Thomas Negron Jr. remembers first hearing the word before he had any inkling of what it meant. Chances are the fellow kindergartners who hurled it at him as an insult neither knew its meaning as well, he said. But by the time he was 8 years old, Negron knew what “gay” meant and that it indeed applied to him.
“I thought it was a negative thing at the time,” he said.
Yet it wasn’t until 2004 when he was 15 years old that he came out, initially confiding in a classmate and the school principal. And although the news hardly came as a shock to many, it nonetheless presented a problem for his family, he said.
“My father is very macho,” Negron said, adding that his father considered his sexual orientation “beyond Latino norms.”
With time his father has become more accepting and supportive of Negron’s sexual orientation, but he’s “still not enthusiastic about it,” the 22-year-old said, noting that his father has “given up on the idea that I’m ever going to change.”
The Valley, Negron said, with its considerable religious and cultural undertones, hardly makes for a welcoming environment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Sadly, the fact that many members of the LGBT community will choose to leave the Valley further undermines efforts to improve conditions, Negron said.
“It never changes local attitudes,” Negron said of the limited LGBT community, “or challenges the local culture.”
Here in Imperial County, where 69 percent of voters sided overwhelmingly in 2008 in support of Proposition 8, the ban on same sex marriage, such a shift in attitudes is slowly taking form, some said.
A recent rainbow flag raising ceremony in October at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus was “not something you see here in the Valley,” said student and Associated Student Body secretary Norma Garcia.
A native of Hanford, Garcia said that when it comes to gay issues, “Hispanics tend to not speak about it, or ignore it.”
She was also part of a small group that had taken part in SafeZone training in March that aims to foster a more accepting environment for LGBT members, Garcia said, noting that she was the only student representative who was certified.
“Whatever it takes to make the school a safe environment,” the 20-year-old said.
Citing his high school experiences as part of the driving force behind his decision to leave the Valley more than a decade ago, Fernando Lopez bluntly states that the Valley “wasn’t a welcome environment” for LGBT individuals.
Some of those upsetting incidents included getting chased by the football team, almost getting run down by older kids in a car, and having his high school principal imply that Lopez’s “acting so gay” was to blame for the constant harassment he faced.
However, the 30-year-old San Diego resident said that at the time his family’s position proved the hardest to deal with — the biggest obstacle being the Catholic doctrine that many of them adhered to.
Eventually his family did warm to his sexuality, something that couldn’t have happened Lopez said without his “determination to remain part of the family.”
“My father is now my strongest ally and my biggest supporter,” Lopez said.
Based on conversations Lopez has had with the Valley’s current LGBT community, he said they seem to be developing more of a personal stake in improving conditions instead of picking up and leaving as soon as possible.
“A lot of LGBT youth feel like this is their hometown and they’re not going to be chased away,” Lopez, an administrative and public relations director for San Diego LGBT Pride, said.
A new state law that mandates public schools incorporate the contributions of the LGBT community as part of social studies curriculum may also help locally, and the age-appropriate instruction should especially be useful in junior high, as that is often the age when young teens start to identify as gay and have a lot of conflicting feelings, said Imperial Valley College history professor Lisa Solomon.
At IVC, the LGBTQ club is also “laying the groundwork” to raise awareness of gay issues in the community, Solomon, the club’s faculty adviser, said. Noting that the Valley’s students often have to contend with “ethnic and religious difficulties,” the existence of support networks is crucial.
“Having the affirmation that they are not the only one helps tremendously,” Solomon said.
The club has had “pretty consistent” membership, which typically ranges from 15-20 members, and includes openly gay students and straight students who have allied themselves with the LGBT cause.
College campuses, especially in rural areas, often provide LGBT community members an institutional base, and serve as a venue to express their identities and attract like-minded students, said David William Foster, an Arizona State University women and gender studies professor, whose research has focused on issues of gender construction and sexual identity in Latin American cultures.
“There is no question that they will eventually prevail,” Foster said.
Staff Writer, Copy Editor Julio Morales can be reached at 760-335-4665 or at email@example.com
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