By Anthony C. OcampoApril 21, 2022
IN THE FALL of 2004, when I started grad school in sociology at UCLA, I set out to become an expert on immigration and race. In my statement of purpose, the essay in which applicants propose their future research ambitions, I wrote that I wanted to study how race shapes the lives of children of immigrants, a group that sociologists call the “immigrant second generation.” I read hundreds of research studies about their everyday experiences with their families, and in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. As the son of Filipino immigrants who arrived in this country in 1980, I was especially interested in the “new” immigrant second generation — the children of Latin American, Asian, African, and Caribbean immigrants who migrated after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened US borders to immigrants after a four-decade hiatus.
All the while, there was another world beyond academia into which I was being socialized, mostly between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. A few miles east of my UCLA apartment was West Hollywood, a two-square-mile strip of bars, clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, adult stores, and health service organizations that catered to gay clientele throughout Southern California. As early as the 1920s, West Hollywood was a safe haven for queer men and women relegated by society to the closet. By the 1970s, West Hollywood “had come to epitomize a new gay lifestyle,” write historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons in their book Gay L.A. “[T]he residents of West Hollywood became emboldened, expressing gay freedom not just after dark, but brazenly in the sun: holding hands, flirting, and cruising all over the district.” West Hollywood was the site for landmark moments in gay history. It became home for gay people seeking refuge from other countries, other states, or even other neighborhoods in L.A. It was the site for gay-owned businesses and gay activist movements. It was the first American city to have a free health clinic for gay people, to have a majority-gay local government, and to legally recognize same-sex relationships and offer medical benefits to same-sex partners.
In 2004, I knew none of these things, despite being a lifelong Angeleno. I grew up in Eagle Rock, a racially diverse middle-class neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, but for most of my life, my family and friends rarely went west of the 101 Freeway, which runs north and south and splits the city in half. As Faderman and Timmons point out, “L.A.’s distinct ethnic neighborhoods, spread out over 450 square miles, and its clogged freeways and inefficient public transit system have created de facto segregation.” Anyone who has grown up or lived in L.A. knows it’s a place where decisions about one’s social life are dictated by race, class, and a willingness (or lack thereof) to sit through traffic.
But that year it was my budding queer sexuality that led me to venture to West Hollywood. After graduate school seminars, writing sessions, and happy hours, I’d make my way to the two-mile stretch of bars and clubs along Santa Monica Boulevard, at least three or four times a week, if not more. The residents of West Hollywood are mostly White and affluent, but the events I attended catered to gay men of color. There were Latinx nights, which drew crowds of immigrants and US-born Latino gay men. There were also hip-hop nights, which drew mostly Black but also Latino and Asian American gay men. There was GAMeboi, which drew Asian American gay men of different ethnicities, mostly US-born Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese patrons. (The GAM in GAMeboi was short for “Gay Asian male,” a nod to the AOL chat rooms of the 1990s.)
For the most part, these men were not West Hollywood residents; they came from surrounding neighborhoods, cities, and counties across Southern California, where most residents were people of color. Within a few months, the gay men of color I met at these parties introduced me to a broader circuit of queer POC party scenes beyond the main boulevard — in Hollywood, Silver Lake, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and the Inland Empire. In a region where Latinxs, Asian Americans, and African Americans collectively make up 70 percent of the population, there was no shortage of gay bars that catered specifically to gay men of color. Historically, many of these clubs — Circus Disco in Hollywood, Catch One in Arlington Heights, and Chico’s in Montebello — became the primary nighttime gathering spots for gay POC who encountered racial discrimination in the predominantly White social scene of West Hollywood.
Straddling the worlds of graduate school and gay POC nightlife positioned me to see a major shortcoming in how sociologists were discussing immigration: they presumed that immigrants and their children were heterosexual. In my seven years of graduate school, I spent countless hours in seminars, lectures, and conferences learning about how the lives of children of immigrants were shaped by a constellation of factors — their parents’ socioeconomic status, the demographic makeup of their neighborhoods and schools, their language abilities, their connections with the ethnic community, their racial identity, their gender, and their religion. Throughout these conversations, the topic of sexuality rarely came up.
All the while, several nights a week, I was drinking, dancing, and socializing with second-generation Filipino and Latino gay men. Some of the men grew up in racially diverse neighborhoods like mine. Others grew up in working-class Latinx neighborhoods in East L.A. or Southeast L.A. Others came from the multiethnic suburbs surrounding Los Angeles County. Others had migrated to Los Angeles from other parts of California or from the East Coast. We found our way to each other’s company because whom we desired and how we expressed ourselves were incongruent with the rules of a heteronormative society. We were bound together by both our Brownness and our queerness.
