July 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
LGBT groups court Latinos to build ENDA, marriage support

A new truth has emerged about American politics in the aftermath of the election results last year and as Congress works to find a way to pass immigration reform: support from the Latino community is in high demand.

During a three-day conference of the National Council of La Raza in New Orleans, advocates for a range of causes — LGBT and otherwise — made their cases to the community, which is now the most populous minority group in the United States.

First lady Michelle Obama took the opportunity to sell her husband’s signature achievement — health care reform legislation — in addition to building grassroots support for it during the keynote address that she delivered on Tuesday.

“But let’s be clear, simply passing the Affordable Care Act was not the goal,” Michelle Obama said. “The goal is to get folks to sign up for the insurance so they have the care they need to stay healthy. And as leaders in our communities, we are going to need your help to make this happen.”

The opportunity to build support for LGBT issues in the Latino community was not lost on advocates. A closed-door LGBT session on Sunday was one of several sessions held at the conference where an estimated 2,000 attendees interested in Latino activism were present.

Representatives of LGBT groups — Freedom to Work, Lambda Legal and Freedom to Marry — met with local affiliates of the Latino organizations during the session to discuss ways to cooperate and build grassroots support for LGBT initiatives.

Jennifer Ng’andu, the National Council of La Raza’s director of health and civil rights policy projects, coordinated the session and later told the Washington Blade that about 60 organizations were there from affiliate organizations.

“What I think is important is that affiliates from all across the country, including many different states from Louisiana to Delaware, from folks in Michigan to California came to convening,” Ng’andu said.

Ng’andu said the LGBT work this year follows up on the first-ever session on LGBT issues that was held at the NCLR conference last year. Although participants said no formal agreements were made, the general sense was that Latino activists voiced interest in advancing LGBT issues.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said support from the Latino community will be crucial as efforts continue to lobby undecided senators on ENDA ahead of the Senate vote expected this fall.

“Since the ‘cafecito’ LGBT discussion, several NCLR affiliates in key states have already reached out to Freedom to Work to offer their help and advocacy in convincing holdout ENDA senators to vote ‘yes,'” Almeida said. “We may work on letters to the editor, constituent emails and phone calls, lobby visits in the senators’ home states, and outreach to local Spanish-language media. It would be great if Sen. Bill Nelson read in Florida’s Spanish-language newspapers that Latino voters are calling him ‘poco claro y quizas indeciso’ around his upcoming ENDA vote.”

Several states with significant Latino populations — Arizona, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — are represented by senators who haven’t declared support for ENDA, but are seen as potential “yes” votes on the bill this fall.

Latino groups have been some of the most vocal advocates of workplace protections for LGBT people. In April 2012, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund was the first non-LGBT civil rights group to call for an executive order from President Obama barring workplace discrimination against LGBT workers. After the White House announced the order won’t happen at this time, NCLR was the first non-LGBT group to call on the administration to “revisit” the idea.

According to a 2011 study from the Movement Advancement Project, 80 percent of Latinos believe gay people often face discrimination, 83 percent support housing and employment non-discrimination protections and 74 percent support marriage or marriage-like legal recognition for gay couples.

Omar Narvaez, community educator in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office, said he spoke briefly about the wins on marriage equality at the Supreme Court, but also his organization’s pending marriage equality cases in Nevada, New Jersey and Illinois as well as plans for another case in Virginia.

“The mood of the room was very positive as the affiliate leaders in the room were mostly not LGBT folk and/or LGBT orgs, but strictly Latino orgs that were/are working to bring inclusive policies and work to their affiliates across the country,” Narvaez said. “The responses were very positive and many left wanting more information on specific issues facing their communities like workplace discrimination, police accountability, youth in schools, bullying and foster/adoption.”

Angela Dallara, a spokesperson for Freedom to Marry, acknowledged that her group participated in the closed-door session, but deferred to NCLR for more information.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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