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Dozens of parents file into the Montgomery County school board headquarters in Rockville, many of them holding signs that read:

CAUTION.

Sodomy is not

Child’s Play.

The protesters—200 according to press accounts, 500 if you believe protest organizers—are mostly Latinos. Drawn primarily from flourishing Latino evangelical churches in the area, they are battling a new Montgomery school board rule that extends anti-discrimination protections to lesbians and gays.

“This opens the door to the teaching of the practice [of homosexuality] and an acceptance of them in schools,” says the Rev. Angel Garcia, pastor of the Assembly of Christian Churches in Silver Spring. In Spanish, he greets members of his congregation who enter the board building, their kids in tow. A separate auditorium has been set up to handle the overflow.

Yet tonight’s protest is quieter than the one March 25, the night the school board passed the policy, 6-0. That night, hundreds of Latinos prayed and sang hymns in Spanish and mobbed TV cameras. Montgomery, its tradition of moneyed social liberalism ruffled by the demonstration, was flabbergasted.

But the District’s well-funded national gay organizations didn’t pay much attention. A small Montgomery gay rights group formed to fight for the new policy, but the group that could probably best reach out to the Latino protesters did nothing. Instead, the National Latino/Latina Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO) had ensnared itself in controversy with other Washington gay organizations.

Indeed, the squabbling among the gay groups—timed just as the Montgomery protests unfolded—illustrates how divisions among gays may sometimes keep them from fighting a greater enemy. Even last Sunday’s gay pride celebration was divided when the small Bicentrist Alliance held a competing “Diversity Pride” picnic. While the religious right reaches out to new Americans—even in the liberal Washington area—LLEGO and other gay activists are reaching out to snipe at one another.

Washington is not exactly a hotbed of anti-gay initiatives. To the contrary, this region’s governments, at least, are some of the most gay-friendly in the nation. Even Fairfax County already has school anti-bias policies similar to the one just enacted in Montgomery.

Yet some area authorities are inching rightward. The Democrat-dominated governments of Fairfax and Montgomery are more conservative than they used to be, and recent elections have given Republicans tighter control over the outer suburbs.

In Montgomery, the drop in federal government employment and the influx of more conservative private-sector workers threatens the county’s progressive history. While Montgomery remains socially liberal, support from emerging Latino evangelicalism may energize suburban conservatives.

The school policy change is a case in point. About half-a-dozen white Christian activists began lobbying against the proposed change as long ago as November. In January, before the Latino evangelicals were involved, the school board passed a strong version of the pro-gay policy.

The school board weakened its position in March, however, when Latinos flooded school board chambers. At that meeting, the board emphasized that schools should not “promote” homosexuality—a slap at gay people, since the wording assumes that homosexuality is not an innate, immutable characteristic.

The Latino protests bear a striking resemblance to those in New York three years ago. After top school official Joseph Fernandez backed a multicultural curriculum that stressed tolerance of homosexuality, religious Latinos banded together with white New Yorkers to defeat the curriculum and oust Fernandez. Like Fernandez, Montgomery school board President Ana Sol Gutierrez is Hispanic, and some local Latinos feel betrayed by one of their own.

How much political power the Latino evangelicals wield in Montgomery isn’t clear. The Latino Parents Association (LPA), formed to combat the new school policy, claims 700 members. But local politicians say the right-wing Latinos’ numbers aren’t large enough to affect electoral outcomes. “These individuals have never been participating at any level—in civic involvement, in voter registration, in higher education issues—nothing, really,” says Gutierrez. “To attribute to them a large representation is not valid.” Many of the Latino evangelicals recently immigrated.

Still, the county’s Latino population is growing—from 3.9 percent in 1980 to 7.6 percent in 1994. Nationally, most Latinos are Catholic, but about a fifth are Protestant evangelicals.

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The Latino evangelicals are increasingly part of the larger, politically mobilized Christian right. Majority-white fundamentalist groups are hoping to build ties to immigrants. The Christian Coalition, for example, has printed voter guides in Spanish. This weekend it will host a conference to discuss ways to attract Latino churchgoers.

Closer to home, Montgomery’s rare religious activism blindsided its gay-rights advocates. Mostly white professionals, the gay activists have no experience with the religiously conservative Latinos. They were used to working with liberal Latinos in government agencies, such as the county human relations commission. Bonnie J. Berger, a lesbian activist, told the Washington Blade she couldn’t understand the conflict: “We don’t need two oppressed groups scratching at each other.”