It was through these men that I discovered renderings of gay second-generation lives. There were essay collections curated by queer Asian American and Latinx academics who study literature, culture, and HIV/AIDS activism. There were documentary films and plays produced by LGBTQ students of color at local universities. Most of what I learned came from the people who existed at the intersection of immigration, race, and gay identity. Beyond academia, I learned so much from gay second-generation men of color who shared their lives online — on message boards, blogs, social networking sites, and social media. At the club, we’d dance, shedding the shame we’d all grown up with, basking in the longing and acceptance denied to us for most of our lives.
I started the research for this book in 2012. By then I had been a part of the gay POC scene for close to a decade. If I showed up to La Cita in Downtown L.A. on a Monday, or Micky’s in West Hollywood on a Thursday, or Circus Disco in Hollywood on a Friday, I’d know more than a few people there. It was my intimate familiarity with the gay POC scene (and my identity as a gay man of color) that allowed me to connect with many of the men I ended up interviewing. Most of the men I approached for a sit-down interview agreed because they’d seen me around.
The men shared their first memories of realizing they were “different” from other boys. They recounted the disparaging comments their family members, classmates, and members of the church made about gay people. They recalled story lines on television shows and movies in which gay people were belittled — or, worse, beat up and killed. They remembered their parents watching alongside them and saying they deserved it. They spoke about strategies they developed to conceal their queerness at home and at school, the places children are supposed to feel most safe. They talked about the fear of being, as the late queer scholar José Esteban Muñoz once put it, a “spy in the house of gender normativity.” Many recounted these painful moments with such vivid detail and emotion that you would think they had taken place last week instead of years or even decades ago.
By the time they were young men in their 20s and 30s, the national pulse on LGBTQ issues was rapidly shifting. States began legalizing gay marriage in 2004. To borrow the words of queer Latinx writer Carmen Maria Machado, they came of age “in a culture where gay marriage went from cosmic impossibility to foregone conclusion to law of the land.” After a decade of heated legal battles at the state level to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, the US Supreme Court — in a five-to-four decision — declared marriage equality a federal law in June 2015. Of course, for major segments of the LGBTQ population, such as Black and Brown queer and transgender people, there are other priorities besides gay marriage. Workplace discrimination, health inequality, housing insecurity, and violence (particularly against transgender Black women and women of color) are more pressing issues. Nonetheless, that acceptance of same-sex marriage doubled within a decade and a half — from 30 percent in 2004 to 60 percent in 2019 — indicates that the cultural landscape is tipping in the direction of LGBTQ acceptance.
Even with these metrics of progress, however, the truth remained: growing up gay, especially as a person of color and a son of immigrants, was hard. The majority of the men said they’d been a target of both racism and homophobia at some point in their lives. They were called faggots — behind their backs, to their faces, and in multiple languages. They held memories of being barely tolerated or outright rejected by members of their family and community. Manny Roldan, a Filipino American college student, shared his mother’s heartbreaking reaction when she discovered he was gay. “It got to the point where, when we were eating, I would drink from my mom’s cup, and she would throw away the cup,” Manny said. “If I sat on her bed, she would change the sheets. It was emotionally devastating. Like not feeling welcome in my own home.” Societal attitudes toward gay people may have been shifting, but for Manny, this did nothing to ease the tension between him and his immigrant parents.
In the era of marriage equality, I’ve encountered more than a few straight people who tell me that being gay is “not that bad” because being gay is “more accepted now,” as if the increasing acceptance of gay marriage could erase the trauma experienced by men like Manny. They conveniently ignore the labor and everyday acts of resistance it took for gay people to exist in a heteronormative world.
Throughout the writing of this book, I kept returning to a question posed by Imani Perry, professor of African American studies at Princeton University, in her book Breathe: A Letter to My Sons: “How do you become in a world bent on you not being, and not becoming?” Perry is not writing specifically about queer experiences; she is writing about the challenges Black boys face growing up in a society where Black boys and men are routinely and unjustly criminalized, imprisoned, and killed. The men I interviewed are not Black, nor do they experience race and racism in the same way. But by virtue of their Brownness and their queerness, they, too, know what it feels like to be a “problem,” to riff off the classic question raised by sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. In many respects, Brown and Gay in LA is an acknowledgment of — and a tribute to — the labor of becoming.
