everyone has the boldness of a politician, however. “Cecilia” would prefer not to be identified by her real name. Even though she is out among those who know her, when her work takes her into the larger Latino community, she is much less revealing. “I am not out in those circumstances,” she says.
Cecilia recalls meeting a man who was speaking Spanish to his grandson. This man was a work colleague of Cecilia’s domestic partner. After talking with him for a while, Cecilia tried to arrange a play date with her own children and his grandchildren, welcoming the opportunity for them to socialize with other children with whom they could feel comfortable speaking Spanish. After they exchanged business cards, the awkward question arose: What does your husband do?
“My partner was there,” Cecilia recalled. “This man must have thought she and I were just friends. When I said ‘I don’t have a husband; this is my partner – we’re married,’ the conversation stopped. Now my partner says that when she sees this man at work, he kind of runs the other way.”
Lack of Awareness
Quite possibly, reactions of surprise like those experienced by Cecilia come from a lack of awareness among the general population of just how many of their neighbors and co-workers are gay or lesbian, and just how many of them are parents. “I used to live in the Northampton area,” continues Cecilia, “and most people there have gotten used to not asking women about their husbands. Still, even there it changes if children are in the picture.”
Dr. Julio Morales, Professor Emeritus at University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work, has written and researched extensively on gay parenting, and has had plenty of personal experience with it as well. In an article entitled “Gay Men: Parenting,” Dr. Morales cites research from the late 1970s that suggests that between 25 to 50 percent of gay men were biological parents at that time. Clearly, gay parents have been around for far longer and are more numerous than has been acknowledged in the media.
Gay Latinos & Children
In 2011, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an education and advocacy group, published statistics from the state of New York revealing that children were present in 54% of Latina lesbian households. The second highest number was for black lesbian couples at 52%, followed by Gay Latino couples at 41%, still higher than white gay or lesbian households. Clearly, the drive among Latinos, gay or straight, to form families is strong – at least in New York. It is difficult to find any numbers for Connecticut.
Dr. Morales hopes to change all that. “We’re talking without a lot of research data. We’re talking based on stereotypes and past paradigms. We really don’t have anything recent. The group that I initiated to support gay marriage, CLARO: Connecticut Latinos Achieving Rights and Opportunities, is now in the process of doing a study: a knowledge, attitude and perceptions study within the Latino community. It’s about how the Latino community, within Greater Hartford at least, looks at gay people. There is at least one article pointing out that Latino attitudes are not as rigid as we think they are.”
Ethnic and Cultural Stereotypes
However, “Cecilia” believes that some Latinos still spread stereotypes about sexual identity by linking them to ethnic and cultural ones. “Among many in the Latino community, being gay is seen as a ‘white’ thing, that if a woman is a lesbian, she has become acculturated to the point of becoming a gringa. It’s a way of disavowing that it happens in our community.”
Morales points out that in spite of formal marriage equality in Mexico City, Argentina and Spain, there are fewer gay advocacy groups in Latin America overall, and they are less visible than they are in the U.S. This fact may help explain the effect of acculturation on acceptance of non-heterosexual identities.
Morales is waiting on the data from the CLARO study before making any firm generalizations; however, when analyzing factors affecting attitudes in Connecticut Latino communities, he does hint at the usual suspects: income, neighborhood, length of time in the United States, level of assimilation, and most of all, education. “A lot depends on the educational level of the individuals, how involved they have been and how many people they know in the gay community,” says Morales. “The more people that they know, the more likely they are to be accepting, especially with members of their own families.”
Promoting Acceptance
The anecdotal evidence seems to bear out Dr. Morales words. Says Evelyn Mantilla, “There are so many families like ours in West Hartford, even some who have get togethers occasionally. There’s an LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] picnic once a year, one recently was held at the home of Senator Beth Bye. Our school experience has been fantastic; my wife is the president of the PTO of Charter Oak Academy.”
“I do think that the more people like us come out, the more it helps promote acceptance,” says Babette Mantilla, who hopes that her experiences are a microcosm of the wider society. “But it’s not just coming out. It’s actually the connections we make.
“I work in the corporate world, at The Phoenix, downtown, and I have a friend at work who is a pretty traditional conservative guy. We sit near each other and he knows all about our family. I know that in our first month working together that if I had asked his opinion on gay marriage or gays raising kids, that his answer would not have been in line with mine.
“That being said, because we have developed a relationship and he has watched me be a parent and heard all my stories about my kids, he has gotten to know me as a person. He has actually made comments to me like ‘you guys are better parents than some people I know who everyone thinks are good parents’.”