For gay Latinos, prom can be a mixed bag

Her outfit sparkled beneath the dimmed lights.  Her makeup was meticulously applied and she radiated a flair that seemed in place at prom.  She danced and she twirled and she sang.  Except that she was a he, and this was no ordinary prom.

For gay Latinos, Friday’s “Noche de Arco Iris” (Night of Rainbows), hosted by Spanish-language broadcaster Radio Arte at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, was an opportunity to enjoy prom, on their own terms.

Gilberto Suberamis, a sophomore at UIC, staffed a reference table stocked with informational pamphlets, condoms, and more.  He said there was an incredible need for an event like Noche de Arco Iris, “When you’re in the closet, you want to take your partner to prom, but [gays] don’t go with who they want to.  A lot of kids weren’t having the time of their lives” at their school proms.

The three year-old idea for an inclusive prom celebrating Latinos in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community originated with the radio program Homofrequncia, the first such Spanish language program aimed at gay Latinos in the United States.

“There are no real spaces for Spanish-speaking youth,” said Tania Unzueta, producer of Homofrequencia. Homosexuality in the Latino community, she says, “is a very silent thing.  [Coming out] might be putting a pride sticker on a book bag.  It’s silent on both sides,” meaning that neither parents nor their children do a good job of verbalizing cares or concerns.

But that reticence was nowhere to be found at Noche de Arco Iris, the first prom of its kind in the country. 

Self-proclaimed “mistress of ceremonies” Tony Alvarado-Rivera said the prom, which drew a crowd of nearly 100, “means a lot to young folks who come here.  It makes them identify with a community.”

Not all in attendance were out of the closet, said Alvarado-Rivera.  The prom is “respecting where they are, and that they are amazing and powerful.  There is nothing like this in minority communities.”

In what one organizer called “giving a voice to the voiceless,” young people, gay and straight, gathered to simply have fun and enjoy prom, something many have found difficult to do in Chicago Public Schools, which has no mandate that LGBT students are allowed to attend similar events with a same-sex partner.

This night was a chance to enjoy prom “without caring what people say.  There are no stereotypes,” according to Manuel Casique, 21.

Stereotypes play a large part in the lives of gay Latinos, says Unzueta.  Conservative Catholic values make it difficult to accept gays for many, and immigration laws do not recognize same-sex partners as single entities, making it easier to deport one partner.  If an immigrant is HIV-positive, even if the condition is contracted after coming to the United States, there is no possibility at gaining U.S. citizenship.

Furthermore, it makes it difficult to claim asylum for sexual persecution.  Says Unzueta, “Immigration officials rely on stereotypes.  If you don’t fit their vision of what a gay or lesbian is, you’re far more likely to be denied asylum and be sent back to the country you’re trying to get away from.”

For high school students in the city, Noche de Arco Iris and Homofrequencia offer a chance to be involved in a community that is not always accepted in the classroom, though Unzueta says, “it’s not a problem with Chicago Public Schools, it’s a problem with society.”

For one night, at least, these prom-goers could have the time of their lives.

Said Suberamis, “This is a normal prom.  It’s a safe base for a good time.”