Yet the Latino evangelicals don’t see themselves as oppressed—at least not in Berger’s terms. Garcia says he has never experienced racism in Montgomery County. Ruby Haberkamp, a Latina who helped start the LPA, agreed. “This is really the first time that I’ve experienced something political so dramatically,” she says.

Berger and her allies were left charging that the Latinos were manipulated by the religious right. “We don’t know how [the Latinos] got involved,” she says. She believes the white-run Citizens Acting for Responsible Education (CARE) used scare tactics in local Latino churches. This theory also coursed through the school board.

Both Haberkamp and Garcia deny that their community was exploited. Haberkamp says she heard about the policy change when she picked up a flier produced by CARE—one of at least 3,000 the group distributed to parents and churches. She then informed Garcia and other pastors she knows. “The Latinos did not come forward because CARE was there,” Garcia says. “The Latinos came forward because 90 percent of us don’t believe in homosexuality.”

“They’re the ones who came to us,” CARE spokeswoman Claren Holmes says.

LLEGO might have had more luck connecting with the Latinos in Montgomery. Certainly, LLEGO staffers better understand the political and religious dynamics of the Latino community.

Instead, the 9-year-old group spent the last two months battling perceived racism among D.C. gay groups. LLEGO staffers say it’s important to counter racial bias wherever they find it, especially among fellow lesbians and gays.

“We find ourselves—any communities of color that are working in the gay and lesbian ‘movement’—that we’re fighting a double battle,” says spokeswoman Marta Ramírez Camargo. “We have to try to make our issues visible within two communities”—gay and Latino. Ramírez and other gay Latinos say they sometimes feel caught between two worlds—mostly white, male-dominated gay culture and religious, often machismo Latino cultures.

But the apparent anti-Latino actions by gays may stem more from unintentional insensitivity than deep hatred. For instance, LLEGO interrupted a panel discussion on the gay rights movement at the National Press Club last month. As C-SPAN carried the event live, LLEGO staffer Carmen Chávez read an angry statement. She accused the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), which arranged the panel, of “overt racism,” saying it ignored LLEGO’s repeated inquiries to be included on the panel. LLEGO staffers say Chávez was physically hurried away from the podium as she read the statement.

NLGJA officials deny that Chávez was shoved. They say they received no request from LLEGO to sit on its panel until the day before the event—weeks after it had first been advertised. Four of NLGJA’s 20 board members are Latino, and none had ever raised the issue.

The same day as the panel, LLEGO acting executive director Martín Ornelas-Quintero reproached a separate organization, One in Ten, for slighting a Latino gay activist. He said One in Ten, the group behind last Sunday’s gay pride celebrations, had rescinded an offer to the activist, Tomas Gomez, to marshal the parade—and reinstated the offer only after complaints. But Gomez himself says he never felt slighted. He and One in Ten board members agree that it was a misunderstanding, not racism.

That day, Ornelas-Quintero even complained that One in Ten hadn’t awarded a plaque to an award-winning Latino float at the 1995 parade. One in Ten didn’t give plaques to any award-winners last year.

By contrast, LLEGO has done nothing about the Montgomery case, even ignoring a simple request to attend a press conference supporting the new school policy. When asked about it, Ornelas-Quintero emphasized that LLEGO is national and referred questions to a D.C. Latino gay group, Gente Latina de Ambiente. But that group’s program coordinator, Orlando F. Reyes-Aponte, says his organization is funded primarily to work on HIV/AIDS issues. He hadn’t even heard about the Montgomery protests.

At an annual forum last week on gay politics moderated by TV reporter Tom Sherwood, gay activists ripped into one another, charging that African-Americans, Latinos, women, and others are routinely excluded from gay activism. Similar accusations are leveled every year, and the laserlike focus on identity grows narrower each time: This year, bisexuals and transgendered activists—angry that One in Ten would not rename the “Lesbian and Gay Freedom Festival” the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Freedom Festival”—organized a rival pride event.

But lesbian and gay activists’ obsession with identity may have deeper consequences. In the very back yard of national gay activism, a menace to gay rights has appeared largely unchallenged. “There’s so many things that are petty,” says Ric Mendoza-Gleason, a longtime local Latino gay activist. “They have to move forward on serious threats,” he says of LLEGO and groups like it. Otherwise, the gay movement may achieve political purity just as the Christian right achieves political power.—John Cloud