All photos are courtesy of Dr. Oralia Loza
On May 12, 2017, my 61st birthday, I had the honor of addressing students who would graduate the next day. The occasion was the 9th annual Rainbow Graduation Reception initiated by Dr. Brenda Risch. I share my reflections with you today with gratitude to the queer activists that came before me and to those who will follow, leading with love and honor and fierceness.
It is an honor to be with you tonight as you celebrate your graduation from UTEP with your families and friends. It is also a time of reflection or me. Today I turn 61 years old and this is a time of year I usually reflect on my life. This invitation to speak with you tonight, for which I am so grateful, has given me a chance to look back over 43 years of being out as a Chicana lesbian.
In the mid-1970s as I prepared to leave high school and enter college, I began to wonder “Am I a lesbian? Am I bisexual?” I knew gay men in high school and I knew of lesbians but I wasn’t sure how to figure it out. It was thrilling and scary to consider.
It was an exciting time of political organizing and people demanding recognition and rights. Coming on the heels of the 1960 and exhilaration and passionate politics of the Chicano Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement, the early to mid-1970s seemed to hold so much potential. I began to educate myself about these movements, which raised my conciencia about power and gender and sexuality. I was starting to think about my place in the world, but often I was alone with books and underground newspapers.
And then I found my place. For decades, the only places that queer people could gather, to be in community, to celebrate, to fall in love were the gay bars. I’ve seen the devastation that this dependence on bars has created: the alcoholism, the drug use, and the isolation amid crowds. But I’ve also seen the celebration of coming together and being ourselves when we had no other place. My first gay bar was the Pet Shop on San Antonio. I went with my high school friends. I will never forget the nervousness and excitement of opening the heavy metal door and starting down the dark steps to the Pet Shop. The first thing I saw was the dance floor with the multi-colored lights that flashed as people danced. Then I saw two men dancing together and then two women dancing together. It was almost shocking. I had never seen that before. I quickly eased into the bar life, heading to the Pet Shop every Friday and Saturday night. There was nothing better than dancing slow to Earth, Wind, and Wire or doing the Hustle. When the Pet Shop moved east, still on San Antonio, to where the Mining Company eventually opened, I followed.
I remember the many bars. The Diamond Lil. The Pet Shop. The Whatever. Later, the OP. Others whose names are too deep in my memory to retrieve. Sometimes the police would come in and all the lights would be turned on. They would have everyone go outside and we had to show our ID in order to re-enter. It was a way to harass us. But others had it worse. In the 1950s across the United States, police would raid gay bars and arrest men and women for dancing with same sex partners or wearing too many pieces of clothing of the other gender.
When I finally realized that I was lesbian, I was scared to tell my parents. I look back and I wonder what they thought. On Fridays and Saturdays I would dress up in what became my standard outfit of jeans, a polyester shirt, and a leather jacket. At the beginning I wasn’t sure what to wear and sometimes women would come up to me and ask, “Are you butch or femme?” I wasn’t sure and I remember wearing my father’s suit a few times. My mother told me once, “Oh, you look so handsome. The women will fall in love with you.” Over the years, though they disapproved and told people I had a husband in the military (especially after the birth of my son); they always told me that they loved me no matter what.
In 1975, I went to UT Austin and entered another time. Austin was still relatively small, a college town that drew people from everywhere. I entered a politicized, mostly white lesbian community there. Only four months earlier, 100 lesbians had gathered to form the Austin Lesbian Organization. I quickly became involved, writing for the newsletters, attending meetings, and enjoying the social activities we organized. At the same time, I became involved in Chicano organizing. At 19 I was working in lesbians organizations where I was usually the only person of color and in Chicano organizations where I was the only out gay person. I marched in farmworkers marches and gay pride marches. I edited lesbian articles and walked the streets of East Austin demanding respect for the Mexican American neighborhood. In 1977, I was part of a group of three who drafted a resolution to be presented at the first National Chicano/Latino Conference on Immigration in San Antonio demanding that gay men and lesbians be allowed to immigrate to the United States. I will never forget that when the resolution to the participants (and we had difficulty finding someone to read it), when the person translated it instead of saying homosexual said joto and everyone laughed.
It was a schizophrenic feeling, never truly feeling like I could be a full person or fully understood but it was what I had and I loved it and threw myself into the work.
In 1981, I had a son. It was a time when lesbians didn’t have children unless they had been married before coming out. I had always wanted to be a mother. It was a scary time. Those of us who had children knew that the State of Texas was taking children away from their mothers because to be lesbian was inherently considered to be an “unfit” mother. I knew mothers who changed their names and went underground to remain with their children. Mothers who moved from place to place to stay with their children. When I announced that I was pregnant, the politicized lesbian community around me was stunned. While some were mildly supportive, others were cruelly opposed. I remember one woman telling me, “I hope you have a miscarriage.” It was a difficult time.
