As a child of the 70s and 80s, my own coming of age story and admitting to myself (and others) who I truly was—a gay, Puerto Rican male from The Bronx—came at a pivotal moment in history as the LGBTQ community was becoming more accepted and mainstream. Well at least the Ls and Gs of that ever growing acronym were. The Trans community, not so much.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, from grammar school at St Anselm’s Catholic School where I attended from Head Start through 8th grade (ten years of my life from age 4 to 14) to Cardinal Spellman High School, I always knew I was different.
Since the age of four years old I knew I was not like the others boys growing up around me and many will argue that you can’t possibly know you’re gay at such a young age and that is true because I didn’t have the language to express it yet but I knew.
I knew I didn’t really like girls where little boys would often have crushes on members of the opposite sex, I found myself attracted to the same sex. It didn’t feel wrong.
That is, until I finally learned the language which described who I was.
Maricón. Pato. Faggot.
At a very early age I began to understand what those words meant for growing up Puerto Rican in the South Bronx, we always knew a neighborhood queer man (lesbians seemed more hidden and obscure in those days, at least to me) and even Trans women in the neighborhood or our own families.
Adults oftentimes didn’t think that children were listening as they’re playing with other kids (or they forget they did too when they were young) but we did.
Conversations over domino games while slamming down on the table and yelling ¡CAPICÚ! you would here the occasional, “ese es un maricón” or “pato”. If you were in a park or with other kids then the word was faggot.
Barely in first grade, I was already familiar with the word and what it meant.
At such a young age, I went through an existential crisis that lasted well into my college years at Iona in New Rochelle (yes, another Catholic school).
Every waking moment I was aware of who I was but terrified for others to find out because I didn’t want to be ridiculed or ostracized.
I saw how the few, effeminate boys were treated by all the other kids both boys and girls so quickly learned to blend in and “pass” as best as I could.
During my years at St Anselm’s, I did receive a number of taunts and name calling but they were very rare and I was easily able to ride out the storm at any given moment by laughing along and joking about it to deflect it and not show that it bothered me.
By the time we were approaching our teen years and developing relationships, I had my share of crushes on some of the other boys. Crushes that I had to keep to myself with no one else I could share them with like the other straight kids did—lest my dark secret be revealed.
Even though I attended Catholic school all my life, I saw compassion in the eyes of the teachers and even nuns who witnessed the taunting of gay children. If present, they were quick to reprimand the offender and even washed out their mouth with soap for all to see.
In retrospect, although clearly a cruel form of punishment, it gave some of us gay kids some comfort.
When I reached high school, I went from a small, Catholic school where we knew everyone in our grade, our teachers, and staff to the largest Catholic school in New York City and the archdiocese. Nationally, it’s in the top 100 largest schools and when I entered my freshman year in 1989, I was joined by 5 of my fellow St Anselm’s classmates (out of roughly 50) and thrown in with almost 700 freshman in what then was the largest incoming class in the school’s history.
I found myself excited but at the same time terrified that I had to not just carve out a new life in such a huge and imposing institution, but that also meant I had to go through the rituals of pretending I was straight.
I survived high school, relatively unscathed but the emotional and mental toll on leading a double life was mounting.
At the time, Cardinal Spellman was the only school in New York City that had a full-time psychologist on staff due to the intense pressures we faced as being one of the top high schools in the city, state, and nation.
Where other schools had regents classes as optional, all of our classes were regents, geared towards over 95% of students graduating with a Regents diploma—the top of its kind in the state.
A lot of this led to many anxieties, especially with the incoming classes but on the first day we were always told of where his door was and that all you had to do was knock to see him.
His office was in a relatively low trafficked area of the school so sneaking in without others seeing you was easy.
My freshman year I found myself having panic attacks and throughout my years there, I sought refuge from the stress of performing well as well as my sexual orientation.
I never spoke about it to him out of fear my parents would be contacted but it helped me at an early age, in a borough like The Bronx with many suffering from mental illness, that it was OK to seek help and counseling.
Besides the psychiatrist, there were other faculty members and even members of the cloth who we knew, through unspoken terms, that they were either also a member of the silent LGBTQ community or an ally.
There was an air of relaxation when I spent time in these safe spaces within a Catholic high school as immense as Spellman during my free or lunch periods.
By the time I graduated in 1993, I had somewhat cemented my faux heterosexuality with a few flings and romances but by then I knew that I was gay and had already had many sexual experiences with other gay males.
Some of them much older, others my peers.
My heart and soul was gay but I couldn’t show the world.
All of this was happening with The Bronx as a backdrop during the worst of its years as our borough fell deeper into decay and crime was at levels unimaginable to people today who never lived it.
During my freshman and sophomore years in 1990, 653 people were killed in The Bronx alone. Assaults were also at an all time high.
New York City was in utter chaos.
It was that chaos that kept me fearful for being spotted in the streets by roving gangs just looking for trouble (yes, there were roving gangs of other kids always looking for their next victim).
So I always traveled in groups which meant I couldn’t let my true gay self peek through even for a little bit on my daily trek to and from school from my home in Melrose in the South Bronx to Spellman up in Baychester near the Westchester County/NYC boarder.
Although LGBTQ people still face discrimination, back in the 80s and 90s there was absolutely no way to be as out as you wanted to be in the outer boroughs.
We didn’t have safe spaces for LGBTQ teens in The Bronx, at least any that I was aware of and traveling to Manhattan’s gay meccas beckoning with their well-known reputations as gay neighborhoods, meant that even trips to The Village and Chelsea were risqué because back then, “only gays” would hang out there.
Fall of ’93 brought new hope—I was finally an adult and somewhat independent as I entered my freshman year at Iona College and driving to school afforded me even bigger opportunities to seek out others like me.
