I once punched a girl in the face for saying, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.” All because a boy she liked, liked me. I didn’t think about it, I just swung. Then I dared her to say it again. She didn’t. She knew better.
I was raised in a gay relationship in the 70s and 80s. Long before Heather has Two Mommies hit the mainstream in the 90s. And just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders in 1973.
For years I was told that my family was living in sin. That my two mothers were immoral and disgusting and going to hell. That no one’s born gay.
Still, when I went to boarding school at 13, I didn’t tell anybody about my family. I convinced myself that I just didn’t want to deal with it. What would people say? How would they treat me? I was carrying my own shame.
When California’s Prop 8 was overturned earlier this year, I cheered with the crowds that stood outside the San Francisco courthouse, and I teared up watching the gay couples hug and cry. But the images that really shook me were those of kids, little kids like my daughter, seven, eight and nine years old, grinning and holding up signs and wearing t-shirts that read, “GAY means God abhors you.” Hatred like this is taught. It’s learned. And it’s vile.
Last week, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay U.S. senator. And for the first time, same-sex marriage was legalized by voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington State. Minnesota voters did not approve a referendum to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Change is a’comin’, folks. Yes. I believe that. But it’s not coming fast enough. Over the past ten years, thirty states that have passed referendums defining marriage as a union between a man and woman. This week, Uganda officially passed the “Kill the Gays” Bill, calling it a Christmas gift for the Ugandan people. The bill essentially equates homosexual acts to the same level as murder.
We’ve got a long way to go.
I was orphaned when my mother Millie died seven years ago. My biological mother went back to being a Jehovah’s Witness, and now says she regrets being with Millie for twenty some odd years. “Les dí un mal ejémplo.” That’s bullshit. Millie is the reason I’m sane.
See, Millie is the one who loved me. Tender, unconditional, I believe in you love. My biological mother hasn’t spoken to me in months. She’s done that so many times throughout my life. 37 years. That’s how she punishes me. She denies me her love.
Millie always wore a kangol. A black kangol. And a pair of worn jeans. So worn they had the outline of her wallet on her left black pocket like someone had traced the square with chalk. She carried a ring with a thousand keys on the belt loop on her right hip. And, she always had beads of sweat on her lip and on the bridge of her pointy Castillian nose, no matter what season it was. Summer or winter. She smiled her chipped front tooth smile that was such a big part of her face, and she’d grab the brim of her hat and say, ‘Yo soy butch.’ But the way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa, but just with her shoulders.
She was proud of who she was. Of being Boricua. Of being a butch. “You soy del monte. Yo soy Lares.” At least that’s what she showed me. Except when she and mom fought. And, when she was dying.
Mom and Millie were vicious to eachother when they argued. They hurled hate like daggers. But when mom took out her uzi and called Millie a maricona, Millie shrank into herself. Her bottom lip trembled. Her eyes got watery. And, she’d pound her chest and yell, “¡Yo no soy maricona, coño! ¡Yo soy butch!” Her voice would crack and she’d cry. “Yo soy butch.” Over and over. Like she was trying to convince herself. Then she wiped her face roughly with the front of her orange t-shirt, grabbed her keys and she was out. “Me voy pa’l carajo.”
What must have been going through her mind? What was it like for her to grow up a lesbian in Lares in the 50s and 60s where the Pentecostal church is as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees? Is that why you left your querida isla, Millie?
When I came home from first grade and told her I was being bullied, she took me out to the backyard and taught me how to fight. How to throw an uppercut and a jab. “Pero ten cuida’o con esa manos de madera.”
When I was obsessed with basketball, she fashioned a hoop out of a rusty tire rim, nailed it to a splintered piece of plywood and put it up in the backyard. Then she went out and bought me an official Spalding basketball.
When I wanted a bike, she went around and collected parts from her friends and neighborhood junkyards and built me my rainbow bike. One wheel yellow, the other blue, a white seat, peeling aqua grips on the handlebars. I rode that bike like it was a king’s chariot.
And when I told her, excitedly, as she lay withering away from that mothafuckin disease, cancer, “I think I wanna write a book, Millie,” she propped herself up on one arm, her breath raspy, and said, “Pero negra, you’ve always been a writer.” And that night I went home and started writing my first novel.