Something else changed in 1981—I was one of the founding members of CHISPA, the first Chicana/o lesbian and gay organization in Austin. My son, just a few months old, became our mascot- Baby Chispa we called him. He grew in Chicanx and queer organizing. CHISPA was inspired when a group of people from Austin attended the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. The march drew perhaps 100,000 people was held on the 10 year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Even though the welcoming message stated, “Today in the capital of America, we are all here, the almost liberated and the slightly repressed; the butch, the femme and everything in-between; the androgynous; the monogamous and the … Yellow, Black, Brown, White, and Red... Yes, we are all here! We are everywhere! Welcome to the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights!" What those who attended from Austin noted was the lack of Brown people. CHISPA emerged. Again, I had found a home, this time with queer brown people who spoke of changing the world to a more just one. Over the decades, I had the opportunity of helping to found other queer Brown organizations: ALLGO (the Austin Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization), Latinas Lesbianas de Tucson, and Lesbianas Sin Fronteras here in El Paso.
Across the US Latina lesbians were organizing in those years: Lesbianas Latinoamericanas in LA in 1974, Las Buenas Amigas in NYC, Amigas Latinas in Chicago, ELLAS in Austin, Tongues in LA, LLEGO in 1987 (the first national Latina/o gay and lesbian organization). Those were times of energy and movement, of hope and hard work.
Looking back, my heart is broken by the hermanos we lost to the AIDS epidemic: Ramon whose passion for justice led him to visit Cuba through the Jose Marti Brigade; Fernando who was part of the team who wrote the immigration resolution in 1977; Juan, a loving Georgia boy born the same year I was who died at age 36. The first official report of the AIDS epidemic, describing the unusual lung infections of five young gay men was released the day before my son was born. On the day he was born, June 6, 1981, reports were pouring in, especially from New York and California of gay men suffering from an unusually aggressive cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Life expectancy in those years was measured not in years, but in months: the average life expectancy was 18 months after the diagnosis of AIDS, known then as Gay Related Immune Deficiency. When I moved back to El Paso in 1987, the epidemic was just hitting the population of straight people who were IV drug users. In the first decade, tens of thousands were infected and tens of thousands died.
It was lesbians who took care of our brothers. Things were not always so easy between lesbians and gay men. In the 1970s lesbian separatists separated from men as a way to create their own woman-centered space. Gay men could be misogynist. I remember one dear gay man friend telling him that being gay was natural; being lesbian was sick. The AIDS epidemic brought us together. It happened in queer communities across the United States and Europe. Devastated and dying, gay men turned to lesbians for help. Lesbians started clinics, AIDS services programs, took care of their male friends as they died. And it was a terrible thing to witness someone you love die of AIDS. Lesbians took leadership positions in the queer community and comforted grieving men who lost partners and friends. In the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the United States we lost a generation of men whose talents and passion for life could have changed the world.
Safe sex education helped reduce HIV transmission among gay men. Bowls of condoms became a standby in gay bars. The Center for Disease Control created posters and pamphlets to teach people how to have safe sex and avoid infection of either sexually transmitted diseases or HIV. It worked: the diagnosis of HIV went done; deaths decreased. Many of today’s college students were born as the epidemic began to decline and I know that safe sex is not the imperative it was once among youth. Today, the incidence of HIV is on the rise.
My parents were born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and when I think about the changes they witnessed, I wonder how it felt. From Model-T cards to jets. From iceboxes to refrigerators. From an El Paso made up of adobe buildings and dirt streets to the El Paso of the late 20th century. Now, I look at the last forty years and have a similar feeling. In 1975-ish, my high school friend Irma was married to her girlfriend in a gay bar. Of course it had no legal standing and I doubt their families attended. I’m sure their friends did. Last week I read a book that described a wedding between two women in the 1930s and a student told me about a wedding between two men in Waco in the 1950s that was attended by men from across the U.S. Now marriage between same sex people is recognized. Women call each other wife. Men call each other husband. Queer people have children. I am at a Rainbow Graduation Reception where you are celebrating your graduation with your family and friends. So much has changed.
It might be different for your generation—you tell me, but in my generation you didn’t just come out once. The decision whether to talk openly about being queer was a decision we only made daily. I was a freshman here at UTEP in 1974 and there are places I see on campus still that elicit memories of telling this friend or another that I was a lesbian. It was scary and it was hard. To be here tonight, with you and your loved ones, celebrating the totality of who you are is a great gift to me.
What I want to leave you with is this: Every generation thinks they are different. And in so many ways, you are. You are more open than we were, more fluid, more accepting. We were sometimes inflexible, focused on protecting the little spaces that we had created where we could be ourselves. We worked so hard, organized so much, so that generations after us would have more rights and more freedom. Now things are better for so many of us. That doesn’t mean it’s over or that there’s nothing to do, however. Last year was the most dangerous year for transgendered people in our country with the most murders since these numbers began to be tracked. This week the Virginia Supreme Court excluded LGBT from hate crimes. In countries across the world, increasing anti-LGBT laws and violence is creating unspeakable suffering.
What can you do? Tonight we are here to celebrate your achievements, your graduation, and the completion of years of work. You deserve our admiration and our support. With your education comes a responsibility, however. Our rights and freedoms as queer people came at a price and we have to protect them. What can you do to build our community and to protect it? You certainly don’t have to be marching in the streets like I’ve chosen but you can be part of this work. I am proud of all you have accomplished and as I look out at you, I am filled with pride. Leave the world a better place for people that come after you.