By Rick Braatz
New book explores the sexual migration of local gay Mexican immigrants
As of 2013, there were roughly 900,000 LGBT immigrants in the U.S. and about 30 percent were undocumented, the majority of which were Hispanic, according to the Williams Institute. For many of these immigrants, particularly those without documents, the paths they took to get here were filled with unique challenges, including cultural and language barriers, severe economic exploitation, discrimination and prejudice within and outside the LGBT community, and, of course, the threat of deportation. A new book, by scholar Hector Carrillo, gives a history of these immigrants by focusing on the lives of gay Mexican immigrants to the San Diego metropolitan area.
Carrillo is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Illinois where he teaches courses and publishes research on the subject of sexuality and migration. His recently released book, “Pathways of Desire: The Sexual Migration of Mexican Gay Men,” tackles the subject of local gay Mexican immigrant’s motivations for migrating, what their lives were like back home, the pathways they took to get here and how they became incorporated into the area.
Carrillo’s study claims to be the largest qualitative study (a type of research that seeks to understand people’s patterns of lived experience) to date on what he calls “sexual migration” — migration motivated by sexuality, by the opportunity to explore one’s sexuality in what many of the men perceived to be a more sexually liberal context.
Carrillo and his team interviewed 80 self-identified gay men (a few identified as bisexual) who migrated from Mexico to the San Diego area with an additional 36 U.S.-born, gay, Latino men and 34 U.S-born, gay, non-Latino men as comparison groups. The men were interviewed between 2003 and 2006.
Recently, I was able to speak with Carrillo over the phone about his book’s findings, during which we discussed the men’s access to Hillcrest and the impact of our community’s cultural assumptions of them. The interview – which will be published in two parts over this and the following issue of Gay San Diego, begins with the men’s experiences back home.
Rick Braatz | RB: I want to start at the beginning of your book with the story of Maximo. He had gay friends back home. In some ways, his home became a clubhouse of sorts for him and his queer friends. But he felt he couldn’t be out to his family or at work. He came to LA and later to San Diego. You say his experience was emblematic of many of the other gay Mexican immigrants you interviewed. Can you explain that for a bit?
Hector Carrillo | HC: Part of what happened to them is that they had become comfortable developing a gay life to some extent, even when they were not completely open in the sense that we think of the coming out model. Nonetheless, they felt that they were out because they had a kind of gay society that gathered in homes or private gay spaces.
You know, in the large cities [in Mexico] there are lots of institutional gay spaces, like clubs, etc. But in other places, it was more a network of gay men that gathered in homes and other places. Maximo’s home was the one of the places where all his gay friends came. He had the advantage that he lived alone. But what he didn’t feel comfortable doing was being fully out, the way that we think of being out here, including at work and with his family. A lot of men like Maximo didn’t see a contradiction between being out as gay men and not being fully out as gay men.
(RB) One of the chapters in the book is about how the gay Mexican immigrants you interviewed found gay San Diego. What it made me think of is the issue of access. Depending on the men’s prior experiences with gay culture back home, some had an easier, while others had a much more difficult, time to access Hillcrest. Do you think such gayborhoods could be more accessible to gay immigrants?
(HC) Well they could, and let me just say that part of what explains the difference had to do with their lives in Mexico. You also have men like Marcelo, who I spoke about extensively, who had really developed a fully gay life in Mexico. Men such as Marcelo often had made contact with gay men in the U.S. sometimes through the internet, sometimes by coming as tourists, etc. and knew about Hillcrest. It was very easy to find Hillcrest [for them] because they already had what I call the ‘gay capital’ to arrive directly. As you pointed out, it was different for those men who thought of themselves as gay and had a gay life back in Mexico but for whom the idea of a gayborhood was really foreign. They didn’t have access to information about Hillcrest while in Mexico and many of them arrived in Mexican San Diego. And as you can see in some of the stories, it took them quite a while before they discovered Hillcrest.
Now to your question, what could be done to make that access more available? Well in the book I discuss the role of cultural ambassadors. And I think an expansion of that notion could be interesting. Meaning the efforts of the San Diego LGBT community to actually create a little bit of a welcoming bandwagon for immigrants by providing information that might give them the access outside of Hillcrest. So instead of just saying “we have Hillcrest,” “This is where it is” and “you find it and then you’re in,” but to actually reach out to LGBT people who might be elsewhere in the city with information, with campaigns, with ways of saying, “There is this thing that exists for you where you can come and be gay.” And there were some efforts like that sometimes through HIV prevention programs but perhaps not enough.
(RB) Your book also describes how once the men found gay San Diego, some encountered assumptions for how they should enact their sexuality or sexual identity. I’m thinking of the one man who went to the San Diego LGBT Community Center for therapy and who was subtly, implicitly directed by not one but two therapists to follow the traditional gay, white male, coming out pathway. He wanted to have a wife and to have her accept him as a gay man. [After receiving therapy, the man went through a crisis before he rejected his initial goal and followed his counselors’ advice]. Can you talk about some of these assumptions?
(HC) Yes, but that was perhaps the most dramatic example and the one that really helped me do that analysis, the story of Venustiano. Venustiano was someone who, where he lived in Mexico, knew there were a lot of gay men who married women as a sort of a way to lead a double life, of being gay in one part of their life but then pretending to be heterosexual with their families, etc. He didn’t want to do that. He was very worried about affecting the life of a woman that he would marry not for love but for other purposes. But then he started thinking, “Well how would I do this in a way that doesn’t affect them?” The U.S., in his view, was more sexually liberal. “Why don’t I marry either a lesbian or a straight woman who would actually like to be with a gay man but openly.” Now, we know there are people who are in those situations in the U.S., you know who are self-identified gay men who marry women for a number of reasons that have to do with family life, children, etc. And so he personified that model.
But what I found intriguing was the degree to which in our gay communities we have also created particular pathways that become normative and when someone tries to come up with an alternative model, it makes us uncomfortable, which I think is what happened to him when he went seeking counseling at The Center. The counselors he interacted with there really felt like, “Oh you’re wrong. You shouldn’t really be looking for a woman. You should become a fully open gay man!” And the irony is had he pursued what he wanted and found a liberal woman who wanted a gay man and married her, he would have actually achieved citizenship in a formal way, at a time when same-sex marriage was not yet a possibility in the U.S.
In the second part of this interview, which will run in the next issue of Gay San Diego, Carrillo will speak about the men’s interracial attraction, issues of power in their relationships, the men’s impact on the local LGBT culture, and how they related to the Latin lover stereotype.
— Rick Braatz is a sociologist, social worker, journalist and a former editor of Gay San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.