Am I a bigot? I believe bigotry is something we all have. I would also like to believe that it is something we all attempt to master and overcome. Not necessarily an easy task. Nor one we ever fully accomplish. Like life, overcoming our biases is a journey, not a destination.
In part, the challenge in overcoming bigotry stems from its connection to our fears. Fears of the unknown, the unfamiliar, and of things and people that are different. It’s also connected to our frequent belief that different is bad or lesser than; a belief that is handed down from generation to generation.
Over time, prejudice against certain groups becomes normalized, part of our familial and social fiber. The more we accept prejudices, the harder it gets to even see them, let alone question them.
As a Latino gay man, I have had to face bigotry at different levels and in different contexts throughout my life. Being Latino in the U.S. has its challenges, for sure. Being gay, however, has subjected me to a more painful type of bigotry.
When you’re an ethnic minority, you usually grow up with and are raised by people like you. You inherit their skin color and hair texture. You eat the same food and speak the same language. You celebrate the same holidays and share the same faith.
When you’re gay, you’re more likely to be raised by people who are different from you as far as sexual identity is concerned. Worse, you frequently first learn about the prejudice against the LGBT community from your own family and the people in your immediate circle.
Personally, I first became acutely aware of societal bigotry against gay men when I was 12 years old. My family had moved to a small town in Puerto Rico. From day one in my new school the rumors started circulating: “The new kid is queer.” I was criticized for how I spoke, how I walked and for the gestures I made. And it wasn’t just kids being mean to the newcomer.
The insults and mockery persisted for years. I tried playing sports but wasn’t good enough. I had girlfriends in high school but wasn’t convincing enough. I was never physically beat up, but the harassment never really let up. At times I was depressed and suicide always seemed to be an alternative, just under the surface. Unfortunately, suicide is something many LGBT kids face. Indeed, studies suggest that LGBT youth are up to four times more likely of attempting suicide than straight kids.
I found refuge in my studies and within a small group of friends (some of whom I realized years later were gay themselves). Doing well academically was a way of feeling good about myself. When I graduated from high school, I got as far away from that little town as I could. I moved to San Juan and sort of lost myself in the anonymity of a large college campus within a city far from home.
Turns out that losing myself became a way of finding myself. As I felt less attacked, I became freer to be myself, to meet new people, and to have new experiences. None of this was easy. Nor did it come without a price.
My parents found out I was gay during my sophomore year in college. They disinherited me. My dad simply stated that he could not “support my lifestyle” and that I should forget I even had a family. I was extremely hurt and saddened, but also angry. Turns out that all those years of excelling in school, the top SAT scores in my class, my full scholarship to college, and my early admission to pre-med meant nothing. I had to find a way to stay in school in a hurry (scholarship only covered tuition) but I was determined to stay the course. I switched majors to psychology (med school was no longer an option) and never looked back. I came to Massachusetts for graduate school and completed my master’s degree at Boston University. In the interim, I was separated from my family for over seven years. They needed time to overcome their prejudice. And I needed time to forgive their rejection.
Things did get better. I finished my degree, have a successful career, and just recently celebrated 25 years of shared life with my husband.
The family? The bigotry certainly caused a lot of lost time, bad blood and resentments but we are definitely close again. They send us Christmas cards and gifts. They’ve taken trips abroad with us to Central America and Europe. And they always send their love to him at the end of our phone calls. Are things perfect? No. But life is a journey and, hopefully, we never stop growing.
Ruben Montano-Lopez is Associate Director at Family & Children’s Service of Greater Lynn.