Leveling the Playing Field for LGBT Candidates.
By Joseph Castel
Last May, 32-year-old Roger Ortiz became the first openly gay Latino to be elected president of the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, a political organization of 400 members. Accomplishments such as this earned Ortiz a spot on The 41 List, an honor roll of 41 role models chosen by the organization Honor 41. The list of nominees (which can be viewed on YouTube) highlights Latino LGBT leaders who’ve demonstrated that they can live their ‘lives out and open’ and be successful.
Ortiz humorously explained that his socio-political consciousness began when he inadvertently outed himself to his mother when he was 18 years-old. She asked him if he was seeing someone. Ortiz confirmed that there was someone new in his life. She then surprisingly asked, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’ Ortiz felt that his mother’s leading question was an open invitation to finally tell the truth. “Yeah, mom, I’m gay.” It was a tremendous relief for the political activist.
“My mother’s expression went from shock to sadness,” Ortiz recalled. “I’ll never forget that look on her face.” She had proposed the question as a joke. “She didn’t disown me, but to this day, it has affected our relationship. It’s just one of those things we don’t talk about.” Ortiz, however, doesn’t regret coming out because he knows his confession set him on the path of self-discovery.
His journey of self-awareness continued with a lesson of altruism while in college. He volunteered as a tutor for immigrant students at Carecen, the Central American Reource Center, where he also translated immigration documents for his students’ parents. Coming from Guatemala, Ortiz was keenly aware of the challenges most immigrants face when arriving to the U.S. “It was just an amazing feeling to help them.”
His work with Carecen opened doors to the Human Relations Commission for the city of Los Angeles, which then led him to LGBT resource centers such as Bienestar. At Bienestar, he was able to receive counseling and other social services concerning his orientation. Ortiz stressed that the key to his success was being able to approve of himself.
Ortiz explained that once you accept who you are then it’s easier to stand up for others. With this philosophical outlook to guide him, Ortiz gravitated towards the organization Honorpac, a group of professionals that advocates the empowerment of Latino LGBT communities through political action. He joined the organization because it reflected his belief in supporting political candidates who are openly gay, pro-immigration rights and pro-LGBT legislation.
Ortiz rose within the ranks of the association and now sits on the board of directors as Vice President of Political Affairs. “What I like about Honorpac is that we level the playing field,” explained Ortiz. “I think that openly gay candidates have a harder time raising money than their straight counterparts. Since we’re a pac, our endorsements do come with financial donations.”
The activist proudly acknowledged that Honorpac endorsed and helped elect former Stockton City Councilmember, Susan Eggman, who now serves as a member of the California State Assembly. “We also supported City Supervisor, David Campos up in San Francisco, so we do have an impact across California.”
The seven year organization is guided by Latino powerhouses such as Dolores Huerta and founding board member State Senator Ricardo Lara. “Lara has broken so many barriers,” boasted Ortiz. “He was the first openly gay chair of the Latino caucus.”
As an adolescent, Ortiz used to watch Telenovelas and dreamed of being the doctor or the lawyer portrayed on TV, but as he grew older, he realized that he could be a positive role model in different ways. “My role models are now community leaders in which many of them are my friends.”
Despite being surrounded by LGBT activists, Ortiz admitted that there is sometimes petty competition amongst them. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not an elected official, or you’re not wealthy, so you’re not worthy of my time,’ attitude. Ortiz just shrugged off the condescension. “Success to me is not necessarily measured by money, status or votes—I measure it by happiness. I have friends who work at KFC and others who run multi-million dollar companies. I think when we begin to peel off the labels then we’ll be able to work together more effectively.”
Ortiz believes the Latino LGBT Community has made great strides politically, but would like to see more done. ”It’s important to give back to our communities, but we’ve got to go beyond that and mentor the younger generation to build upon the successes we’ve made.” The activist acknowledges that in order to give back, it takes courage to speak up on behalf of others. “But in order to stand up for others, you have to first stand up for yourself.”