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Minority Gays Find Strength in Unity

April 30, 1989|GINGER THOMPSON | Times Staff Writer

'The gay movement is not only in West Hollywood. It has spread to black neighborhoods in South-Central (Los Angeles), Latino neighborhoods in East L.A. and Asian areas like Chinatown.' --Deborah Johnson, black lesbian activist

Cleo Manago grew up in Watts hearing friends and relatives say that homosexuality was "something only scrawny white boys got."

He remembers his minister saying, "God's love didn't apply to faggots," and he saw many effeminate boys beaten for "trying to be women." The clamor frightened him so much that he kept his homosexuality a secret for much of his life.

But two years ago, the 27-year-old social worker said he became so frustrated by such "backwards" attitudes that he organized a black gay group to demand recognition from churches and service groups.

Tak Yamamoto, a 51-year-old Japanese American, has faced similar struggles. Two years ago, he stopped going to gay bars in West Hollywood because, he said, they catered to a white clientele and he consistently got the cold shoulder.

He Wasn't Wanted

"No one wanted to meet people like me in those bars," said Yamamoto, an Arleta resident. "They wanted to meet blondes, with blue eyes and big, beautiful bodies."

So, Yamamoto, a supervisor at the county registrar-recorder's office, organized a social group for gay Asians and Pacific Islanders to allow its 200 members to openly discuss their homosexuality and cultivate their cultural identity.

Such fledgling groups are slowly cropping up throughout the country as the gay liberation movement of the 1970s begins to take hold among many minority homosexuals who had hidden in the closet. Spurned by their ethnic communities and fed up with the lack of attention from the gay establishment, gay minorities are turning to each other for support. Over the last few years, they have organized their own churches, social groups and political coalitions to express pride in their life style and break through their isolation.

Authorities say the movement is especially evident in Southern California with its rich ethnic stew and social mobility.

"The gay movement is not only in West Hollywood," said Deborah Johnson, 33, a black lesbian activist. "It has spread to black neighborhoods in South-Central (Los Angeles), Latino neighborhoods in East L.A. and Asian areas like Chinatown."

The movement was fueled by the AIDS epidemic, which infects minority communities at a disproportionate rate. Federal statistics show that 43% of all people with AIDS are members of minority groups, and more than 70% of them acquired the disease through homosexual or bisexual affairs.

"Most people thought minorities got the disease from IV drug use, but AIDS took the cloak off for the world that homosexuality exists, especially for minorities," said the Rev. Carl Bean, a black homosexual who founded the Minority AIDS Project in South-Central Los Angeles three years ago. "People who wanted to think there was no such thing as a gay black man or a gay Latino had a rude awakening."

"We could no longer have pockets of the population hiding in the closet, uninformed about the disease," said Johnson, a management consultant. "We realized that to reach minority gays there needed to be culturally sensitive support groups where they could come out of the closet and talk about AIDS or their homosexuality."

To provide such forums, minority gays have organized groups such as the Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO--which means "arrived" in Spanish) in Washington, and the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in Los Angeles.

In a variety of ways, these efforts seek to address what gay minorities see as their special predicament.

"For so long, the gay and lesbian community has not been able to incorporate us because it hasn't known how to deal with our blackness. The black community, on the other hand, could not handle our gayness," Johnson said. "So most of us have been the proverbial 'them' that everyone is talking about--the ones on the fringes, the periphery, the outskirts of society that no one ever deals with until there is some kind of uprising."

Don't Have to Choose

Phill Wilson, 32, who founded the black coalition two years ago, said hundreds of black homosexuals from throughout the nation attended the group's second conference, held in Los Angeles last February to discuss "issues of empowerment." The gathering focused on ways to launch social and charitable organizations and strategies for getting openly black gays and lesbians elected to office.

"Groups like these," Johnson said, "allow us to be both black and lesbian or gay, without having to choose between the two in our activism."

Minority gay newspapers and newsletters such as BLK (short for black) and Unidad (unity in Spanish) are distributed throughout minority communities in Los Angeles, urging gays to come out of the closet and informing them about support groups and social events.

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