THE SUMMER AFTER MY sophomore year of college, I met a wonderful woman, a community activist who allowed me the nonjudgmental space to first start to share with her parts of my story about growing up in an abusive home, coming out as gay and being homeless. It was the first real opportunity I was presented with to truly reflect on my journey of emerging out of violence and moving past survival mode. I will always be grateful to her for believing me.
Our conversations ended up as the core story of the main stage production of The Home Project by About Face Youth Theatre in 2006. It premiered at Victory Gardens Theatre during the same summer that the Gay Games were hosted in Chicago. The show opened with the following lines, which I’d uttered to my friend during our initial conversation: “It’s time to go. I’m leaving St. Louis. I’m leaving these streets, these rusting benches, these allies, this park, my family. St. Louis is always going to be one of those places in my life that I’ll only visit if I have to, and I won’t stay long. Too much has happened here….”
I attended my first grade school in historic St. Charles, Mo. It was a private academy, nestled on the edge of the Missouri River, where all the students wore crisp white-and- navy uniforms. The academy had nuns in black habits with stinky-cotton-ball breath, and we even learned that a Catholic saint was buried on our school grounds. During my primary year my homeroom teacher asked all the students to draw a picture of our families for an upcoming parent-teacher night. I remember creating a detailed family portrait as a cassette tape of The Little Mermaid played in the background. In the picture I was the skinny, happy little boy standing between my two parents. I was holding their hands. My smiling Mexican mom, only 5 feet tall, had a bobble head full of dark, curly hair. My tall white dad wore thick glasses and towered over all of us with his 6-foot stature. While my mom also held on to a purse, my dad held on to a brown paper bag with a bottle inside it.
Unfortunately, these last two illustrative details made my teachers suspicious about what else might be happening at home. I remember answering a myriad of questions about my dad. I innocently answered that, yes, my dad almost always had a bottle or can in his hand, and yes, my dad would drink from this nightly. Well, my mom was then called into a meeting. I remember how embarrassed she looked. I didn’t yet understand that we were a working-class family. We were already considered different by those around us. My parents would tell me that it was a “privilege” to be “accepted” into this prestigious academy. On top of this, my family was multiracial. I quickly learned how to stay silent. Regrettably, I learned from my parents that what others thought about us mattered the most.
My mom initially denied my drawings. She explained to teachers that I’d drawn those details for attention, even though I didn’t know that drawing a brown bag in my dad’s hand was attention-worthy. She learned how to excuse my “acting out” when I started to tell teachers at my school about the arguments I saw at home. Everything culminated in a finale the following year.
During lunchtime in the cafeteria, I flung a ketchup packet at my best friend, Adam, and it landed in his hair. I’m not really sure why I did this. Maybe I was trying to appear cool? Maybe I was influenced by my childhood idol and first crush, Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years, who performed a similar incident to impress Winnie Cooper in the pilot episode of the show? All I know is that I was asked to leave the academy.
As I grew older, my mom often reminded me that I was dismissed from this private academy. I was reminded that my actions were a direct source of shame for my family. I internalized a variety of messages from my parents telling me that I was a liar. I learned that no one would believe me when I told adults about what was going on at home. Indeed, I learned very quickly that “what happens in the family should stay in the family.”
By the time I was 9 years old, my parents’ marriage was quickly unraveling. My dad would spend his time away on week-long business trips and leave me, my mom and my new baby sister to ourselves. I was forced to switch schools; my second Catholic grade school was in the rural town of Wentzville, Mo. Many of the students were from working-class Irish, German and Italian families. However, almost the entire student body was still white, and many of their parents quickly decided that my mom’s tanner skin tone and our family’s dysfunction were reason enough to keep their children away from me.
Lunchtime was a highlight of the school day. I would often sit alone and not socialize with my peers, finding solace in introversion. As I grew more aware of my father’s violence and alcoholism, I coped with these realities by eating through second and third helpings of lunchtime Sloppy Joes and baked potatoes. I quickly became known as a chubby, unathletic, sensitive boy from a bad home.
