(CNN) -- Perez Hilton is a celebrity blogger who dishes
out the latest Hollywood gossip, but there's something about his personal life
you may not know.
Hilton is a Latino pioneer. He is one of the
first Latino public figures in the U.S. to be openly gay. While Latinos have
broken ground on the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hollywood and in professional
sports, gay Latinos in the nation's public arena remain largely invisible.
Hilton says deep-seated homophobia within the
Latino community has forced many gay Latinos to go underground, but attitudes
"At the beginning, when I came out to my
mom, she reacted with a sigh and said, 'You're my son and I have to love you,'
" Hilton says. "But now she says, 'You're the best son in the world,
and we need to find you a man.' "
Some gay Latino leaders are starting to share
Hilton's optimism. The Latino community has long had a reputation for being
notoriously homophobic. But some surprising developments within the Latino
world -- in the United States and abroad -- suggest that may be changing, gay
scholars and activists say.
'Walls are starting to crumble'
"A lot of walls are starting to
crumble," says Charlie Vazquez, a New York-based author whose fiction has
appeared in books such as "Best Gay Love Stories: NYC."
"We're at a crossroads," he says.
"A new generation of better-educated Latinos is coming of age."
Gay Latino activists point to several signs
of this transformation:
El Diario La Prensa, one of the oldest and
largest Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S., recently endorsed the rights
of same-sex couples to marry.
Within the past three years, lawmakers in
countries as diverse as Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico have passed laws granting
rights and protections to gays and lesbians.
Christian Chavez, lead singer of the popular
pop Mexican band RBD, recently announced that he was gay.
"He wasn't rejected by any of his band
mates or fans," Hilton says of Chavez. "That's a huge step for gay
visibility in the Latino media world."
And far away from the stage, even some of the
most vulnerable gay Latinos -- ordinary students in public high schools -- are
finding more support, one group says.
While many gay Latino students still face
physical and verbal harassment from classmates and teachers, more are becoming
bolder about affirming their sexual identity, a recent survey found.
A 2007 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian
and Straight Education Network discovered that at schools where a Gay Student
Alliance club existed, 59 percent of gay Latino students participated in the
club, says Elizabeth Diaz, a senior researcher at the network. The survey
defined gay youths as those who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The network also says that since 1999, at
least 4,000 Gay Student Alliances have formed groups at public and private
schools in the United States.
"While harassment in schools for Latino gay students remained high, we also know
that these students have more support than in past generations," Diaz
At least one Latina scholar is now even
questioning a fundamental assumption about homophobia in the Latino community.
Lourdes Torres, president of Amigas Latinas,
a lesbian and bisexual support group, says the notion that Latino people are
more homophobic and its men more macho is not only false, but tinged with
Men from all sorts of ethnic groups have long
acted in a patriarchal manner, but only Latino men have the term
"machismo" attached to their behavior, she says.
"People tend to think that somehow,
we're more repressed and living in the Dark Ages," says Torres, a
professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.
"They forget that just as things are
changing in the U.S., they're also changing in Latin America," she says.
The walls that still stand
Yet Torres and others also say that being gay
and Latino presents special challenges.
Like other gay people of color, Latino gays
face a double bind: discrimination from mainstream culture and from their own
community, Torres says.
This double bind presents an obstacle to
Latinos who consider coming out, Torres says. Their challenge: risking
rejection from their family when they need their family as a refuge from
racism, she says.
"The family is the unit that provides
the support and the one place that people can feel free and protected,"
Torres says. "It becomes doubly difficult for people to come out."
Those who take that risk may pay a price.
Emanuel Xavier, a gay poet and spoken word
artist, says he almost destroyed himself because he couldn't find acceptance
within the Latino community.
The New York-based poet says he grew up
knowing that his sexual identity infuriated other Latinos. He once saw kids
pelt a gay Latino hairdresser with stones. He routinely heard Roman Catholic priests condemn
His own mother called him names when she
discovered he was gay, says Xavier, editor of "Mariposas: A Modern
Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry."
Xavier says he was so filled with
self-loathing that he once sold drugs and engaged in risky sexual behavior.
"I became all those things society
expected me to become," he says. "I thought that was the only thing I
Xavier says he decided to ditch his reckless
lifestyle and become a poet. He reconciled with his mother and took on a new
mission. He wanted to show others that one could be Latino, gay and proud.
"Fortunately, I walked away
unscathed," he says of his earlier days. "I thought that God had
given me a second chance, and I felt like I had to do something with
Gay Latinos like Xavier who decide to become
activists, though, may run into an unexpected problem. How do you organize a
community that is so fragmented?
People often talk about the Latino community
in the U.S. as if it is one community. Yet Latino leaders often point out that
there is not one Latino community in the U.S., but many.
A U.S. citizen from Guatemala, for example,
may not appreciate being called a Mexican. Politics, food, history -- they all
differ among various Latino groups in the U.S.
Andres Duque, a gay Latino activist and
journalist, says those differences can make it difficult to mobilize support
for Latino gay issues.
"It's difficult to get united around a
single issue," says Duque, whose blogging name is "Blabbeando."
"When people are trying to form a Latino
voice, it's difficult because you have different cultures with different
visions and goals," Duque says.
For now, Hilton, the Hollywood blogger, may
seem like a coalition of one -- a Latino public figure who is proud of being
gay. But he says he doesn't feel isolated.
"I really don't think I'm alone,"
he says. "I don't feel alone."
He says that gay Latinos who decide to stop
living undercover will become more commonplace in the future.
tough -- I'm not saying it's not there," Hilton says of homophobia in the
Latino community. "But as time goes on, it will change."