I’m a son of immigrants, and a gay man who grew up in Orlando in the ’80s and ’90s. My earliest visits to gay clubs in the city were clandestine operations, and let me tell you, it is difficult to be undercover-gay while dressing appropriately for a night out with the boys. On a trip to Parliament House or the gay night at Firestone, I’d be petrified that one of my friends from church or my Christian school might recognize me, and word would somehow filter back to my family. It seemed fortunate that the clubs I visited were, for the most part, cloistered away from the party district downtown where my straight friends might be dancing. I’ve never been to Pulse, which opened years after I moved away from Orlando, but even at my most closeted moment, I might have risked dressing for the disco on that tucked-away corner of South Orange Ave.
My gay friends from that time and place in my life have similar stories—we’re children of immigrants, once closeted and fearful of how our families would react when they found out. I can’t stop thinking about the possibility that someone like us was hurt or murdered at Pulse on Sunday morning, outed in the very worst way, in a phone call every family dreads. For some parents, such a call would be a double heartbreak.
I have no idea whether it happened, but the mere potential that it might is wrenching. A New York Times story about the 49 people who died on Sunday tells the story of one young man whose parents in Mexico don’t know about his boyfriend of roughly three years. He escaped the massacre, but his boyfriend did not.
I have many queer friends whose American roots are generations deep, but who struggled as much as my friends and I did to reveal themselves to their families. Yet I’ve found this experience most common among those friends of mine who were also born to immigrants. This video captures it well:
My own parents were the very last people in my life I was out to, years after I’d been out to friends and colleagues. I didn’t know how they’d react to the fact of my sexuality, and among my friends, there was often impatience with that uncertainty. If they’re good parents, these friends would say, they will love you without conditions and without hesitation.
But this reaction was rare among those of us who grew up, like me, knowing that our parents left their homes and settled here mainly in pursuit of visions of what their children’s lives would be. They had imagined their sons as men with wives, and their daughters as women with husbands, and cultivated these visions throughout our adolescence and beyond. Some of our parents had tended to these visions so zealously that they missed all the signs that these weren’t, in fact, the people we’d become. When we came out, they were forced both to reckon with these people they no longer recognized and mourn the visions of us they had nurtured all those years.
It would be so easy to meet that reaction with anger. One of the more insidious aspects of this weekend’s tragedy was that it offered so many footholds for recrimination. Pick a flashpoint—gun rights, sexuality, ethnicity, immigration, religion—and you could extend blame far beyond the killer, in so many directions. There’s certainly blame enough for those who fail to be the perfect, most supportive parents, who react to the news of their child’s sexuality with anything but welcome and assurance.
At the heart of those imperfect reactions, though, is often a fierce love. To be an immigrant parent is also often to worry that you’ve brought your children to a place where they may suffer, where you might lose them, where they might come to harm at the hands of hateful others.
I worried for myself, in fact, living in constant awareness of the risks of being a gay man of color. I was living two hours from Orlando in Tampa Bay in 2003 when I took my first HIV test. Having lost loved ones to the virus, I was convinced I’d be next. I tested negative, but another peril quickly emerged: Men began disappearing in Tampa, having been last seen at gay clubs in the area. I was terrified. When I went on dates, I’d leave the details of the meeting open in a saved document on my computer at home, in case it could help the police follow my trail. Just last Thursday, in Tampa, a man was sentenced to life in prison for the grisly murders of those men.
I lived, of course, and if my story ended today, it would end happily. Every week when we talk, my parents express their love for me and my partner of nearly nine years. If I had any part in that outcome, it’s that I called on every reserve of empathy I had when it was time to let them in on the truth of my life. I am so grateful for the time we had to refashion their dreams for me around the person that I am. If, years ago, the actions of some hateful man had forced my parents to suddenly mourn two versions of me at once, I would want the world to show them only love and understanding. There will always be hateful men, but of love and understanding, there can never be enough.
Lin-Manuel Miranda said it perfectly Sunday night:
On Sunday afternoon, I put on the pinkest shirt I had, linked hands with my boyfriend, and went to D.C.’s Pride festival to watch our friends dance at one of the stages. Then I called my parents. I will never be safe, but I will forever be proud—of myself, of the family that brought me here, of anyone who can dance in the face of hate, and love in the face of anger.