Growing up in The Bronx, New York, Janet Quezada had a childhood filled with a rich sense of family and culture. "In my neighborhood, there would be bachata music coming out of one window, reggae from another, salsa music from another — and a Pentecostal preacher doing a service out on the street," she laughed. "All the music, all the life was competing, that was my Bronx."
Quezada went on to Wellesley College, and then began to come to terms with her sexual orientation. "I came out to my mom on a visit home as sort of a surprise," Quezada recalled. "I had rehearsed it but I just sprang it upon her… Her main concern was that I was going to have a sad life. Because LGBT people were rarely portrayed positively in media, my mom only thought of gay people as tragic."
Her mother's initial reaction was one of the reasons that Quezada came to work at GLAAD, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering acceptance of LGBT people.
"If we don't help tell our tios, tias, moms and dads who we are," she said, "then they go by stereotypes."
Quezada currently works at GLAAD as a strategist for Spanish-language and Latino media. Along with Monica Trasandes, who serves as Director of Programs, Spanish-Language and Latino Media, she is helping to raise awareness about LGBT people. Through their work at GLAAD, these two Latinas are drawing upon their personal histories to help make positive changes in the Hispanic community.
"I think the Latino community is very open-minded," Quezada said, an assertion backed up by research from the Pew Hispanic Center. "Latinos know what discrimination feels like, and they can sympathize when LGBT people talk about facing discrimination too."
A 2013 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA found that an estimated 1.4 million — or 4.3 percent — of U.S. Hispanics consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Roughly 146,000 Latinos live in same-sex couple households, and the three states with the most LGBT Latinos are Texas, Nevada and California.
At GLAAD, Quezada conducts media training and serves as a resource for producers and reporters who are covering the LGBT community. (Her own writing has appeared in The Advocate and The Huffington Post). "A lot of people think that because we have marriage equality, the struggle is over," she said. "There is a sense of complacency, and that is misplaced."
"Our communities are not safe for trans women," Quezada said, citing the murder of Monica Loera in Texas and a increase in transgender murder victims in Argentina. "It is a global problem. In the U.S., you can still be fired for being gay or trans. Thankfully you can bring some of those cases to court, but unless there is non-discrimination law at federal or state level, people are not protected. So there are still a lot of things that we need to work out."
"I am lucky that I have my family accepting me; today my mom is my biggest supporter, my strongest champion," said Quezada, who is of Dominican heritage. "But that is not case for everybody. It is important that we do better for society and put positive images out there, to create a sense of a bigger family. If someone's family rejects them, they can be part of a community family."
For Monica Trasandes, working at GLAAD is a continuation of a lifelong interest in writing and communications. Originally from Uruguay, she emigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was six and was raised in San Diego. After studying at the University of California Santa Barbara and Emerson College — and writing a well-reviewed novel — she landed at GLAAD.
"This was great opportunity to bring together my love of media storytelling with LGBT advocacy," she said, "plus the fact that I could do it with the Latino community is huge to me."
"I was realizing who I was at age 14," Trasandes said. "But it wasn't until 21 that I came out. I spent my entire time in high school filled with anxiety, trying not to be gay and worrying about being rejected. I was afraid of being rejected because I heard people making fun of gay people all the time, and it made me feel that that would happen to me, too."
Trasandes remembers watching television shows where stereotyped gay characters, such as an effeminate man or a masculine woman, would be the butt of jokes. "Honestly, I would have had a happier adolescence, and I would have come out earlier if I had not been exposed to those shows."
Without these negative media images, her parents would have also had an easier time accepting her, Transandes explained. "Now my parents, and more and more Latino parents, see that you can be Latino and LGBT and be happy," Trasandes said. "Parents are less afraid. But it is all part of a process that we really need to help them go through." Family acceptance, she pointed out, is crucial for LGBT young people's staying in school and having good careers.
Many Latino LGBT youth are actually at risk due to stress associated with their sexuality, whether from bullying or a sense of isolation. "Too many Latino LGBT kids don't finish high school because they can't stand it," Trasandes said.
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, although only 5-7 percent of all youth is LGBT, they comprise nearly 40 percent of all homeless youth. And of this group, 26 percent are Hispanic.
As part of her work, Trasandes connects journalists with LGBT people. For example, when Pope Francis visited the U.S. last year, Trasandes put reporters in touch with LGBT people of faith - to show that the LGBT community and the faith community are not necessarily separate groups. In addition, she compiles fact sheets and terminology guides for producers and writers. "We want to be included in news coverage and entertainment stories," Trasandes said," but we want to be included in a way that is accurate and respectful."
Still, Trasandes points to measures overturning non-discrimination laws in Houston, Texas and North Carolina, as evidence of the need for more education about LGBT rights. "Right now, we're seeing this last-ditch effort to try and write discrimination into the law. These measures are simply scare tactics by anti-LGBT activists," she noted. "This is why we want to put more stories out there about who Latino LGBT men and women really are. So when people put out these scary political ads, the public will see through them."
Transandes states that, because Latinos have such large extended families, once they get to know that a family member is LGBT, then old attitudes and stereotypes begin to fall away. "And for those Latinos who may not have an LGBT person in their lives, that's why media inclusion and positive representation are so important."
"I feel privileged that I can say I can be lesbian and I am a Latina. Instead of shame, I can model being proud and happy about who I am," Trasandes said. "And the more Latinos come out, the more the their families say I understand, I still love you, I understand you… And that is a beautiful thing to see."