One book cannot fully capture the rich mosaic of second-generation LGBTQ experiences. In my choice to pan in on the particular, like the excerpt you are about to read about the T-parties of ’90s Los Angeles, I hope you catch glimmers of the universal. As my friend, the Filipina American scholar Carolina San Juan once told me, in a moment when I was struggling to write, “Your book is about the queerness in all of us that wants to be loved.” Indeed, it is.
Justin Ruiz, a Mexican American hair stylist who grew up in Echo Park, first started hanging out in West Hollywood in the mid-’90s when he was a sophomore in high school. He and his friends were not old enough to get into the bars and clubs, so they would sit outdoors for hours at restaurants and coffee shops along the main strip of gay establishments on Santa Monica Boulevard. “We would take our asses to West Hollywood just to go, almost like mall rats, but like West Hollywood rats,” he recalled, nostalgia radiating from his voice. “You would go be a fucking West Hollywood rat at that one pizza place and literally just eat pizza and hang out and just meet other young gays.” The drive from Echo Park to WeHo took more than half an hour, but he made it a point to make the trip at least a few times a week “just to be around the gays.” Back then, he “didn’t really do the AOL chat room thing,” so making the trek to WeHo was the only reliable way to connect with other gay people his age. Then he met Raymond Martinez.
Raymond was a member of Infamous, a Latino party crew in East L.A. known for throwing “T-parties,” social functions that catered specifically to gay Latinos. Party crews (both gay and straight) were a staple of L.A. Latino culture during the 1990s and early 2000s. As artist and writer Virginia Arce argues, Latino party crews were both an alternative to gang culture, and a response to the negative ways Latinos were targeted as “illegal” and “criminal” — by teachers in public schools, by conservative politicians, and in Hollywood story lines. Each weekend, party crews would throw backyard parties in predominantly Latino neighborhoods throughout Southern California, in East L.A., South L.A., Santa Ana, and the Inland Empire. The parties seldom took place in the same location, and they were often broken up by police within hours; nevertheless, Latinos from different regions continued to congregate by the hundreds every weekend.
Justin and Raymond met in front of a WeHo pizza parlor, where Raymond was passing out flyers for an Infamous party. “On this little party flyer, there was a number I had to call to find out where the T-parties were gonna be,” Justin explained. “It was like some cholo guy on a voicemail that was like, ‘Wassup, party people, the place to be tonight is…’ and then it told me the address and direction of where the party was that night.” One Friday night in 1997, Justin went to see what a T-party was all about. For the next two years he was hooked. “We were at those T-parties every motherfuckin’ weekend.”
The parties were “always in the hood” and “right off the freeway,” according to Justin. Most of the time they took place in the backyard of a house or in the back lot of an apartment complex, but occasionally they would take place at other sites. One man I interviewed remembered a T-party that took place in the parking lot of a South L.A. laundromat. Justin remembered attending a T-party at an auto repair shop in Historic Filipinotown. “It was crazy. I went to one that was at an auto body shop, and it turns out it was the same auto body shop my grandfather owned in the fucking ’60s!” he said. “The party was covered up [black tarp surrounded the outer fence], but I mean any cop could see it driving by. Like fucking lights and shit, strobe lights, and all these fucking queens dancing and just lining up outside.”
“A lot of teenagers kick it at the mall or go to school dances. What was the appeal of going to T-parties?” I asked Justin.
“Probably the fact that we knew there was going to be lots of other gay boys or men our age,” he answered. “It was just the idea of being able to meet other gay kids that weren’t at my school. And I feel like it was just the lure of nightlife at that age. I think it was just enticing to me. It was like the closest thing I thought I would get to going to a club or being in a room filled with kids that were just like me.”
T-parties pulled crowds of around one to two hundred people. The overwhelming majority of partygoers were Latino teenagers and young adults, with a handful of Black and Asian American queers in attendance. “We never really saw White kids there, that’s for damn sure,” Justin said. Sometimes there were men who came to the party in drag. “There were a few drag kids, obviously, who wanted to put on a dress and some pumps. The T-parties were like a perfect reason for them to do it since they probably couldn’t do it at their high school.” At every party, there was a station where beer and “jungle juice” were served. There was always someone selling balloons filled with nitrous for some momentary euphoria while dancing to deep house.
