June 27, 2011
For Many Immigrants, Marriage Vote Resonates
Throughout the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage, arguments against it were often articulated most forcefully by the single voice, in a thick Spanish accent, of State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr.
Some may have seen Mr. Díaz, a Democrat and a Pentecostal minister, as the Latino representative on the issue, but several same-sex couples in Queens — from Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — would debate that, if they were not so busy planning their weddings.
“He pretends to speak for all of us, for Latinos, and I really do not think he does,” said Ana Maria Archila, a Colombian who decided on Friday night to marry her longtime partner after the State Senate voted to make same-sex unions legal.
The news was celebrated over the weekend by gay immigrants just as it was by other gay groups. On Monday, after the dancing had slowed, many immigrants outside the gay community said that the victory carried a special resonance for them, as well, for they understood discrimination better than most.
Their relationship with gay advocacy groups is complex, even as some see similarities in their struggles. And because it is a state law and not a federal one, some of the benefits being sought, like citizenship for same-sex spouses, will not be forthcoming, and that has somewhat muted their response.
“Both groups are used to having to hide,” said Ms. Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “Each one of these movements is able to understand oppression in ways that other groups may not.”
Advocates for the two groups say that immigrants and gay people are among the last still fighting for basic civil rights. Progress for one, they say, will help the other.
Daniel Dromm, a gay city councilman from Jackson Heights, Queens, who is chairman of the Council’s immigration committee, said, “Immigrants’ rights and gay rights are integrally related.”
“I used to say that the last vestige of acceptable discrimination was against the L.G.B.T. community,” he said, using shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “I’ve come to feel that the last vestige of discrimination is against immigrants.”
Gay Latino immigrants like Gamaliel Lopez, a native of Mexico, came to this country because they could not imagine an openly gay life at home. They found acceptance in some ways — Mr. Lopez says he can express his sexuality without fear in New York — but they also felt as if they entered the country with two black marks: one for being an immigrant, another for being gay.
Mr. Lopez said he hoped the vote would help erase the stigma of being gay, and offer a model of acceptance for immigrants. “We are a step closer to finding dignity for immigrants as well,” he said.
Ms. Archila became a prominent advocate for immigrants’ rights soon after moving to New York City, but it took her years to tell her colleagues that she was gay. Even on Monday, she was still nervous about how her group’s members might react.
“There is still always that fear of rejection,” she said.
She said the same-sex marriage vote, as historic as it was, would not by itself change the conservative views that many immigrants, particularly older ones, have toward homosexuality. But, Ms. Archila said, advocacy work on behalf of immigrants and gays will soften those attitudes.
The vote “is a step forward in the recognition of people’s humanity,” she said. “It’s part of this long struggle for civil rights for other groups.”
Ms. Archila pointed to the fatal 2008 beating of José O. Sucuzhañay, an Ecuadorean who was attacked in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as a key point in the alliance between advocates for gay rights and those for immigrants’ rights. Prosecutors said Mr. Sucuzhañay and his brother were attacked because they were Hispanic and because the suspects mistakenly believed they were gay.
Vigils by advocates for immigrants and for gay rights brought widespread attention to the case. One suspect, Keith Phoenix, was sentenced to 37 years to life in prison; the other, Hakim Scott, was sentenced to 37 years.
The legalization of same-sex marriage prompted hearty celebrations at Latino gay bars in Jackson Heights, like Hombres Lounge, but there were a few dissonant notes.
There was disappointment that New York had lagged behind other states, like Iowa, and other countries, like Argentina, in allowing same-sex marriage. There were also bruised feelings over Mr. Díaz’s anti-gay-marriage protests.
Mr. Díaz, of the Bronx, ever adamant on the subject, said in an interview on Monday that his constituents came “from a different culture” and that “the Hispanic community does not want gay marriage.”
And, perhaps most important, there was frustration that federal law does not allow American citizens and legal immigrants to seek United States residency for their same-sex partners. Husbands and wives are allowed to petition for foreign-born spouses.
“It’s not a pop-the-Champagne moment,” said Richard Dennis, an American whose partner, Jair Izquierdo, was deported to Peru last year after losing his asylum claim. “Even if all 50 states were to allow it, it’s still not going to have any effect.”
A bill to allow same-sex couples to sponsor their foreign-born partners was introduced in Congress this year, as it has been in every session since 2000, but it has not gained significant support.
In that sense, some said that the same-sex marriage law in New York State carried something of an asterisk.
“Implications for immigrants are perhaps less extensive than you might think,” said Pauline Park, president of the Queens Pride House, which supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. “Same-sex couples cannot get citizenship status the same way that opposite-sex couples can.”
Andrés Duque, a native of Colombia, said gay immigrant life was challenging, no matter where you came from.
“People think this is heaven and you’re going to come here and gay life is amazing,” he said. “The reality, for an immigrant, is different. It’s not the heaven people expect.”
But after the State Senate’s vote, he acknowledged, it was, for him and his circle, one step closer to it.
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