Jarrett Barrios is the President and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). We was previously the President of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, and was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and state Senate. He is the founder of three nonprofit organizations: Oiste, a Massachusetts Latino political organization; Acceso, a humanitarian organization that provides outreach to Cuba; and The Commonwealth Seminar, which seeks to diversify the Massachusetts state legislature.
Question: What was it like growing up gay?
I grew up in Tampa, Florida. My family was immigrants from Cuba, not during the Castro era, but before. They worked in cigar factories. They were union organizers and really a strong commitment to family and to; I guess I would say, they would probably say class justice. The idea that nobody’s going to give you anything, that you have to work together with your counterparts if you’re going to get better schools, if you’re going to have better benefits at work, better salary, healthcare, these sorts of things. And that idea, I think, probably seeped into me as I was growing up. My grandfather in particular, who was a pretty radical labor organizer in his day, talked a lot about that.
So, a lot of my ideas around, you can’t take justice for granted, but you have to work for it really come from my family. I was the first kid from my highs school to go to Harvard. It got up north on a dare from my mother to apply to Harvard College, never in a million years – I mean she didn’t know what that was, I‘d never seen snow, I’d never been north of Washington D.C., I didn’t own a coat. So, I landed back, 24 years ago now, I landed in September, 1986, in Cambridge, Massachusetts without much of a clue about what to expect. But rather quickly became immersed in a new community, not one that was based in my family unit. My extended family back in Tampa, but one of fellow Harvard freshmen and other students who were part of the real political community that I became involved with in college.
Question: When did you first come out?
Jarrett Barrios: I came out – I first came out to friends when I was 15, in my junior year in high school. Then to family when I was 16, 17, to my parents, a very sort of Cuban coming out. You know, I’m talking to this guy that I’m interested in dating and my mother’s listening on the phone because there’s no privacy at all, nor should there be any expectation. And then there was an explanation that I had where we kind of discussed it with some words that were loudly expressed. And eventually we figured it all out. It took a couple of years, but we reached our peace and my mother and my father, and really my entire family has been wonderful in their embracing of me as an equal partner in our family experience.
Question: Are there similar issues of discrimination and prejudice faced by Hispanic and LGBT communities?
Jarrett Barrios: Well, I grew up in a Latino family. I grew up gay, openly gay since I was 15. They’re alike in some ways, and different in others. Perhaps one of the most important differences is that, because of my last name, because of people in my family who speak with accents. Because of the fact that we speak Spanish and the food that we eat, and all of these other kinds of cultural markers, it is often extremely clear to somebody that my ethnic background is different than theirs and it’s an ethnic background, at least in the United States, is called minority, and in many cases, and in many places, is considered “less than.”
Being gay is a little different. You don’t wear that on your sleeve. It’s not part of your last name; it isn’t in your accent. And so, the first and foremost difference is, you actually have to come out and tell people that orientation. You have to invite people to understand. That’s not to say that people can’t be discriminated against because they’re perceived to be gay. That wasn’t the question. The question is how is it different? And an important difference is that I have to announce my inequality. I have to announce to people my difference and my sexual orientation as not the majority’s sexual orientation, which opens me up to discrimination.
I was born subject to that because of my ethnic background as a Cuban American, as a Latino. And that’s a very important difference. Now, in some other ways, not much of a difference at all; I think I’m a lot more understanding and empathetic to the debate around immigration in the United States because of my experience as a gay man; as an outsider. I’m much more open, and in turn I think it is much more easy for me to engage around civil rights, around the equality of lesbian and gay families, and lesbian and gay people in the workplace and in the military because of my cultural experience growing up in a blue collar neighborhood where I was raised with stories by my grandparents and my parents of discrimination based on our ethnic background.
Recorded June 17, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman