When Xenophobia Meets Homophobia

The Prop 8 fallout shows how much work remains to be done to connect the LGBT rights movement with other struggles for social justice. Unfortunately, it may have taken the brutal murder of Ecuadoran immigrant Jose Oswaldo Sucuzhañay to highlight the invisibility of queer people of color – particularly queer immigrants – in LGBT rights discourse. His murder will hopefully provide an impetus for coalition building.

February 2, 2009

An ugly blame game ensued after the passing of California’s Proposition 8, which restricted the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. With exit polls reporting 70 percent of Blacks and 53 percent of Latinos/as supporting the ban on gay marriage, many white members of the LGBT community blamed people of color for the ban’s success.

The December issue of gay news magazine The Advocate stepped into the fray. The cover of the issue provocatively announced, “Gay is the New Black.” Although the cover story's author, Michael Joseph Gross, dismissed blaming Black voters as a "false conclusion" and a "terrible mistake," comments posted to the site took him to task for other reasons. Most comments strongly disagreed with Gross' Black/gay comparison, but many others asked why communities of color and queer communities are still considered mutually exclusive in the mainstream LGBT rights movement.

A comment posted by "Greg J," pointedly charged, "Gays of color, transgender, and yes, even lesbians are missing from the larger discourse of the gay rights struggle – primarily the gay marriage issue. The gay right's movement was and remains the 'gay, white, middle class' movement!"

The Prop 8 fallout shows how much work remains to be done to connect the LGBT rights movement with other struggles for social justice across a spectrum of issues. Unfortunately, it may have taken the brutal murder of Ecuadoran immigrant Jose Oswaldo Sucuzhañay to highlight the invisibility of queer people of color – particularly queer immigrants – in LGBT rights discourse. His murder will hopefully provide an impetus for coalition building.

Jose Sucuzhañay and his brother Romel were attending a Sunday evening church party on December 7, 2008. They later decided to end the night with some drinks at a local bar in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The two brothers left the bar at 3:30 a.m. and walked home arm-in-arm to support each other. Three men drove up to the Sucuzhañay brothers, one man got out of the car and began to shout anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs at them.

The man then attacked Jose Sucuzhañay and broke a bottled over the back of his head causing him to fall to the ground. His brother Romel ran to call the police. Romel saw the attackers kick his brother’s prone body and beat him with an aluminum baseball bat. The beating stopped when Romel returned and told the attackers that he had called the police. Jose was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital and remained in critical condition until he passed away five days later. He was 31 and left behind two children.

Sucuzhañay's killing comes a month after a group of Long Island teens fatally stabbed Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero; it also follows the murder of Luis Ramirez, who was beaten to death last July in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

The increased violence and surveillance against immigrant communities has coincided with violence against queers of color, including the murder of Duanna Johnson, a Black transgender woman who was beaten by two Memphis police officers last February. Nine months later, she was found shot to death in North Memphis.

Blogger Angry Brown Butch reflected on Johnson’s murder: “Just to be trans, just to be a woman, just to be a person of color in this country is enough to drastically increase one’s exposure to hatred and violence; when oppressions overlap, violence tends to multiply.”

Although Sucuzhañay was not gay, his murder represents the danger and uncertainty facing queers, people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. For the most part, however, both mainstream LGBT rights groups and immigrant rights groups have failed to recognize the potential for collaboration and coalition, even in the wake of Sucuzhañay's murder.

Immediately after the attack, media outlets discussed the homophobic and xenophobic nature of the attack against the Sucuzhañay brothers. But as time went on, reports began to only highlight either the anti-gay or the anti-Latino/a nature of the attack rather than seeing the two as joint-causes.

“I have seen some members of the Latino community express indignation at some outside the Latino community using the attack for political gain," notes Andrés Duque of the Latino/a LGBT site Blabbeando. "I have also seen a Queens-based Ecuadorian community organization put out a call for a vigil highlighting the xenophobic nature of the crime while not mentioning that it might have also been a homophobic crime.”

Indeed, rather than illuminating the vulnerability that both Latino/a and LGBT communities face and interrogating the systemic inequalities that enable that marginalization, some are more concerned with shaping how the incident is described and remembered in the media. One example of this is Diego Sucuzhañay’s denial that the attack on his brothers was homophobic in nature. Although Romel told the police that anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs were shouted at them as they were assaulted, Diego denies that homophobia was an aspect of his brothers’ attack.

Diego told New York’s El Diario/La Prensa that, “My brother Romel told me that they shouted insults against Latinos, that they shouted 'Hispanic sons of bitches,' but not anti-gay insults.” But Romel has not publicly retracted his statement regarding anti-gay slurs. And other family members have spoken about the murder in terms of homophobia also being a motivating factor. So some observers following the case wonder whether Diego’s statements to the press are an attempt to disassociate his brother's murder from any implications of queerness.

Still, many others are people speaking out against Sucuzhañay’s murder by clearly connecting issues of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. At his brother’s funeral in Cuenca, Ecuador, German Sucuzhañay told the Associated Press, “The brutal killing of my brother Oswaldo is the result of xenophobia, of homophobia and racism that our compatriots are experiencing in these times.”

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa condemned the xenophobia and homophobia behind Sucuzhañay’s tragic death. Correa told the press that Sucuzhañay was “vilely murdered because of xenophobia and homophobia. They confused him for a homosexual..." The President called on the public to fight against "xenophobia, homophobia and all types of phobia, all types of discrimination, all types of violence.”

While a number of U.S.-based organizations including Bienestar, The Audre Lorde Project, People of Color in Crisis (POCC), and Incite! have all been working to address the intersections between multiple forms of oppression, both the mainstream LGBT and Latino/a rights movements remain remarkably single issue oriented.

The killing of Jose Sucuzhañay, however, challenges Latino/a and LGBT leaders to build a broad-based vision for social justice that acknowledges the linkages between various communities and struggles. Hopefully, both immigrant rights group and LGBT rights groups will begin to see the parallels between a number of these ballot initiatives sponsored by right-wing groups – whether they are anti-immigrant, anti-choice, or anti-gay.

The fight in 1994 to repeal California’s Proposition 187, which sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing state benefits, can perhaps serve as inspiration for those working to overturn Prop 8 and provide an in-road for collaboration between these intersecting struggles. Though not identical, these grassroots struggles provide a crucial space for collaboration between marginalized communities.

Marisol LeBrón is a NACLA Research Associate and writes about pop culture for her blog Post Pomo Nuyorican Homo. She is a doctoral student at the Program in American Studies at New York University.

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