Photo: Emillio Mesa With His Mother
“When you come out to your mother, your life will never be the same,” my best friend Bryan told me. I listened, nodded my head in agreement, but I didn't understand. In fact, it took me years for it to finally make sense.
I was 12 months old when my mother had left after she divorced my father. For every year that my mother was gone, I had a photo album full of pictures and letters. Five years later, she returned to take me with her, from the Dominican Republic to New York.
For most of my childhood, we lived in the Bronx. After she remarried, she and her new husband built a successful clothing manufacturing business. My mother’s dedication, business savvy, and charm secured contracts with Oscar de la Renta and The Gap, and her business took us from New York City, to DR, and back again. When the contracts led them to Mexico, I asked my mother to let me stay in New York so that I could finish my senior year in high school, then go straight to college. Resistant at first, since I was only 16, she knew it was the right thing to do for my future.
“I’ve only had 10 years with you," she said. "I can’t believe that I have to leave you again. But you are a young man now."
In order to finish high school, I stayed with relatives. When I turned 18, before beginning college at F.I.T., she helped me get my own apartment. I went to school, took out a loan, and worked full-time as an over-the-phone “product expert” for Bristol Myers Squibb. I felt the need to do it on my own, so I wouldn’t have to owe her anything. Part of the reason I needed to feel independent was that I'd also finally admitted to myself that I was a gay man.
Homosexuality was not only a “sin” but the worst kind of shame that could be brought upon a family, especially by the first born son. “I’d prefer my son to be a murderer or a rapist, than being a faggot,” I heard people say. When I was 14, I overheard a story about a teacher’s gay son in our town in the Dominican Republic. The father had beat him to a bloody pulp and threw him out on the street, with only the clothes on his back. All anyone spoke of was how he “tainted” the family name. My mother shook her head when she heard the story.
“As a mother, it breaks my heart how he was hurt," she said. "But God forbid that one of my sons turns out like that."
Throughout the four years that I attended college, I saw my mother for a week during Christmas and another week during summer. After graduation, I was lucky enough to win the apartment "lottery": a one bedroom Lower East Side sublet. At the same time, a headhunter scouted me to work as a concierge in a trendy hotel and, before I knew it, I was getting offers to plan events. My datebook was full, and I had the perfect excuse to see my mother once a year. It wasn’t until my grandmother died of a heart attack, just days after 9/11, that my mother and I started to reconnect.
“Slowly but surely you’ve been cutting me out of your life, and there’s no need for it,” she said as we had a meal at an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. "You don’t need to do this, I know…I know that you are gay.”
I lowered my head to hide the tears that started streaming down my face.
“How do you know?" I asked. "I’ve been very careful.”
“I am your mother, and a mother knows her son. You don’t need to hide from me,” she explained. She raised my chin with her fingers, and we made eye contact. Then she grabbed my hand and placed it on her belly, tightly.
“You came from here! And I will fight to defend you against anyone! Never lower your head. Don’t be ashamed. It is the way God made you; I understand that now.”
“I know that. Everyone in my life knows but you," I said. "As a child, for years I prayed for God to change me, ever since I was 7 years old, after you tucked me into bed."
“Life has taught me that no matter how hard you try to change certain things...well, some are just meant to be, as is,” she said.
“Mami, since we are being honest,"I began, "I have to tell you that I was sexually abused."
“What?! Who did this to you? Tell me!”
“That's not important now, Mami" I explained. "It was when I lived in the Dominican Republic, with grandma and grandpa. I can tell you now because grandma is dead."
“I failed you, I am so sorry…this explains so much,” she said, and she began to cry.
“It’s not your fault! That’s part of the reason why I could never tell you before." I told her I thought the sexual abuse was what had made me gay, but learned that wasn't the case. "It wasn’t until I truly felt loved by another man that I started to tell the difference," I said.
At that moment, Bryan's words echoed in my head: “When your mother knows that you are gay, your life will never be the same.” I survived growing up without a father because my mother played both roles, exceptionally well. Years later, as an adult, I was mugged and assaulted and my mother stepped in. Every step of the way, she was there, and she whispered in my ear, “Mami is here, and you will be fine.”
As a boy, I used to say that when I got married, I wanted a woman just like my mother. It’s a good thing I'm gay. If I were straight, no woman could ever measure up to the image of my mom—who’s also my best friend.
Emillio Mesa is a writer and hospitality expert. He's working on a TV show based on "The Art Of Hospitality" and conversations. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, NY Press, Huffington Post & SF Weekly. Look for him in HBO's Looking on Jan. 19, 2014.
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