There were many challenges that LGBTQ Latinos faced during the late 20th century, according to Houston native Arthur Cordova. The gay Hispanic man, who worked as an activist from the 1970s through the ’90s, remembers dealing with cultural stigma and racism in addition to the usual difficulties of coming out.
“One of our biggest challenges was being accepted,” says Cordova, who grew up in a religious household in Houston’s East End. “We didn’t feel comfortable around our families or in our neighborhoods. So we went out to the bars [in Montrose] to feel welcomed.”
But Cordova recalls that Houston’s gay bars weren’t always a safe space, either. Even as Latino men socialized with other LGBTQ folks, queer people of color experienced segregation and discrimination.
The number of out Latinos was steadily growing during those years, but they lacked a unified voice. Committed leaders like Cordova began to step up during the late 1970s to lay the foundation for Latino Pride events and organizations in Houston.
At that time, Hispanics participated in Houston’s LGBTQ community events, but not as an organized group. Cordova remembers attending the 1977 Anita Bryant protest march with his partner, his lesbian sister, and her partner. “It was a family event,” he remembers of the historic protest that started at the Depository II bar, converged on the Hyatt Regency Hotel where Bryant was performing, and ended with a rally in front of the public library.
Later that year, the Hispanic community was outraged over the death of Joe Campos Torres at the hands of HPD officers. Activists Lee Harrington, Steve Shifflet, and Larry Bagneris—all involved in the early days of the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus—began to encourage Hispanic members of the Caucus to organize as a political force.
In 1978, after the announcement of the groundbreaking Town Meeting event at the Astroarena, Bagneris, Cordova, and brothers Ramiro and Gil Marin began to think seriously about forming such a group to participate in the Town Meeting and present the issues that concerned the gay Hispanic community.
Bagneris remembers that the Gay Chicano Caucus was founded in his living room, and he was elected vice president of the new group. Cordova was one of the founding members. The group drafted amendments reflecting Hispanic concerns and presented them at the Town Meeting. Cordova recalls that the only group protesting the meeting was an organization of Hispanic police officers who gathered outside the Astroarena.
In 1978, during the No on Six weekend that raised money to battle California’s Proposition Six, the Gay Chicano Caucus sponsored a Gay Chicano Brunch to honor the national leaders who had come to Houston.
In 1979, about a dozen Caucus members attended the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Among them were Cordova and his partner, Richard Orozco, along with Bagneris. “It was life-changing,” Cordova says. “We were welcomed and embraced by the larger community.”
That same year, Houston’s first Pride parade was held. Bagneris headed that first parade committee, and he is being recognized this year as an Honorary Grand Marshal for his work as the father of Houston’s Pride parades.
The Gay Chicano Caucus entered a float in the first parade, which Cordova recalls as having an Aztec theme featuring a large pyramid and an Aztec warrior and princess. He also remembers bottles being thrown at the float as it was being driven down West Gray to the staging area. “That was just part of being out and active,” Cordova admits. “It made me feel bad, but participating in the parade and being accepted [there] just made it worthwhile.”
Dennis Medina, an early Caucus member, recalls the main issues they addressed were police harassment and discrimination within the community. Hispanics were being unfairly carded at several local gay bars. The organization also screened and endorsed political candidates for office.
The group changed its name to the Gay Hispanic Caucus as it grew larger. Later, it changed names once again to become the Gay & Lesbian Hispanics Unidos.
In the late 1980s, Brad Veloz was elected president of the organization. He had moved to Houston from Washington, DC, and remembered the group from the 1979 March on Washington. During his time in office, the group focused heavily on the AIDS epidemic, dealing with such issues as treatment and housing. The Hispanic AIDS organization, AVES, began as a committee of the Caucus and later branched off as a separate entity.
Members were also vocal about the Texas sodomy law. Many of them went to Austin to testify against it, including Linda Morales, whose Morales v. Texas lawsuit was challenging the law.
The organization continued to operate through 1995, when it was finally disbanded.
Beginning in the first year of the Gay Chicano Caucus’ existence, Cordova was put in charge of organizing an annual fundraiser. For the first three years, a fiesta was held in the Montrose backyard of activist Bill Bridges.
In the fourth year, a decision was made to make the event a dance. Cordova rented a Noche y Dia Ballroom on North Main Street for the party, but then discovered that no Latin band would play for a gay event. Cordova personally appealed to Rudy Treviño, head of the Texas Tejano Musicians Association, who convinced the Latin Express Band to play for Cordova’s first Baile event.
Baile continued to grow, and became the largest indoor Houston Pride event at the time. In addition to the dance, a Mr. and Ms. Baile pageant was held. The event became so popular that the Sheraton ballroom at Astro Village was eventually booked as the venue. Attendance at the pageants averaged 2,000 guests.
“The dance was a celebration of being accepted, coming out, and accepting oneself,” Cordova explains. The unique Hispanic event even attracted international guests.
At the 1988 Baile, Cordova was presented with a lifetime-achievement award for his decade of work on behalf of the highly successful fundraising event.
“It was such a surprise,” Cordova says, noting that many other activists played a role in nurturing Houston’s Latino LGBTQ movement. “There’s too many people to acknowledge and say ‘thank you’ to.”
Cordova currently resides in Houston’s East End, leading a contented life while keeping in touch with many of the advocates who once worked alongside him.
This article appears in the October 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.