As a gay, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Edwin Guil, 22, says he is used to being discriminated against. But when a gay friend recently said he was not going to vote for President Obama because of his program to stop deporting some undocumented immigrant youths, Guil, a student at Montgomery College, decided it was time for some cross-cultural education.
“I confessed to him my situation, that I came here when I was 14, that my mom brought me into the U.S. illegally.” Living in the shadows was something that both undocumented immigrants and generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans had in common, he told his friend.
“He completely changed his mind about the whole situation, so it made me feel great about educating somebody about it. Now I want to do more,” Guil said.
And so on Tuesday, Guil, who lives in Silver Spring, joined Latino and LGBT community leaders and elected officials in Hyattsville to launch Familia es Familia, a campaign to bring together Latinos and LGBT members in advance of the November election.
Both groups have groundbreaking — and controversial — initiatives on the ballot in Maryland: one that would allow civil marriage for gays and lesbians, and another that would make undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges and four-year public universities in Maryland.
The two causes might seem to be unlikely bedfellows, especially considering the negative feelings toward homosexuality among some conservative Latinos. But the organizations behind the campaign — Casa de Maryland, Equality Maryland and Latino GLBT History Project — say they see more commonalities than differences between the two groups.
“Marriage equality is from our viewpoint a civil rights issue, very similar to immigration reform,” said Gustavo Torres, Casa’s executive director, adding that more than 60 percent of Latino Catholics support people’s right to marry someone of the same gender.
Some compared the alliance with the coming together of blacks and Jews during the civil rights movement — a strength-through-unity approach.
“Opponents . . . have tried to use these issues to divide us,” said Ruben Gonzales, deputy vice president for resource development at the National Council of La Raza. The Hispanic organization co-released a report earlier this year showing 54 percent of Hispanics support marriage equality compared with 53 percent of the general population.
“I hear, ‘Well, Latinos aren’t supportive’ — you wonder where all that comes from,” Gonzales said.
In California four years ago, after voters supported Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, exit polls showed that many blacks and Latinos had voted for it. That played a part in the decision to launch the campaign, said Kim Propeack, political director for Casa de Maryland.
“We consider it particularly important in Maryland to show mutual support, given the historic opportunity with the two referendums,” she said.
But the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, questioned the Maryland approach.
“I think the two issues are totally unrelated,” he said by phone from Tampa, where he is attending the Republican Convention. “To connect the two dilutes each individual platform. Each of them has valid points and they should stand on their own merits.”
Rodriguez said he doubted that center-right and religious Americans who support the Dream Act for immigration reform would also support same-sex marriage. “They will not sacrifice biblical truth on the altar of political expediency,” he said.
With town meetings, fliers and film screenings planned, proponents of the campaign hope that each of the two communities will educate its members about the concerns of the other community — and send the message to the broader society.
“We see that the Latino and LGBT communities, for a long time they existed in different silos,” said George Boe Ramirez, a Puerto Rican who lives in Rockville and attended the launch with his partner of 17 years, German Roa.
Ramirez, 43, who grew up in a strict religious household in Brooklyn, said his family came around to accepting his sexual orientation after making a discovery about a certain traditional family value: “We’re probably out of my siblings the only ones who never went through a divorce,” he said. “Because of that, we have their full support now.”
Councilwoman Nancy Navarro of Montgomery County District 4, whose brother is gay, also called the merging of the two causes “a family values issue.”
“For the Latino community, supporting family is paramount,” she said. “It also sends a strong message that as a community we’re not only looking at these issues in isolation but we are definitely building these bonds throughout the larger community.”