Openly gay Puerto Rican writer, activist and scholar Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes was the featured speaker at the "Home Is Where the Art Is: Queer Ricans Insights on the Latinx Experience" event Oct. 22 at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park.
La Fountain-Stokes was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He moved to the states to attend college ( B.A. in Hispanic studies from Harvard and a master's degree and Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese literature from Columbia University ) and teaches at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in LGBT, Latina/o, Puerto Rican and Hispanic-Caribbean studies. La Fountain-Stokes also appears as his drag persona, Lola von Miramar, at venues in Latin America and the United States as well as on the online show Cooking with Drag Queens.
National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture CEO Billy Ocasio welcomed the approximately 50 people in attendance. Then, La Fountain-Stokes read an excerpt from his fiction story "SJU-ATL-DTW ( San Juan-Atlanta-Detroit )"featured in the Great Books Foundation's anthology, Immigrant Voices: 21 Century Stories ( every attendee received a copy of the book )ahead of his conversation and Q&A session with Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame inductee, Vives Q creator and activist Emmanuel Garcia.
Garcia asked La Fountain-Stokes about Puerto Rico, both generally and his relationship with the island. He noted the specific and complex nature of being a Puerto Rican because the island is a colony of the United States which means they have U.S. passports but not the most basic rights of citizenship. La Fountain-Stokes explained that he goes back and forth frequently but said the reason why he left initially was because he's gay and felt like he couldn't stay because of his sexual orientation. He said things have gotten better and now there's a thriving LGBTQ community that includes activists.
"I'm a part of that social change in Puerto Rico," said La Fountain-Stokes.
In terms of the cultural loss in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, La Fountain-Stokes said it was devastating. He also mentioned writing about Manuel Ramos Otero, one of the first Puerto Ricans to write about being gay, and who died due to complications from AIDS in 1990.
Garcia noted the role of language in the LGBTQ community and the fact that queer has been taken back by the community, especially among young folks, and asked La Fountain-Stokes to comment on this phenomenon. He noted that he's obsessed with language.
La Fountain-Stokes explained that he was raised bilingual and, to this day, alternates between Spanish and English. He calls English his imposed language and said he still doesn't speak it very well.
"I often see myself as a cultural and linguistic translator and mediator," said La Fountain-Stokes.
La Fountain-Stokes noted the book he wrote for kids ages 10 and above, A Brief and Transformative Account of Queer History, that's in both English and Spanish. There's a companion paper dolls book featuring 27 characters in both languages that comes with the book.
Garcia brought up the word "Latinx" and the idea of taking away gender in language; La Fountain-Stokes responded that he likes the concept but that the term is hard to translate into Spanish because that's a language that relies on gender.
Garcia explained that La Fountain-Stokes has written about the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, and asked him to elaborate on that day. La Fountain-Stokes said it happened the same day as the National Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City, of which he was a participant. He said it was a very confusing and strange time for him. La Fountain-Stokes noted how happy he was to see the memorials for Pulse along the Paseo Boricua section of Division Street, reminding everyone of the work that still needs to be done to achieve acceptance and equality.
A panel discussion on Latinx life with three queer Roberto Clemente High School students ( Destiny, Kayla and Yvette ) and Clemente School Community Representative Jessie Fuentes followed La Fountain-Stokes' conversation with Garcia. Fuentes and Garcia served as moderators.
Destiny noted that schools, including Clemente, lack any kind of LGBTQ history in their classes. She said she came out at school when she was 16 because of how accepting everyone was there, despite the school's lack of resources for LGBTQ youth.
Kayla said she lacks support at home because there's a divide between her parenther mom and sisters/brothers are supportive while her dad is not. She also noted that there are not a lot of safe spaces to get information about the LGBTQ community in the area, adding that, while she liked La Fountain-Stokes' kids book, it wouldn't have helped her situation. Kayla ( who mentioned that her uncle is gay ) explained that she came out to close friends when she was a freshman and that, for the most part, their teachers and fellow students accept her.
Yvette said that queer students at her school can express who they are and everyone there knows she is dating Kayla. Yvette also noted that she came out in eighth grade, and when her parents found out they beat her physically and took her phone away. Kayla pointed out that her mom lets Yvette come over to their house due to her family situation.
Public Narrative President Susy Schultz led an interactive storytelling workshop and presentation to close out the day's events.
The event was partially supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a collaboration of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the Great Books Foundation, the Chicago Cultural Alliance and Public Narrative.
See LarryLaFountain.com for more information.