How Laura M. Esquivel helped defeat the national same-sex marriage ban

Laura Esquivel
Laura Esquivel Photo: GLLU

In 2006, as Republicans were trying to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) – which would have banned marriage equality in the U.S. – LGBTQ+ and Latina activist Laura M. Esquivel was in Congress, helping Latino lawmakers understand the bill and why they should oppose it.

Esquivel at that point was no stranger to activism. Often called “La madre of the Latino LGBT Movement,” she joined the Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU) in Los Angeles and became its first lesbian president. She marched with labor rights leader Cesar Chavez in the ’80s, and co-founded the first national Latino LGBTQ+ organization, the National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGÓ, the word for “arrived” in Spanish).

Born in Los Angeles, Esquivel moved to D.C. to work with LLEGÓ in 1987 and, over a decade later, was fighting against the FMA. She said that the coalition of progressive organizations working against the FMA “couldn’t get support from Latino legislators” who “thought it was not a Latino issue,” according to Color Magazine. So she stepped in and started lobbying them.

“The Latino members of Congress understandably asked me to prove that it was an issue Latinos cared about before they would consider weighing in,” she later said, noting that she was often the “first person to meet with them on these issues who wasn’t white.”

Political strategist Robert Raben said of her at the time, “Laura has a rare gift: she can move people with equal parts passion, borne of activism, and pure smarts, borne of raw intelligence and political savvy. I’ve watched her do what people said could not be done in our movement; getting diverse interests to agree to support equality for us.”

LLEGÓ was able to get the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda — whose board the group had a seat on — to issue a statement opposing the FMA. Esquivel used the statement to show that LGBTQ+ rights weren’t something that only Anglo LGBTQ+ people were concerned about.

In part because of her efforts, more than half of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus came out publicly against the FMA and asked then-President George W. Bush to veto it.

“What the gay and progressive communities did not understand was that Latinos are, and always have been, low-hanging fruit on this issue,” she said. “All that is needed are the right messages and the right messengers, and of course, that can’t happen if you don’t know the community.”

After that, she worked with what was then known as the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (now the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund) as their senior vice president of political affairs. A savvy political strategist, Esquivel has worked with five presidential campaigns to engage Latino voters.

At the Victory Fund, she pushed for polling of Latino voters in an effort to debunk the myth that Latino people are too macho or traditional to support LGBTQ+ people’s rights. She said that the polling found “a message we tested that worked really well. ‘For us, it’s family first. We don’t throw out our kids.’”

“It is a radically changed landscape since the strategic targeting of Latino opinions on this issue,” she later said. “Many national and local organizations have an openly gay leadership, staff or programming. And they are nearly all supportive of LGBT equality. This is light years away from where we were in 2003. I can’t claim responsibility for all that. But I know I played a small role in getting Latinos to understand that gay issues are also Latino issues.”

Esquivel hasn’t stopped working to improve the world, or herself. Since her work to stop the FMA, she has gotten a masters in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

She was also hired to create a campaign to get Lou Dobbs off CNN due to his extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric. Dobbs was the only CNN host who spread the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. He appeared at a conference hosted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and several campaigns to get him off the air were launched.

Esquivel worked with advertisers to get them to understand that Latino viewers weren’t watching Dobbs. After the concerted efforts of several organizations, Dobbs resigned from CNN.

“That’s what I do, create coalition in leveraging in a way it hasn’t been done before,” she said.

She currently works with Earthjustice, an environmental legal organization.

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