Though some might say it’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back, there’s no doubt that there’s significant forward momentum in the march towards gay equality. A national poll conducted by CNN in early June found that a majority of the country now supports gay marriage. “In 1998, a majority believed that someone who is gay or lesbian could change their sexual orientation if they choose to do so. Today, only a third feel that way, and the number who say that gays and lesbians cannot change their orientation is almost six in ten. Those shifts probably explain the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage,” CNN polling director Keating Holland explains of the change in attitudes.
However, even though it’s arguably easier than ever to come out as openly gay in this country, there do still exist institutional and cultural stigmas against homosexuality that cannot be erased by a stroke of a pen or the passage of legislation.
California’s Proposition 8 comes to mind immediately. While the anti-same-sex marriage ballot measure passed statewide narrowly by 52 percent to 48 percent, blacks voted 70 percent for Prop 8, and more than 50 percent of Hispanic voters supported it, too. The religiosity of black and Latino communities is often cited as a reason why the two groups are more resistant to accepting homosexuality. So is a culture of hyper-masculinity, which—as noted in an infamous 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story by Benoit Denizet-Lewis discussing the down-low phenomenon—views “homosexuality as a white man’s perversion.”
Marcos Quinones, a certified cognitive behavioral therapist who lives in Brooklyn, agrees that the macho Latino culture made coming out difficult. “In our culture, the family is very essential. Latinos have many children, and the men tend to be macho. There’s a saying: ‘Spanish men have three balls.’ That’s how macho they are. So when someone is a little on the feminine side or comes out [as] gay, then it’s not spoken. Even when it’s accepted, it’s not spoken. That’s also because we tend to be very Catholic,” he shares.
Quinones, now in his early 40s and fully out to his family, only came out of the closet completely when he was 27, after his father passed away. “My father was a strict, macho police officer who was kind of physically abusive, although that was not because of alcohol or anything. It’s just our culture that you hit your kids when they misbehave. So I would never have come out to him,” he says.
Instead, the New York native waited till his father died before coming out to his mother and sisters. “I was initially rejected by my mother and my sisters,” Quinones adds, pointing out that the staunchly homophobic Catholic Church had always been a big part of his family. “From first grade though high school, I went to Catholic schools. So did my sisters, and my parents were always engaged in church activity.”
Within six months though, Quinones’ family had come to terms with his homosexuality, even embracing his partner, although “they still aren’t terribly comfortable with [homosexuality].”
Like Quinones, 26 year-old Rodrigo was raised in a very religious family, which meant that coming out was a very difficult task. “There is a cultural aspect to it definitely. We grow up in an environment that seems to reject us, as society is always telling us that the correct thing is to be straight,” Rodrigo tells me. “Being in a Christian family didn’t help either. There was an infinite list of sins, of rules and of how we have to be morally correct. When the only knowledge of how to behave that you have is what you learned from the Big Black Book, there is no choice for you.”
Rodrigo’s story is similar to Quinones’ in that he also came out fully in his mid-20s. It was a year ago, at 25, when he decided he didn’t feel the need to hide anymore. “I am sure that I needed to grow up, to taste pain in order to accept the fact that maybe my parents’ beliefs weren’t exactly the best for me,” he explains. After he came out though, things have gotten a lot better, the retail worker says, as his family has been very supportive. “As I told a friend once, ‘from inside the closet you think that the world is a nightmare, but when you get out, you realize that the nightmare was living in it.’”
Besides religious and cultural reasons, another factor as to why minorities are less comfortable with gays is the fact that there are simply fewer minority gay role models.
Ankit is a 21 year-old gay Indian American attending college in New York. He was born in India but came here when he was 13. He is out to two friends and one cousin, but is closeted otherwise. He explains that homosexuality is basically invisible in Indian culture. “There aren’t any gay role models in India or in Indian communities elsewhere. Hence, my parents have very little knowledge about the subject. In Bollywood movies, it is only joked about and never expressed in a serious manner,” he says.
There’s a striking similarity between the Indian “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to homosexuality and the down-low culture. In both, families might know deep down that a family member is gay, but they would never admit it. “The fear and pressure of their peers force Indian parents to be in denial. That’s why if I publicly come out, it will really bring shame to my family,” Ankit reveals. “Indian parents will just pretend everyone is fine and that their son is straight. If he’s not, he still will get married and give them grandchildren.”
Ankit says, however, that things, as always, are changing with the passing of time. “The younger Indian generation born here in the U.S. is much [more] accepting of gays. I don’t believe any of my younger nieces and nephews would have issues understanding us.”
The same evolution is happening within the Latino community, Quinones observes. “In Puerto Rico, for example, back when I was there for college, homosexuality was still very much a taboo. Today, they have two Gay Pride parades that are really popular. Things are definitely loosening up.”
Indeed, an April study conduced by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 59 percent of American Latinos feel that society should accept homosexuality, with an even more heartwarming 68 percent of second-generation Hispanics saying the same.
Undoubtedly, gay acceptance and the ease of coming out are tied to visibility. Milestone news stories like marriage equality victories in Mexico City and Argentina, and the coming out of Latino celebrities like Ricky Martin, have helped within the Latino community. And with institutions like the NAACP and high-profile minority leaders like Al Sharpton, and of course, Barack Obama, having stood up for gay marriage, there is surely hope that the closet will soon be a thing of the past.