National, local Latino groups step up LGBT support

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Twenty-one of the nation’s leading Hispanic organizations are launching a public-education campaign to build support within the Latino community for LGBT family members.

The campaign, called “Familia es Familia” (”Family is Family”) was announced on July 8 at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza in Las Vegas. Freedom to Marry, a nationwide coalition that campaigns for marriage equality, is providing seed funding for the project, which also has a financial commitment from the Gill Foundation.

The announcement came a month after NCLR’s board of directors passed a resolution endorsing marriage equality and after a number of public opinion polls have shown a high level of support among Hispanics for a number of LGBT issues. The announcement also came just days after the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group, passed a resolution at its annual convention in Orlando, Fla., supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples. LULAC has 900 councils throughout the United States.

“A growing majority of Latinos in this country know that every gay or lesbian person is part of someone’s family – a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a loved one – and the more conversations we have, family member to family member, the more support for the freedom to marry grows,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. “Latino gay couples seek the freedom to marry to affirm and strengthen their love, their commitment, and their ability to take care of each other and their families; government should not be putting barriers in their way.”

The growing support for LGBT equality among national Hispanic groups also is reflected at the local level, said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin. Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin’s leading immigrant rights group, has “been a tremendous ally and supporter” of LGBT rights, he said. “Some of our most engaged and most involved board members are part of the Latino community,” Burns said. “They really are doing a good job of being the kind of positive, progressive voice that changes the hearts and minds of people in their community.”

Burns said that Voces, as the group is often called, played a vital role last year in lobbying Milwaukee County Board supervisors to extend employment benefits to the same-sex partners of county workers. “They organized their members to call local officials and say that they, as a Latino organization, sup- port this,” Burns said. “It had immediate impact.”

Burns said the organization communicates support for the LGBT community on an ongoing basis and in subtle as well as overt ways.

“When Voces puts out their candidate surveys for making endorsements, they don’t ask specific LGBT questions, but they do use language that’s inclusive, such as ‘Do you have a spouse or a domestic partner?’” Burns said. “It’s one of those little things that sends a very clear signal.”

Lesley Salas, associate director of Voces, said the organization’s founding executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz recognizes LGBT equality as “just another civil rights issue.” Neumann-Ortiz speaks up frequently for the LGBT community, even mentioning gays and lesbians during a speech she made during an Occupy demonstration in Milwaukee last winter.

That’s a courageous position to take for the head of an organization that serves an immigrant community, Salas said,

“U.S.-born Latino kids, they pretty much don’t care,” she explained. “But the old- school, foreign-born people that are upholding those old ways – that is a hard group to loosen up. ... I don’t think (Neumann-Ortiz) gets people coming up and giving blowback about her position, but I do think she gets people to think.”

Still, Salas acknowledged that it’s easier for Latino leaders at the national level, who have some degree of anonymity, to take a strong stance on the issue than it is for local Hispanic leaders in communities like Milwaukee.

For Salas, who is out and who endured years of family members cajoling her to get married, the recent outpouring of support from Hispanic leaders has been personally gratifying.

“I’m going to be 60 in February, and the world has changed so much,” Salas said. “It’s done my heart good to see these changes. It’s very overdue for (the Latino community) to come to the table.”