“Are your parents coming to the show?”
Someone needs to write a book on how to come out when you’re not gay. The catalog of books for White folks interested in promoting racial justice grows each day, and there are a some titles geared toward men committed to gender equality. But where’s the how-to manual for heterosexual people who desire to be allies to LGBTQI community? Such a field guide would’ve come in handy when I served as the dramaturge for Pandora’s, the multimedia off-Broadway show produced by my company Sister Outsider Entertainment.
An ambitious production that intersperses ten monologues with seven documentary shorts, Pandora’s sought to bring a higher and more complex visibility to queer Latinas than you might see on, say, The L-Word. The show is the brainchild of its creative director Elisha Miranda who also happens to be my business partner. But E’s also my sister warrior, road dawg, ace coom boom. In other words, she always has my back, and I always have hers.
When Elisha told me years ago that she wanted to produce a multimedia show about the Latina queer experience and asked if I were dramaturge the monologues, I didn’t hesitate. If anything, I was honored. There were several more experienced and critically acclaimed playwrights she could have approached who would’ve jumped at the chance to work with her on Pandora’s (E be magnetic like that.) And that’s why when she asked me if my parents were coming to see Pandora’s when it premiered at Theater Row last month, the simple question reduced me to tears.
I hadn’t even told them about the show.
One reason I had not told them about Pandora’s is because, in explaining to them why Sister Outsider was “doing a gay show,” I would have to out Elisha. My parents have come to love Elisha and her husband Alex as if they were their own children. Although Elisha is openly bisexual and a relentless activist for queer issues, being married to a man often thwarts any consideration that she might not be heterosexual. As open as Elisha is about her sexuality, around certain folks like my parents, Don’t ask, don’t tell was in full effect, and I didn’t feel it was my place to announce her sexual orientation to anyone.
I explained this to her when she called and asked if my parents were coming to the Pandora’s premiere. “Well, girl, you know, I haven’t said anything,” I said while standing in the shoe aisle at the Bruckner Boulevard K-Mart. “’Cause, like, I’ve noticed in the past that you’ve kinda held back about talking about that when they’re around.” Like the time we both stayed with my parents at their home in Puerto Rico. While there Elisha was finishing her novella for Juicy Mangos, the erotica anthology we were both writing for at the time. Hers was about a lesbian who’s haunted by her first kiss. I noticed that when my parents were in earshot, Elisha censored the way she talked about her story, and I took that as a cue that she wasn’t ready for them to discover that aspect of her identity. Indeed, it would be like coming out to her own mother (who I affectionately call Mom2) all over again.
But when I explained this to her, Elisha surprised me by saying, “You know, girl, I know this must be hard on you because you’re single and after what your cousin did to you… I’ve seen how you get targeted in different ways so whatever you decide to do, I’m cool with it. I support you.”
When we ended our call, I sat there staring at it for a moment, thinking When did this become about me? I walked shell-shocked out of the K-Mart, leaving behind those cute sandals I had been eyeing. As I started on my way home, knowing that I would find my father nestled in the living room recliner and switching back and forth between the Yankee game and a Law & Order rerun, the truth hits.
It was about me.
When you’re a perpetually single, unapologetic feminist with a queer best friend (and therefore, run with more lesbians than the average heterosexual, single gal), queer and straight folks alike keep trying to yank you out of a closet you’ve never been in. Sometimes it can be flattering, a sign that you’re walking your anti-heterosexist talk. You’ve succeeded in communicating to queer folks not just with your words but through your actions You’re safe with me.
But more times than not, it stings of the homophobia that LGBTQI people have to endure every day. For example, it becomes an “explanation” why I go for long periods of time without a relationship (because, you know, it couldn’t possibly be that I have enough self-awareness and esteem to stay single than settle for any man just to be able to prove I can nab one.) For patriarchal men and women alike, it becomes an opportunity to dismiss my feminist ideals as well as a rationale for queer folks whose internalized homophobia is so deep, that despite their demands that straight people get over themselves, acknowledge their heterosexual privilege and become allies, they cannot fathom that someone is genuinely trying to step up and heed their call.
No way. She must be a closet case.
