Lydia Otero shares experiences that gave them Pride

Lydia Otero

Lydia Otero, behind the cake, celebrates their fourth birthday on Valentine’s Day 1959. Photos: Provided by Lydia Otero

(For LGBTQ Pride Month, Q Voice News features a series of interviews and first person essays under the theme What Pride Means to Me. This essay is from author-activist Lydia Otero. Q Voice News launched the series in 2019. Check out previous essays on What Pride Means to Me.)

I need to revisit my childhood and provide context before attaching personal meanings to the issue of Pride.

I was born to a Mexican American family in Tucson, Arizona, on Valentine’s Day in 1955. I knew I was queer the moment my consciousness had evolved enough to formulate thoughts.

My family saw it, too. Even before I entered the first grade, my older brother had nicknamed me “La Butch.”

My mother Chita loved celebrating Valentine’s Day. She forced me to wear red dresses adorned with lace and blow out candles on cakes in the shape of a heart.

I grew to hate my birthday.

When Chita would say, “You are so lucky to be born on the day we celebrate love,” I loathed Valentine’s Day even more.

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Challenging gender roles

I knew that the world I lived in, and that insisted on forcing two gender categories on children. “Girls” or “boys” used my birthday to celebrate gender conformity and heteronormativity. 

Despite presents and piñatas, before reaching 10 years old, I began to refuse to attend my own birthday parties. 

In the 1960s, the idea of a child having agency, or choice as it pertained to gender, was unfathomable. When I was 6, Disney programming introduced me to Pinocchio. The puppet’s story offered me a dose of possibility that resonated with me. 


Pinocchio’s nose grew when he told a lie, a message I had already bought into because I valued honesty at an early age. Beyond that storyline, the wooden puppet Pinocchio wished hard to transform into a human, and become a “real” boy. One day, he woke up and everyone around him celebrated that he had become a boy. I loved that story. Each night, I prayed for a miracle that I, too, would wake up a boy in the morning. 

Unlike Pinocchio, there were no easy solutions, and I could not escape the gender realities that surrounded me. I picked up on my mother’s embarrassment when asked why I did not wear dresses, why I did not comb my hair, or why I did not look like a “girl.” The public school dress code in Tucson mandated that “girls” wear skirts or dresses, and I wore dresses until I graduated high school. 

Those who perceived me as disrupting society’s idealized female-male mandates, or what we now refer to as binary paradigms, took it upon themselves to uphold traditional gender roles by shaming and undermining me. Teachers sit at the top of the list, even one who looked more uncomfortable in her dress than I did in mine.

Chita knew, just like I did, that after high school, I needed to leave Tucson to find more options for expressing my queer self and finding others like me. At that point, I considered the act of moving away to start a new life as a sign that I had overcome the shame and angst I felt growing up. I was wrong. A deep depression followed me for the next four years.

Lydia Otero

In 1983, Lydia Otero became a part of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos. What impressed them most about the group was that they had forged a close relationship with the United Farm Workers. César Chávez had written an open letter of support to the group, and Dolores Huerta had marched with the organization in the LA Pride Parade.

Moving to LA

In 1978, I mustered the courage to move to Los Angeles with renewed resolve to love and enjoy my life. I had just turned 23 years old and knew from experience that I could not separate my brown self from my queer self. These interlocking pieces formed the core of my being. 

I knew white gays and lesbians had organized a movement, but I never felt part of it. I started attending the Lesbians of Color group that had recently formed. For the first time in my life, I felt connected and engaged in meaningful discussions about race and solidarity with queers of color. 

In 1983, I became a part of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos. What impressed me most about the group was that they had forged a close relationship with the United Farm Workers. César Chávez had written an open letter of support to the group, and Dolores Huerta had marched with the organization in the LA Pride Parade. I recognize both Lesbians of Color and Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos as being on the vanguard in the 1980s, where people of color actively carved out spaces for themselves, building new networks and communities in Los Angeles. 

What Pride means

I cringe less nowadays when I see the Valentine’s Day displays go up in stores at the beginning of each new year. Queers openly celebrating their love on Valentine’s Day warms my heart. As I reflect on “What Pride Means to Me,” transgressive acts such as queers reframing the meanings associated with a holiday that was not meant for them but making it theirs stands as a meaningful example to me. 

But I feel the most Pride at feminist-inspired events that recognize the efforts and presence of queers of color. Growing up isolated and alienated in the 1960s, it is hard to eclipse the empowering feelings I felt when I shared spaces and organized with like-minded queers that looked like me. 

Moving to L.A. saved my life. It makes me proud to know that at one time groups such as Lesbians of Color and Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos not only existed, but also thrived. It also makes me proud to witness a younger generation of queers’ investment in recovering a history that I had a role in making. The recent 2022 exhibition by ONE Archives Foundation that highlighted Radio GLLU, the first bilingual LGBTQ+ radio program in the nation that aired between the mid-1980s and the 1990s, stands as an example. Another is the documentary, “Unidad: Gay & Lesbian Latinos Unidos” scheduled to air on PBS this month that will showcase Latine queers organizing to serve community needs. 

At its core, to me, Pride means that through building alliances and struggle we continue to strive to create a world that allows us the freedom to safely embrace ourselves fully as queer, trans and nonbinary people of color. 

But it also means having a history and building upon it to make the world better for all of us.

About the author

Lydia Otero

Lydia R. Otero (they/them) is a historian and vintage disco enthusiast. In 2019, Arizona’s César E. Chávez Holiday Coalition awarded them the Dolores Huerta Legacy Award for their activism and scholarship. Their newest book, “L.A. Interchanges: A Brown & Queer Memoir,” follows Otero’s journey in Los Angeles’ organizing spaces in search of brown and queer belonging.

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