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My Kind of Life: Daddy Dearest on the Down Low

You Would Hide Your Gayness Too if It Got You Shot

May/June 2005

Carlos A. Perez
I am going to support a man living on the down low. As hard as it was for me to try to understand as I matured, and as hard as it is for me still to play along with it to this day. As hard as I struggled in therapy over it. I have come to respect and love the man because he is my father.

He was born in Havana in 1932 and by 1952 he was a young man who understood that Cuba's politics were a mess. Much of this political mayhem inflicted cruel ways of dealing with anyone who deviated from the norm. If you decided to dress in drag and strut down the streets, you were picked up by the police and thrown in jail and shot next to real criminals and dissidents.

The same held true for effeminate men or men seen cruising around areas that were known to be gay hangouts. No trial, no Johnny Cochran, no way out but shot dead. Now, with all this oppression, wouldn't you get on the down low real quick? I certainly would. I'd be walking like a brute, spitting and grabbing my crotch, or doing whatever needs to be done to prove to everyone that I'm okay, because I do not want to embarrass my family and I certainly do not want to get shot!

My dad was brought up very strict and was enrolled in Catholic grammar and high school. He was left-handed and the nuns in school tied his left hand behind him onto the back of the chair and whooped him with a switch if he tried to use his left hand. The wise nuns and priests believed left-handed people were unacceptable or possessed by you-know-whom.

He was expected to grow up a strong man on the straight and narrow, or "hecho derecho" as they say. He was expected to fall in Disney-love with a woman and have children to carry on the family name and make his parents proud of their progeny. And so he did.

He also found men attractive. There were no open gay clubs in Cuba in the early 50s, much like us during the pre-Stonewall era. No one said this place or that place was a gay club, but word of mouth and encrypted language told you where to go to if you knew the language and if you knew the look when it looked at you. We now call that look gaydar. On the other side of life, my father began dating my mother and they were soon planning to get married.

A well-meaning friend of my dad told my mother something in confidence once. He said, "I've seen him at El Gato Negro." "So what?" asked my mother. "I've heard it's a nice nightclub." The friend said, "Yes, many maricones go there." My mom was shocked to hear that word, but she played it off. She told him, "Maybe he likes the music or the food, and I don't care if he knows maricones in there! He loves me and I love him and we're going to get married." They got married and in 1959, the year Castro took power over Cuba from Batista, I was born.

In the United States you don't get shot dead, usually, but you do have gay bashing and hate crimes. It is this deeply rooted repression and hate of gays that make people want to stay in the closet, commit suicide or live on the down low.

In this scenario you do not come out. You do what the Bible says. You do what your parents say. And you do what society has drilled in your head.

In Cuba, you do not let your family down. This is your greatest support system from birth and macho is ingrained into the very core of your mind, body and soul. This survival strategy is much the same for African Americans, especially the youth, who find themselves trapped between labels. I really don't think they put themselves there; instead, that is where they find themselves.

My father's society sent him the message loud and clear, so he waited with his wife and child for a few years until his lottery number popped up and we were allowed to emigrate to the United States.

Well, my father was not going to move here and come out of the closet clicking his heels together sparking up flames of victory. He was aware of the message in the U.S. in the late '60s. He was clever and he assimilated into American society.

Once we had arrived, my father kept talking about an uncle of mine. It took him a few weeks to hunt him down, but I remember my father being charged up and looking forward to seeing him. I finally met my uncle one weekend. He was a nice guy, with a wife and a daughter, and he wasn't my uncle. They both had been having a relationship for years on the down low. From Cuba to Chicago, transcending time, geography, politics and faiths, they were finally back together.

By the time I was turning sixteen I had met three uncles. One day, after many arguments and heated discussions, my mother threw in the towel and decided to divorce my father. There was an instant release of stress on our family once they divorced.

So, I was turning sixteen and my mom knew I was gay, and she let me have a party at our house. That was the best birthday party I ever had. I invited my gay and straight friends and other people who either knew, or if they didn't know, it was high time they did.