At school we attended mass every Wednesday morning. Every week we had religion classes. We learned about Catholic spirituality, and every so often we touched on human sexuality, but we never discussed gay people, aside from the occasional reminders at church that we should “love the sinner, hate the sin.” At home I certainly didn’t learn anything positive about what it means to be gay. Still, my romantic crushes blossomed. In the summer of 1993, at 10 years old, I fell in love with the movie Free Willy. Well, more specifically, I fell in love with Jesse, the rebellious teenager who is the main character in Free Willy. In the movie Jesse escapes homelessness and the foster-care system. He is even able to find a family (and a whale) that love him back. I was growing up. I had moved on from the middle- school Kevin Arnolds of this world, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
That September my baby brother was born. My sister was now 3 years old, and our family was a full house. My dad was still very absent from our home at this point, and when he did return home on weekends, he was most often drunk. If he was in a good mood, he’d playfully wrestle with me and give my sister piggyback rides around our house, ignoring my mom. If he was angry, he’d argue with and yell at my mom. The first time I saw my dad hit my mom, I was standing at the top of our stairs. I stared through the wooden railings as my dad’s hand slapped my mom across the face and she fell into our foyer’s door. I will never forget those images.
I remember my parents’ final fight. My dad, in an attempt to further scare my mom, threatened to kill her father. He called my grandpa a “dirty old Spic.” My mom yelled something back, but I can’t even recall what she said, because the next thing I saw was my dad punching my mom. She screamed and fell to the floor. He then dragged my mom across our living-room carpet by her hair, leaving her face scraped, her legs bruised and her body bloody. At 10 years old I jumped on him with all my might to try and get him off my mom. He hurled me off him and into our living-room wall. At this point in their marriage, we had 911 on speed dial. The police arrived yet again, answering a call about a “domestic dispute.” I’m not entirely sure why, but this time they seemed to understand the extent of our abuse. They finally took my dad away, and he never spent another night in our home.
After this my dad filed for divorce and was able to have the hearings held in the small, rural, Mayberryesque town where he lived. He had been secretly claiming residence there for the past year. My ethnically ambiguous mom was screwed over in the divorce proceedings and lost most of her assets. A year and a half later we even lost the home that she had purchased with her entire savings. We spent a week living in a Super 8 Hotel, temporarily homeless, since my dad had failed to pay the monthly mortgage dictated by the divorce decree.
There was one positive thing that came out of their divorce. During the hearings I was called into the court by the judge to give a short testimony about the violence I had endured at the hands of my dad. Though the judge granted my dad regular visitation rights with my two younger siblings, because of the extent of my abuse, he did not force me to see my dad.
After my parents’ divorce was finalized, I spent a lot of time helping watch my younger brother and sister. My mom was now a single parent and tried her best to give her three children a private-school education. I became the primary caretaker for my siblings and tried to be a good older brother to them. One Christmas my mom gave my little sister a small amount of shopping money, which she spent on gifts from the flea market behind our church. When I unwrapped my gift, I saw a hideous ceramic cherub staring up at me. My sister asked if I liked it. Of course I said yes, trying my best to be gracious. Still, I thought, “What the hell am I going to do with this?” I quickly put it up on my dresser, and it always stayed there, collecting dust and staying out of the way, far from most of my things.
For three years I attended a private, Catholic, all-boys high school where I excelled as debate captain. I was involved in anything that wasn’t sports, because I still sucked at sports. I learned to accept that I am gay and push past the initial fears that I was going to hell. I figured that if God made everyone in his own image and likeness, then I must be pretty intentional. I managed to make a few close friends and started to spend weekend nights at different friends’ houses. This provided me with an escape, since things were becoming tenser at home all the time. I wish that I could say that things got better at home during my teenage years, but they didn’t.
Even though my dad was out of the picture, my mom refused to seek family counseling for all of us. She spiraled into depression, anger and rage. She became very physically violent toward my siblings and me. I struggled with how much I could share about my family with my peers, their parents and my teachers. I was still being told not to talk about what happened at home. When my mom would try to slap me during an argument, I would often flinch before her hand hit my face. For every flinch she would add an extra slap. She teased me, reminding me that a real man would “stand and take it.” She would insult my femininity, grab my fat and imply that I was really a girl because I had a chubby chest.
I received the brunt of the abuse in my teenage years. By the time I came out to her as gay at 16 years old, we were in an all-out war at home. During arguments she would chase me around our small apartment with any object she could find: a cordless telephone, a metal pan, a high-heeled shoe. She would hit me to the door and then start to kick me out. After a while I just gave up on trying to fight back, and when she told me to leave, I simply would.
