Friday, February 22, 2008

Coming Out in the Sunshine

(My friend, Ethan Gray of shadesofgray, suggested I share my own coming out story after we exchanged some emails about his own coming out story this week. It's a topic that has been coming up lately besides the Thomas Roberts news machine. A close friend of mine is dating a Dominican guy who just came out of the closet and is struggling with his family about it. And last night at dinner with my friend Priya and two new friends, they asked me how I came out. So here's my story.)

"Mami, papi, I'm not sure if I like guys or girls,'' I blurted to my parents, in the hallway of our house outside their bedroom. I was 16 and I always felt close to my parents and that I could tell them anything and so, I did.

My mom covered her eyes and began to weep. My dad looked away, disappointment in his light brown eyes that silently yelled "Ay no..mi hijo no es gay!" I cried, a ball constricting in my throat. I felt like I let my parents down for the first time. I told them I was confused because there was a guy in my journalism class that I had a really bad crush on and I didn't know how to deal with this but I had liked girls too at one point.

After a few deep breaths, my mom came over and hugged me tightly and kissed me on my neck. My dad didn't know how to react.

My parents are old-school Cubans. My mother was the lady of the house, the homemaker who tried to solve everything while my dad was at work. My dad was the hardworking macho type, who observed more than talked but did his best for us by working 16 hour days. In the traditional Hispanic world, if a man is gay, he is often perceived as less of a man, un maricone, un pato. I could sense that my dad felt guilty, like he had failed me somehow by not being around as much. I could intuit that my mom felt just as guilty for always dragging me to Dadeland and Aventura mall with her, my sister and my aunt and female cousins in tow. I felt the most guilt, for shattering the image they had of their good son and the hopes they had for me (marriage, kids.)

I remember the tension was thick in the air and my mom said she and my dad would find a way to help me deal with this. So they found me a psychologist. That was their solution.

After days of extreme awkwardness in the Diaz household where I would pass my dad in the hallway or in the kitchen and he wouldn't utter a word to me, my parents sent me to a therapist in Hialeah, a nice woman who would sit back and just listen to me talk. She really didn't ask a lot of questions and I didn't feel any different after leaving her office. After a few weeks, my parents noticed I still wasn't the happy big-smiling Johnny I was before. For my school pictures that fall, I faked a smile and my dad saw right through it.

"That's not you! You're not happy!" he said in Spanish which only added another layer of pressure. They wanted to see the old Johnny and I couldn't seem to bring him back, no matter how many good grades I got in Trig or Honors English.

So they dropped this therapist and found me another one, who was highly recommended. Dr. Alvarez, an animated and insightful man who was also a college professor. Immediately, I felt comfortable and I also felt a Cuban connection with him. From the beginning, he said I don't have to define myself right away, just to enjoy being a teenager and high school because it only happens once. He described life as a play with different characters who come and go in our lives and with different acts that represent phases in our life. He assured me I would get through this and move onto the next act and that I would be a stronger person for it. He said "Don't be ashamed of who you are."

Each Thursday afternoon, I would sign out of Beach High and drive to West Hialeah for my session with him. (I don't know why my parents sent me to Hialeah. It's a hell of a commute from Miami Beach.) And each week, I felt my confidence rise and I felt comfortable with whom I was. I knew I was gay but I just wanted to enjoy my junior year and I didn't want to dwell on it too much.

At this point, I had saved enough to buy my own car, a sky-blue 1984 Honda Accord hatchback, I began interning at The Miami Herald in Beach Neighbors and worked part-time at The Gap as a stock boy. I became more active with school service groups and volunteered at marathons and arts festivals. I was my old self again. I felt good. I felt like me. A few months and several hundred miles later on my car, the doc thought I was where I should be. He called my parents to tell them he wanted to discontinue the sessions. Before I saw him for the last time, he told me what he had told them when he sat them down in his office.

"Does Johnny get bad grades?" he asked them.

"Ah, no, he gets Bs and As and he's in all honors,'' my mom and dad replied.

"Does Johnny do drugs?"

"Ah, no. He knows better. Besides, he had asthma when he was un nene,'' my mom answered.

"Does Johnny have bad friends, bad influences?"

"Ah no. He's had the same friends since kindergarten. Cristina, Kelly, Melissa, and some other girls.''

"Does Johnny goof off after school, is he in a gang?" the doc asked.

"Ah no, he just started working at The Miami Herald and The Gap. He just bought his first car,'' my dad answered.

"So...WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR SON? You should be thankful that he's such a good kid!" the doc said.

"We want to know that he's not gay, that he will be okay,'' my dad told him.

"But he will be okay. Let him be his own person. He will define himself in his own way and in his own time. If you pressure him, he has the capability of moving away after high school. Let him be. Johnny knows what he is and so do you. He's happy again. Let him be."

And so, that was it. My parents never brought it up again. They only asked me about my car, my Herald articles, my grades, the weather, and my friends, whom they knew. They backed off and let me be me and I have always loved them for that.

The only other time it came up after that was when I was 23 and I was seriously dating my first boyfriend, Dan. After taping the Real World Miami, Dan and I were commuting back and forth between Miami and New Brunswick so we could see each other. My parents were supportive of Dan and me and they got to know him through his broken Spanish and their broken English.

I remember one Thursday afternoon when I told Papi I was going to visit Dan again for another weekend in New Jersey, he gave me one of his, I'm-worried-about-you looks. He said in Spanish, "Yonito, I know what you are and I accept you. You are my son and I love you but you don't know New Jersey or New York that well and I want you to be very careful up there, ok."

I smiled at him and sat down at the edge of his bed. I held his hand and said "I know Papi. I know. Thank you.''

September 15, 2006 in Cuban Being