I have been able to tell my own story in schools, anti-homophobia conferences, storytelling festivals, and other venues. Of all the places where I tell this story, schools have been the most challenging. I believe it is important to go into schools and do this work because if there is even one student questioning his or her own sexuality, stories such as mine can provide a light, a way. There are also students and staff whose benign or malignant homophobia has never been challenged, and my story provides an opportunity for that to happen. One of the stereotypes that my story addresses is that queers are hated by their families. My story about my relationship with my mother challenges that assumption.
I swore I would never tell my mom I was doing drag. I just couldn’t let her know about Chabuca. You see, I had gone to great lengths to convince her that being gay did not mean I wanted to become a woman. My mom had grown up being told that gay people were sort of “in between” and that everything would be all right once they had a sex change. I told her many times that this was not the case with me. “I am gay and I am a man who wants to stay a man,” I would say. But she insisted, and several times she made some allusion to a conversation with a knowledgeable friend who had given her confirmation of what I had come to call her “primitive beliefs.” She would repeat, “We were always told about the change, in fact the Church approves of it.” Sometimes hearing this infuriated me and made me livid and I would scream. Other times I had my usual very rational and civilized explanation for her. But I never really had one that was good, that made me feel complete when I gave it. Until one day I closed my eyes and said, “Because I like my penis just the way it is…” Enough to tuck it away neatly for the many nights of performances.
Well, to be honest, the whole coming-out experience had been very hard and lengthy for me. I wasn’t about to embark on another one. I know, we as homos are never really done with coming out. I am resigned to the fact that I will still be coming out well past my departure from this planet. I have a beautiful Latino family and they are religious and they eat a bit of hot food and they do all those other things people think Latinos do. Well, only to a point. My family was very progressive and very liberal. In fact, we had been vegetarians when it wasn’t even cool! But when it came to fags and dykes, well, they were homophobic! The truth is that once I accused them of being homophobic, and they did not even know the word existed, let alone its meaning. They simply called homos “Maricos” or “medio raros” (fags or kind of strange).
I think I was five when I realized I was gay. I knew because after my first day of school, my two older sisters asked me which girls from my kindergarten class did I like. I did not have an answer for them; I had been busy looking at the boys. But I did not tell them this because I knew they would think there was something “raro” with me. So the next day I found out whom the best-looking boys thought were the best-looking girls and I made a “lista.” When I came back home I gave the “lista” to my sisters. I should have never done it. They still tease me with those girls. In fact, they still remember their names! Now I had, of course, another “lista,” my “lista secreta.” One with all the names of all the best- looking boys in my class. Eventually the “lista” included the best-looking boys in the whole school. I was lucky and I survived just like those not- so-obvious homos are able to do. I was creative at hiding and covering up. Out of the depths of repression, the necessity for the gift of creativity cometh.
I grew up and moved to Canada, and for a very long while I was just not prepared to go through the agony of formally and officially telling my family I was gay. I had seen many friends and heard of many people going through horrifying and awful experiences. I was away at university and I only saw my family for the statutory holidays and other selected dates. So I decided to play the waiting game and to slowly sneak in. This strategy is foolproof. You get people to know and like you first, and then, wham! — you strike. It really works. Not that my family did not know me or not like me. They adored me and still do. But I’d rather avoid big dramas. Besides, I had read a few books on the subject of coming out. They all advised not to come out to families during traditional festivities such as Thanksgiving, Easter, never on Mother’s Day, and never, never, never on Father’s Day. Also never on Xmas or during birthdays, and forget about weddings, that most heterosexual of rituals. They said there is just too much pressure, too much family, too busy, and I think too many weapons at the dinner table, all those knives and forks, etc. I thought my whole life was a big hint for my family. I was artistic, I had never brought a girlfriend home, I had lots of boy friends, I was involved in issues of human rights, etc. I had even been living with my boyfriend for several years. So I thought they would clue in sooner or later. And they were, of course, suspicious. But no one ever asked any questions. They were in deep denial. I know there were thoughts, but they were quickly repressed. And I am glad they were repressing something too. In this way we all had something in common.
One day I was finally ready. I had the urge to make it official, to put an end to the rumors and innuendo, to come out of the closet once and for all, to finally be free! I had a conversation with my alter ego, Chabuca, and she told me what to do. You know what I had read in all those books about when not to do it. Well, Chabuca told me they never said anything about your own birthday. So this is what I did. On my birthday I sent a card to my mom, with a bouquet of roses. The card said: “Mom, I love you and it’s a girl.” So that took care of all that. I knew my mom would get it, and I knew she would tell everyone else. So I let her do the dirty work. I know this sounds like chickening out but, hey, this worked for me.
But a while later Chabuca asked me, “When are you going to tell her about me?”
I said “Never, never, ever, ever.”
“Look,” Chabuca said, “she has taken it real well. I mean, she is not blaming you, she is blaming herself. This behavior is quite normal and appropriate. She is trying to figure out if she left you alone with the nanny for too long. Or if they cut too much during your circumcision. At any rate, she just moved round the corner from Church and Wellesley and she is having a good time seeing all the drag queens, fags and dykes, and other weirdos go by .”
