October is nationally recognized as LGBTQ+ History Month. In honor of that, we wanted to compile and share some information on a few queer Latinx historical figures that you might not know about. Read on to learn more about some of these people who paved the way for later generations through their struggles to exist during eras that were even less accepting of queer people than today. Read, share, and stay tuned for more LGBTQ+ history month related content focusing on local Rio Grande Valley and South Texas queer history.
Jack “Babe Bean” Garland was born Elvira Mugarrieta in California in 1869 to a Mexican father and an American mother. From a young age, Jack’s family described him as a “tomboy.” At age 19, he began dressing and presenting as male and left his home and family- taking the name “Babe Bean” and working as a newspaper reporter throughout California. He would sometimes pretend to be mute to disguise his “feminine” voice. In the 1890s, he served as a reporter and Spanish language interpreter for the United States in the Philippines during the Spanish American war. Although he was “outed “several times, he continued to live as a male until his death in 1936.
Amelio Robles was a transgender man of Afro-Mexican descent from Guerrero, Mexico. He left home in the 1910s and began living as male- changing his name and fighting in the Mexican revolution on the side of the revolutionaries and was known as an expert marksman. When the Mexican government began giving pensions to veterans of the Revolution, Amelio applied for one using his chosen name. The Mexican government agreed to honor his pension but only as a female and with his original name. Amelio continued to petition for 20 years until his 80s when he was finally granted recognition as a veteran and as a male (the masculine form of the word “veterano” was used.) This made Amelio the first transgender person to be officially recognized by the Mexican government.
Ramon Novarro was born in Mexico and is often considered to be one of the first Latino leading men in Hollywood. He moved to the United States as a teen and had a successful career acting in silent films in the 1920s and 1930s. Navarro identified as gay and although he was not out to the general public, he had several romantic relationships with men that his close friends knew of and he refused to enter into any false relationships with female stars for the sake of publicity- a common practice when studios wanted to cover up an actor’s sexuality.
Gonzalo “Tony” Segura was a Cuban-American who became involved in gay activism in the 1950s. At the time, the only large-scale gay rights advocacy group was the Mattachine Society- based in California. Segura founded and took a lead in the New York-based chapter of the group and helped spread the group’s activities to the East Coast- contributing to creating a national network of gay activists.
Jose Sarria was born in San Francisco to Colombian parents and served in the military during World War II. Afterwards, he began to frequent the emerging post-war San Francisco gay bar scene and began performing in drag. Jose had planned to be a teacher before he was arrested by police- who at the time regularly raided gay bars in order to arrest patrons for such “crimes” as “female impersonation.” He threw himself further into both activism and drag after this. Sarria was one of the first people to fight back against police harassment and repression. He encouraged other gay men to plead not-guilty to police charges and to demand an actual trial. He would also pass out hand-made cards that read “I AM A BOY” to drag queens on the street so that they could not be arrested for “female impersonation.” Throughout the 1960s, he organized several drag shows to raise money for gay rights groups and formed several organizations to provide legal education and advocacy for the gay community. In 1961, Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office when he ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he did not win, the number of votes he garnered demonstrated the potential power gay voters could harness.
John Rechy (born John Francisco Rechy Perez) is a Mexican-American author from El Paso, Texas. In the 1950s- after earning a college degree and spending time in the army- Rechy left El Paso and began to travel the United States working as a sex worker or “hustler.” He participated in the emerging post-war gay subculture in cities such as New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles. In 1963, Rechy published his first novel- City of Night– featuring a gay Mexican-American protagonist and based on his travels and experiences. Despite its controversial subject matter, the book sold over 65,000 copies. More importantly, Rechy gave isolated gay men living in small towns their first taste of the possibilities of community and sexual and personal freedom that existed in big cities and influenced later generations of queer writers.
Joan Baez was born in New York City to a Mexican father from Oaxaca and a mother of Scottish descent. She began her career as a folk singer in the late 1950s and became one of the most important protest singers of the 1960s- writing songs and speaking out against the Vietnam War and other social issues. In 1972, she became one of the first high profile celebrities to come out as bisexual in a 1972 interview where she discussed her relationships with both men and women.
Sylvia Rivera was a queer transgender woman of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Venezuelan descent. She is best known for her role in the Stonewall Riots of 1969- fighting against the police along with hundreds of other queer individuals. Sylvia had been living on her own since she left home at 11 to escape abuse and transphobia. After her involvement with the riots, Sylvia continued to be a part of several gay rights organizations and fought for them to be more inclusive of trans rights. In the early 1970s, Sylvia Rivera and her friend Marsha P. Johnson- feeling that other groups were not doing enough to take care of homeless queer and trans youth- founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and the STAR House to organize and provide shelter to these youth. They managed to keep STAR going for three years, despite a lack of resources or support from more mainstream gay groups. This is often considered to be the first LGBT youth shelter in the US. Sylvia continued to advocate for trans rights until her death from cancer in 2002.
Holly Woodlawn was a transgender woman born in Puerto Rico. She began dressing and presenting as female while living in Miami with her family in her late teens. She left home and hitchhiked to New York at the age of sixteen after her parents tried to “correct” her gender non-conforming behavior. She was present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969- where she helped fight against the police. She went on to star in the Andy Warhol films Trash and Women in Revolt in the 1970s and wrote a memoir about her experiences entitled A Low Life in High Heels. After her death, her estate contributed to creating the Holly Woodlawn Memorial Fund for Transgender Youth in Los Angeles.
