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How Queer Films and TV Forgot About the Gay Latino

How Queer Films and TV Forgot About the Gay Latino

Let’s not mince words: queer stories are primarily told
through a whitewashed lens. We as audience members expect that queer media will
reflect back the diversity of the LGBTQ community, but the truth is that – in
spite of the success of shows like “Orange Is The New Black” and “RuPaul’s Drag
Race” – little has been done to diversify prominent queer characters in film
and TV. Though I can speak at length to the inherent problem in representing
all queer people of color, I will focus my argument on one particularly elusive
queer character: the gay Latino.

Latinos and
Latinas are represented as characters who are often times fetishized for their
lack of assimilation to American culture. They interrupt the narrative with
their religious zealotry (the maid in “Paranormal
Activity 2″ is called back to ward off the evil spirits because she was
previously seen burning sage), or they provide comic relief with their
misunderstandings of basic English (which is often the case with Gloria
Pritchett from “Modern Family”). 
Heterosexual Latinos are depicted as overbearing fathers, gun-wielding
gangbangers, deadbeat stoners, and dutiful janitors, while heterosexual Latinas
are represented as loud-mouthed lovers, gossipy maids, and passionate dancers.
Some films and TV shows attempt to break down or play against these
stereotypes, but those films and shows are often times considered exceptions to
the rule.

This representational struggle extends
into queer media. Mainstream films and TV shows willfully choose to tell queer
stories through the lens of white characters, making the problem one negation
and disavowal. These prominently white queer stories begin to rewrite history
as the struggle of white gay men against ignorance, disease, and intolerance (“Milk,” “Longtime Companion,” “The
Normal Heart,” “Dallas Buyers Club”)
while ignoring the roles that queer people of color played in those same
stories. By the same hand, TV shows like “Will and Grace,” “Queer As Folk,”
“Glee,” and “The New Normal” afford subjectivity/agency to affluent white
characters while objectifying, fetishizing, marginalizing, or altogether
ignoring queer characters of color.

The gay
Latino then transforms from a character with agency into an object of
scopophilic desire. He becomes a spectacle due to his asexual buffoonery
(Agador Spartacus dancing around in a red wig in “The Birdcage”), or his inability to speak proper English (many of
the Puerto Rican contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are given character arcs
in which they try to overcome the language barriers). And on occasion, the
central white gay character will investigate the gay Latino due to his cultural
differences (Patrick in “Looking” investigates Richie’s “Hispanicness” and even
fetishizes the thought of Richie having an uncircumcised penis). The gay Latino
has rarely been afforded the opportunity to be a subject (save for characters
like Oscar Martinez from “The Office,” Justin from “Ugly Betty,” Carlos from “Quinceañera,” and Rickie from “My
So-Called Life”). He connotes (to borrow a phrase from Laura Mulvey)
“to-be-looked-at-ness” due to his eccentric behavior, thus turning his cultural
heritage into an exaggeration.

The lack of
these portrayals is exacerbated by the fact that the gay Latino is not
“marketable.” To borrow the title from a Vox article by Alex Abad-Santos, the
only gay story Hollywood is telling is one that belongs to white men. Queer
films that feature white characters are the films expected to generate great
box office revenue and receive accolades. Even now that the Latino/a audience
is a coveted demographic, these audiences would much rather consume
conventional/heteronormative/non-queer films like “Under the Same Moon,” “Instructions
Not Included,” and “Cantinflas” over
queer films like “Quinceañera” (which,
although it recouped its budget, didn’t nearly make as much money as the three
aforementioned films). The gay Latino character then becomes erased,
marginalized, or extremely exaggerated in order to make him more palatable to
mainstream audiences.

My fear is
that things will not change until gay Latinos suddenly become a popular trend,
much in the same way that 3-D films, vampires, and Young Adult novels have been
used and abused by Hollywood. I am not asking for a tokenism, I am asking for
nuanced and developed gay Latino characters. It is a question of quality,
highlighted by the inherent lack of quantity. Shows like “Looking” – though
limited in many aspects – have made small strides to afford more agency and
subjectivity to Latino characters like Agustin and Richie, but this is a small
blip in the cultural radar. The gay Latino is still erased from the pop culture
dialogue, while Hollywood still continues to color its queer representations
with white paint.

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