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A Place in the Sun : Gay Immigrants Who Come From Countries Where Homosexuality Is Taboo Grapple With Some of the Most Difficult Conflicts as They Struggle for Acceptance.

March 27, 1994|Diane Seo

KATHY LEE KNOWS THE BURDEN THAT comes with being reared as a model Korean woman.

After her family immigrated to Southern California from South Korea when she was 7, the pressure was on for her to get good grades, attend a good college, marry a Korean man and eventually have children who would uphold the same traditional values.

The 25-year-old earned respectable grades in school and is now a UCLA graduate student. But there are no wedding plans in her future.

After years of keeping it secret from her family, the Silver Lake resident finally told her parents five years ago that she is bisexual.

"They were very angry and upset because their dreams for me were crushed," said Lee (not her real name), who was accused by her mother of being possessed by the devil and urged to attend church.

"They first tried to cut me off financially, but they realized that didn't work, so now we have a truce. But they still talk about me getting married and say I'm getting to an age where I won't be marriageable."

Gays and lesbians from all backgrounds struggle with their sexual identities, but those who have come from countries and cultures where homosexuality is taboo grapple with some of the most difficult conflicts as they struggle for acceptance. The disdain that many have encountered here from family and friends has its roots in their homelands, where same-sex relations are regarded as a threat to religious and cultural values.

Lee recalled attending a Korean American student conference and overhearing a conversation about gays.

"They were saying, 'Thank God there are no Korean gays,' " said Lee, who is now dating a Chinese American woman. "In Korea, gays are closeted and underground. They can't come out so they tend to get married and do the heterosexual routine."

The discrimination many gay immigrants face does not come just from heterosexuals. Many, particularly those who are recent immigrants and do not speak English well, say racism is widespread in the gay community.

"When I first started attending lesbian support group meetings, most people were fluent in English and I felt very out of place," said Ivania Gonzales, who came to Los Angeles from Nicaragua in 1982 and now lives near Hancock Park. "I felt people looked down on me because I was Spanish-speaking. When I would go to white lesbian clubs, I could feel all the eyes staring at me because I was different."

A history of religious and cultural values that hold homosexuality in contempt--particularly in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East--have made the gay immigrants' plight extremely difficult.

Shortly after Oscar Reconco, 36, moved to Los Angeles in 1977, he started lying to his mother in Honduras about his lovers. He told her he was dating women, and to prove it, he began sending her pictures of female friends.

Although Reconco's mother and other family members eventually learned he was gay, the subject still is rarely discussed.

"My sister sees my friends come to the house and she knows I'm gay, but we never talk about it," said Reconco, who is now project director of the Cara A Cara Latino AIDS Project but has worked as a cocktail waiter at a gay bar and as a manager of El Cholo Restaurant on Western Avenue.

"But I have a good relationship with my family. I don't have any shame to be gay."

Reconco, however, knows that most gay immigrants face much more hostility when coming out to their families than he did.

In an effort to shed light on such struggles, Reconco wrote a play about a Latino immigrant who must tell his mother that he is gay. "Elegia Para un Travesti" ("Elegy for a Transvestite"), which was recently staged at the Complex Theatre in Hollywood, is not based on Reconco's own life, but on the collective experiences of his friends.

In one scene, the main character's mother arrives for a visit and finds gay magazines in her son's home. When he tells her that he is gay and that he performs in drag at a gay bar, she tells him that God hates homosexuals and that AIDS is a justifiable punishment for people like him.

The scene, Reconco said, serves as a painful reminder to many gay Latinos of the uphill battle to gain acceptance.

"The Latino community needs to learn about us," said Reconco, who lives in Echo Park. "They need to know that there are many of us out there and that we have our rights."

At least 68 countries still outlaw sex between men and 26 outlaw sex between women, according to a 1992 survey conducted by the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Assn. Fines, prison or execution await those who are convicted.

"I left Iran for that reason," said a gay immigrant who came to Los Angeles in 1978 and asked that his name not be used.

Those accused four times of being gay in Iran are sentenced to death. "I'm a Shiite Muslim gay Iranian. I have experienced three types of prejudice, but I've learned to accept that as part of my life," he said.

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