While the AIDS stories of the 1980s were almost exclusively white – think of The Normal Heart, The Torch Song Trilogy, Parting Glances – the 1990s continually paired gay male protagonists with Latin/o lovers. Part of this (as argued by Brian Eugenio Herrera, author of Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance) has to do with the way the “stock character of the gay Latin/o lover (with some mix of sexiness, sassiness, and swarthiness) cued a measure of difference within the sameness of the same-sex partnership that rendered a gay male pairing as more legibly erotic, romantic, and legitimate.”
In other words, the stereotype of the Latin lover, which had long been solely a macho and heterosexual character, was reframed within these AIDS narratives so as to better represent gay male desire. As Tom Hanks pointed out over and over again when he won awards for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, who wouldn’t want to date Antonio Banderas? The allure of sexy Latino men was, presumably, undeniable. It also made same-sex couples appear made up not of sameness but of difference.
Below, find five examples of the Gay Latino character, which was as problematic as it was emblematic of an LGBT movement that continues to struggle with how to represent diversity without making it wholly subservient to white male desire. Each is accompanied with a quote from Herrera’s longer analysis.
The Real World: San Francisco (1994)
One of the most widely recognized faces of the fight against AIDS, Pedro was a cast member in the third season of MTV’s groundbreaking reality show The Real World. An openly gay man with AIDS, Zamora’s presence on the show brought great awareness to HIV and AIDS in a time when education about both was critical. The sole non-fiction character on this list and one not tied to a white gay partner (he married another HIV-positive man of color in the show’s penultimate episode), he nevertheless stands as one of the most visible faces of 1990s AIDS activism.
“Over sixteen episodes, Zamora savvily exploited the conventions of ‘reality television’ to offer a national audience a glimpse into what ‘a gay man of color living with AIDS [was] really like.’” – Latin Numbers
Longtime Companion (1989)
Played by: Michael Carmine
While Norman René’s film centers on several gay white men (and one straight woman) navigating the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Herrera focuses on a part played by Michael Carmine, a New York City native of Puerto Rican descent. The scene with Alberto lasts only a few minutes, but it is, as Herrera notes, the only significant part that addresses gay men of color in a film otherwise devoid of diversity. In it, Alberto, an AIDS patient, is visited by Willy (one of the main characters of the film), who is part of the “buddy program” wherein gay men were paired with AIDS patients to offer help and support.
“The choice to present this uncertain, awkward, and tense encounter between Carmine’s Alberto and Scott’s Willy (in his best gay cliché drag) seems to be neither a stern ‘mercy call’ nor a cynical demographic sop but rather a conscious gesture toward the actual confrontation of privilege and difference that were both guiding and defining AIDS activism in the early years of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).” – Latin Numbers
Played by: Antonio Banderas
The film that earned Tom Hanks an Oscar for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a gay man suing his former employers for discrimination, believing his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis played a part in his dismissal. Heralded for its empathetic portrayal of Beckett (though equally lambasted for its melodramatic sensibility which trafficked with Hanks but Denzel Washington’s star charisma to tell a story about AIDS victims) the film cast Antonio Banderas as Beckett’s sensitive and caring partner.
“Philadelphia efficiently rehearses a core set of conventions for making gay couplehood legible, wherein the erotic charisma of the idealized gay Latin/o lover marks an on-stage same-sex pairing as a gay couple.” – Latin Numbers
Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997)
Played by: Randy Becker
Both in its 1994 stage production and in its 1997 film adaptation, Terrence McNally’s piece – much like Longtime Companion – centers itself on a large ensemble of gay men and their reactions to the AIDS epidemic. Ramon (played by non-Latino actor Randy Becker) is coded as a stereotypical Latin lover amidst a mostly white cast which included Justin Kirk, Jason Alexander, and John Benjamin Hickey.
“With extended sequences of scripted nudity and erotic encounter, Ramon’s difference – in age, in ethnicity, in worldview – catalyzes conflicts within the play’s constellation of friends, lovers, and fuck-buddies. McNally uses Ramon to embody and inspire carnality and to instigate the play’s interrogation of what compels and contains the unruly erotics of gay male sexuality.” – Latin Numbers
Angel Dumott Schunard
Played by: Wilson Jermaine Heredia
A phenomenon when it opened off-Broadway in 1994 and later on Broadway in 1996, the Jonathan Larson rock musical centers on a group of friends living in the East Village. Among them, Angel (played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony award for his performance which he then reprised in the 2005 film), is a gay Latino drag queen who falls for Tom Collins, a philosophy professor and professional anarchist. Kindhearted Angel is in many ways the core of the group.
“Angel’s unexpected death is the event that impels both the disintegration of the ensemble’s community and its subsequent reconstitution in the musical’s final moments. But it is Angel and Collins’s couplehood that recurrently reorients the musical’s emotional certainty, and it is their love that contributes to the musical’s soaring love duet, ‘I’ll Cover You.’” – Latin Numbers