This past weekend I found myself at a crossroads. Do I stand in my commitment as an unapologetic Boricua activist? Or do I silence myself in the hopes that some friendships will be spared? Working and having friends in the non-profit field makes it difficult to maintain transparency and hold friends, colleagues, and fellow revolutionaries accountable without the cost of friendship. I seriously struggled to answer these questions and often found myself conflicted, but the universe is amazing and always provides the answer that inspires movement.
On Saturday, a 20-year-old, brown-skinned, Puerto Rican, gay youth reached out and expressed that he was interested in having his photo taken for our project. The caveat was that I had to travel to where he was. Generally, this is not an issue as we always meet Gran Varones where they are, but this one happened to live across the street from where my younger brother was murdered. Knowing this stung, but I had little time to process this piece of information so I told myself, “You’ll be ok. Just have an extra Long Island at Stimulus tonight.”
The living room was lit by two lamps. Blankets were hanging from every doorway to keep in the warmth provided by the space heaters. I pretended not to notice the hot plate on the floor by the couch. I pretended not to be harkened back to my childhood, where our living room resembled this. I pretended not to remember the feeling of shame for not having a “beautiful” house. But then I caught myself pretending too much, and so I stopped.
“the space filled with light, laughter, and love illuminated by resiliency. I left with the reminder that this is the beauty of community, our community.”
“Welcome to the palace,” said an unapologetic, gender-bending Latino sitting on the couch. He was seated next to the person I had come to photograph but I was intrigued by his presence. We all began to chat about their realities. One shared how he is seeking justice for his murdered sister. The other shared that he owns the dimly lit house and refuses to move because it had belonged to his parents who have passed away. As we shared our experiences, the space filled with light, laughter, and love illuminated by resiliency. I left with the reminder that this is the beauty of community, our community.
I share this story because this is the queer Latin@ experience that is seldom seen. We, as a community, especially Latino gay men, are often times portrayed has a “hot” and “spicy” cartoon version of who we are. This is why Galaei’s Mr. Sexo competition is problematic. In a city where there are absolutely no programs specifically designed or geared towards Latino gay men, the one queer Latin@ social justice agency puts on a show that requires gay Latino men to wear underwear in a generally White gay club to compete to win the chance of representing Galaei. Sure, one can call it a sex positive and body positive event, but let’s be real – it is a reduction and objectification of brown bodies in a community that does not even acknowledge us as whole people. I suppose this is why we should not be surprised that a White man was the winner.
“But if you do not honor, include, or show up in the community, you are not, in fact, community based.”
Some Galaei supporters have voiced that it should not matter who won, but it does. The competition is billed as the search for the most sex positive Latino in Philadelphia and a White man won. Galaei defended this in stating, “Galaei is a queer Latin@ social justice organization. Latinadad is not who we serve but how we serve, so we treat everyone like familia. And we feel the new Mr. Sexo embodies this.” Seriously? If the agency actually believes this, then I invite them to travel to the depths of North Philly’s Puerto Rican and Dominican communities and state this. I invite them to travel to the depths of South Philly’s Mexican and Latin@ Immigrant community and declare that a White man effectively represents us as queer Latin@s.
This not only angers me but saddens me because the Latin@ queer community that exists in the beautiful neighborhoods outside of Philadelphia’s gayborhood will continue to NOT see themselves reflected in what Galaei currently represents. Let me be clear – Galaei’s mission suggests they are the home of Latin@ queers, that they are committed to being a community based organization. But if you do not honor, include, or show up in the community, you are not, in fact, community based. I challenge Galaei to unpack this claim by relocating their events like Mr. Sexo to the communities they serve.
This is not social justice. As a brown gay Latino man, I cannot accept that Galaei has worked tirelessly for 25 years just so that a White gay man can become a face of the queer Latin@ community. Galaei is in a position to create how the larger queer community sees Latin@s, and we deserve an image that represents our complete and beautiful truths.
Galaei released a statement addressing this issue, and while I commend their statement of acknowledgement, we are demanding that action follows. Our community is not in a position to just be apologized to whenever Galaei, or any other agency, unintentionally erases gay Latinos, and Mr. Sexo is not the first time. Galaei also “unintentionally” left out the only queer Latino men who participated in their SexX event earlier this year when they were not included in the promotional video subsequently posted on Facebook. Social justice is not just an apology or an acknowledgement, but intentional actions that move our community forward.
I get it. My letter will not create HIV prevention programs that are desperately needed for Latino gay men. It alone will not create housing and supportive programs that are desperately needed. It will not heat our homes in North Philly. Which leads me to question:
- How does the Mr. Sexo competition move our queer Latin@ community forward?
- How does Galaei intend on creating opportunities for queer Latin@ representation?
- How does Galaei intend to embody social justice in a tangible way?
- How does Galaei intend on including queer Latin@s who do not frequent the gayborhood in program development?
As an agency, Galaei may or may not have answers to these questions yet, but I will provide a hard reminder: Social justice means knowing the answers to these questions or actively working with the community to identify them. Sometimes those answers are found in the dimly-lit houses in North Philly and not on the dancefloor at Woody’s.
“This is what social justice, loving courageously, and intentional actions look like.”
As a project, The Gran Varones was founded to create visibility of Latino gay men in ways that celebrate us as whole people and not just pieces of meat to be devoured. We did this with zero dollars. We did this with absolutely nothing but the sheer desire and commitment to see ourselves in each other. We are committed to building community and holding ourselves and each other accountable. This is what social justice, loving courageously, and intentional actions look like.
I believe in Galaei’s potential to actually become a home for Latin@ queers again. As I’ve publicly stated before, my involvement with Galaei as a teen changed the entire course of my life. It’s not lost upon me that Gran Varones could not exist without the road paved by Galaei. However, Galaei will continue to stray from their commitments to “Latinidad” and “familia” until they recognize that we, as a community, can and do embody that for ourselves.
Louie A. Ortiz
Signed in solidarity by:
break this poem
break this poem in two,
leave half for me
take half for you,
break this poem as please
bit by bit, piece by piece,
feed this poem
and declare a bountiful feast,
break it against chains
and prison cells,
break it against bodies bruised
with skin scars that never tell,
mask it on eyes that hide
until something from the sky arrives,
break it against feet
that are battered and tired,
break it against minds and hearts
that yearn for the burn of fire,
break it till it inspires
and gives us wings to understand
break this poem,
take this poem as means into your hands.
break this poem
break it and divide it
onto everyone you see,
take some for you
leave some for me,
break-in case of emergency,
light in on highways
to guide ways of urgency,
break it against the universe
strike it across the night,
tear it apart and use it as a shield
should the battlefield need you to fight,
break it like wood
and light dark places,
bang it against the ground
to find the traces,
left by deaths and breaths
of ancestors never found,
break it, i say.
break this poem!
louie a. ortiz