The Roar of ‘Queer Brown Voices’

From the moment I learned to read I was taught never to judge a book by its cover. The adage is meant to apply to all sorts of things, and it’s usually told to kids staring at some mysterious blob on their dinner plate. Still, no one ever said anything about judging a book by its title, which together with an sexy cover can tell what’s in store for the reader. Certain books reveal something about the people holding them. The Communist Manifesto, Guerrilla Warfare, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, God Is Not Great — even if the subversiveness of such books isn’t well known, their covers are enough to make a person in possession of them appear dangerous in the eyes of any trembling, straight-laced Whole Foods shopper. These are the books that, when we carry them, we’re compelled to keep their faces turned towards us, so as not to further unsettle an already skittish society.

I didn’t leave the house with Queer Brown Voices more or less for that reason. The title is printed in big, colorful letters too, as if to leave passersby with no doubt as to the book’s subject matter. As a Black Latino living in America, I’m already the object of suspicion nearly everywhere I go; walking around with as incendiary a cover as this book has would be pushing my luck. You’re allowed to be a person of color in white spaces (you can’t be otherwise, after all), but you are not allowed to a person of color and openly progressive, which for the white world is considered picking a fight.

Plus, if I’m being honest, a part of me didn’t want strangers thinking I was gay. It feels terrible even admitting that. But facing that fact has led to me to realize how relieved I am that I’m not gay — not because being straight is any better than being queer, but because of how cruel society is to queer people, especially queer Latinos. If I’m too chicken to walk around with a little book, I can’t imagine how scary it must be for queer Latinos to brave the world in their own bodies. Actually, as a Black Latino, I can imagine it: it’s probably equal to what I feel walking around, only squared.

I wish Queer Brown Voices had focused a bit more on the inner aspect of being a queer Latino rather than the outer. (Maybe I was expecting more from a book with so bold a title.) As is, the text is a collection of personal essays and oral histories about the Latino LGBT activism during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s more résumé than memoir, telling less about what the participants were feeling during that period and more about they were doing. And because the world of Latino LGBT activism is incredibly small — especially back in its early days — most of the activists in this book have met each other, have worked with the same organizations and experienced the same events, making for a ton of overlap.

There are exceptions though, such as an intimate account given by Adela Vázquez, a transgender woman who lived in San Francisco as a Cuban “sexile.” Funny enough, perhaps the best essay in the whole bunch is the conclusion written by Uriel Quesada, the director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Loyola University New Orleans, who delicately lays out the overarching narrative of the book, before going on to recount his own personal story as a queer Costa Rican immigrant. In the end, however, it’s something written by Wilfred W. Labiosa, a San Juan-born Boston activist, that truly captures what this book is about:

“When I was growing up I never had good Latina/o LGBT role models, and now I don’t want anyone growing up to suffer the same adversity. We have never asked for special rights, only the same rights as others. Our work as leaders is not done to be remembered but to leave things in better shape for those who come after us. … The years I’ve just described show a sense of family and camaraderie that brought us the energy to organize and advocate for what we wanted. We met in times of happiness and sadness, we supported one another, we talked about the good and the bad, we shared news about our countries, we shared the personal and not so personal, be we shared. I am Boricua, gay, psychologist, leader, husband, brother, son, friend, nephew, cousin. I am so many things, but everything starts and ends with my roots, my name, and my actions and history.”

Queer Brown Voices is a declaration of existence, a flag staked into America’s political landscape saying “We were here… We’re still here.” With TV and film giving the impression that being queer and and the struggle for LGBT rights are mainly white issues, this book stands as a reminder that queer Latinos have organizing with and alongside the mainstream groups since the beginning. And they chose to speak up not as queer people or Latinos, but both.

Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism

By Uriel Quesada (editor), Letitia Gomez (editor), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (editor)
University of Texas Press: 272 pages