“This is some faggot shit, bro.”
On a field trip in 10th grade, this was the only thing that stuck with me from that day: a classmate sitting next to me on the bus asking me what I’m listening to on my iPod, and commenting on the Hair soundtrack playing from my earbuds.
Miami is an interesting case study in ethnicity politics. Because nearly 70% of the city’s population is of Hispanic or Latino descent, many of the norms at play in majority-white cities are replaced with those inherent in Latin cultures. This means that homophobia rooted in machismo can often be as foundational to a Miamian’s upbringing as lechón asado. My family, which is composed of a handful of cultures from around Latin America and the Caribbean, deviates from that trend in their acceptance and love of our queer relatives.
This knowledge of their unconditional love remained planted in the back of my mind from my childhood through college, but went ignored and forgotten as I navigated my adolescence in Florida’s self-described “capital of Latin America.” My academic environment of an all-boys Catholic school—combined with the inherently homophobic Latino culture that courses through Miami’s veins—didn’t help.
My case was by no means isolated: a number of boys who went to my high school (and girls from our “sister” all-girls school) postponed their coming out until after they had graduated and moved away to more accepting environments in their college careers.
Talking about, sexualizing, and romantically pursuing girls were the only agreed-upon social norms at our school, so to publicly acknowledge oneself as someone who has no desire of doing so was an onerous declaration that no queer students wanted to make.
One of the most glaring reasons why Christopher Columbus High School and Our Lady of Lourdes Academy were hostile environments for queer students can also be seen as the most ironic: all of your fellow students and a large portion of teachers and administrators are the same sex as you. As a result, any variant personal trait—e.g., homosexuality—becomes especially scrutinized by everyone.
At Columbus, talking about, sexualizing, and romantically pursuing girls were the only agreed-upon social norms at our school, so to publicly acknowledge oneself as someone who has no desire of doing so was an onerous declaration that no queer students wanted to make. Anthony*, a 2013 graduate of Columbus, believes that surreptitious homophobia thrived at our school because the existence of queer people was never discussed, and was all but erased from classroom conversation.
“The lack of exposure leads to students not knowing how to react to LGBTQ people, and internal conflict for those who are LGBTQ,” he says.
Alexis* and Sam*, 2013 graduates of Lourdes Academy, believe the same thing: the total lack of mention of anything relating to LGBTQ people at Lourdes undoubtedly made it hard for girls like them to fully come to terms with themselves.
The biggest culprit for why LGBTQ people were never mentioned at our schools should be obvious: they’re Catholic schools, where the image of the ideal student falls in line with Christianity’s eternal fascination with heterosexual perfection. Though the Catholic Church seems to be changing their tone on LGBTQ members (albeit at the glacial speed the Catholic Church is known for), this sea change has failed to trickle down to a large number of schools.
Look no further than Columbus’ website, which recently published an article telling parents why an all-boys school is their best option for their sons. With selling points like “No girls means fewer distractions,” the school pushes a narrative that all young boys are uncontrollable horndogs who’ll never be able to focus on schoolwork in the presence of girls. Statements like this effortlessly dismiss queer students’ identities and ingrain self-hatred in those who fail to conform to this ideal. Even more covertly, they breed a dangerously toxic rape culture amongst the students as a result of never learning in adolescence how to properly interact with women, as well as never being held responsible by anyone for sexist words or behavior.
Gabriel Ojeda, a Philadelphia-based writer and poet who graduated from Columbus in 2012, isn’t surprised by the school’s adherence to this religious standard.
“Columbus, as many other schools, is obsessed with a picture of itself as successful, masculine, honorable, and moral,” he says. “It prides itself, in fact, on how much it wants to create one kind of student. We didn’t all have the same haircut and outfit for nothing.”
Catholic indoctrination is by no means the only factor in students’ disdain for queer peers, however. In the decades following reviled Cuban despot Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled and sought better opportunities in South Florida, making Miami the world’s largest enclave of Cubans outside of the island and transforming the city into the Latin metropolis that it is today.
As the son of one of these exiles, Ojeda knows firsthand the Miami Cuban exile narrative that has been woven into the city’s history in the last half-century. For him, the biggest problem with the Columbus brand of homophobia lies in the exiles’ idea of success in their new country, and how they inculcate their ideas of success in their children.
“To be successful you have to be a person who can socialize with others; family is everything, more is more, America rocks…this is the dream of the exile generation’s children,” he says.
