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Growing up in a Catholic household, Olivia Juarez didn’t see themself reflected in their quaint Tooele neighborhood.
Juarez wasn’t a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Juarez wasn’t white. Juarez wasn’t straight.
In Utah, Latinos account for about 15% of the state population. But for many LGBTQ Latinos in Utah, the struggle to find a supportive community in a homogenous culture can be isolating.
For Juarez, who uses they/she pronouns, it wasn’t until they left their hometown to attend the University of Utah in Salt Lake City that they found community and people like them in outdoor and conservation spaces.
“You don’t really realize how hard it is until you’re exposed to more diversity,” Juarez said.
More than 1 in 5 Gen Z Latinos identify as LGBTQ
Young Latino adults like Juarez, 28, who is queer and Mexican American, are increasingly identifying as LGBTQ, according to a Gallup poll released this year.
The poll found 11% of U.S. Latino adults said they identified as LGBTQ, nearly twice the rate of 6.2% of non-Hispanic white adults and 6.6% of Black adults who said they were queer. The percentage of queer Latino adults was even higher among Gen Zers — the cohort born between 1997 and 2012 — where more than 1 in 5 said they were LGBTQ, the report found.
“It is very pleasantly surprising that Latinx, Latino Gen [Zers] and millennials are identifying more as LGBTQ+, especially when Latino households are culturally known to be more conservative when it comes to sexual orientation or gender norms,” said Jorge Reyes Salinas, communications director for Equality California, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights in a state where Latinos make up 39% of the population.
Some experts say the reason Latinos are less likely to identify as heterosexual is because they are likely to skew young. In 2019, the median age of a Latino adult was 30, according to the Pew Research Center.
Reyes Salinas said he believes it’s a result of millennial parents raising children in more inclusive households, as well as an increased acceptance of LGBTQ people on social media.
“As millennials are becoming parents, they are more open to accept sexual identity and reassure their Gen Z [children] ... that they are accepted and loved for who they are,” Reyes Salinas said. “I think that’s extremely hopeful.”
LGBTQ Latinos still often face additional stigmas associated with their identities, such as racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and homophobia.
It’s been nearly six years since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando resulted in 49 lives lost and 53 wounded in what’s known as the deadliest attack of LGBTQ individuals in America. On the night of the shooting, the gay nightclub hosted a “Latin Night” and most of the victims of the attack were gay and Latino.
In 2019, Utahn Sal Trejo was assaulted outside of a Salt Lake City bar after a man asked him if he was gay. Trejo, who filmed the assault, posted the encounter on Twitter.
“I’ve been called a f----t [anti-gay slur] before,” Trejo told the Tribune at the time, “but I’ve never been hit before.”
Overall, Reyes Salinas said he’s glad to see more young people to celebrate their queer identities — just as their parents or grandparents did as immigrants.
LGBTQ Latinos in politics and advocacy
The visibility of LGBTQ activists and political influencers in Salt Lake City has also risen.
Last year, Salt Lake City Council member Alejandro Puy, who is queer, became the first Latino man elected to represent the majority-minority District 2.
Puy, who is from Argentina, moved to Utah shortly after serving a mission to Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At first, Puy didn’t believe he’d be in Utah long.
“I didn’t fit the box of what was expected of me as a ‘straight man’,” he said. “But then I realized that ... nothing was wrong. I just needed to understand who I was.”
In 2020, U.S. Air Force veteran and transgender woman of color, Olivia Jaramillo, ran as a Democrat in the Utah House of Representatives District 14 race against Republican incumbent Karianne Lisonbee and lost.
Jaramillo said she felt compelled to run for office to bring more balanced representation to the Utah Legislature as a veteran, a Latina and member of the LGBTQ community.
“I wanted to kind of bring more voices to the table,” Jaramillo said, who works as the director of public outreach for Equality Utah.
Jaramillo said Utah is more accepting of queer individuals than other red states, like Texas or Florida, which have passed and proposed a series of laws targeting the rights of LGBTQ individuals.
“It’s something that we in Utah have the ability to work towards to really improve,” she said. “I am thankful that here in Utah people are much more open-minded to seeing the diversity of others, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.”
Though Utah passed HB11 in March, a bill that banned transgender girls from competing in school sports matching their gender identity, Jaramillo said she was thankful for Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of the bill.
After lawmakers overrode Cox’s veto on HB11, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the City Council, including Puy, issued a joint statement condemning the law and voicing their support for transgender people in the state.
Puy said he often thinks about how the city could better reach the Latino LGBTQ community, and how to provide affordable housing options for people kicked out of their family’s homes for being gay.
“We struggle as a government, as government entities to reach out to Latinos, and certainly we struggle to reach out to Latinos that are LGBTQ,” he said.
Jaramillo said it can be difficult at times to find spaces or groups geared towards LGBTQ Latinos and wants that to change.
“I know there’s more of us and I want to find us,” she said.
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