Some people might recognize Felipe Rose as the Native American of the Village People. Fewer people know that he was born Felipe Ortiz Rose to a Lakota Sioux father and a Puerto Rican mother and that his outfits were based on his father’s tribal regalia. He is openly gay and rose to fame with the Village People in the late 1970s- producing classic gay club anthems as “YMCA” and “Macho Man.” Since his fame with the Village People, he has raised millions of dollars for Native American causes and AIDS-related charities through working with various organizations. He continues to organize a yearly coat drive for the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation community every winter.
Gloria Anzaldua was a lesbian, Mexican-American writer, professor, and scholar from the Rio Grande Valley (she was born in Harlingen and grew up in Hargill.) She graduated from UT Pan American (now UTRGV) and co-edited the groundbreaking This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. This collection of intersectional feminist writings went on to influence generations of scholars and activists. In 1987, she wrote her most well-known book Borderlands: La Frontera- which continues to be an important text in Latinx and Feminist Studies.
Max Wolf Valeiro was born in California to a Hispanic father from New Mexico and a Kinai Blackfoot mother from Canada. He was assigned female at birth and first came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. He was involved in both the feminist movement and in AIM (the American Indian Movement) and contributed to the 1981 anthology of writings by radical women of color This Bridge Called My Back. In 1988, he came out as a transgender man and documented his medical transition in the short film “Max” in 1992 and in the longer documentary Gendernauts– important early documentations of trans male transition.
Juanita Diaz-Cotto is a Puerto Rican writer and academic who, in 1987 (under the name Juanita Ramos), compiled and edited the anthology Companeras: Latina Lesbians- a collection of fiction and nonfiction writings by and dealing with the experiences of Latina-identified queer women. The first of its kind, this collection provided a space for women to provide advice and analysis on navigating queer sexuality in Latinx culture.
Miguel Pinero was a Puerto Rican writer, playwright, and actor who appeared in several Hollywood films. He was a part of the Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) literary movement of the 1970s. In the early 1970s, he co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café – a venue located in the Lower East Side of New York meant to address the lack of spaces open to young poets and performers of color. The club continues to host regular open mic nights for amateur poets. Pinero had relationships with both women and men before his death in 1988.
Drag performer Vaginal Creme Davis was born intersex to a Mexican father and an African American mother in California in the 1950s. Although the standard practice at the time (and often today) was to operate on babies with ambiguous genitalia in order to make them physically conform to one of the two binary genders, Davis’s mother refused surgical intervention and allowed her to develop her gender identity as she grew up. Davis became a drag performer in the 1970s but her punk-influenced gender non-conforming style made it difficult for her to perform in traditional drag venues. Through her performances and short films- often critiquing gender norms and consumer society- she expanded what the art of drag could be and mean. Her drag name was a tribute to the Black Power activist Angela Davis.
Ray Navarro was a gay Chicano who was a member of the direct action AIDS-advocacy organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the 1980s. He co-founded the Latino Caucus of ACT UP in New York and was part of DIVA TV- which produced performance art and documentary media pieces in support of ACT UP. He participated in several ACT UP actions- including one where he dressed as Jesus Christ in a 1989 protest on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in order to protest the church’s views on homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. He passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 26.
Pedro Zamora was born in Cuba and moved to the US with his family as a child. He came out as gay in his late teens and found out that he was HIV positive at age 16. After graduating from high school, he began traveling the country speaking to groups of young people about safe sex and the stigma surrounding HIV. Wanting to do more to increase visibility for people living with the virus, he auditioned for the MTV reality TV show The Real World in 1993 and was featured on the show in 1994. His time as a cast member and his openness about his experiences put a human face on the AIDS crisis for millions of Americans.
Wilson Cruz is a Puerto-Rican American actor. Despite advice to remain closeted about his sexuality, Wilson was out about his gay identity from the very beginning of his career in the early 1990s. He played the character of Ricky Vasquez on the teen show My So Called Life in 1994 who would go on to become the first openly gay teen character on American TV. He went on to play other roles important to queer Latinx visibility including the drag queen Angel in the musical Rent and the HIV-positive Dr. Junito on the show Noah’s Arc.
Phil Jimenez is a comic book artist who began drawing for DC Comics in the early 1990s. In DC Comics writer and editor Neal Pozner- who was living with AIDS. Despite stigma surrounding the virus at the time, the HIV negative Jimenez began a romantic relationship with Pozner that lasted until Neal’s death in 1994. In 1996, Jimenez drew the comic book mini-series Tempest as a tribute to Neal. He came out publicly in a column in the final issue of the series- receiving positive reactions from fans thanking him for contributing to conversations about queer representation in superhero fiction and HIV. He went on to draw several comics for both Marvel and DC and was the primary artist for Wonder Woman for several years.
Patricia Velasquez was born in Venezuela to a mother of indigenous Wayuu descent. She rose to fame as a runway supermodel for various ad campaigns and designers in the 1990s and through film and television work- including her roles in The Mummy film series. She is considered by some to be the first Latina and the first out lesbian supermodel.
Victoria Cruz is a Puerto Rican transgender activist who began performing as a drag queen in the early 1960s. She was present at the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and marched in the first Pride parade in 1970. The recently-released Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson focuses on her tireless struggle to find justice for the transgender icon who died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances.