My little cousin came out to me on instant messenger my junior year of college. I sat in front of my laptop, typing words that conveyed shock, but I really wasn’t. Juan was only a few years younger than me and we practically grew up as brothers. In lieu of sports we played with Polly Pocket compacts, and pretended to be the girls from Saved By The Bell. It was always obvious he too was gay, and I was beyond thrilled to finally have someone in my big Cuban-American family who was like me.
In fairness to Juan, I may have been a tad overbearing after his coming out. However, we had grown apart throughout the years and I really wanted to rekindle our relationship. I invited him dinner with my boyfriend, and told him we could go partying on South Beach (As I phrased it, “so I can introduce you to the gay scene!”). I started Myspace stalking him and even left a comment on his profile on how to take the perfect selfie that would show off his bicep.
I tell you none of this to come across as neurotic or overbearing. Rather to tell you how blind I was to who Juan really was. You see, Juan was a goth kid and I thought all he needed was guidance to liberate him from his dark garbs. He had long black hair, baggy black jeans with chains, and wore pale contacts. Basically, the antithesis of what I thought “gay” should be at twenty. South Beach was so obviously not his scene and all he needed was his big cousin to listen. I was the idiot who instead of loving him for who he was, thought I could change him.
So we didn’t end up partying on South Beach. But you know what was one thing we had in common? Comic books. And each time I came home for the weekend, we’d go down to the local comic book store or he’d come over my parent’s house with an action figure or collectible that was impossible to find in my college town. Going to the comic book store with him is among my favorite memories. We were gay geeks and the only ones in our big Cuban family that understood each other.
When I moved to New York my relationship with Juan took a turn for the worst. My other cousin, Raul, came to visit. I hadn’t spoken to Juan in a few months and asked how he was doing.
“Dude,” Raul told me. “You know he doesn’t like you. He was talking mad shit about you the other day and I swear to God I wanted to punch him.”
I was floored. “What do you mean? What did he say?”
“He said: ‘There are two types of gay men in this world. Ones like me and fags like Paul.’”
I stood in shock. Did another gay man just call me the F-word? Isn’t that like the pot calling the kettle black? But I wasn’t angry. Instead I felt guilty. Growing up Cuban American in Miami, my family lost a lot when they crossed the Atlantic for America. The one thing they had when they got off the boat was each other. They were a family and I was always taught family comes first. When Juan came out to me, I reacted the wrong way. He was clearly holding a grudge. True my intentions were good, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Now I was rotting in the fires of my mistake and I was determined to right my wrongs when I saw him at Nochebuena.
“I don’t want to be part of this family,” Juan told me on Nochebuena. “I hate being a Florez.”
I had cornered him after our parents served the lechón. I wanted to talk, but he didn’t even want to spend a second with me. I thought of our fathers, lost at sea, weather-beaten. Did they make that journey just so one of their sons would denounce their name? So that two gay cousins would hate each other? Absolutely not. I was the older one, I was going to smooth over the situation.
“Juan, just give me five minutes,” I said. “We can fix this.”
Juan looked down at his watch. “Naw. I’m good.”
I didn’t see him again until my parents hosted Nochebuena two years ago at our house. A lot happens in two years and I thought when he’d arrive that we’d forget the past. What’s more my little brother, Ryan, had come out of the closet in those years and had grown to be a confident young man who marched to the beat of his own drum. There was now three of us in our family and surely Juan would see how incredibly unique the situation was and would want to cherish it.
The second Juan walked into my parent’s home he immediately went to the bar, poured himself the most expensive liquor and started making fun of Ryan and I, pointing out my adult braces and my brother’s shoes. I was furious, ready to pick a fight with him and throw him out of the house. However, my brother pulled me aside.
“He can say whatever he wants about me,” I said. “But not about you. You are off limits.”
“Paul,” Ryan said. “Look at him, he’s miserable. It’s not worth it.”
Ryan is 6’2 and wears industrial looking platforms all around New York City. He dyes his hair teal, red, gold…basically any color he wants. He walks into a room with his head up high and doesn’t care what other people say about him. I realized I might’ve been overbearing with Juan when he came out, but it was clear he had issues with his identity and sexuality that transcended me. After all who calls another gay man the F-word? When I look at my brother, someone who is so incredibly unique and one of a kind, nothing brings him down and he never insults anyone else. I’m proud of him and he’s emblematic of a new generation of gay men who defy stereotypes.
I‘ve only seen Juan once since Nochebuena. My mother and I went to his parent’s house for a quick visit and he was in the living room taking care of his nephew. His hair wasn’t dyed and he wasn’t wearing contacts. I barley recognized him. He was bouncing the baby on his lap, smiling at him and saying “I love you” over and over again. I realized he’d changed over the years and that he finally found someone in the family he cared about. We may not have a relationship, and I find it difficult to forgive him for making fun of my brother, but I hope he teaches his nephew one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned: to value family.
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