La Madre of the Latino LGBT Movement
Written By: Mimi Gonzalez
Laura M. Esquivel’s professional lifetime of advocacy, organizing and political strategizing has delivered the Latino LGBT community in America to the promised land of inclusion and representation within the national political landscape. She’s a force of coalition, bridging together resources from politics to philanthropy to legislation.
Latino or Lesbian?
During the 1987 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, which Cesar Chavez led alongside then- president of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal, Chavez helped Esquivel resolve a major identity struggle common at the time to openly gay people of color.
Esquivel was wearing a UFW (United Farmworkers) sweatshirt, symbiotically representing the farmworker movement which Esquivel also supported. Support for ‘gay rights’ was championed by Latino and labor civil rights icons Chavez and UFW co-founder, Dolores Huerta. UFW contingents often showed their support for equality by marching in gay rights parades alongside their promotion for safe working conditions and the right to organize. Esquivel discussed the challenge of identity and activism with Chavez, asking why it felt like she “had to pick between being gay or being Latino,” and the lack of a home in either community for her full self.
“He held my hand and said, ‘You have a right to be heard and be seen as both Latino and as gay people.’”
AIDS funding provided the architecture around which the LGBT rights movement began to coalesce. The political and social infrastructure in place at that time was predominantly around white gay men. “I realized we had to have our own organizations,” Ms. Esquivel said. “You can’t wait around for other people to take your interests into account. You have to start it yourselves. If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
Esquivel had long been traversing both lands through the Latino LGBT organizations she was a part of establishing in the early 1980s. Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU) came together in 1982, and was later strengthened politically through protests at AIDS Project-LA where Latinos “spent a good bit of time to get our place at the table.”
Out of GLLU eventually grew Bienestar, the largest HIV/AIDS agency working exclusively in Latino communities in Southern California. Bienestar succeeded in further raising awareness about the distinct needs of Latino/LGBT communities.
Arriving in Washington
By the time the 1987 March on Washington was being planned, Latino gay and lesbian organizations were ready to capitalize on their numbers and the need to create a national organization was recognized. Esquivel was one of the organizing forces behind LLEGÓ, (Spanish for having arrived) the Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization.
It would be Esquivel’s first job in Washington, D.C. Fifteen years after founding it, she became LLEGÓ‘s first director of public policy and government relations. She brought her well-honed capacity for increasing LGBT Latino visibility to the issues on Capitol Hill – the biggest issue at the time being the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA).
Progressive groups had integrated their energies to focus opposition to the proposed amendment to the United States Constitution which sought to limit marriage to unions of one man and one woman and exclude judicial marriage rights to same-sex or other unmarried couples.
The anti-FMA coalition “couldn’t get support from Latino legislators,” Esquivel said, because they “thought it was not a Latino issue.”
Not surprisingly, the coalition working to defeat the FMA did not have support from any Hispanic members of congress. Gay rights were not perceived to be a “Latino” issue. At that time (almost ten years ago now), the people lobbying on the Hill for LGBT equality were not people of color – gay or straight. “In most of these congressional offices, I was the first person to meet with them on these issues who wasn’t white,” recounts Esquivel. “The Latino members of congress understandably asked me to prove that it was an issue Latinos cared about before they would consider weighing in.”
Because LLEGÓ was a national organization, they had a seat on the board of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA). NHLA is a high-profile, non-partisan coalition representing more than forty major Hispanic national organizations as well as distinguished Hispanic leaders from across the nation.
Esquivel’s efforts resulted in a statement issued by NHLA urging members of congress to “oppose any amendment to the United States Constitution which attempts to permanently deny marriage or the legal incidents thereof to same-sex couples by defining marriage.”
Esquivel produced the NHLA letter as evidence that Latinos around the country did care about discrimination of lesbians and gays. After that, a majority of the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus publicly opposed the FMA and signed a letter to President Bush asking him to veto it if it came to his desk. This signaled a real shift in the relationship between the two communities at the national level.
Those early efforts to build bridges between these communities were often intangible and not nearly as concrete as the FMA work – but also the most important. “What the gay and progressive communities did not understand was that Latinos are, and always have been, low-hanging fruit on this issue. All that is needed are the right messages and the right messengers,” she said adding, “and of course, that can’t happen if you don’t know the community.”
When she was appointed the senior VP of political affiars for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, noted political strategist, Robert Raben was impressed by watching Esquivel garner significant opposition to the FMA. “Laura has a rare gift: she can move people with equal parts passion, borne of activism, and pure smarts, borne of raw intelligence and political savvy,” he said in a press release, “I’ve watched her do what people said could not be done in our movement; getting diverse interests to agree to support equality for us.”
Her strategy of polling Latinos directly – conducting focus groups around the country to debunk common stereotypes of Latinos as “macho,” “family-oriented,” or possessing “conservative values” – shifted the conventional wisdom that the Latino population would automatically oppose gay marriage.
She hired Sergio Bendixen of Miami, “the most prominent Latino pollster,” Esquivel said, and “I pushed them (the coalition opposing FMA) to include Latinos in their polls.”
Through the polls and focus groups directly targeting Latinos, a clear message emerged with respondents admitting it was “the first time we’ve ever had an opportunity to talk about this stuff, think about it.” Ms. Esquivel revealed how costly not investing in the Latino community was. The polling revealed “a message we tested that worked really well. ‘For us it’s family first. We don’t throw out our kids.’”
She presented the finding in a briefing on the Hill to the Latino members of congress who “didn’t know how to talk about this. I gave them tools to assist in that. [It became] a game changer in terms of doing outreach. For a long time I was the only one with polling data and information about Latinos.”
It wasn’t just developing the right messaging, according to Esquivel, “it was about investing in communication to the Latino community about gay issues. Now all the polling indicates Latinos are more progressive on these issues. And now Catholics are more progressive. Once they started seeing that polling, they starting paying attention to Latinos.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), founded in 1929, is the oldest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country. Today, LULAC has a gay chapter in Texas. This year, LULAC is hosting a national convening of LGBT Latino activists at their national conference.
“It is a radically changed landscape since the strategic targeting of Latino opinions on this issue. Many national and local organizations have an openly gay leadership, staff or programming. And they are nearly all supportive of LGBT equality. This is light years away from where we were in 2003. I can’t claim responsibility for all that. But I know I played a small role in getting Latinos to understand that gay issues are also Latino issues.”
The Next Connection
In the midst of preparations to graduate from the Harvard-Kennedy School with a mid-career Master’s in Public Administration, Esquivel has been working on immigration issues more than LGBT issues. “I’ve been looking for opportunities to build a nexus between both.”
One of the things she’s proudest of was being hired to create the campaign to get the outspoken, anti-immigration talk show host Lou Dobbs off CNN. Through analysis and commercial tracking, she made it clear to advertisers that Latinos were not watching Lou Dobbs. The relevance of the Latino contribution to the economy has become too monetized to take for granted.
“That’s what I do, create coalition in leveraging in a way it hasn’t been done before.”