I visited Millie everyday while she was in the hospice. Calvary was just two miles from my house. I was home collecting unemployment while nursing Vasialys who was only months old. So every morning, I’d bundle up my nena, pack up the stroller, and walked my way over to the hospice, praying that Millie had a good night, that she’d be vibrant and laughing, her breathing smooth, her pain eased.
Millie had been diagnosed with breast cancer six years earlier. She had her right breast removed and repeated stints of chemotherapy. But the mastectomy and chemo were not meant to save her life. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes by the time she felt the lump in the shower, so Millie knew eventually she’d die from the disease. She carried her mortality like a heavy load that shrank her will and faith. And even her pride.
She said the breast that remained looked like a deflated whoopee cushion. She slapped it so it bounced and her double rolled belly jiggled. “Si yo fuera una mujer femenina, estó me molestaría,” she said about the keloid gash, bubbled and sagging to one side.
I could tell that she was lying. She was covering up her sadness with jokes. I once caught her staring at her nude reflection in the mirror. She traced the wound with her finger and bit her lip. When she saw me watching, she laughed. “Yo si estoy gorda, negra.”
When I cleaned the gash, she searched my face, looking for a reaction. Disgust, I think. I never showed it. This was the woman who cleaned me when I shat my pants that time I had a bad case of the runs when I was eight. This was the woman who carried me on her shoulders when I was just three and mom made us walk the two miles to Knickerbocker Park. This was the woman who taught me how to fight when I was being bullied. “Te tienes que aprender a defender. ¡Con puños Vanessa, con puños!” I was only doing for her what she’d done for me since I was two. I was loving her.
One day when I walked into the hospice, she was whimpering into her pillow. I ran to her. “What’s wrong? Te duele algo?” I reached for the nurse button but she grabbed my arm with the hand that was forever swollen after the mastectomy so it looked like a blown up latex glove.
“No, I’m okay.” She wiped the tear that clung to the tip of her nose. “Hi negra.” She kissed and hugged me. She was trembling. “Pasame la nena.” I put Vasia in her arms, sat on the chair next to the bed and watched.
I knew better than to ask any questions. Millie didn’t talk much when she was emotional. She did so in her time. I get my “I need to process this” tendencies from her.
After she drank the coffee (con leche y dos azucar) and ate the old fashioned donut I brought her every morning. After holding Vasialys and cooing at her. After explaining to Vasia what was going on in whatever show she was watching, in between her stories about life and love and how blessed Vasia was to be my daughter “porque yo la crié,” she looked at me. “Tengo miedo, negra.”
“Why? What are you afraid of?”
“¿Te sacastes mas leche o le vas a tener que dar seno?” Millie preferred that I pump my breastmilk so she could feed Vasialys until mom came in the early evening and sent me packing, telling me I needed to go home to my marido, though by then my daughter’s father was more roommate than partner. But the hospice was no place to reveal that I had failed at yet another relationship.
“No, Millie. There are two bottles in the bag. Don’t change the subject.”
“Que subject, ni subject. Eh!” She shrugged. “Dos botellas no es suficiente.”
“Millie, there’s plenty of milk in these tetas.” We laughed, staring at my swollen breasts that popped out of every top I owned. “And I brought the pump just in case.” I pointed at the bag hanging from the carriage.“So, ¿que fue lo que tu diji’te?”
“Ay na’. It’s nothing.”
I grabbed the remote and turned off the T.V. Only I could do that. Anybody else would have gotten an ice stare and something thrown at them. Usually the closest thing to her. I raised my eyebrow and waited. She looked down at Vasia who was sleeping on the bed next to her. She adjusted her onesie and rubbed her back. Her hand was trembling. “What if it’s true? That I’m going to hell.”
“What do you mean?”
“Vanessa, la biblia dice…”
I cut her off like I always did when she brought up the bible. These kinds of conversations never ended well between us. I’d listen for a while, rolling my eyes. Then I’d get frustrated and go on a rant about how the bible didn’t come to earth via fax, that it was biased, machista, and contradicted itself. She’d call me atea and we’d stop talking about it. But this conversation felt different so I held my tongue, or at least I tried to. “Millie, you’re not going to hell.”
