Boe Ramirez and his partner, German Roa, never expected to be talking about marriage.
In many Hispanic communities, even friends and family members who knew you were gay wouldn’t discuss the matter, he said. They might acknowledge you had a “friend,” but never a partner or a husband.
Now, things are starting to change, said Ramirez, who lives in Rockville with Roa. There’s a growing acceptance of gay families in Latino communities, even among Catholics, he said.
More than 60 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are Catholic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and the Catholic Church strongly opposes same-sex marriage.
But while Hispanic leaders on both sides of the debate say Maryland’s population is warming to same-sex marriage, opinions are split on what impact, if any, the growing Latino support will have when the issue goes before voters in November.
Some claim Latinos largely will vote against the new law; some say they’ll vote in favor of it. Some say the issue really isn’t being discussed, while others say voter turnout will be so low it won’t make much difference.
Ramirez, who was raised a born-again Christian, said he is estranged from his family because of his sexual orientation. But Roa’s Catholic family, as well as other Catholic families they know, has grown to accept their relationship. Ramirez said he has found Catholic Latinos — who generally have a strong focus on the importance of family — to be the most accepting of the gay community.
But that might not matter at the ballot box.
“These are families and communities that don’t vote,” Ramirez said. “Their support exists in a vacuum.”
Individuals of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 8.4 percent of Maryland’s population, according to U.S. census data. In the 2008 presidential election, about 34 percent of the total statewide Hispanic population voted, according to the census.
A report released earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center found 59 percent of U.S. Latinos believed homosexuality should be accepted by society.
Bishop Angel Nunez, senior pastor of Bilingual Christian Church in Baltimore and president of the Baltimore Hispanic Pastors Association, disagrees with Ramirez’s assessment of Hispanic support for same-sex marriage.
Not only do evangelical and Catholic Latinos support maintaining a traditional definition of marriage, but many are registered voters, he said.
“The great majority of our [Latino] community will vote against it,” Nunez said, while acknowledging many young people, influenced by the media, will support the issue.
Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes same-sex marriage and led the petition drive to put the new law on the ballot, said he thinks Latino voters, as a whole, were strongly against the measure.
McCoy, who also is a minister, acknowledged that population amounted to a small percentage of the electorate, but said his organization would be reaching out to the state’s Spanish-speaking population and providing bilingual campaign information.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, which advocates for the Catholic dioceses of Washington, Baltimore and Wilmington, strongly opposes same-sex marriage and partnered with the alliance on the petition drive.
Still, supporters of same-sex marriage say they’ve won the backing of many Catholics. Groups such as Catholics for Equality have pledged their support for the law, and the opinion of those in the pews might differ from those of church leaders, said Josh Levin, campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
The immigrant-advocacy group CASA of Maryland, which supports both the Maryland Dream Act — it provides in-state college tuition to some undocumented immigrants — and the same-sex marriage law, recently partnered with the nonprofit Equality Maryland to advocate for both measures.
But the Dream Act also is backed by the Maryland Catholic Conference, and Nunez and McCoy think CASA’s marriage endorsement will generate discord among Hispanic voters.
Regardless of whether they support or oppose the marriage issue, many Latinos simply might not be paying much attention, said the Rev. Simon Bautista, canon for Latino ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
“It is not a hot topic in the overall Latino community,” Bautista said. “The priority of the Latino and Hispanic community is in other [areas],” such as upholding the Dream Act.
“It’s not part of the daily conversation,” Bautista said, adding the attitudes on same-sex marriage in the U.S. were far more progressive than in many Latin American countries, where debate on the issue hasn’t really begun. “That will affect the way many Latinos in this country will approach the issue.”
But Hispanic support could hinge on whether voters understand the religious exemptions in the new law, said state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly.
The law does not require clergy to perform same-sex marriages and includes protections for religious organizations that don’t want to offer goods or services to same-sex couples.
“Once that’s explained, I think people are willing to accept it,” Sen. Ramirez said, adding he thinks Latino voters are more or less evenly divided on the issue.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase sees an age gap in Latino support for the measure, with the younger generation that has grown up while homosexuality was being discussed openly seeing no reason to oppose the law, while the older generation is more resistant.
“I wish I could say there would be wholehearted support among the Latino community,” she said.