LAS VEGAS -- When David Damien Figueroa took his turn at a microphone near the front of an airplane hanger-sized hotel exhibition hall Sunday, he shared a short, unvarnished version of his life.
"I am the first openly gay vice president of MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense Fund], the legal voice for Latino civil rights," said Figueroa, who paused and smiled broadly as a nearby group of about 40 gay and straight civil rights advocates and onlookers applauded. Most had come to the hotel for more sedate workshops and strategy sessions coordinated by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Latino civil rights organization, as part of its annual convention.
In its simplicity, Figueroa's story pointed to the at-times-complicated and, until this year, often less-than-full support for matters of LGBT equality demonstrated by some of the nation’s most influential civil rights organizations and also, some public opinion analysts say, by Latino families.
In the weeks since President Barack Obama detailed his personal evolution on the issue of gay marriage in a May ABC News interview, a series of national polls indicate that a slight majorty of Americans have also come to support same-sex marriage. By June, members of the NAACP's executive board had approved a resolution making support for gay marriage a part of the organization’s platform. NCLR, the League of Latin American Citizens and other Latino civil rights, labor and trade organizations soon followed. Despite some dissention in the ranks, executives inside several national organizations dominated by people of color have, in recent months, identified same-sex marriage as a part of their 21st century civil-rights agenda.
The groups' endorsements challenge prevailing notions that communities of color are strongholds of opposition in the marriage rights war, Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogués, president of Dignity USA, told a group of mostly Latino activists gathered in another section of the same Las Vegas hotel Sunday. Dignity USA is a Boston-based organization of gay and lesbian Catholics.
Latino disdain for same-sex marriage and other legal protections for gay individuals has also been overstated, she said.
"The data shows much higher levels of support for gay marriage in the Latino community than assumed and often reported,” Rodriguez-Nogués said. “I think what we are seeing is an issue and a conversation that needs a little more light and air."
In fact, Latinos are slightly more likely than the general public to support legalizing gay marriage and strongly endorse hate crimes protections and civil union options for homosexual couples, according to an April poll released by NCLR and the public opinion research company Social Science Research Solutions.
Before issuing the report, “LGBT Acceptance and Support: The Hispanic Perspective,” researchers surveyed 1,001 Latinos ages 18 and older in early 2011. About 54 percent of Latinos indicated that they support same-sex marriage. A May Gallup poll found that 53 percent of the general population supports legalized gay marriage.
“I have also done quite a bit of Jewish demographic research,” said David Dutwin, a vice president at Social Science Research who oversaw the study. “And there is a saying in that world that Jews are just like everyone else, only more so. Well, what we found here is that Latinos are not like everyone else on gay rights and acceptance issues at all.”
In fact, while in the general population support for gay marriage is highest among those who identify as liberals or Democrats, the same is not true among Latinos, the study found. Nearly 40 percent of self-identified Latino Republicans support legalized same-sex marriage, according to the study. Just 23 percent of Hispanic self-identified Democrats said the same.
The April study also found that Latinos with lower "acculturation scores" -- a composite measure of the extent to which they operate in Spanish, when they or their families arrived in the United States -- and those who indicated deep support for a ban on abortion or membership in a born-again evangelical church, were less likely to support gay rights.
Back inside the expo center as Figueroa, MALDEF's vice president, spoke, a booth offering attendees the opportunity to pose for a personal photo with a life-sized cut-out of Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney drew the largest crowds. A hybrid car and an organic-vs.-non-organic vegetable taste-test stand also competed for attention. Undeterred, Figueroa pointed out three nearby colleagues who, like him, are openly gay with co-workers in the office and with their extended families at home.
“Yes, we are just all the way out there,” Figueroa said, throwing his hands toward the hotel expo center's ceiling.
As Figueroa and other representatives for 21 Latino civil rights, labor and trade organizations lined up to demonstrate their support for a related new public education campaign, "Familia es Familia," four people -- a man, woman and two children -- stopped to listen.
Then, they quickly moved away.
"Oh no, we're going," the woman said, in Spanish. "I don't need to hear this."
Familia es Familia is a public education initiative that aims to decrease the social stigma around homosexuality inside of Latino families.