What do you do when your son tells you, “Mami, I’m gay”?
For a trio of Latino authors – Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Justin Torres and Roberto Santiago – the experience of coming out to their families done through the written word. Their work has created a way for young Hispanics to begin the conversation about coming out in a culture that can at times reinforce stereotypical attitudes about sexuality.
“I came out to my mother 4 times,” said Rice-Gonzalez, who grew up in the rough Hunts-Point neighborhood in the Bronx. The half-Puerto Rican, half black author explained his mother was in denial about his sexuality every time he approached the subject.
“When I did come out to my mom, she would get depressed, and then forget I ever came out to her . . . and if it wasn’t that, she’d say ‘I’m happy if you’re happy,’ never once telling me that it was ok to be gay,” Rice-Gonzalez recalled. “In every other part of my life my mom was always supportive, but because our culture is so hetrosexualized, I think she never understood how embracing my whole self was important.”
The experience of coming out wasn’t much easier for Roberto Santiago, a 28-year-old poet who has had more than 20 addresses to date.
“I was literally kicked out of the house when I came out as a gay teen,” said Santiago.
Santiago says that literature has helped him find his voice and inner strength. “I write because I want to make people realize that that I can do everything I want despite being this gay person that you probably see as a stereotype,” he explains.
The Struggle for Identity
Latino culture’s rigid gender roles and preoccupation with masculinity doesn’t make coming out easy, says Rice-Gonzalez. “It was so hard, but so important to my survival and well-being. The process started with me because I had to feel strong in my skin and had to feel proud of who I was.”
“There are so many conflicting messages you get as a kid in our culture, from your family, media, your friends, community,” said Charles Rice-Gonzalez, whose book “Chulito,” paints a compelling portrait of a young urban teen who finds love in his colorful South Bronx neighborhood. “Coming out to my mother was such a struggle in a household where my sexuality went beyond gender and straight to my identity as a Puerto Rican.”
Acceptance shouldn’t be taken for granted, says Santiago, whose poetry wrestles with themes of Hispanic identity set against gritty urban landscapes. Santiago came out to his mom at the age of 16 via a handwritten letter, an experience which he said literally left her without the words which sustain his craft today.
“After she read my letter, she put it in a drawer and didn’t talk about it. The next day she gave me a hug, not saying anything at all,” recalled Santiago of the experience. “My dad didn’t say anything either. There was so much silence I didn’t know what to do about it, which lead me to leave the house more often – which eventually lead to her kicking me out of frustration.”
“I Know the Strength and Power of Family”
The experience of coming out is a practice that isn’t typically part of Hispanic discourse and the emphasis on family in Latino culture can complicate things , says Professor Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, who teaches literature at the University of Michigan, directs its Latina/o studies program, and is a gay performance artist.
“Latinos can deal with coming out in a variety of ways, and sometimes not addressing their sexuality is what allows certain individuals to maintain good relationships with their family, especially when they depend on those relationships in their daily lives,” says Fountain-Stokes. “Those relationships would be compromised if there was an insistence on speaking explicitly about sexuality.”
It’s taken years for Santiago to rebuild his relationship with his parents after coming out, largely because dialogue around his sexuality was discouraged.
“I grew up in a house where my dad did all the work and my mom did all the talking and punishing, says Santiago. “We’re in a good place but it’s only now that I know the strength and power of family. I didn’t expect that after being the little boy who was looking for a couch to crash on the night I was kicked out.”
Breaking Down Barriers in Literature and at Home
Rice-Gonzalez, Santiago and Torres are part of a movement of Latino pioneers who are delving into topics that were once taboo both at home and in the arts. The challenge, says La Fountain-Stokes, is to now support the movement their art represents.
And how can Latino families be more supportive when their child says “I’m gay”?
Open, positive conversation at home and within the community is key, says Rice-Gonzalez. “We need to start from a place where we think about the kids, where we look at our daughters and sons and ask ourselves ‘How can I support you?’”
La Fountain-Stokes agrees, adding that that access to trained professionals who can hold educational events and support open conversations within the home are needed to “integrate a vision of sexual difference, recognition, tolerance and acceptance.”
Latino authors make a compelling case for creating fiction as a way to encourage dialogue about being gay within the Hispanic community.
“Fiction makes complete sense as a way to understand the world that I experienced,” says Rice-Gonzalez. “I didn’t necessarily set out to write a larger story, but the idea of valuing people and embracing individuality inspires me. Above all, love is the constant that can change our culture’s narrative.”