My mother worked as a nurses' aide at a hospital and invited two of her friends from work, both male registered nurses, both African American, both completely out and a whole lot of fun. "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" by Donna Summer was blasting and the house was buzzing with happiness and laughter. There was a knock on the door. It was my dad. I was so happy to see him. I was sure that he would not show up since mom had just recently divorced him and his machismo had taken quite a beating. Cuban women do not initiate a divorce, the man does, so I knew he had put down his grinding ax for the night, swallowed his pride and decided to come to my party. He only stayed about half an hour, wished me the best in life, and left in a rush.

After my father left, one of the nurses asked me about my dad. He asked me if my dad knew I was gay and I said yes. He asked me how my dad felt about it and I told him that he didn't care for it, that he told me I would live a sad and lonely life. He then told me that he knew my father.

"Oh, yeah?" I asked, my speech slightly slurring. "Child, I see your father cruising the park all the time," he declared. "What?" I was devastated. A chill came over me thinking that my dad might see me out there. But I was horrified and still confused. He must have known by the look on my face.

"Carlos, I have had your father in my car over there in that park." He was pointing through the sunroom windows that looked over at Lake Shore Drive to the infamous gay, cruisy drive by the lake.

Time is truly the best healer of wounds, trauma, broken hearts and disgruntled lovers. My mother and I wound up bonding in the most unique way. We can talk about sex and other issues like no one else can with his or her parents. Besides, she had years of pent-up frustration and emotions that had to go somewhere.

I needed to go back and re-digest my entire childhood. During these discussions I asked her the typical questions, like had she a clue that dad was bisexual or gay and if so, then why did she marry him. Naturally, she did not want to offend her family or my father's family either. And she also thought she could change him and help him "cross over" to the hetero side of life.

It didn't happen, it never does. She always insisted that I understood one thing, that no matter how crazy our life was when we were a family unit, she cherished both her pregnancies. That giving birth to my brother and me was worth all the chaos and madness to her. And I feel that love from her because she had the natural instinct to want to have children, love them, and nurture them. Love I never felt from Dad. What I felt from him was a duty to perform and sometimes the duty came across as a burden.

Why was it burdensome? Because he was still young and good-looking, and his heart was not within our nuclear family. His heart, as well as some other organs, was busy trying to get closer to or inside my uncle. What mother got from this relationship outside of her two precious boys were STDs. My father never brought home flowers or candy for mom. My father brought crabs, gonorrhea and chlamydia home for mother. And that wasn't so bad because today he could have brought her HIV. Thank God my mother was not infected with anything life-threatening.

Time has also worked its magic on my father. When I first told him I was positive, he had the hardest time just saying the word "positive" or "gay" or anything that entails homosexuality. He called my HIV "the problem."

One day I told him I had met someone special who I believed I wanted to stay together with and committed with for as long as we could hold on -- that's much more realistic than 'til death do us part and all that. My father slowly started coming around to looking favorably upon me. Actually, he started literally coming around to visit. Today he buys my partner a birthday present every year along with mine, since we're both Scorpios and our birthdays are but two weeks apart. He has bought us matching jewelry.

He insists on group pictures when we get together, which he frames and puts up to display proudly in his home. And he tells his friends and family about the two of us and we are not referred to as roommates any longer. I am convinced that he lives vicariously through us. He knows that my partner and I have pride and are involved in our community, and I can see that he is proud of us for having the balls that it takes in this society to be who you truly are and shout it from the mountain.

Why are men living on the down low in the U.S. circa 2005? Society, religion and our families mold us so by the time we start school, we have a pretty good idea of what is unacceptable. One of the issues that was delicately slipped into our last presidential race is the fear of us losing the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. This idea has gotten everyone so afraid of two men or two women getting married that here we are at the pinnacle of technology and we're still worried about the sex.

Sure, there are some men on the DL who are just in denial and having serious issues that should be discussed and resolved in therapy, but I think most men find living on the down low a cozy and safe closet in which to act out their real sexual pleasures. I believe living on the down low is the direct side effect of the pressure impacted upon gay or bisexual people by the most powerful and influential social factors: religion, government and the family.

I think it is important for us to know what type of closet we are in or have been shoved inside of. Is this the shame and guilt closet made from your family's walls? Is this the closet of the depraved heathens made up from the Bible's walls? Or is it the closet of family morals and values straight from the walls of the White House itself? Could America's gay closet be an infusion of walls from all of the aforementioned?

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
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