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Family Ties Shake but Don't Break as Teen Comes Out

Daughter's lesbianism changes the Cuban refugee home forever. Parents must adjust their hopes and expectations.

October 13, 2002|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

MIAMI -- She came to this country in the arms of her parents, Cuban refugees who braved the treacherous Straits of Florida to find freedom and a new life.

Maria Ortiz would grow to become, by some definitions, an all-American girl -- a petite, pretty cheerleader and good student who ran with the popular crowd. She was exactly the sort of daughter her parents had imagined -- until she turned 14.

Increasingly secretive and aloof, Maria began to withdraw from her family and friends. Concerned, her father, Heriberto, decided to ask what was wrong -- and got the answer he feared. "I think I like girls, Daddy," she told him at a fast-food restaurant.

It was a moment that changes a family forever, when parents' dreams for a child are altered and expectations shift.

When that life-changing moment involves a child revealing that he or she is gay, the parental bond sometimes breaks. Studies have found that as many as half of lesbians and gay men are rejected by their parents. Other times, as painful as the adjustment can be, the parent-child bond eventually strengthens.

That has been the case for Heriberto and Mayda Ortiz and Maria, the second of their three daughters. They are close now -- but only after Heriberto and Mayda spent years soul-searching and second-guessing themselves as parents. Even 10 years after she came out, they sometimes struggle with the idea that Maria won't be marrying a man and having children.

"It is like a death of a daughter," Heriberto said. "All your expectations die and you have to learn something new."

When Maria made her revelation, Heriberto didn't shout or stomp his feet. If anything, she remembers him looking as though he was on the verge of tears.

Indeed, he says, he was. Though a psychologist for many years, he felt ill-prepared to deal with anything like this. He worried that someone had filled Maria's head with ideas that weren't really hers. He also wondered if he'd done something that influenced her sexual orientation.

"I don't know how we will get through this," he remembered telling Maria. "But we will."

In the early days, Maria's parents attempted to monitor her every move. They screened her phone calls and listened in on conversations. They took away her music and tore down posters. They also refused to leave her home alone. "It was like surveillance," said Maria, now 24 and in college. "It was like I was under house arrest."

Her parents say they were simply doing what they thought best. "I just never thought I'd have to face that," said Mayda, a junior high school teacher. "I had to process it. It was a process."

Maria only rebelled more, skipping class and getting poor grades for the first time.

At one point, she cut and slicked back her hair and dressed in men's clothing. She also went through a Goth phase, when she wore dark clothing and painted her room black and dark gray. "I did it because I was sad," she said. "I isolated myself more and more."

Early on, she considered suicide.

Then, the summer before her sophomore year, she arrived home to find a school uniform on the couch. "Who's that for?" she asked.

When her parents told her they had enrolled her in Catholic school, she ran to her bedroom and hid in the closet. It was a last-ditch effort, her parents say, to find the daughter they thought they knew.

Maria believed that they were asking for the impossible. "How do you change your identity, something so deeply rooted?" she asked. "You can't."

To this day, she occasionally wavers between anger and love for the parents she calls "wonderful, wonderful people."

"I think they just thought it was something terrible," she said. "They wondered who was going to take care of me. They saw being gay as a really hard life to live. They didn't want that for their child." She paused and frowned. "Maybe they felt betrayed too."

Maria attended the Catholic high school for two years. Eventually, she persuaded her parents to let her attend public school for her senior year. After graduation, she moved into a townhouse with a friend. "I needed to leave the house, their rules," Maria said.

After years flip-flopping between therapists, she found one who told her something that surprised her: "There's nothing wrong with you -- you're OK." "It was the first time an adult had ever said that to me," Maria said.

She longed for the same support from her parents. But healing and understanding would come in fits and starts.

Although still uncomfortable, Heriberto and Mayda continued to include Maria in family gatherings and stopped shutting out talk about her dating.

But Maria lashed out. "No matter what they did, I resented it," she said. "I'm sure there are points when I said I hated them."

It wasn't true, she says now. And in time, she began to forgive -- especially when her parents began inviting then-girlfriend Jan to family dinners and celebrations.

Today, Maria reports how her mother chides those who make homophobic comments -- and how her father asked her advice when planning to talk about gay issues on a local radio show he hosts.

What's important, says her mother, is that Maria find the "right person." "If she's happy, I'm happy," Mayda said.

Heriberto admits his feelings are bittersweet, but he emphasizes one thing: He never considered throwing Maria out. In fact, her parents never wanted her to leave home.

Maria moved back home this summer, after she and Jan broke up. "I needed to be somewhere that felt like home," she said. She plans to stay while she finishes her bachelor's degree. She hopes to go to law school and become a civil rights attorney.

Six years after she left, Maria says home life is amazingly good. Her parents know the feeling.

"Life is a surprise," her mother said. "It's like a movie -- you don't know how it's going to end."

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