I knew this was all true, but I decided to wait once again. I played the sensitive card and told Chabuca, “You and I have had all these years to figure all this out. Let’s give the old lady time and not rush into things.”
Chabuca agreed reluctantly and reminded me that with my mom living so close, she would sooner or later find out. Chabuca reminded me also that I was not going to be able to hide all the dresses, wigs, and makeup, and that the smell of Obsession and Chanel #5 would lead my mom to my apartment on her own. I think, as well, that behind all these sensible and rational things, there was also our fear that my mom would not be shocked at all, but that she would like to borrow the dresses and the wigs, and that she would ask me to do her makeup.
As it turned out, I didn’t really have to wait all that long, and the prophecy of Chabuca was realized on a Pride Day afternoon. My friend David, my partner William, and I had decided to come out in drag for Pride 95. David was going to be a French maid, William would come out as Dame Edna, and I would bring Chabuca out. Chabuca was also going to march in the parade with the troupe members of the Popular Theatre group, where I worked as a counselor. Sean, a friend of ours who is a singer, heard about our plan and gave us a call. He asked us if we would like to be his backup vocalists during his performance on Pride Day. We would only have to do a two-step dance and sing some “do wup shoo waps.” Of course we all agreed.
So on Pride Day, after we had all done ourselves up and looked beautiful and glamorous, we started our trek to the north stage to meet up with Sean. We walked up Church Street in our pumps, and it was quickly getting painful and it was too, too hot. As we started to realize the north stage was farther north than we had anticipated, William or Dame Edna pointed out, “We are getting awfully close to your mom’s apartment building.” But I said, or Chabuca said, “Never mind. Mom has gone to Whitby to visit my sister.”
We continued with our painful trek and we finally got to the north stage, which was situated almost right below my mom’s building. With the certainty that we were safe, we jumped onto the stage with Sean. We sang three songs with him and had a blast. There were lots of people there, and Sean sounded good. At the end of the set he thanked us and introduced us to the crowd. We had told him to call us the Seanettes and also gave him our stage names. Well, he called us the former but forgot the latter and introduced us by our real names. He called me Rico Rodriguez.
Somewhat disappointed about this, but still high on the experience, we started our descent from the stage. William went first, I followed. Right then, a woman approached us. She took off her sunglasses, took one look at me, and exclaimed at the top of her lungs “RODRIGUEZ!” She was my mom and she exclusively reserves calling me by my last name when there is something wrong.
William ran as fast as he could and disappeared into the crowd. I just fainted and lost it. A few seconds later I recovered and composed myself. I could see my mom actually looking at me with those admiring, beautiful, full-of-love eyes of hers. I did not hesitate and asked her to follow me to where I had to meet the Troupe. So we started the trek back down Church Street to Alexander Street where the floats were all assembled.
On the way there my mom could not get her eyes away from me. She said, “You look beautiful, in fact better than your sisters.” And I really liked that. Just as Chabuca and I had feared, she wanted the wig, the dress, and a makeup session.
At some point she stopped me and said, “When you were in my womb, I often thought you were going to be a girl.” I replied, “You are one lucky woman because you got both a boy and a girl in one.”
“Yes, the best of both worlds,” she said.
As we walked past Bar 501, many of the boys hanging out of that famous window started to make lots of noise. One of them jumped down and asked me, “Would you marry me?” I did not know what to say but my mom jumped in and asked him, “How much money do you have in your bank account?” The boy said, “Not much.” So she pushed him out of the way with her purse.
We finally got to our destination and there we met up with William. My mom asked him not to run away again. Lots of pictures were taken of the three of us. Soon thereafter the parade began and we started to march. My mom got a set of maracas, and we danced and made some noise. When we got to Gerrard and Church, my mom gave me a kiss and told me it was time for her to go. I asked, “Where are you going?” and she said, “I have to go to Church. I am going to St. Mike’s to pray for you, William, and all your friends and everyone who is here today.”
I frowned a bit, but she added, “I am going to ask God not to change you one bit, and I am also going to thank Him for giving me the best of both worlds.”
Contributed by Rico Rodriguez
My general preference is to tell personal stories. I am most comfortable opening up with them, and they help me develop a good rapport with the audience. But I also have a repertoire of folktales that I use. They range from the deep and serious to the humorous.
On the more serious side, I tell two versions of “The Ugly Duckling” — the original by Hans Christian Anderson and an adaptation by Peter Cashorali, author of Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories Retold for Gay Men. I believe this story is a metaphor for coming out. All the elements of being a “misfit” are there until there is a realization when the “misfit” meets others just like him or herself. Then individuals recognize themselves for who they are. Cashorali’s books contain many other gems. I adapt these stories by adding songs and other components to them. I also tell Cashorali’s “The Golden Key,” a story of personal discovery that I find both inspiring and encouraging. On the more humorous side, also from Fairy Tales, I tell “Beauty and the Beast” (all about leather), “Hansel and Gretel” (who meet a drag queen in the woods), and “The Two Travelers” (about the dichotomy of muscle and hairdressing queens). I choose these stories for their playfulness, but also because they include elements of the community that are stereotyped and marginalized.