Jesse Madgiral, a Mexican American graphic designer, was 15 when an older gay cousin took him to his first T-party, in South L.A. Most of the men at that first T-party were Latino; many were wearing crisply ironed white T-shirts or plaid long-sleeved flannels, with baggy jeans or Dickies, a brand of workmen’s pants popular among Latino youth. The men dressed like the gang members from his high school, but after talking to them, he discovered they weren’t gang affiliated. As cultural theorist Richard Rodríguez notes, these young men were “queering the homeboy aesthetic,” adopting a style typically associated with Latino male heterosexuality and taking ownership of it. The young men who weren’t dressed like “cholos” (Jesse’s descriptor) were usually dressed like “rebels” — a style among Latinos that evoked James Dean’s look in Rebel Without a Cause — in white T-shirts, black faux leather jackets, snug-fitting jeans, and with slicked-back hair.
While the young men at the party embodied an aesthetic Jesse was familiar with, he was “mind blown” to see them engaging in same-sex public displays of affection. “You’d see these straight-up gangsters with tatted-out heads making out with other guys,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the fuck? Like freakin’ cholos making out.’” It was the first time Jesse saw other young men who embodied the Latino masculine aesthetic he’d grown up with being physically affectionate with other men: dancing together, hugging each other, kissing one another. “T-parties were an eye-opener,” he said. In his high school, he was the only student who was openly gay; at T-parties, the men in attendance looked just like the men he’d knew in his family and school; they looked like him.
For Raymond, joining a party crew provided a community and family he had lost in the aftermath of coming out. In his early teens, he had been part of a Catholic youth ministry at his local parish. One weekend during a retreat, Raymond tearfully revealed to friends in the group that he was gay. They didn’t outright reject him, but he felt something change after having shared this secret. Soon he stopped going to meetings and disassociated from his friends in the group. A few weeks after the retreat, Raymond’s parents found a shoebox full of letters he had been exchanging with a male friend. “They confronted me about the letters,” he said. “I got clumsy and they saw some of my emails. Then they started to eavesdrop on the phone and hear that I was talking all affectionate with a guy.” Raymond’s parents took him to see a priest and, later, a psychologist — all in an attempt to steer him away from being gay. The psychologist informed his parents that there was nothing wrong with Raymond. “He basically told them that I didn’t need help. That being gay was not a mental issue. That the only thing that mattered was that I was happy.” On the one level, Raymond felt validated to know that a mental health professional was on his side. On the other hand, he was devastated that his parents sought out conversion therapy in the first place.
When Raymond went to his first T-party, hosted by Infamous, he was enamored with the sense of camaraderie the members had. He found himself crushing on one of the crew’s veteran members. “Sammy, the main guy that was throwing all the parties, he was a smart cholo,” he said. “He just came off so intelligent, and when he saw me, he was like, ‘You are really cute. You are never gonna have to pay here when we have a party, ever again, okay?’” By the next party, Sammy had Raymond on NOS duty. “Here, your job is to sell balloons,” he told him. “Two for three dollars.” Before Raymond knew it, he was helping each week to plan Infamous’s T-parties — scouting for the location, booking a DJ, designing the flyers, and distributing them outside of all-ages clubs like Arena in Hollywood and Ozz in Orange County. Within a few months, Raymond had established himself as one of the most well-known promoters in the T-party scene. He recalled fondly, “This was our world, and it felt good to be recognized at every party I went to.”
Ultimately, as these men got older and the option to attend bars and clubs became available, the appeal of T-parties waned. “A friend gave me a fake ID, and then I stopped going to T-parties,” Justin explained. “It said I was 26, and I was definitely still 17 at the time, but I never got turned away. Not once did I get turned away, which is crazy because it said I was from Pennsylvania and it wasn’t even my photo. But it worked.” Justin’s fake ID gave him access to bars and clubs throughout WeHo, Long Beach, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. He began dating a Marine 10 years his senior. “Bitch, I was fucking 17, dating this grown-ass man like the bad bitch I was!” he told me. When presented with the options of a brick-and-mortar gay establishment or a T-party likely to be broken up by the cops within hours, Justin and his boyfriend preferred the former.
Jesse said he stopped attending T-parties after an altercation with the police. “The last time I went to a T-party, the cops stopped us and put us up against the wall,” he remembered. They cuffed him and his friends and ran his name through a database. After finding that none of them had a record, they let them go. Jesse escaped the incident unscathed, but he was a few weeks away from starting college and feared that another encounter with the police might derail his future. “I had just turned 18, and I was like, I don’t need to go there. I am not going to do this again.”
Brown and Gay in LA: The Lives of Immigrant Sons is now available for pre-order, and is forthcoming from NYU Press in September 2022.
Anthony Christian Ocampo, PhD is the author of The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race and the forthcoming Brown and Gay in LA: The Lives of Immigrant Sons.
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