“I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child’, her mother said before hanging up.”
-Morris, Alex “The For-Saken” (Rolling Stone)
A year ago, I lost my middle daughter; she was gay. When our children are born we promise them unconditional love. Once she came out to the family, my love for her became conditional. It was a very confusing period for me and caused a severe strain in our relationship. To overcome this state of confusion, I took inventory of my life and thought of all the gay people who impacted my life in some way. Not the obvious, like one of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, but those gay men and women who had a direct and overwhelmingly positive impact on my growth and development as a member of humanity. This retrospective helped me to better understand my daughter and heal our strained relationship. Then she died. This is my story.
Growing Up In New York City
My parents were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York; after marriage they migrated to Queens, New York. I grew up in a stable middle class community, comprised mostly of people, who like my parents, worked for the city, state or federal government. My parents were trying to escape the social, economic, and political strife of Brooklyn at that time. However, nearly every weekend we would travel to Brooklyn to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who did not “escape,” along with family friends who represented a cast of characters vivid enough to be featured in any novel by Charles Dickens or Iceberg Slim.
My grandparents had a big brownstone in the Bedford- Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. My cousins and I would run through it from top to bottom. I had so many cousins of all ages. There was always food, lots of food, making the house smell so good. The food was always so delicious. When the food was ready my grandmother would cry out,“Let the chilren’ eat first!” The children under six, including me at the time, would sit and eat at the enormous kitchen table while my grandfather, aunts, uncles, and older cousins would wait for us to finish. The cast of neighborhood characters would arrive and crowd the kitchen with their brown bags full of, as my uncle called it, “medicine.” Once dinner was finished, the children of the house received their instructions: “Your belly is full; now go upstairs and play. It’s grown people time!” Suddenly the music slowed down, and couples began to dance to classic rhythm and blues selections featuring Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Dorothy Moore, The Dells and more. At the time I didn’t understand why the men held the women so close.
Cousin Gene was an intermittent guest at these family gatherings. The family loved Cousin Gene. His presence made everyone in my family excited and very happy. What I remember most about Cousin Gene is that he had a big “Jermaine Jackson” afro, carried a purse and his friends were really loud. But Cousin Gene spoke real soft, never said much and loved to dance. When he arrived my Mom would find me, disrupt my playing and force me to stand at her knee. I would protest, “Ma, why can’t I go play with my cousins?” She replied, “Cousin Gene is here and he’s funny. Now shut up boy and stand right here. Don’t you move!” My aunt had some vinyl records we were told never to listen to because they contained “grown people jokes.” As soon as the grown folks began to party, my older cousins would play these records; I would sneak and listen. All night, while standing at my mother’s knee, I watched and waited for Cousin Gene to tell a joke or do a routine like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, or Dick Gregory- now they were funny. And even though I watched and waited intently, he never did. In my preschool mind I did not know “funny” was a code word for gay. However, the family LOVED Cousin Gene. The most incredible part of this contradiction is behind his back there were always quiet whispers of words like “funny,” “sissy” or “queer.”
I left New York City to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Howard is considered the premiere institution among historically black colleges and universities. These institutions were created in the post-Civil War era in an attempt to address the educational aspirations of the newly freed slave. Fridays at noon, especially during the spring semester, were the best times at HU. The Greek organizations would be stepping, the Pan Africanists would be distributing information about South African apartheid, campus politicians, including Kamala Harris; now Attorney General for the State of California, Rushern Baker; now County Executive for Prince George’s County MD and Kasim Reed; now Mayor of Atlanta, GA – would be encouraging students to get involved with campus politics; the Black Nationalists, including Chris Cathcart; now a prominent AIDS Activist and Ras Baraka; now Mayor of Newark, NJ- would be making speeches. Sean “Diddy” Combs and other New Yorkers would be playing the latest hip-hop and R&B from NYC, saxophonist, Antonio Parker; would be playing John Coltrane or Miles Davis at the Flag Pole and en route to their classes, beautiful Howard women would be stopped occasionally by men with some of the most creative pick-up lines. Most importantly, one of my best friends, Kathy, could always be found in front of the Fine Arts building playing her electric piano.
