HRC Honors These Five Latinx LGBTQ+ Historical Figures For Latinx Heritage Month

by Jose Soto

Photo of Chavela Vargas by: Alexandre Meneghini / AP Images. Photo of Ray Navarro by: Diva TV / Wikipedia. Photo of Pedro Zamora by: Callelinea / English Wikipedia. Photo of Sylvia Rivera by: Justin Sutcliffe / AP Images. Photo of Reinaldo Arenas by: Chris Kakol / Flickr.

Latinx Heritage Month is celebrated annually from September 15 to October 15 and HRC is observing the affinity month by honoring five Latinx LGBTQ+ historical figures who have made a lasting impact on Latinx and LGBTQ communities. These individuals lived authentically while boldly advocating for LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion in and beyond Latinx communities.

Latinx LGBTQ+ folks have long been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ equality movement. They have been instrumental in the fight for equality, braving society’s pushback through empowerment and resilience.

We celebrate and honor these and many other Latinx LGBTQ+ historical figures that have joined us in fighting for a world where all LGBTQ+ people, including LGBTQ+ Latinx people, can live freely and openly in all areas of life.

Reinaldo Arenas

Reinaldo Arenas was a poet and novelist who, at one point, was imprisoned because of his homosexuaity in his native Cuba. Arenas escaped in 1980 during the mass exodus known as the Mariel boatlift and entered the United States. He joined Fidel Castro's revolution as a teenager and moved to Havana in 1961. He was a researcher in the Jose Marti National Library from 1963 to 1968. His work includes “Otra vez el mar,” “La vieja rosa” and “Celestino antes del alba.”

“Reinaldo Arenas was a true artist and activist, someone whose art and politics shared the same heart,” said Alberto Morales, national press secretary for special projects. “Whether in his life or in his literature, his life’s project was to live as a fully liberated man, and to do so, as his famous autobiography is titled, ‘Before Night Falls.’ To me, he stands as a testament for how to lead a full life, especially if one lives mired in the bog of oppression - right at the forefront of the fight for freedom, and dancing at the center of all that delights.”

Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was a tireless advocate for the transgender community, and all LGBTQ+ people, especially those of color. Rivera famously partook in the 1969 Stonewall Riots at barely 17 years old. She later organized and led a series of protests. Rivera, along with Marsha P. Johnson, another brave and celebrated advocate, created the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, around 1971. Through STAR, Rivera addressed issues facing the transgender community in New York City and provided logding for those in need. She also started Transy House, which was modeled after STAR, in 1997. In 2015, a portrait of Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Rivera is the first transgender activist to be included in the gallery.

Pedro Zamora

Pedro Zamora was a Cuban-American activist and one of the first openly gay men living with AIDS to appear on television when he starrwas ed in MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco in 1993. Zamora helped humanize what living with HIV & AIDS looked like. As an HIV & AIDS educator, Zamora helped raise awareness about the disease at a time where very few people understood the disease and its impact on the LGBTQ+ community. In 1993, Zamora testified before Congress arguing for more accessible HIV/AIDS literature. When the show concluded, he continued to push for federal HIV prevention and care programs. His advocacy work was later acknowledged by then President Bill Clinton.

Chavela Vargas

Vargas was a Mexican singer known for her renditions of Mexican rancheras. Her first album, “Noche de Bohemia,” was released in 1961. She went on to record more than 70 albums. Although many speculated about her sexuality, Vargas did not publically come out until the age of 81 in her autobiographical book.

“Chavela was a revolutionary and lives on as a queer icon because she wasn't afraid to push boundaries and express herself,” said Alex Kaye, HRC’s Federal Club community manager. “In conservative mid-20th century Mexico, she would sing love songs written from men to women and refuse to change the pronouns. Few were surprised when Vargas came out.

“I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free… Now I have the desire to lie down in death’s lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful,” said Vargas.

“Her passion for living her truth and so openly loving whomever she wanted was the inspiration I didn't know I needed from a queer elder when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality,” said Kaye.

Ray Navarro

Ray Navarro was a Chicano video activist and artist. He co-founded the Latino Caucus of the organization ACT UP in New York City. He documented HIV & AIDS community activism, including the ACT UP’s “Stop The Church” demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral against Cardinal O’Connor’s position on AIDS and contraception. Navarro’s work helped center the need for activism in the fight against HIV & AIDS in Latinx communities. He was also a member of DIVA TV, or Damned Interfering Video Activists, a gay and lesbian video activist collective founded in New York City in 1989.

These and many other Latinx LGBTQ+ activists and historical figures lived within the intersections of both identities and helped push full LGBTQ+ equality forward not only within Latinx communities, but in all LGBTQ+ communities. We honor them during and beyond Latinx Heritage Month.

Learn more about our Latinx Heritage Month celebration and our Latinx and Proud campaign.