My archive: 20 years of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ+ movement

Between 1978 and 1998, Lydia Otero built a collection around queer activism in LA.

In the 20 years I lived in Los Angeles, I acquired 10 different addresses. This doesn’t account for the weeks when I found myself in between apartments, sleeping on friends’ floors or couches. Every time I moved, I protected the contents of a box filled with squirreled-away photographs and memorabilia, souvenirs of events I had attended and brown queer activists I worked alongside. In my gut, I knew that the datebooks, newsletters, documents and photographs in that box were important. They mattered to history and served as a reminder of the forces that shaped my life as a queer of color. Few of the people I remember ever made it into history books; some young men who died of AIDS never even made it into an obituary, or onto an AIDS quilt.


As it turned out, moving to LA not only saved my life but provided me with an opportunity to be a brown and queer activist on the grandest scale — and stage — then possible. I’d left Arizona in 1978, searching for other “out” queers of color like me, who were not only looking for places to belong but energized by the idea of creating new ones. In LA, I also began studying to become an electrician and a member of LA’s Local 11 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

As I moved between neighborhoods in Alhambra, Venice, Silver Lake and Highland Park, I carried the gray metal file box with me. Its contents reflect my work as a member of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU) in the 1980s and early 1990s, an organization that has somehow escaped extensive historical inquiry. The box holds my personal collection, but it also tells a larger story of queer activism in a city where queer Latinxs celebrated themselves despite the mounting political hostility they faced in the Reagan years. 

I always knew that even something like a photograph showing queers of color publicly dancing together deserved safekeeping: It represented what was then a transgressive act. Over the years, my collection grew and required more space. Today, a large white cardboard box that long ago lost its lid is nested inside an even larger sturdy plastic bin labeled “GLLU Stuff.” 

Clockwise from top left: Lydia Otero at work in Los Angeles, 1987; Calendar, 1989; Concert programs, 1980, 1988; Newspaper clipping, 1989. Photos of Long Beach Pride Parade in UNIDAD, 1989; Poster of Sandinista soldiers, c. 1986; Lydia on cover of UNIDAD, 1989; Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos awards ceremony program, 1988; Photo of Lesbianas Unidas, 1989.

A red folder sits at the top of the box. It is hard to pick it up without photos of protests, PRIDE parades, house parties and fundraisers falling out. A few personal items also found their way into it. In the 1980s, I had a huge crush on singer Linda Ronstadt, who hailed from my hometown of Tucson. I attended a concert in 1980 with my then-girlfriend, Emma. We had a blast, and I was hoarse for days from yelling, “I love you, Linda!” This, and the fact that the program shows Linda wearing roller skates, which were cool back then, probably accounts for why I saved it.

My box is weighed down by all the engraved award plaques I received from GLLU and other groups. A turquoise-blue “Sisters Bonding” T-shirt from the first National Lesbians of Color Conference in Malibu on Sept. 8, 1983, is also tucked inside it. I was fortunate to meet Gloria Anzaldúa there. At the time, Anzaldúa was known for co-editing the pathbreaking anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women Color. Her most celebrated book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, was years away from being released, and she looks youthful and vibrant in short blue shorts and a white tank top in the photographs I took. After facilitating a session for Latina Lesbians, she sat under a tree and held one-on-one conversations with attendees. The line was long, but it moved quickly, and when I sat down, I remember telling her, “I sometimes do not know how to feel OK with myself in the world.” She replied, “You need to write. This is the most important thing we can do.” 

T-shirt from National Lesbians of Color Conference, 1983.

After meeting Anzaldúa, I became an active member of GLLU. Each year, the group’s lavish anniversary celebration served as its main fundraising event. These dinners and the accompanying awards ceremony did not require formal attire, but attendees definitely dressed to impress. Many memorable photographs survive. The women in GLLU recognized how radical our sexual expressions and relationships were, given the larger society, and we formed Lesbianas Unidas in 1983. We also organized Latina Lesbian retreats. The first one took place in October of 1984. These gatherings became very popular, and I always tried to take my camera to them. 

The bulk of the GLLU’s fundraising went to cover the costs of printing its newsletter, UNIDAD. We recognized the importance of distributing unfiltered queer Latinx voices and news, and my box is a small repository for many of those back issues. We were committed to ensuring that UNIDAD was free and readily available. After each issue’s publication, we placed stacks of copies in bookstores, bars and social service centers frequented by queer Latinxs. 

The box holds mementos of the era’s exuberance, but also carries a few somber forewarnings. A 1984 issue of UNIDAD featured an article pertaining to a new virus, HIV/AIDS. On Feb. 29, 1984, 315 cases were confirmed. That number would continue to surge upward and eventually force GLLU to act. 

Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship, 1986; Graffiti on wall in Mexico, c. 1986; Crocheted memento, 1986; Photo of Lydia with Mexican flag, 1989; Photo of group hug at Lesbians of Color conference, 1983; Confirmation letter for participation in National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome hearing, 1990; GLLU membership card, 1987-88; Newspaper clipping, 1988; Contact sheet from 1988.

Initially, GLLU sought to confront HIV/AIDS by working in partnership with other groups to disseminate information on prevention and advocate for health services. Soon, however, we started our own HIV/AIDS agency. During our 1988 GLLU Board Election, Valentino Sandoval was voted to serve as my vice president and Michael Puente as secretary. A few years later, they both died from AIDS. In 1989, my second year as president, GLLU launched Bienestar: A Gay Latino AIDS Project. I saved the early grant proposals, handouts, business cards and the like associated with Bienestar’s launch. Today, the organization operates seven community centers across LA County and continues to focus on emerging health issues faced by the Latinx and LGBTQ populations. 

My box holds photos of protests, parades and our efforts to queer more mainstream causes, like Hands Across America, which took place on Sunday, May 25, 1986. If the goal was to form a continuous human chain across the country, it had to include brown queers. We staked out a block in East LA on Whittier Boulevard, linked hands and swayed to the theme song on makeshift loudspeakers, yelling, “We’re here and queer!” 

For years, historian Lydia Otero has carried and protected their personal archive — a box of documents and memorabilia chronicling life in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s. Photographed at Otero’s home in Tucson, Arizona, in February.

More than 20 years have passed since I lived in LA. I was proud to be a lesbian in those days; it was the identity that most closely mirrored my experiences. We lacked the language and the insight into gender that we have now. In the last few years, I have started to identify myself as gender nonbinary. Back then, gender categories were firmly fixed, either male or female. There was no category for gender nonconforming people. As I reflect on how times have changed, I have found a deeper purpose for the items I carry in my box. I intend to eventually donate them to an archive, but for now, this box holds my history. It is part of a larger story of brown queers as makers of history, and of people who believed that making the world better for queers meant making it better for everyone.  

Lydia R. Otero lives in Tucson, Arizona. Their books have explored contested landscapes. La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwestern City focused on a 1966 urban renewal project, which targeted the most densely populated 80 acres in Arizona. In the Shadows of the Freeway: Growing Up Brown & Queer, released in 2019, merges personal memoir and the historical archive.

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