November 29, 2007
by Heather Cassell
Latino families are changing in America, including their attitudes about raising gender non-conforming children, according to Mental Health America's recent survey, but for many, they still don't talk about sexual orientation. Yet help for conversation starters may be just a TV show, school, or an organization away.
The hit TV show Ugly Betty portrays the Suarez family, who loves and accepts Justin, a gender non-conforming pre-teen, played by Mark Indelicato. While the show never outright discusses that Justin might be gay, it shows that his family allows him to be himself and to pursue his interest in fashion, with the help of his Aunt Betty, who works at Mode, a top New York fashion magazine.
Ana Ortiz, who plays Hilda Suarez, Justin's mother, wrote in an October 24 e-mail to the Bay Area Reporter that her television character "doesn't judge."
"She is so proud of her boy," wrote Ortiz. "[A] happy, well-adjusted kid ... he is happy with who he is. He has a very high opinion of himself. Self-worth is a wonderful thing in a kid."
Jason Halal, manager of media relations of Mental Health America, which conducted a survey, "What Does Gay Mean?" [See the November 22 article "Latino survey draws support and criticism" at http://ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=2455] wrote in an e-mail last month that the media plays a "vital role in informing people in America about issues affecting their communities" by providing tools and resources to "foster dialogues that may seem difficult or daunting – like talking about sexual orientation and bullying."
That exposure cultivates appreciation and respect for individuals and communities, including the LGBT community, Halal said.
"Shows and movies that portray Latino LGBT youth should be commended for including diverse characters – in non-stereotypical ways – in their storylines," wrote Halal.
One family's story
But how does this small screen peek into a Latino family in Queens reflect what is really happening in Latino families across the United States?
"The Suarez family is very familiar to people," wrote Ortiz, "because we are your neighbors, your friends, [and] your co-workers."
The Puyol family in San Francisco hasn't seen the American version of Ugly Betty, but Bolivar and his wife Jessica are familiar with the Columbian and the Mexican versions of the show. Yet, while they don't watch the show, they reflect the acceptance that is one of the premises of the storyline. Bolivar and Jessica choose to raise their sons, Francisco, 7, and Andres, 7 months old, in a richly diverse environment.
"I would rather raise my kids in the city exposed to all kinds of people, cultures, and stimuli of all kinds than to live someplace where I grew up in the suburbs in Los Angeles and it was kind of the opposite," said Bolivar.
Bolivar Puyol, an architect project manager for Kwan Henmi Architecture/Planning, and Jessica, who currently is a stay at home mom, agreed with Mental Health America's recent findings that 95 percent of 503 Latino respondents surveyed want to provide information about sexual orientation to their children. Yet, from Bolivar's perspective most Latino families didn't necessarily want to have the conversation with their children.
"I think that most Latino families, certainly here, first of all they wouldn't want to talk about it," said Bolivar. "I would say more than 50 percent would want to shove it under the rug and if they did talk about it, in a lot of cases it would be bad."
"Parents tend to immediately just assume their kids are going to be heterosexual until they get proven otherwise," Bolivar added, laughing.
Yet, Bolivar, 38, who was raised in a progressive Catholic family in Los Angeles, and his wife, Jessica, 26, who was raised Catholic in a small town in Honduras until her mother converted to the Evangelical Church when she was 11 years old, aren't afraid to discuss sexual orientation, bullying, and prejudice against LGBT individuals with their sons. When the question arises Bolivar said he would speak openly and honestly.
"Someday I imagine Francisco asking how come Madeline has two dads," said Bolivar about his older son's best friend. "We will just explain ... people fall in love with someone [and] in our case a man and woman fell in love with each other, but other cases a man [and] another man fall in love or a woman and a woman fall in love."
At the moment Francisco and Andres are learning through experience.
"He's already seen that," said Bolivar talking about Francisco, "taking a lot of it in kind of by osmosis" about the diversity of families he's being exposed to at school and living in San Francisco, " he's seeing it and he's living it" making it normal.
Bolivar pointed out that every culture has prejudices toward LGBT people, but that education makes a difference. Caitlin Ryan, director and social worker of the Family Acceptance Project, and other Latino cultural experts and LGBT Latino youth and family advocates emphasized this fact as well.
"We saw a wide range of families reacted – Latino families – from being very, very rejecting to being very accepting on the other side," said Ryan.
Roberto Ordenana, director of community programs of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, who works with the center's youth programs, agreed with Ryan. Most of all he pointed out parents want what is best for their children.
"Many Latino parents want to do what's best for their kids ... there is a lot of fear ... if your child may be LGBT there might be some fears around access to health care and how they might be treated by society," said Ordenana.
Ordenana believes that Latino parents' fears and concerns for their children can be alleviated through support and information. Mental Health America found that there was a dearth of culturally sensitive information, so it created the handbook "Que Significa Ser Gay?"
"We need to have much stronger support mechanisms for Latino parents to engage in conversations with their children in Spanish-language," said Ordenana, pointing to a statistic in the "What Does Gay Mean?" survey that 77 percent of Latino parents feel it is harmful for children to tease each other for being gay – whether or not they are gay.
"I think that's telling that there are many parents out there who fear discrimination and that is why, in fact, they are not having these vital conversations," said Ordenana.
Ordenana told the B.A.R. it was "incumbent on all of us [meaning LGBT organizations as well] to provide support mechanisms" for Latino parents, like the Puyol family, so "conversations parents have with their youth can be the most affirmative and positive that they can be" about bullying and prejudice behaviors toward sexual orientation and gender identity.
Source: The Bay Area Reporter