“Being gay just doesn’t fly for this exile version of the American wet dream.” Couple this with Caribbean Latinos’ penchant for Catholicism and Catholic schooling, and you’ve got a perfectly unique blend of cultural and religious pushback against queer sexualities.
As for how these phenomena play out in the testosterone-fueled environment of Columbus High School, Ojeda says that the students and faculty enable each other in the exhibition of their homophobic tendencies, and in some cases even act as cheerleaders for each other.
“When people called me a faggot, teachers would not defend me. Sometimes they would have fun with it too.”
The to-be-expected spiels about gay people going to hell, the explicit requirement that all students must bring female dates to prom, and the rejection of the creation of a gay-straight alliance shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The most egregious act of contempt for students’ well-beings that Ojeda experienced came in the form of deafening silence from teachers.
“When people called me a faggot, teachers would not defend me. Sometimes they would have fun with it too… This is all for a few reasons, but one big reason is that most of Columbus’s male teachers are just former Columbus students. Oh, the great homophobic recycling center!”
Though neither Sam nor Alexis can recall instances that horrifying at Lourdes, it was very clear that being a “Lourdes Lele” would be met with ridicule at least, and familial strife at most. When Sam came to the realization that she was gay at age 20, she was filled with paralyzing fear about how her mother and grandmother would react.
“After I’ve dropped hints that I’m not straight, I was literally told by my mother that she doesn’t mind lesbians, but would mind having a lesbian daughter… My grandmother has told me to my face that gays are immoral and are going to hell,” Sam said.
And in classic Cuban fashion, her mother and grandmother gave men more of a free pass for homosexuality than women, treating them as punchlines rather than social pariahs.
“If a man acted even the slightest bit non-masculine, you would hear someone in my family saying ‘¿y él es un mariconsito?’”
Alexis echoes a similar sentiment with her Cuban and Colombian family.
“If you’re old enough to have a quinces, you’re old enough to be in a serious relationship with a man. And if you’re not, especially as you age, something is wrong with you,” she reflects. Gay women brought up in conversation were often the recipients of an “Ay, pobresita.”
Because of this, Alexis chose to stealthily (and successfully) conceal her sexuality for as long as possible, even keeping a relationship with one of our mutual friends completely under wraps until she told me years later.
“Living this sort of double life seemed like the best solution at the moment,” she says. “I value my friendships and family more than anything in life, and thinking I could never share this life with them ate at me.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women in Latin cultures are held to a higher image of perfection than their male counterparts are. From a young age, Sam’s mother constantly groomed her to create a “mirror image of herself.” Because of this, all of her decisions were made for her: her clothes, her political views, and even her high school—the same all-girls Catholic school her mom went to.
But even though this picture seems bleak, my friends remain hopeful for what lies ahead.
As with many other dated ideologies often prevalent in older generations, Anthony believes “this generation of Hispanic people is much more accepting.” He even believes that such progression has bled upward: “I come from an all-Cuban family, and although I haven’t told my parents that I’m bi, my family has always been very supportive of me and I know they would be fine with it.”
When Alexis came out to her mother and brothers, she often faced microaggressive comments, but her family’s love has since overpowered any homophobic tendencies that were ingrained in them from their youth. She’s reassured Sam, who’s petrified by the thought of coming out to her family, that they love her too much to simply write her off forever. It’s a beautiful instance of the sisterly solidarity that Lourdes Academy touts they create amongst their students—albeit not exactly the kind of solidarity the administration intended.
Latinos have always faced animosity in the U.S. from both the government and fellow Americans alike. In the last two years, Donald Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric regarding Latinos has fanned the flames of xenophobia and racism that President Obama’s tenure temporarily mollified. So now more than ever, we have a moral responsibility to support, uplift, and empower our LGBTQ hermanxs and renounce the harmful cultural and religious practices that our parents and grandparents catechize us from a young age. It’s imperative that Catholic schools—and the Catholic Church at large—change how they regard “other” people in their teachings, and strive to emulate Jesus’ promise that he loves everyone. Doing so, more than anything, is an act of love itself: “not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
*Names indicated with an asterisk have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.
**A note on ethnic descriptor terms: While I personally use “Latinx” when describing all people of Latin descent, a number of people I know are opposed to the use of the intersectional term “Latinx,” and prefer the descriptors “Latino” or “Hispanic.” Similarly, when describing these Catholic schools and the Latin communities that fill and run them, I opt to use “Latino” when the more inclusive “Latinx” doesn’t accurately describe the people and cultural practices in question.