I have become the man I am because my grandmother’s intolerance strengthens me and her resilience inspires me.
Picture a conservative seventy-five year old Catholic woman who has lived in seclusion on a farm in Chile for the past several decades. Now give her flaming dyed-red hair, the vivacity of a stage mom, and a wooden spoon. Disagreements create tensions between us, but the fact that I attend an all-boys Catholic school cements our relationship. Nothing pleases my grandmother more than to think I am growing up as a devout Catholic who will eventually have a wife and several children to pass on the Momo bloodline. But that last part won’t happen: I’m gay.
My grandmother has tried everything to change me. When Catholic school didn’t work, she turned to science. After contacting one of her doctors in Chile, she proceeded to tell me that she had found testosterone pills that would help with my “condition.” Her refusal to accept my homosexuality creates familial drama comparable to that of telenovelas chilenas. But like every telenovela, my family manages to persevere and see past each other’s differences. Under the surface of my grandmother’s limited mindset lies a woman of limitless strength. With my grandmother’s example, I not only survive but also thrive at the oldest all-boys Catholic school in the country.
My grandmother inspires my ability to adapt to adverse environments. By twenty-two she had birthed four children, immigrated to the US with my father, and lived on a grocer’s salary to support her family. When my grandmother left Chile, she left behind the stable income from her farm, the comforts of a unified culture and language, and relationships with family and friends. When I arrived at Catholic school, I, like my grandmother, entered an entirely new environment. I left behind the cocoon of my liberal New Jersey middle school where I felt secure surrounded by walls covered with rainbow “safe space ” stickers. Most importantly, I left behind a family who supported my every move. I then dove into a homogeneous white heterosexual culture where “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the unspoken mantra.
At my school, students rarely discussed LGBTQ issues. I could have flown under the radar in this heteronormative environment, but my grandmother has shown me differently; she took risks. In my sophomore year, I became one of two openly gay students out of a student body of five hundred. I decided to come out because I didn’t want others to live in fear. Students should not have to study in an environment where they feel ashamed of who they are. My journey to changing this culture began in English class. Through my writing, I challenged my classmates by presenting a look into my journey as a gay man, all the while including how my grandmother served as a source of strength. Like my grandmother who sacrificed a great deal to help her family, I risked alienation in hopes that I would aid and inspire other gay men at my school. It worked. More students came out, and the culture at my school radically changed. The community developed into one of acceptance. In 2015, 226 years after my school’s inception, I became a founding member of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
Every year, I go back to Chile. Every year, it’s the same telenovela, just a different season. Whether it’s testosterone pills or, “I am not coming to your wedding,” followed by tears, a dramatic exit, and an “Ave Maria,” I keep going back. Because every time I go, I come back with another piece of my grandmother’s strength sewn into the fabric of my character. Nothing can corrupt the relationship I have with my grandmother; I irrevocably love her. She has inspired me to graduate from Catholic school as a man prepared to lead others into lives where identity is no longer an obstacle to success.