Kathy was an excellent pianist and a great friend. The kind of friend you call at 4 a.m. when you were stuck on the highway twenty miles from campus with no gas. She was the friend who called when she was cooking; the one who lent you $40 after you asked for only $20. Moreover, whenever I had a girlfriend problem, Kathy always gave me the best advice. These are all BIG issues when you are in college. She was the friend who entered the room when all your other “friends” were leaving. She was one of my best friends. Kathy lived off campus in a nice apartment. From time to time she would host dinner parties, and would always invite me. She was an “artsy person” at a time in my life when I didn’t see any value in the arts. I was “hardcore New York”: the birthplace of Hip Hop, real political activism and quintessential cool. “Artsy” wasn’t my thing. But Kathy persisted, so finally I relented.
To my surprise, when I arrived I realized that the majority of her guests were gay. Kathy walked me around the apartment, proudly introducing me to each one of her friends. She was so happy I came. There were authors, politicians, students, musicians, business owners, and visual artists. Moreover, in attendance were some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life. But I could see they were taken. Initially, I felt pretty awkward. I had never before been in a room filled with so many gay men and women. At times, I broke into a sweat. Frankly, I was a little confused; Kathy was my best friend and this was a side of her I didn’t know. But once I got settled, I had a fantastic time. There was so much laughter, great food and great conversation. And everyone treated me with respect. In hindsight, I realized Kathy wanted me to know all of her. The day after her parties, Kathy would ask me if I enjoyed myself. I would always say yes, and talk about the food, music, and some of the wonderful people I met. But what saddens me is that we would never talk about the obvious: the party was filled with gay people and she was gay. To this day, I regret this. This was a part of my best friend that I chose to ignore.
Working In Corporate America
While in graduate school at Howard, I started a record label and eventually landed a joint venture deal with Interscope Records. Jimmy Iovine, the Chairman and President became a mentor and one of the best teachers of my life. His business acumen was incredible. Moreover, Jimmy’s ability to deal with men and women covering a spectrum from “Yale to jail” was fascinating. These were the early days of Interscope. Dr. Dre’s classic CD, “The Chronic” had been on the shelves for over a year. Great artists like No Doubt, The Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Eminem were all beginning their careers. The most outstanding characteristic of Interscope at the time was the environment Jimmy created. It was competitive, yet supportive. Everyone worked together to achieve hit songs and No.1 positions on the Billboard charts. Moreover, the workplace was multicultural and filled with young, intelligent people. You could say it was a prototype for the tech companies of today.
The head of Urban Publicity during my tenure was an African-American openly gay man and one of the most respected publicity men in the business. He was great at his job. One of my artist, Mya, was riding a series of hit songs. On a daily basis, he would stop by my office with news: “Haqq Islam” – for some reason he always called me by my first and last name- “I got your girl on MTV!; Haqq Islam, I got your girl on the cover of VIBE and Haqq Islam, I got your girl another interview on BET!” He was a brilliant and worldly man and he became a great friend. Although we were friends, I still felt a level of awkwardness around him. This was my first real daily interaction with an openly gay man; honestly, I was uncomfortable.
Some days we would talk for hours about music,work, life, politics and more. However, we never addressed “the elephant in the room:” his sexuality. Our friendship had developed to the point where I encouraged myself to get over it. So I got over it.
One day, I looked him straight in the eye, shook his hand and said, “It’s alright, you are my friend; it’s alright.” As archaic as this sounds today, he understood the sentiment I was trying to communicate. The following week, he came by my office as usual, this time with someone he wanted me to meet: his boyfriend. I invited them in and we talked. Initially, the atmosphere was quite uncomfortable. This was a first for me. As time went by the conversation got easier to manage and was really good. We talked about the usual: music, work, politics, etc… For me this was a major breakthrough. To this day, I am thankful he thought enough of me and our friendship to introduce me to his boyfriend. None of this would have happened if Jimmy Iovine did not have the foresight to hire people based solely on the fact that they were the best person for the job. Interscope Records was a great place to work; it taught me to value all of my friends and people who are at the top of their profession regardless of who they choose to love.