By my sophomore year in college, I was already more comfortable with my sexuality as a gay man. I no longer cared much if people knew I was gay.
By my junior year in 1995, I was already out to some friends and even my beloved aunt and with each coming out to yet another member of my realm, a weight was lifted, a shackle unlocked.
I began to feel more liberated and comfortable in my own skin and spent all my waking hours on campus or cruising known gay hangouts in Orchard Beach, Van Courtlandt Park and the rest stops of Westchester County.
When I stumbled upon my first gay cruising ground in The Bronx, I was in absolute awe.
Here were men, gay men, having conversations in the open. In The Bronx.
Terror and fascination gripped me as I dipped my toes in the forbidden zone of being seen with other gay men on my home turf of The Bronx.
It was too close to home, too close to my parents.
But into those waters I dove.
I no longer cared to be found out as I relished living a life less and less dualistic and more ME.
The purity of living my life according to my script with the edits by life and its uncertainties was too alluring.
During one of my early visits to “Gay” Orchard Beach, I met many interesting characters, but there was one in particular, who until this day, remains forever nestled in my heart and soul.
We affectionately referred to him as “La Tía”, The aunt.
He whispered to a friend as they both sat on a rock watching me make my way into Hunter’s Island at Orchard wondering who I was, this new addition to the secret club on the Long Island sound.
At that time, I rarely struck conversations with the men—these were places for sex mostly, not for talking—so I was shocked when he spoke to me.
That moment was one of the most important points in my life at the time and now that I look at it, where I am today, I arrived because of those first words.
Once I was comfortable enough with speaking to him, he began asking where I would go to dance, what places I frequented in Chelsea and he was simply aghast in the only way La Tía could, when I said I didn’t.
Quickly, like a den mother, he began rattling off all the places that I needed to go to, providing addresses and even giving me notes (because this was long before cell phones and email was widely accessible to everyone.
Eventually we became one friends,family even, and we would explore the city together and he always encouraged me to be me to be free.
He introduced me to Andrew Holleran’s ‘Dancer From the Dance’ which should be required reading for gay men, among other things queer.
He had become my lighthouse in the confusing ocean of what it meant to be a gay man in those years in the 90s but more importantly, that there were many others like me from even my own neighborhood that escaped to these places.
We didn’t have positive, relatable characters on TV or film. Gay men were strictly portrayed as mockeries of themselves so he was a wealth of knowledge and inspiration of the past and present.
He was my first, real, gay friend. A true friend in every sense of the words.
Throughout the decades that followed, he was ever present for my happiest of moments with lovers or just losing ourselves under the disco ball at The Roxy or Twilo with thousands of other gay men dancing in rapture to the being my pillar when faced with the ending of love interest or worse: When I was the victim of domestic violence.
He opened many doors for me and like many others in my life, I owe a lot to him for who and where I stand today.
He was there when I came out to my mother which was one of the most difficult moments for me.
I could no longer hide who I was. I was careless with what I left behind in my room, easily visible to those who looked.
For a long time my mother knew my reality but I denied it and each lie to her destroyed me more and more.
Keeping the double life from those closest to me was ripping me apart.
You cannot fathom what it is like to lead that double life for so long, the web of lies you lay down to cover your tracks.
Then Ellen happened. She came out of the closet in an historic moment in television history. That courageous moment to gamble your entire career was inspiring. What else did I have to lose if Ellen DeGeneres risked it all?
Finally, one summer afternoon while I was in the kitchen making a strawberry smoothie, my mom asked some probing questions and I kept answering pretty sarcastically until I snapped and yelled, “I’M ONE OF THEM! I HANG OUT WITH THEM BECAUSE I AM ONE OF THEM!”
I remember mom asking with dread in her eyes what was it that I was, and I yelled back, “I’M GAY MOM, GAY!”
In that singular moment, what was left of my facade had crumbled with barely anything left.
I felt relieved and yet dreaded for what was left to come. My father.
Deep down I always knew that they would love me, their only son, no matter what.
And love they did. It was a difficult journey for them as well and a journey sometimes we shared but most of the time I kept that part of my life away from them.
Sure I was finally an openly gay man and never again did I hide it but it wasn’t until really the past 10 years that I became more comfortable with sharing my full life with them including my love interests and friends.
This past summer in June for pride month, I was formally recognized by New York City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for my commitment and activism for our LGBTQ community and received an official proclamation too.
19 years ago when I came out of closet, I never thought my life would lead me to that point—to be at City Hall being honored for that very life I kept hidden during my youth.
When I got up to accept my proclamation, I stared into the crowd and watched my parents who came to the event.
In an instant, I was transported back to the day I came out and remembering my journey as a kid trying to live his life.
The two people I loved the most and were the ones I dreaded coming out to were sitting there smiling and proud of me.
Never would I imagine that I would share such a special moment with them and I choked up and couldn’t fight back the tears of happiness.
Throughout the years since coming out, my parents showered me with unconditional love but that moment to me was perhaps one of the most important in my life so far for they celebrated publicly me in my entirety as a gay man.
Looking back across the gulf of time, I realize that coming out isn’t something that happens in an instant, at least for me and many others, but it can be a long, drawn out process.
I was fortunate enough to have an amazing support network who stood by my side as well as parents who stayed by my side.
To my dear, queer LGBTQ youth and otherwise who are in the shadows, hiding from your truths and afraid to come out, know that you are not alone.
We are here to help you or listen but most importantly, you come out when it’s the right moment for you. Only you can decide that.
I’m not gonna lie and tell you that coming out is easy or when or how you should do it because each experience, like all of us, is unique.
It is my hope that one day soon we can provide a safe space and our own Bronx LGBTQ center to help you on your respective journies.
My love to all the courageous LGBTQ people who have come out and to those who are still in the closet: You are stronger and braver than you think.