I’m proud to say that most days I take these incidents in stride. I understand the ignorance and fear in which they are rooted, and I know who I am as do the people who truly matter. That’s a’ight. Go ‘head and do me like that. You’re saying way more about yourself than you are about me. Having had considerable practice, I easily resist inclinations to assert my heterosexuality as doing so only perpetuates the homophobic thinking and behavior I have committed myself to challenging. But I’m only human, and there are days when I particularly feel vulnerable and cower behind my heterosexuality, especially when it strikes close to home, and you don’t get much closer to home than with family.
A few weeks before Pandora’s premiered, my own cousin targeted me this way. She was angry with me over something too petty to mention. Rather than contact me and discuss the matter, she wrote a blog where she stated that if I’m a lesbian why don’t I “quit with the bitch-assness” and “come out already, damn!!!” Mind you, this same cousin fancies herself a queer ally because she never misses an episode of her favorite show The L-Word.
I didn’t realize how much that blog impacted me until Elisha asked me if my parents were coming to see Pandora’s and I had to admit that I hadn’t even invited them. At first, I didn’t even think my cousin was referring to me when she wrote that blog, and my primary contention was not with the homophobic allegation disguised ironically as an anti-heterosexist demand to keep it real. It was that she chose such a juvenile way to express her anger with me. And I believed that was all there was to it, especially when I confronted my cousin and never mentioned the suggestion that I was a closeted lesbian.
But when I reflected on my conversation with Elisha as I walked home from K-Mart, I had to confront myself. For all my talk, I could no longer deny that another reason why I had not even mentioned Pandora’s to my parents was because I was afraid that they, too, might think (and worry and fear) that I was a lesbian. This is what brought me to tears: the realization that I wasn’t the ally I prided myself on being and had failed my best friend, my homegirl, my camarada who never thinks twice about standing up for me.
I walked for several blocks, sniffling to myself, Bitch, you ain’t shit.
What I needed to do was instantaneously obvious, too. I had to invite my parents to Pandora’s. The sudden buzzing in my stomach at the thought confirmed that “outing” myself as a queer ally and dealing with the repercussions whatever they may be was the right thing to do.
So when I got home, I settled in besides my father in the living room. “Look, Elisha and I are doing this off-Broadway show, and I’d like you and Ma to come,” I began after some baseball chit-chat. “The thing is you should know that it’s a gay show.” I give Pa all the reasons why producing a project like Pandora’s is important to me, all of them boiling down to the same fact: it reflects who I am and what I stand for as a person. Then I confess, “And the reason why I haven’t said anything until now was because I was afraid that you might think I was gay.”
Pa and I end up talking for about three hours, from the personal (all the gay people he admires like “Pompa” who works hard and is a great son) to the political (“It is kinda messed up that they can serve in the military but can’t get married so the wife or husband won’t get their benefits if they die at war.”) Now let’s not get it twisted. I went to Pa because he’s unusually open-minded for a person of his kind – a working-class Puerto Rican man who came to the United States in ’52. That’s why I often describe myself as my father’s daughter (with not a small hint of braggadocio), we are the best of friends, and all my friends want to adopt him.
But he’s still very much, well, a Puerto Rican man who came to the United States in ’52. Hence, there are some things he just can’t grasp, sometimes out of sheer unwillingness. Pa Dukes doesn’t “get” bisexuality, definitely belonging to the “pick a team” school of thought on that one but, in his defense, so do many gay people) so forget about breaking down what it means to be transgendered.
But I did try, and that in and of itself is no small victory. My parents didn’t go to Pandora’s, and to be totally honest, I didn’t approach Ma for reasons other than (but not excluding) residual homophobia. But she did know that Sister Outsider was putting on a show (even if she remained unaware of its content), and when I would come home, Pa would smile and ask, “How’s it going?” genuinely interested in the backstage lore (OK, gossip.)
Just when I thought it wasn’t possible, Pa and I are even tighter because no part of who I am or what I believe is hidden from him. It truly paid off to feel the fear and do it anyway. Hopefully, I’ll be an even better ally now that I have personally experienced an inkling of what it must be like to come out. In fact, maybe I’ll evolve into a better activist overall, recalling this feeling the next time I’m in a cynical funk and smirk at a man who claims to be a feminist or a White person who describes him/herself as anti-racist.
In addition to being evidence of one of the feminist movement’s most insightful contributions to social justice of all kinds – the notion that the personal is political – “coming out” as a queer ally to my father has proven to be a multifaceted blessing.