Crazy In Love
Around this time I fell in love, head over heels with a Boricua from Philadelphia. “Mi Novia” came from the same tribe as Salma Hayek, Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez. Trust me, one can go to uptown NYC or the South Bronx on any weekend and see some young Latinas walking around that would cause you to throw any one of those ladies under the bus; no disrespect. Mi Novia fit gracefully into this category. Moreover, she had street smarts, intelligence and the most incredible smile. I was completely smitten. Gone.
After a year together, I began to question why I had not met her parents. In the past, she would charmingly avoid the question and I thought nothing of it. However, things were getting quite serious. This time I wanted an answer. She started crying profusely. I was confused. I comforted her. Her tears would not stop. I was helpless. After some time she calmed down. I encouraged her to talk. She explained her mother was gay. She did not want to tell me because she thought I would leave her. It bothered me that she thought I or my love for her was so shallow. However, I am certain during our relationship I used a few derogatory words and slurs against gay people that led her to this conclusion. I listened as she told me story after story which caused me great horror and dismay. She told me when she was a little girl people in the neighborhood would write “dike” on their front door or “lezbo” on her mother’s car. When coming home from school, the neighborhood kids would chant, “your mother is a no good lesbian.” At the time, she didn’t even know the meaning of these words. I sighed and said, “I love you; I love everything about you and all that comes with you. Let’s go meet your Mom.”
Soon thereafter, we went to meet her mother and her partner. Prior to this I met her sister and a vast array of female aunts and cousins who would stand over me and talk to each other about me in Spanish. I felt somewhat prepared but I was also quite nervous; putting everything aside, these were her parents and I was being introduced for the first time. I will never forget it. Her mom cooked a traditional Puerto Rican meal. It was delicious. When the dinner was over, everyone cleared out the kitchen, leaving her mom and I alone. She gave me a 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace- styled interview and I enjoyed every minute of it. Her mom was stern but real cool. We had a great conversation. Moreover, I REALLY liked her. She was a fantastic woman with a big, kind heart. I had a wonderful time. They were great people.
Looking back Mi Novia’s mom being gay never was an issue for me. I loved her unconditionally. She and her family taught me so much about love, life, loyalty and family. Most importantly, how love can sometimes transcend race, ideology, age, ethnicity, and gender. I lost Mi Novia through my own stupidity. However, the love and life lessons learned from her and her family will be with me forever. As the great Dominican American author, Junot Diaz, said, “she was the type of girlfriend God gives you young so you will know loss the rest of your life.”
I had children very young, three in fact, a boy and two girls, five months apart in age. Don’t ask. Today, my son still asks how I managed. Looking back it was just something we did as a family. Our parents provided a great support system. My children have extraordinary women for mothers. They overcame the challenges of teen pregnancy as well as went on to further their education, have great careers, and eventually both married quality men. The entire experience was a team effort, for this I am grateful.
My middle daughter was always the contrary one. Parents with more than one child know what I am talking about. She always did things her way. One day I received a call from my mother: “It’s a beautiful day today in New York City and your daughter is GAY!” Older people reach a point in their life when they no longer have use for censorship. Stunned, I asked, “What did you say?” She replied, “I said your daughter is gay!” I was shocked, confused. As I remembered it, she was always boy-crazy, and in fact, had given birth to my granddaughter a few years earlier. How could this be? Plus, there was no way a gay person would come from me. Impossible. There must have been a mistake. My mom continued to talk and impart wisdom but I wasn’t interested in a word she was saying. My younger sister, older sister, and niece called to explain my daughter’s position. I also talked to my son and youngest daughter looking for them both to help me talk some sense into her. First, in a kind way they each said, “get over it.” When I continued my protest, outright they said, “Father, GET OVER IT!!!” I became an army of one. Nonetheless, I could not wait to talk with my daughter and give her a piece of my mind. There will be no gay people in my family, I thought to myself.
When I finally got my daughter on the phone, the conversation was very tense. I was upset that she was gay. She was upset that I did not understand. Actually, I was not listening to a word she was saying. My love for my own child had become conditional. I broke the promise of unconditional love I gave her at birth. I was very aggressive. I wanted to know the who, what, where, when, why and how of it all. “What right do you have bringing the gay thing into my family,” I demanded. She remained steady, strong and confident, although I knew she was crying. These conversations went on for weeks, maybe months, in person and on the phone. I told my daughter that it was a phase; she would get over it. When I said these words, I felt her pain. Our relationship was strained. One day, I called her to continue my rampage. Holding back tears, she said one sentence that changed my life: “Do you think that I’m going to forget all you taught me because I am Gay?” Silence. With no more to offer I got off the phone. I cried.