“¿Y tú que sabes?” She stared out the window, one hand still stroking Vasia’s head.
I leaned in and ran my fingers through Millie’s hair. It had re-grown after her last chemo session, but now it was gray and wiry, not thick and jet black like it used to be. She started to cry softly. I held her head on my chest until she calmed down. “Tu huele a leche,” she giggled. Comedy was how she kept her sanity.
“How can God send you to hell? You loved me, Millie.”
She brushed the hair out of my face. “Tu eres mi negra, you know that?” I bit back the tears. She needed me to be strong. This was no time to get lost in my grief.
“You’re really scared, aren’t you?”
“Si negra. Yo viví en pecado. ”
“¿Quien dice? Who is this God you’re talking about? The God I know loves you.”
“Si, pero la Biblia dice que yo viví en pecado, Vanessa, y Papa Dio no perdona esa cosa.”
“¿Que pecado ni pecado?” I was getting mad. I felt helpless. I knew that I couldn’t do anything to save Millie from what she learned as a kid en Lares. From her three brothers who were all pastors, especially the one who was extra self-righteous because he found God after being an alcoholic for twenty years. If he could give himself to God, anyone could. And then there was Millie’s mother, who died begging her, “Deja esa vida, hija. Te quiero ver en el cielo un día.”
My helplessness got the best of me. We didn’t talk about it again. I found her a few times whimpering in the bathroom and sobbing into her pillow. She sometimes confessed to being scared, before an exam or after a really bad night. I held her until the shaking passed. It was all I could do.
I went to see Millie every day for nearly two months. I walked there. Every single day. Con la nena. During the dead of winter. Even if it was snowing or raining. I went. Eventually, Vasia got sick. Really sick. Fever. Cough. Congestion. So I couldn’t see Millie for a week, though we talked every day. One day, I felt something off. When I called, no one answered. Finally, on my fifth or sixth try, the nurse answered. “She’s sleeping. She’s been sleeping all day.”
A mi se me metio algo. I had to see her. So when my daughter’s father got home, I insisted he take me. I screamed and yelled, wouldn’t let him change his clothes. Stood over him, yelling while he ate the dinner I’d prepared. I flipped until he finally agreed, though he argued the entire ride there. He screeched off when I got out of the car.
Millie opened her eyes when I walked in. For the first time all day, Mom said. She was propped up on the pillow, resting her head on her arm. She had an oxygen mask on. The cancer had invaded her lungs by then. She pushed the mask down and patted the pillow. “Ponmela aqui.” I placed the baby next to her. Tears dripped down onto the pillow. “Cuidamela.” She played with Vasia’s fingers and smiled while Vasia kicked and stared. Millie looked at me. “I love you, negra.” It was the last thing she said.
I got the call the next morning. Millie died. By herself like she wanted to.
In 2009, a Connecticut church posted a video of what church members called the exorcism of a “homosexual demon” from a teenager’s body. In the twenty minute clip, the boy is seen thrashing on the ground, crying, vomiting, while churchleaders yell, “Right now in the name of Jesus, I call the homosexuality, right now in the name of Jesus,” over and over.
Over the past few years, the headlines have been full of stories of teens committing suicide because of gay bullying. September 2009 was especially gruesome.
– September 9th: Billy Lucas, age 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, hangs himself from the rafters of his family’s barn.
– September 19th: Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California, hangs himself from a tree in his yard.
– September 22nd: Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, jumps off the George Washington Bridge in New York City.
– September 23rd: Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Texas, shoots himself in the head.
These four young men didn’t know each other. They were all bullied at school. And they all came to the same conclusion: If you’re gay or labeled gay, life just isn’t worth living.
My Millie wasn’t (and still isn’t) alone in her desperation to reconcile her love for women with the messages she received from society. From her church. From her family. From the island she so adored. The world told her that her homosexuality was not, is not acceptable.
I am an advocate for gay people, men and woman, young and old, because I saw how terrified Millie was on her deathbed. How terrified she was of what awaited her in the afterlife. Because she was convinced she was going to hell.
This is why I write about being raised, mothered, by a butch. Because while the studies and the statistics and the numbers play their part, they do not give face to people and meaning to their struggles. Story does.
****A version of this essay appears in the VONA/Voices anthology, Dismantle.