One evening, several years ago, I was walking with my friend, Michelle, in Greenwich Village, shivering. It was late spring and I was chilly. But, that’s not why my teeth were rattling and my hands were shaking. I reached for Michelle’s arm to steady myself as we got closer to our destination.
My grade school daughter wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of the risk I was about to take. “B”, as I’ll call her, was nine years old when she said to me, with zero apprehension, “Mom. I really like Demi Lovato.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Well, that’s good. She’s cool.” But the look on my B’s face led me to a follow up; “Wait. Do you like her or like-her-like-her?”
No hesitation, she said, “Like-like.” My B soon proclaimed herself to me as bisexual and since then, has proudly represented in her life as such.
Now, I’m 48 years old. That Greenwich Village walk with my friend Michelle was to enter my first lesbian bar. And that was only four years ago. How was it possible that I could be afraid and continue to hide myself as bisexual (or queer), if my child was able to just live as herself, and proudly!? And why did I see coming out as well, myself, such a liability?
It’s not just the damn patriarchy.
It was that every day that I walked out my front door (no matter which door or where), I was devalued — still am — not only because of gender, but also of race. Growing up, in my nearly all-white grade school I was singled out for punishment despite my straight As. In high school the nuns would ask me if my baby sister was my own baby. In college I got called the n-word, and more. And in the magazine business, I was told that I just “didn’t look like a writer.” I’ve been pulled over multiple times in immigration sweeps, twice at a time in my life when I was hosting my own national TV show. I’ve been underpaid, undervalued, stymied and pigeonholed. I succeeded despite of it all but why, oh why, would I want to add one more minority status onto being an Afro-Latina woman?
To be a racial and ethnic minority wanting to succeed, particularly before this decade, is to adapt and hide parts of yourself. It’s to silence your voice and tamp down the bits of you that you may love, but that threaten where you stand and where you’re going.
So, when I was my daughter’s ‘Demi-Lovato-crush’ age, I never told anyone why I would take out a particular book in my Catholic school library over and over again. The book was on Saint Agnes — the illustrations to accompany the story of her horrific martyrdom had her looking like a 1970’s Raquel Welch in a cinched-waist Roman toga, all curves, lips and flowing hair.
I never would dare to say that one reason I was so excited to go away to college was so I could do what I had wanted to do: Have a girlfriend. I mourned as I realized that would never happen at the conservative Jesuit college my parents had insisted I attend.
I’ve been underpaid, undervalued, stymied and pigeonholed. I succeeded despite it all but why, oh why, would I want to add one more minority status onto being an Afro-Latina woman?
After college, it was time to live on my own back in the city, which seemed like the best time to do my thing but, no. I was working full time, first in the art business then magazines (finance and business coverage), nearly always the only person of color besides the receptionist. There was no way I was going to do anything but play by the book.
I couldn’t take another risk. I wasn’t brave enough to add anything else to my list of ‘scarlet letters’. And how could I risk my mother’s American Dream? I was the first woman in the family to finish high school. Get a college degree. Graduate degree. My mother was Dominican. Either it would kill her or she’d kill me.
So, I got married in my 20s, to a man. It lasted six months. I divorced then got married a second time in my 30s. Divorced again. Now, this may not have anything to do with the gender of those partners, but I know it had something to do with my not living an authentic life. I was living my life as my mother’s projection and I was making it easier on myself by fitting into the boxes built for me.
But I couldn’t do it anymore. I was a single mom to a daughter who had inspired me beyond belief. I couldn’t lie to her. So I had to stop lying to myself and everyone around me. Luckily, the world was becoming more and more accepting of the idea that love is, well, love.
That night in the Village with Michelle was like taking off a mask. Or, shedding a skin. It was growth.
This past year, I was at an after-party for a network late-night comedy show where I hoped to talk to one of the stars who has played a big role for both me and my daughter as a public member of the LGBTQ community. I worked up the courage to introduce myself and told her how grateful we both were to watch her and see her success. How my daughter, a rabid fan of the show, saw her as proof that she, too, could do what she wanted to do in life as herself, completely.
The party was very loud, so we were leaning in, speaking closely into each others’ ears and holding onto each other’s arms forming a mini steeple. She said to me: “Thank you. Thank you so much for telling me this. This means the world to me. And I didn’t even want to come tonight!” We laughed. Then she said, “But, I have to ask you. I’ve always wanted to ask a woman who’s come out older” — she is forgiven for that— “Are you bitter?”
I was stunned. My jaw just hung there. She kept holding me (she being Kate McKinnon), with care. Maybe it was the margaritas I’d had and that it was way past my bedtime but, I surprised myself by saying loudly to her, “Yes! Yes! I’m bitter. I’m fucking pissed!” We both ended up laugh-crying for a minute and then I said, “But you know, I’m just so relieved that my daughter doesn’t have to live the same fate.”
I’m known for taking huge professional risks. But those lost years showed me for once just how painful it can be to not take a risk. This one took me several decades but, it offers one of the biggest payoffs of all: Permission to be me, in full.