From that moment I began to subconsciously and consciously take inventory of my life and think about all the gay men and women who affected me in so many positive ways. Acknowledging their contributions and humanity allowed me to better understand her coming out. At some point the light bulb went off in my head and I realized that who she loved didn’t matter. My promise was to love her unconditionally, so that was what I was going to do. I called her and apologized for my behavior. I told her, “I love you, and that’s the only thing that matters.” When I saw her in person, I hugged her so tight. She gave me her typical line whenever I hugged her this way, “Father, will you PLEASE cut it out!” Life was normal again. I resorted back to unconditional love.
After this, my daughter became active in the fight for gay rights and my mother became an outspoken supporter for gay causes. I’d overhear her schooling her church ladies, “Ain’t nothing wrong with gay people, God made them too.” She would also call me with the latest updates on gay culture: “You know” in a hushed tone, “whenever Wendy Williams says, ‘how you doin,’ it’s a special message to the gays” or “That Rachel Maddow is smart! I love the way she talks. You know she’s gay.” She would continue, “Ellen has a beautiful wife” or “Call Magic Johnson, CALL HIM! He has a gay son. Maybe you can start a committee or something.” My daughter’s coming out led to the entire family seeing the humanity and oneness of all people. Loving without conditions became our guiding force. Cousin Gene would be proud of us all; he died of AIDS a few years back.
In retrospect, with all the lessons life gave me, I should have handled my daughter’s coming out with ease. However, it wasn’t easy. I managed my way through a range of emotions and learned to deal with and conquer my own contradictions as a parent. My daughter and I bonded like never before and I became the proud parent of a lesbian daughter. Then, unfortunately, a year ago, she died suddenly from a seizure. No parent should have to bury their child. Nature suggests an order. When death happens out of order parents feel a pain and sorrow that never heals. Her mom planned a beautiful service. However, it was still somewhat of a paradox. The room was filled to capacity with so many young people. All with so much of their lives ahead of them, celebrating a life cut short. There was so much love in the room. Her friends, co-workers – gay and straight – and schoolmates going back to first grade were in attendance. She was the queen of multiculturalism, her friends mirrored the membership of The United Nations; she was filled with constant laughter and a bright smile to match. She had become quite a woman, a wonderfully gracious mother, the family soothsayer, and to my surprise, she became my friend and adviser. I love her more than infinity. I wish I could have back those wasted moments of conditional love to shower her with one more moment of unconditional love. One more hug, one more dance to Bachata – we loved Bachata music – one more of her “I love you” texts, one more call so she can tell me how I get on her last nerve, one more piece of advice, one more smile.
The Rolling Stone quote I began this article with was meant to showcase how crude and ugly we can be to our own children. Now more than ever I am forced to recognize my own shortcomings in this area. Initially, I could not offer my daughter the same courtesy I decidedly offered my friend and colleague at Interscope. Intellectually, before my daughter came out, I had concluded good people are good people no matter their sexual orientation. For some reason, upon learning my daughter was gay, my ego was not able to reconcile this emotionally. Being gay was fine, as long as it did not happen in my family. I was a hypocrite. I was wrong. A variety of gay men and women, some listed here, some not, unknowingly prepared me for her “coming out.” They all treated me with respect and were men and women with strength of character and integrity. For me, and most of us, gay men and women have always been a part of our lives. Moreover my lapses of conditional love were an unacceptable waste of time. These are moments I want back. The finality of death is sometimes hard to accept.
The greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Fortunately, I was able to correct the error of my ways BEFORE my daughter passed. This is the story of my growth. My story of how looking back helped me move forward. The beauty of life is that we are all unique. We represent a cornucopia of distinction. If we focused on celebrating our differences, rather than subjugating and oppressing on the basis of difference, always looking to find the humanity in others, the world would be a better place. My daughter taught me this. I hope my evolution, my daughter’s life and death, our story, helps someone or some family reclaim unconditional love in some way. Life is short, we are not promised tomorrow. Don’t waste a moment.