While others flock to the Village or Chelsea for a night out on the town, Latinos keep the party close to home.
Raul Gordillo (l.) runs COLEGA, the Columbian Lesbian and Gay Association. The group was started in 1996 by Gordillo’s partner, Andres Duque (r.).Tribune Photo by Josh Parish
By josh Parish
When Andres Duque came to Queens from his native Columbia in the late 80s, he had only recently discovered himself as a gay man. And he didn’t have a clue there was a booming scene of fellow gay Latinos in the borough.
“I had absolutely no idea there was this huge gay community here,” says Duque, a 37-year-old whose accent sounds as if it could have as easily been bred in upstate New York as his homeland. “Then I walked by Friends Tavern, and I heard Donna Summer playing from inside. I went through the doors, and I was just amazed.”
Duque, who in 1996 founded COLEGA, the Columbian Lesbian and Gay Association, saw something beyond the sheer number of Latinos in the bar that night-he saw the potential for a cohesive community where there wasn’t one.
“It was different then, it wasn’t connecting,” he says. “When COLEGA started, there was an initial push by the community to do stuff for the pride parade-half of us wanted to bring more attention to HIV issues, and half of us just wanted to give some glamour and beauty to Columbian visibility.”
Today, COLEGA is headed by Duque’s partner, Raul Gordillo. The group, funded partially by the health department, balances its time and resources between HIV prevention and education and new immigrant services.
Queens’ appeal to Columbians, says Gordillo, is inspired by two factors: How similar the borough is to back home-and how dissimilar the borough is to back home.
“Just like here in the States, big cities, like Bogotá, are open [to gay life],” he says. “But outside of there it’s tough. It can be hostile in the rural areas. We’ve actually tried to recreate parts of Bogotá’s central park here-at night, people gather and read poetry and sing, and do other cultural things. It’s gone over really well.”
All In The Family
Though Columbians have a stronger presence within the borough’s gay Latino population than any other, the scene isn’t exactly what you’d call snobby.
“There’s so much mixture among the Latino nationalities, we have a very strong feeling of inclusion,” says Eddie Valentin, himself a second-generation Puerto Rican. Valentin co-owns a number of Queens’ gay bars-The Music Box, Club Atlantis and Friends Tavern-with his partner of 15 years, Casimiro Villa. “And every employee here is bilingual. If they can’t speak English, or they can’t speak Spanish, we get them into school. If they don’t do it in three months, they can’t work here. I have regular customers who take the train all the way from the Village because they love the environment.”
Valentin isn’t just talking up his own clubs’ appeal. On a recent Thursday night at the Music Box, a 14-year fixture at 74th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, the atmosphere was all beer, balloons-and brotherhood. Latinos swarmed the scene, each one called out by name by the bartender as they entered, speaking in Spanish-then switching to English addressing the African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans who settled in like any other regulars.
Paula Becerra and Ashlie Lebhar belly up to the bar at Chueca, a lesbian club in Woodside. Tribune Photo by Josh Parish
“I like to say we’re about 85 percent Latino and 15 percent Latino lover,” says Fernanda Mendez, owner of Queens’ only Lesbian bar, Chueca. (The name loosely translates to anything that’s not straight.) “The Latin culture in general, gay or not, is very happy and free-spirited. We like to enjoy ourselves, and the general community likes that energy. We work hard like everybody else, we reach our goals, but we like that spice-that caliente. Everyone has some of that salsa in them.”
Mendez’s watering hole is crammed with caliente. On a Saturday night, about 300 women come through the doors of the small Woodside Ave. club to dance-and drink the club’s specialty cocktail, aptly named La Chueca. (It’s a combo of different liquors, set ablaze, and then sucked through a cocktail straw as gathered crowd chants, “Chuuu-ecaaa!”)
The House Pride Built
“Yeah, you can’t talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life in Queens and leave out Latinos-all the bars are run by Columbians,” laughs Carlos Arboleda, Acting Executive Director of the Queens Pride House, just down the street from Chueca.
The Pride House doesn’t have an ethnic focus (though its location means Latinos make up about half of its clientele), but it offers similar services to COLEGA, on a slightly larger scale. The house opened four years ago, and offers an LGBT reference library along with a full range of immigrant services to cushion newcomers’ plunge into the borough.
“I wouldn’t say it was hard when I moved here 15 years ago,” says Arboleda, himself an immigrant from Medajin, Columbia. “But there sure wasn’t any organized help [for incoming gay Latino immigrants]. We’ve made it, consistently doing what we do-we’ve found a niche.”