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Latina Confab
by Nikki Usher

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Intended to spur greater discussion about those who carry double-pronged hyphens as part of their identity—queer and Latino—a May 15 symposium at the University of Chicago, Queer Latin ( o/a ) America: Diasporas and Histories, brought together top ranking academics, performance artists, students and community members.

The conference touched on the tension many Latino queers feel between wanting to be open about their sexuality and wanting to be not just tolerated but accepted and recognized by a larger cultural group.

Panels and roundtable discussions explored themes such as AIDS among Mexican gay men, queer Cuba, and queering the border. 'I'm interested in the intersection between queer and Latino. It's often ignored and pretty amazing that this is happening,' said Ana Minian, a third-year student at the University of Chicago who described herself as both queer and Latina.

George Chauncey, a University of Chicago history professor, opened the symposium with Spanish professor Agnes Lugo-Ortiz. Some students came to hear Chauncey, who has edited Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past and has written extensively on gay and lesbian social history.

'There's not much out there on Latina queers, but the speakers, like George Chauncey and Achy Obejas are here talking about it,' said Tina Verdin, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Larry La-Fountain-Stokes, a University of Michigan-Ann Arbor professor, gave a lecture along with an accompanying side show entitled, 'On Puerto Rican Flags, Parades, Drag Queens, and T-Shirts: Inscribing the Queer Nation.'

La-Fountain-Stokes, of Puerto Rico, said he came to the conference because it was a way for him to honor the collegiality between Midwestern academics doing Latino Studies. 'Parades have always been important for me, being a part of them has been part of my whole coming-out experience,' he said. 'Parades are an intersection of so many different issues and the people on the fringes of society are often the people on the fringes of the parade.'

His presentation revealed the tension and the history of discrimination queer Puerto Ricans have faced while marching in the New York City parade.

La-Fountain-Strokes drew parallels between ephemera such as t-shirts and party invitations to underscore the sense of pride and desire for unity that is seen in the Puerto Rican Diaspora and queer culture. 'It's funny, but both Puerto Ricans and gay groups use the word pride, pride in self and culture,' he said.

He also underscored what was a common theme throughout the conference: the implicit recognition that homosexuality exists in Latino culture but that its existence is rarely acknowledged by a public, open, non-queer audience. 'You'd have to be 'in the know,' 'in the life,' to pick up on these things,' he said.

Obejas, a former journalist now at the University of Chicago, spoke about her experiences and observations about being queer and American in Cuba. She used personal narrative to expand upon contradictions in Cuban history. 'Cuba has always been associated with the wild, with what you could not do in your home country, you would do in Cuba, especially Havana,' she said.

Havana has its 'maricones,' as drag queens are referred to, but Havana also saw many of its citizens—including artists and intellectuals—forced to spend time in Communist labor camps designed with the intention of 're-educating' homosexuals to become heterosexual members of society. 'For many, many years under Castro, to be openly gay meant to forfeit party membership, and really, to forfeit a good life,' Obejas said.

Obejas, over the past seven or so years, said she has been to Cuba so many times she has lost count. Her ex-girlfriend in Havana provided Obejas with a window into what Cuban life and cultural expectations were for those with power and influence—a distinction from the poor Cubans that Obejas was careful to point out.

While Obejas and her girlfriend were treated with courtesy by high-ranking party officials and were not ever mocked or assaulted in Havana, she said that there was a difference between tolerance and acceptance.

There is no official protection for gays and lesbians from discrimination, and many raids still continue to happen in what is left of gay gathering places.

To conference participants, discussing Latino queer experiences helps solidify the fact that Latino queers have pride—not just gay pride, but cultural pride as well.

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