For 'invisible' LGBT Latinos, layers of grief within grief

In the Orlando aftermath, there is also the heart-wrenching news that some families of the 49 victims are just learning about their loved ones' LGBT identities.

Some families of Orlando victims are just learning of their loved ones' LGBT identities

Mourners grieve at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 13, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The conversation, first broached 22 years ago, came back to Danny Garcia this week. He was reminded of the words after Sunday's attack at the gay nightclub Pulse, the worst mass shooting by a single gunman on American soil.

"Whatever you do," the Orlando resident recalls his mother telling him in Spanish, "don't come out to your dad."

"I try not to think about it," Garcia says.

But that's proving more difficult lately, amid heart-wrenching news that the families of some of the 49 victims were kept in the dark about their loved ones' LGBT identities.

Danny Garcia, a Latino sales manager of Costa Rican descent, came out to his mother when he was 15. He said he was told not to tell his father. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Most of those killed were of Hispanic descent. Among them were Dominicans, Mexicans and Colombians. More than 23 were of Puerto Rican origin.

That some of the victims felt compelled to hide their sexual identities from those who loved them most, whether as a result of some unresolved shame or imperfect timing, is telling about the stigma of queer identities in Orlando's LGBT Latino community. Today, the community-within-a-community is experiencing grief-within-grief.

"It's devastating for us," Garcia says. "Had [the gunman] chosen that night — Latino Night — because it was crowded? Or because he was personally attacking the Latino LGBT community? It's hard to know."

Either way, it took one violent act waged over hours to forever link the Latino and LGBT communities here.

Eric Martinez, 36, works the front desk at Parliament House, Orlando’s largest gay nightclub. Martinez, who is Puerto Rican, says Latinos in the LGBT community may be doubly marginalized as people of colour. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Many of the victims of Sunday's rampage during a Latin Night at Pulse were young.

They had names like Fernandez. Rivera. Rodriguez. Guerrero.

They were 20-somethings and 30-somethings, swinging to a Latin beat one moment, then being ripped by a high-powered assault rifle the next.

They were mostly gay, and mostly brown.

"Both things unfavourable to certain people — people who don't like gays, people who don't like Latinos," says Eric Martinez, 36, a gay man of Puerto Rican descent who lost a friend in the attack.

Tatiana Quiroga, right, poses with her wife and two sons. (Tatiana Quiroga)

Navigating life as a person of colour is oppressive enough. Coming out as an LGBT Latino further marginalizes a person — and Garcia gets it.

His father was a hard drinker, a devout Christian, a boxer, a car mechanic. "There was a sense of machismo" that Garcia believes governs conservative Hispanic values.

"The majority of us are raised Roman Catholic, plus there's such a huge emphasis on tradition and traditional gender roles," says Tatiana Quiroga, 37, a lesbian and the southern regional manager for the Family Equality Council.

Sami Haiman-Marrero, who helped to mobilize a coalition of Latino-led groups in Orlando, fields phone calls at home. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Once you get that person who does come out within the family, it's not welcome or accepted or understood."

Laura Esquivel, national policy director of the Hispanic Federation, told reporters earlier in the week that LGBT communities of colour often seemed "invisible."

Quiroga wants to see more acknowledgement that LGBT Latinos were disproportionately victimized in the shooting, possibly even targeted by the ISIS-inspired gunman Omar Mateen.

"There are different subgroups within the LGBTQ community, and a layer to it that's about people of colour existing within that group," Quiroga says. "But that often falls by the wayside and gets lost."

Zoe Colon, director of Florida and Southeast Operations for the Hispanic Federation, says LGBT Latinos need Latino-led services now more than ever. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Until now, the lack of resources servicing specifically LGBT Latino people has been a challenge for Latino-led efforts to help victims' families cope with their grief.

Still, the Hispanic community is trying.

From her east Orlando home, where a map of Puerto Rico hangs next to the staircase, Sami Haiman-Marrero fielded phone calls in Spanish yesterday, arranging for logistical support for victims' families such as bilingual grief counselling and temporary housing in the city.

The Latina businesswoman helped to spearhead Somos Orlando (We Are Orlando), an umbrella organization of at least 24 Latino-led groups focused on helping to connect families to the deceased.

The most heartbreaking realization for her, she said, was learning that some families were being forced suddenly to come to grips with "two very important pieces of news" about their lost sons or daughters.

The Parliament House, the largest gay club in Orlando, plans to hold its weekly Latin Night as a fundraiser for victims of the shooting at Pulse. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"First, that they're gone, and secondly, that perhaps they weren't ready to be themselves, fully," she said.

Haiman-Marrero's voice began to break with emotion.

"As a Latina mom, that is the biggest sorrow. That those parents weren't able to tell their children, 'I love you just the way you are. You are my child, and you're perfect.'"

Around a conference table at the Hispanic Federation offices in Orlando, the organization's director of Florida operations Zoe Colon talked through a rapid response strategy.

Some undocumented

"Cultural competency" is key, she said, which means understanding the unique needs of Latin American families searching for answers and going beyond just assisting with translation.

Some of the victims may have been primary breadwinners in their families, for example. Some families of undocumented victims — of which there are at least two, a man from Salvador and someone from Mexico — may be wary of connecting with relevant government agencies for fear of deportation.

"And then there's a possibility that folks who were not out, their families are perplexed," Colon said. "They're wondering, struggling with why was my loved one there and what does that mean?"

The situation is made all the more tragic, Colon noted, because some in the Latino community fled other countries for America for dreams of better jobs, and better acceptance of their sexuality.

Fast-growing segment

Latinos are one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. In Florida, Hispanic residents account for almost  a quarter of the population, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

About 850,000 people of Puerto Rican descent live in the state, according to census data.

In solidarity with the Latino community, the Orlando-based LGBT alternative newspaper The Watermark this week published its first ever editorial with a Spanish translation.

Orlando will not succumb to tragedy, the editorial reads, but show how communities can survive and grow stronger through love.

The statement ends with the words "esperanza y orgullo" — hope and pride.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong