Growing up in a culture steeped in Catholicism and machismo, Mike Flores learned to keep his homosexuality under wraps. But when the 20-year-old native Texan left home in 1999 to attend the University of Detroit Mercy, he finally was able to come out of the closet — and is helping others do the same.
Earlier this year, Flores became the Latino outreach coordinator for La Comunidad, a new support group for gay Latin men. La Comunidad, formed last fall, is part of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale. Flores says that the group is vital since the Latin population is exploding nationwide — as are HIV infection rates among young gay Hispanic men.
About 15 percent of gay Latin men in their 20s are infected with the AIDS virus compared with 7 percent of young white men, according to a study of six major cities, not including Detroit, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Southeast Michigan’s Latino population also grew 52 percent in the past decade, according to the 2000 Census.
After La Comunidad establishes a stable membership base — which it’s building through social events — Flores says that the group plans to provide HIV prevention programs, do outreach in the Latino community and forge partnerships with other area gay and lesbian organizations and Latino agencies. For now, the group’s main goal is to build trust by ensuring members’ confidentiality, says Flores.
“Confidentiality will be our biggest weapon,” he says.
In a culture that looks down on homosexuality, protecting members’ identifies is critical, says Flores, who heard of La Comunidad from a friend. He attended his first meeting in January and was soon hired to help run the program.
“I’m kind of amazed that I’m here,” says Flores, a sophomore majoring in international commerce.
Here, in his own words, Flores describes the emotional journey from being a closeted youth in Texas to an openly gay activist at a Catholic college in Detroit.
“I think I’ve always known I was gay. Again, with family and religion, you’re taught to be a young man who plays sports and never cries and open doors for young ladies and it’s something I battled with a long time. Being away from home gives you a lot of liberties and you can think a lot more freely and be more introspective.
“I totally came out this year. Last year people were wondering and this year I don’t hide it anymore. If someone asks me I tell them, whereas last year I would have given a very evasive answer. It’s a touchy subject because it’s a Catholic institution. There is a sister who lives on my floor and I’m pretty sure she knows about me and she has not treated me differently.
“I’m out as a resident adviser and it has come with its problems and I’ve had to deal with situations. Nothing great has happened in terms of being physically harmed. Things, passive things, on my door. Every student in college has a board on their door and you can write messages. Now and then I get a message that says ‘faggot’ or some say, ‘come and suck so and so in room so and so’ or ‘the Catholic way is the proper way’ and no one signs their name or leaves initials. It saddens me that we’re all college-educated in an enlightened crowd and to drop to this level — I’m also living in a freshman dorm.
“But again with anything out of the norm you will suffer repercussions and I definitely had my shots and I think it’s part of the process of coming out and it’s not as bad as some stories I’ve heard. These shots made me stronger and tell me what people are capable of. People are not as good as you perceive them or as you wish they were. You know who your true friends are and who stuck by me and I’m lucky enough to have a good group of friends. I came out to my best friend and he has been the most supportive. He’ll say, ‘Let’s go to a gay bar, let’s find you someone.’ And I say, ‘That’s not how it works, Jason.’
“I feel somewhat betrayed sometimes by the school and the department I work for. I feel betrayed to be going to school in an urban area where we should promote diversity and the school does not take the initiative. And as a Catholic school it should take the initiative because the Catholic Church is one of the largest Christian churches in the world and has followers all across the world and we should promote acceptance and tolerance, not just toward homosexuality but other cultures as well.
“At a Catholic school we take ethics and philosophy courses and it makes one wonder and question everything. And I decided to question everything about myself and the world and that is how I decided I’m not wrong. I’m different from the norm and that’s not bad to be different from the norm.
“I will stay at University of Detroit Mercy. I feel if I leave I will have lost the battle. I came here to get a good education and it’s offering me tons of opportunities. I will stay and in the process I will be able to change policies here or at least make people aware that there are problems in this nirvana they created.”
“I had gone to Affirmations gay and lesbian youth group and even though we’re all young and we’re all gay, there was an aspect missing. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t come out and why I couldn’t do certain things in terms of inviting so and so over. Even if I was straight and invited a girl over without asking my parent’s permission — it’s all about courtship and etiquette and how a family requires things to be done. Regardless of being straight, gay or whatever, there is proper etiquette of how things should be done and they didn’t identify with that. They were like, ‘Your parents, what do they have to do with it?’ But in Latin culture, parents are very patriarchal. They are highly respected. A lot of Americans don’t understand that.
“Coming into La Comunidad, I knew there were going to be people just like me, who are Latin, who are gay and who dealt with the same issues of religion and culture and family. That was last January. It was actually word of mouth, ‘Hey there is a new gay Latin group,’ and I had never heard of such a thing. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a paradox.’
“I felt very liberated to be in an environment that I identified with in terms of culture and background and definitely in terms of this being a gay Latin community. It was liberating. It’s always liberating to know others are out who are like you and who know what it’s like to be very hidden.
“In the Latino culture, men don’t show their emotions or problems and this gives gay Latin men the option to meet other gay Latin men and build a support system. Everyone is welcome but it’s mostly for gay Latin men. It’s the hardest group to hit and we have the hardest time dealing with homosexuality.
“Our biggest weapon will be confidentiality. When people see we will ensure their confidentiality, we will empower them to be confident in themselves and they can make the decision of whether to come out to their families and churches.
“No, I’m not out to my parents. They know I work at MAPP. I told them that I’m the new Latin coordinator for AIDS prevention for the Latino culture and they were totally cool with it.
“I will definitely come out to my parents. It’s in my plans. They have plans for my life and want my life to be part of their American dream. I’m first-generation American and my father has a business and is doing really well and my mother is a beautiful housewife and the only thing missing is a college-educated son. That would be me. They want me to marry and procreate and have children. So I will definitely have to tell them and it will be after I graduate college. I think it will be a painful process because being gay is not part of his Americana, my dad’s hopes and dreams for me will be shot down. I can tell him that I will still accomplish what he wants, but I won’t have a beautiful wife but a partner.
“I know that they’ll definitely be disappointed, definitely disappointed. My father will be the one to overreact. My mom will learn to come to terms with it. My father will probably not come to terms with it for a long time and probably won’t understand why I chose a certain lifestyle though I didn’t really choose it. But eventually he will realize I am the same person I was before I told him. I think that is how he will react, how I hope he reacts.
“Parents want us to succeed and as we grow up and times change parents are becoming more responsive to the children’s needs. And that is something that for us is new in the Latin culture, to be responsive to your children’s needs. It’s a very American ideal to be responsive. Demands on parents have Americanized parents. That is the conflict in my family and I think all Latin families in America. There is a battle going on, but the American side always wins.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org