Jerry Gonzalez is the founder and executive director of GALEO [Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.] After moving to Georgia from Texas and founding GALEO, he has received extensive awards and recognitions for his unfaltering activism. When he’s not hitting the streets to register voters or speaking on the capitol steps, he’s at home with his partner of 15 years and their dogs. Jerry talks to David Magazine about being gay and Latino, an activist, and blows off Cinco de Mayo (hint: it’s a battle victory, not Mexico’s independence day.)
What inspired you to start GALEO almost ten years ago?
JERRY GONZALEZ: GALEO was started over 9 years ago to ensure we would create a catalyst for Latino civic engagement and leadership development. GALEO has become well known and respected both statewide and nationally for providing a rational and important voice on the civil rights issue of our time, which is immigration.
Georgia has definitely been in the national spotlight for immigration legislation these past few months, what have been the main actions of GALEO during these intense state-wide legislative sessions and debates?
JG: To begin with, we are glad we were able to be a part of the diverse coalition which help defeat SB458, Georgia’s anti-DREAM Act, which would have banned access to higher education to undocumented students. GALEO lead the efforts in calling the scenario as an act of bullying against immigrant children. Ultimately, the message resonated and many legislators really felt uncomfortable with denying immigrant children access to higher education. Additionally, we are also following closely what will happen with the U.S. vs. Arizona in the U.S. Supreme Court later this summer. The decision would have national implications and would have an impact in Georgia. GALEO will continue to be at the forefront of this activity and engagement of our communities.
How do you balance being both an out gay man and also a very prominent Atlanta activist? Immigration activism often includes working directly with faith based organizations that may speak out against homosexuality. Have any issues arisen and how did you deal with what could be a touchy situation?
JG: I am who I am. I am committed to justice, equality and fairness. I am a Latino leader and activist, who happens to be gay. Certainly, it has created some discomfort for some, but overall it has really been a non-issue in most cases. I have worked hard to earn respect and support from the Latino community. Being gay is just a part of me that comes along with it. Being in a long-term committed relationship to my partner of over 15 years also adds to the dimension of being out in the community. When I get invited to events, my partner is sometimes by my side and is introduced as my husband or life partner. It is who I am and part of my familia. Latinos accept familia and value family. Without the love, support and inspiration of my partner, I would not be able to serve the Latino community with the strong passion and commitment that I do serve. His support has been vital. The Latino community recognizes that, accepts it and respects that from me as well.
Both gay rights and immigration are volatile issues nationwide which can lead to gay immigrants being particularly silenced. Have you found certain issues that specifically affect gay immigrants?
JG: Certainly, the lack of immigration reform impacts gay bi-national couples. There are many such couples in Atlanta that struggle with being with the person they love because of the lack of recognition of marriage or lack of equal rights in immigration adjustment status.
In addition, there are concerns about growing HIV infections within the immigrant community because of the hostile environment that exists in our state. With people being afraid to come forward and avoid HIV testing or treatment, we could see some serious problems potentially brewing. Many of the HIV prevention and service providers do recognize these challenges and are at the forefront of addressing some of these obstacles to reach gay immigrants.
Lastly, there is the homophobia that exists within the Latino and recent immigrant communities. It takes time and education to overcome some of these challenges. I am particularly hopeful because of recent studies indicating broader support among the Latino community for gay rights than what was previously thought. I would like to think that a big part of that movement has been with people coming out and making themselves known to their own families. As I mentioned before, familia is important and valued. Latino families love their gay brothers and sisters. It takes some adjustment, but the love in family is strong. My being out and open about who I am also is something that I can contribute towards greater acceptance. Knowing someone who is gay leads to the diminishing of homophobia within any community, especially within the Latino community.
What would you say to David readers that might think, “Oh well I’m neither Latino nor an immigrant, these things don’t affect me”?
JG: Injustice anywhere should not be tolerated. David readers should care because how the nation and our state address immigration matters will reflect who we are as a people. Do we promote fear and ignorance of a people simply because of where they were born? Do we embrace them as brothers and sisters and neighbors? These questions are some that resonate with many within our GLBT community. The GLBT community should be paying attention to these matters because ultimately it will be how our nation and state will address our issues of fairness, justice and equality. If we allow for the marginalization of one group, then what group will be next? I urge GLBT David readers to become more informed and involved on these matters.
You’ve won a lot of awards and been a major player in the activism scene, what has been your proudest moment with GALEO?
JG: One of the proudest moments that I have had with GALEO has been watching our community leaders evolve and develop their own sense of leadership through further engagement and dedication towards community service. I have seen community members grow into grand community leaders simply for stepping up and taking on roles of leadership. We need more engagement and community members to step up and provide solutions for our community’s challenges and opportunities—both within the Latino and gay communities. Seeing more people engage is something that I am really proud of and will continue to encourage.
Since the theme of this issue happens to be Cinco de Mayo, what are you going to be doing on the 5th?
JG: [Laughing] Cinco de Mayo is not really a big Latino holiday, but I will actually be spending the day with my in-laws visiting from Florida. Then, the following day, I will be registering voters at a festival at Centennial Olympic Park. Anyone not registered to vote can come by and get registered with our organization. People can also register to vote online at www.georgialatinovote.com. Su Voto Es Su Voz! (Your Vote is YOUR Voice!)