What began as a few hours outside the home turned into a few days, and before long I had missed too many weeks at school as well, so I was kicked out of my high school. During all this I ended up trying yet again to commit suicide and entered into a children’s psychiatric unit. After I was released my mom kicked me out again. I was now homeless.
In the summer of 2001, I was 17 years old and staying in a youth emergency shelter. While there I met a graduate student in social work who was volunteering at the shelter. She showed an interest in me, and one evening she broke the agency’s rules and snuck me out, taking me to Growing American Youth, the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer group located in the gay-friendly neighborhood of the Central West End. It was my first time being around other LGBTQ youth, and I was terrified.
I shared with the youth group leader what was happening to me at home, revealing that I was scared and homeless. The youth leader asked me to share my story with the other youth in the group. Since there were few spaces for LGBTQ youth to go, there were over 60 youth at this meeting. After I told my story the youth leader asked everyone, “How many of you, at some point or another, have been kicked out for being gay?” I remember over half the kids raising their hands. That was over 30 youth!
I remember thinking how crazy this was. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I couldn’t accept that this was normal. It seemed to be such an institutional issue, such an expected journey for me and my peers simply because we were queer. This was the moment that sparked my passion for activism. After the meeting a few members of the youth group came up to me and told me about places where I could stay. I decided to go with the safest option, one that would allow me to try to finish high school.
Legally, I could stay in the shelter for up to two weeks before my mom would be reported to the Division of Family Services. It felt unreal that the staff knew that my mom would kick me out again but couldn’t immediately report her. It was only if she failed to pick me up from the shelter that they could do so. Their hands were tied. When my mom was forced to pick me up from the shelter, she angrily informed me that I shouldn’t expect to stay in the apartment for long. She told me that I was going to be kicked out again. The next day, when my mom left for work, I went into the small bedroom that my brother, my sister and I shared. I quickly packed up everything I could find. I tore my X-Men posters off the wall, gathered up my clothes and organized a memory box full of childhood stuff.
It was the end of summer and right before school was to begin. My brother and sister were out in the living room, watching Gullah Gullah Island and Blue’s Clues. I remember calling them into the bedroom and explaining to them that I was leaving. I had to go. When my sister asked why, I shared, “Remember how Mom always kicks me out of the house and calls me a faggot and stuff?”
“What’s a faggot?” my brother asked innocently.
“Well, it’s a really bad word,” I replied, “but what it means is ‘gay.'”
My sister followed up asking, “Well, what’s ‘gay’?”
“Well, instead of you liking Tommy in your class, it would mean you like Becky,” I explained. “So it’s when a boy likes a boy, or when a girl likes a girl. Well, I’m gay.”
They both looked at me and said, quite simply, “That’s OK.” We all started hugging and crying.
When I was getting ready to leave, my sister looked up at my dresser, pointed and said, “You forgot your angel.”
I quickly replied, “I know. I know. I just have so much stuff–”
“You have to take it,” she interrupted. “It will watch over you.”
I moved around a lot after I left home. I lived with different friends and their families before graduating from my second high school, a public school in St. Louis. I had to repeat my junior year, since I didn’t have enough credits from my first high school, but in the spring of 2003, I received a full scholarship to DePaul University.
After living in Chicago for almost 10 years, I recently moved back to St. Louis, accepting the LGBTQ Youth Advocate position atSafe Connections, a local anti- violence organization. This position is the first paid position in the St. Louis region geared toward helping change the culture and climate surrounding LGBTQ youth in schools, youth-serving spaces and community agencies, and I am honored to be doing this work. It has been over 12 years since I initially packed my bags and left home at 17, and it feels like I’ve come full circle.
Through my activism I’ve often had the privilege of speaking to a variety of LGBTQ young people over the years. One of the best things I can share with them is the promise that they will be loved. But more importantly, I tell them that the families that we are born into sometimes aren’t good families. The best decision of my life was finally leaving home. Even the dreaded unknown was preferable to the years of shame, silencing and violence that I’d endured. To this day I don’t talk to my mom, and my dad has long been out of my life. My siblings are now young adults, and I hope we can eventually reconnect, but there is still a lot of healing to do.
But no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always taken that angel with me.