by Luis Penate
I am an openly gay high school senior at Los Angeles Leadership Academy. I have been openly gay at school since eighth grade. At school I am Luis, or Lupi, a social justice activist on student council. At home I have always been Gerardo — my middle name. Gerardo is a fake, a charlatan, closeting his true self from his conservative, church-going Latino parents.
Every morning before the election I would be driven to the metro station by my father. I would wait until he was out of sight and then I would pull my “NO on Prop 8” bumper sticker out of my backpack and slip it proudly under the plastic cover. “Vote NO on Prop 8, Equality For All” it read. Next to it other stickers read “Hope”, “Change” and “Obama ’08.”
Walking home I waited until I got a few houses away to take the bumper sticker off of my binder and put it deep into my backpack. Every day I would go in the front door and run into my room to put the bumper sticker deep into my bottom drawer inside my physical closet. I walked out of my room to be greeted by my mother’s warm hug. Her hug felt fake to me. She wasn’t hugging me, she was hugging the straight boy she thought I was.
When I came out to my friends and to my schoolmates when I was in eighth grade, I was thirteen going on fourteen. It was coming out or suicide. I couldn’t go on living with who I was pretending to be; it’s like living with your worst enemy, except you share one body. The only option was to make him disappear, if only for those precious eight hours a day I spent in school. I couldn’t be gay at home or out in the street, not if I wanted to be safe. School was an oasis. I breathed for those eight hours, I WAS for those eight hours.
In February of 2008 I heard my twelve year-old sister say to one of her friends over the phone “ He took you’re your phone away? That is so gay!” I heard her call a teary little boy on the street a sissy and fag. “That’s so gay” was stuck in my mind. She was twelve years-old and it was socially acceptable to make those remarks. I sat her down and told her that her brother was a fag. She cried and hugged me. That happened on Valentine’s Day. In May, when same-sex marriage became legal in the State of California, I was thrilled and considered coming out to my parents — until I heard my mother say she felt sorry for the parents of those people. She didn’t know she was one of them. I didn’t tell them that day, rationalizing that it would be a long time before I would consider getting married.
As soon as gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court of California many religious groups with too much time on their hands began to fight it. And so I began to campaign against a law that would allow a majority to dictate what was right and wrong to a minority. I studied the U.S. Constitution, written to protect a minority against the impositions of a majority. Wasn’t that the reason we escaped and became independent from England? Doesn’t the United States of America honor the separation between church and state?
Election time came and I had neglected my fight against Prop H8 in trying to help Barack Obama become President. But I was jolted into reality when I heard my mother say “I think I’ll vote yes on Prop 8.” I was horrified.
“You can’t do that… That will take away the essential rights of human beings. It will create second class citizens and send the message that some people are better than others. It’s like racism, you know how that feels.” I thought at least she would respond against discrimination. “I don’t want then to teach that kind of stuff to little children.” She had fallen for the lies, and no matter how hard I argued she wouldn’t budge.
I went into my room and locked myself inside. I knew I had to do all I could to prevent my own mother from stripping me of my civil rights, but I had been afraid of telling her I was gay my entire life. Tears ran onto my cheeks. “One vote could change it all,” I thought to myself. “Even if it didn’t, this vote is important to me.”
I cried for ten minutes, trying to decide whether to risk the love of my parents for one negligible vote. The love wasn’t real anyway, they didn’t love me; they loved their idea of me. Still, it was comforting and wonderful and I didn’t want it to evaporate into thin air. I walked toward my door many times, but sank back into my bed. I called my closest friend, Margarita Lopez, who had always supported me.
“I need to do it, I need to come out. I need to prevent my mother from voting yes on prop H8.”
“Do it because you feel it’s time, and you want to do it for you.” She had always been the voice of reason. She wished me good luck and we hung up. I was alone in my room. I had planned to walk out of this same room so many times to come out, but so many times I had failed. I went into my closet and withdrew my precious bumper sticker.
It took all the strength I had to leave my room. I walked toward the kitchen, my legs shook and felt as thought the bones had been pulverized and all that was left was muscle and fat. I saw my mother cooking something. My dad was watching a soccer game in the living room and my sister was working on her homework in her own room. My mother had her back toward me, she heard my soft sobs and turned to look at me.
“Why are you crying?” she asked. I said “You are going to vote yes on something that affects me. You are hurting me.” She looked at me, confusion in her eyes.
“How? How does it affect you?”
“It affects me… me… because I’m gay.” It was out! It had been five years since I had accepted it myself, four years since I had told a human being and now I had told my mom.
“What did you say?” she began to cry herself.
“I’m gay, mom.” I said. She stared into my eyes and hugged me like she had never done before, she was hugging me. ME.
I told her I had known for many years, but I was afraid to tell her because I didn’t want to lose her. I told her how everyone at school knew. How I had finally felt alive being me. At first she was angry. She was angry because I had gone through the pain all alone, in silence, without the people who were there to protect and love me. She realized that things like Prop H8 only alienated teens from their parents when they need them most. That isn’t protection of children.
“We need to tell your dad.” She said. “Let’s go.” I uttered.
We walked over to the living room. I dreaded telling my father. She turned the television set off, the image died and the screen went black. “Your son has something to tell you.”
“Dad. I love you and I hope you love me…”
“What’s going on.” He was worried, I could see it on his eyes.“I’m gay.” I said. The words escaped from my mouth and filled the stale air.
He didn’t say anything. He signaled me to sit on the floor next to him. I did as I was told. He hugged me tightly with both arms and said: “I don’t care. You are my child and I will always love you, no matter what.”
I had been wrong, what had been my worst nightmare had come true and I was still alive and my parents still loved me. My mother told him how long I had known and that I had gone through it alone. They made me swear to tell them everything from that moment on. They said we were family, and families stick together.
“How do you know your gay?” they asked.
I thought about it. It was all I had known, I had no other basis of comparison. I told them when I was little I wanted to hold another boy’s hand and that had grown to wanting to kiss a boy. I wanted a boy to put his arm around me and talk to me. To tell me that he loved me. I wanted the chance to tell him that I loved him too. I want to grow old with this boy and start a family. I also assured them that I would save those plans until many years after I graduated from college. After all I need to learn how to love Luis first.
I was born in Central America, raised by a family of devout Catholics. I was not the child of a violent, abusive or a broken home. There were plenty of strong male figures. There was no child molestation, no absence of God in my formative years. Than why am I gay? I don’t know. But it’s not a choice. And I’m not going to hide any more. I may not be as brave and as affecting as Harvey Milk, but I did take me and my bumper sticker out of the closet. Like my bumper sticker I shine, because I know that I am loved by many people. Every person deserves to feel that. Prop H8 passed, but my mother and my grandmother, a devout Christian, voted NO. Times are changing.