Five years ago Jose Navarro left the predominantly Mexican southwest-side community in which he was raised. He was openly gay, and he didn’t think the community would tolerate that.

“You grow up in a culture where all of your role models are heterosexual, or apparently heterosexual,” says Navarro, now 25. “As a Catholic, it’s even tougher because there’s the fundamental belief that homosexuality is wrong because you cannot procreate–that you’re just having sex to have sex.”

But last month he returned–at least in spirit. On September 11, he and 40 or so friends and comrades marched in the Mexican Independence Day Parade under the banner of the Association of Latin Men for Action, an organization of gay Latinos that Navarro helped found.

“Some waved, some cheered, some didn’t even notice,” says Navarro of the hundreds of flag-waving Mexican Americans who lined Dearborn to watch the parade. “It was an exhilarating moment.”

And a liberating one as well, he says. “This was about more than marching in a parade–it’s about gays being accepted in the communities in which we were raised. For years we have had to choose between a closeted existence or moving to gay ghettos. That choice is unfair and we’re starting to say it.”

Navarro’s group isn’t the only one saying it. Earlier in the summer, a group of black gays and lesbians marched in the Chicago Defender- organized Bud Billiken Day Parade even though the parade’s sponsors initially tried to ban them. The marchers went on to form the Active Proud Black Lesbians & Gays, which is getting involved in south- and west-side politics.

“We have two goals,” says Karen Hutt, a member of APBLG. “One is to provide opportunities for the larger heterosexual black community to see, know, talk, and work with ‘out’ black lesbians and gays. Our second goal is to craft activities that inspire black lesbians and gays in the black community to stand tall and proud.”

Up until now black and Latino gays (as well as most white ethnic gays, for that matter) have shied away from their home communities, in part because of the parochialism of those old neighborhoods. Certainly few would have marched in any ethnic-pride parades. “The fear of violence is in the back of our minds,” says Navarro, citing gays who were showered with stones and bottles when they marched in New York’s 1992 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. “It’s part of the larger fear of not being accepted.”

By the time he was 18, Navarro, who was raised in a large Catholic family, was spending most of his free time at gay bars on the north side. “There’s a gay presence in the Mexican community–there’s a gay bar in Little Village, for instance, where they have great drag shows, and all these macho men wearing boots and sombreros,” he says. “But it’s so repressed, so under the surface. On the north side it’s more open. It’s unfortunate that we have to leave our community to come to terms with our identity. And it’s sad that you have to come out at bars. We’re sending the wrong message to young gays and lesbians who learn to define themselves strictly as sexual beings. Being gay is more than what’s below your waist.”

When he finally summoned up the courage to tell his parents that he was gay, he found them more sympathetic than he had ever imagined–a sympathy he attributes to their heritage. “I admit I subscribed to the stereotype that Mexicans have this macho thing where they can’t accept homosexuality,” says Navarro. “But it wasn’t like that at all. There’s a strong feeling of family. It’s different, I think, than Anglo tradition, which is more oriented to the individual. We see ourselves as brothers and sons, and the family’s determined to stick together no matter what. My mother’s great about it. She said, ‘I’ll work on your father.’ He may not love the idea, but he accepts it.”

Navarro also found solace in the advice of Pedro Garcia, a former priest who was struggling with his own questions about sexual identity.

“I’m a practicing Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday,” says Garcia, who’s now a social worker. “But in my opinion, the judgment of the church on the issue of homosexuality is a cultural judgment left over from the Old Testament. You cannot take everything you read in the Old Testament literally. In the Bible, for instance, lepers are considered to be sinners. Today we consider lepers to be people who have a disease. We have to interpret the Bible with the knowledge that we have today.”

African Americans also feel constraints about being openly gay, says Hutt, if only because several black politicians and ministers have very vocally denounced gay-rights measures. “There’s a notion that blacks and Latinos face more homophobia in their communities than whites, and that’s [not true],” she says. “But it’s reinforced every time the media focuses on one or two homophobic black politicians or ministers.”

Hutt and her allies decided to march in the Billiken parade in part to disprove this myth. In May, they applied to the Chicago Defender Charities, which sponsors the parade, to march under the banner of the Ad Hoc Proud Black Lesbians & Gays (they eventually changed Ad Hoc to Active). “We sent an application that was well typed and very neat,” says Hutt. “Then we sent in a messy application for a group called the Diverse Black Role Models. Guess what? The second application got accepted and the first one rejected.”

Phony applications are one of the oldest tricks in the book, generally employed by civil rights activists to find examples of housing discrimination. This time a black-owned organization was snared. Working through the city’s Human Relations Commission, Hutt and her allies met with Defender publisher John Sengstacke, who eventually allowed them to march.

“Mr. Sengstacke was willing to listen once we got to the table; I think he had been worried about problems,” says Hutt. “But there weren’t any. It was a beautiful scene along the route.”

The group carried a banner identifying themselves as an organization of gays and lesbians and a sign that read “stop the killing,” a reference to violence in the black community. “People walked up and gave us unsolicited testimony–how their cousin is gay or a lesbian and how they love them,” says Hutt. “Or they’d say, ‘I think you belong here too.'”

All told, about 50 people marched in the gay and lesbian contingent, says Hutt. “I’ve marched in many gay pride parades, but Bud Billiken did more for me than all of them,” says Hutt. “I didn’t have to put my different identities–black, woman, lesbian–into separate little boxes. It felt good to be able to march as the person I am in a parade of so much historic importance. It felt good to be part of the black community.”

Hutt’s group inspired Navarro to see if the Association of Latin Men for Action could march in the Mexican Independence Day Parade. “The issue is about acceptance and honesty,” says Navarro. “Are we going to remain estranged from our home communities? Are we going to conceal our identities as though we’re ashamed?”

Unlike the black gays and lesbians, ALMA’s members were immediately welcomed by the Mexican Independence Day Parade organizers. “We live in a country where different beliefs and life choices coexist and thrive,” says Arturo Velasquez, the parade’s director. “We find this to be true among Mexicans and within the larger Latino community.”

Velasquez did request that the marchers be “celebratory and not confrontational,” says Navarro. “I didn’t have any problem with that. This wasn’t a gay pride parade. We were marching to say to the Latino community: we’re proud to be part of you.”

Still, ALMA’s members had some concerns. Some didn’t want to march for fear of violence. Others agreed to march, but not under a banner. They debated whether to allow cross-dressers to participate. In the end, they decided to march under a banner, with their ranks open to all, cross-dressers included.

“Cross-dressers are part of our community,” says Navarro. “And it didn’t make sense not to carry a banner. If we’re not going to say who we are, why march? I mean, who were we supposed to be anyway–a bunch of reformed gang-bangers?”

As it turned out, there were no cross-dressers in the group, which included gays, lesbians, straights, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Central Americans. They chanted such slogans as “Long live Mexico” and “Long live the Latino gay community,” though at one point they burst into the loud chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

“That just sort of happened–one guy started it and it just took off,” says Navarro. “I don’t have anything against the chant, I just didn’t think it was appropriate for this march. But no one objected except for one white guy.”

ALMA plans to march in next year’s Mexican parade, as well as the Puerto Rican parade. “Maybe next year,” says Navarro, “I’ll even talk my mother into joining us.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.