By Ramona Pilar Gonzales
“Mom. What does gay mean?”
It was one of many LA afternoons in the mid-1980’s – riding in my mom’s junebug green VW Beetle, going home from school, or to my grandma’s house. In the years between five and 11, most of our formative questions about life happened in that Bug, riding through the streets of Alhambra, Arcadia, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights.
I had only just begun to notice the shift in my mom’s energy when I would ask certain questions, the kind of questions she had to get up to answer. She would inhale and exhale, turn down the radio, and her thinking face would come on. It was a very serious thinking face – not angry or uncomfortable, but a combination of deep meditation and lucid concentration. Her reaction, her preparation to answer these questions like, “what is sex?” , “then, where do babies come from?” “how come some people’s dads live with them?”, “what’s a diaphragm?” “what’s a nigger?” “Then why are kids calling me that if I’m Mexican?”, let me know that these were very important questions. The answers were very important for me to know. These were our grown up conversations and I felt very grown up to be able to have these kinds of talks with my mom, who seemed to know everything about Life there was to know.
“Mom. What does gay mean?”
She turned down the radio, eyes focused on the road and nodded, almost imperceptibly.
“What do you think it means?”
“Is it a bad word?”
“So what does it mean?”
“It has a few different meanings. Where did you hear it?”
“At school. I heard some of the older kids saying it. I asked them what it meant and they laughed at me.”
“Well…” my mom inhaled and exhaled, drawing oxygen to her brain, a habit that I have since adopted, to bring clarity and help the most accurate response to surface.
“They say it at the end of the Flintstone’s song.” I sang it for her. ‘We’ll have a gay old time!”
“That’s right, they do, don’t they!” She laughed. “Well, it can mean few different things. That way, the way they use it in the Flintstone’s song means ‘happy.'”
“Oh!” That made sense to me, that is within the context of the Flintstone’s song, and a number of other songs I’d heard my grandparents listen to. “So then why were the boys getting mad at each other when they were just calling each other happy?”
My mom nodded again. “Happy is what it says in the dictionary. We’ll look it up when we get home.” I watched her thinking in her oversized-tortoise shell sunglasses as she thoughtfully chose her next words.
“Sometimes men fall in love with women and women fall in love with men, right?” I nodded yes, of course I knew that. “Well, sometimes men fall in love with men and women fall in love with women.”
“That’s what gay is?”
“More or less.”
“I don’t get it.”
She laughed. “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. It’ll make more sense to you when you get older.”
My eight-year-old mind couldn’t quite grasp the concept. Love was pretty good, from what I could see on TV. Everyone wanted to fall in love. I loved my mom and dad, my nana and grandpa, and my cat Peaches. Everyone wanted to fall in love.
“So if gay isn’t a bad word, why were they saying it like it was a bad thing?”
She sighed and paused, the tick tick tick of the turn signal boomed in the background.
“Because, there are people out there who think it’s wrong for men to fall in love with men and for women to fall in love with women.”
“They think it’s a sin, that God will get mad at you.”
“Is that true?”
“You know, mija, when I used to go to church, the priests and the nuns used to say that you could go to hell for any little thing, and then you had to go to a priest and confess all your sins. They way they talked about sinning, no one was going to get into heaven and God was just waiting around to punish you. I don’t believe in a God like that.”
“God’s not like that, mom. God is love. We sing a whole bunch of songs about that at school.”
“Well, you know, in some churches, divorce is a sin. It used to be a sin to eat meat on Friday. There are all kind of sins that churches have that don’t make a whole lot of sense.”
I looked at the sky through the passenger side window at the houses and businesses flying by.
“If it’s not a bad word why were they saying it like it was?”
“Because they’re dumb ignorant kids who don’t know any better, who probably have dumb ignorant parents who haven’t taught them better.”
“What does ignorant mean?”
“You can look it up when we get home.”
1 a : happily excited : MERRY b : keenly alive and exuberant : having or inducing high spirits
2 a : BRIGHT, LIVELY b : brilliant in color
3: given to social pleasures; also : LICENTIOUS
4a : HOMOSEXUAL b : of, relating to, or used by homosexuals
1 a : DESTITUTE of knowledge or education ; also : lacking knowledge or COMPREHENSION of the thing specified b : resulting from or showing lack of knowledge or intelligence
2: UNAWARE, UNINFORMED
Maybe a week later my mother and I were having a sit down breakfast at McDonald’s. I’d had some time to absorb the definitions we looked up. I’d also done a bit of research on my own – talking to colleagues, teachers, one of the pastors at my school – I was determined to get to the bottom of this gay thing. Insults were bad. I knew how I felt every time someone called me crybaby, gorilla, black chicken McNugget (by far the most creative) and it didn’t feel good. The people who called me those things weren’t trying to be nice.
“I have more questions about gay. Can we talk about gay again?”
There were kids running around outdoors in the play area, yelling and shouting at each other and their parents. There were a handful of older couples out for a Saturday morning breakfast. She sat up straight, went into her “I am very serious and focused on you” sitting position and said, “Of course. What do you want to know?”
“How can you tell when someone’s gay?”
She cocked her head to the side, smiled huge and looked out the parking lot window. “Well…sometimes they tell you. But really, mija, it’s not like you can see it, like I can see that you have long hair or that my eyes are brown.
“Are you gay?”
A quick, loud guffaw burst out of her mouth and she looked at me like I was the most adorable thing ever.
“No, mija. I’m not gay.”
I wasn’t exactly sure why that was funny, but I continued.
“Do you have any gay friends?”
“Yes I do.”
“Really?? How many?”
I knew a lot of my mom’s friends. I knew all of her friends as far as I was concerned.
“Do I know them?”
“Yes you do, mija.”
“Who? Who is it?”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“Because it’s none of your business!”
“But if it’s not bad then why can’t you tell me?”
“Because if they want to tell you, they can tell you. Besides, it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that all my friends love you.”
“If I guess who, will you tell me?”
“I’m gonna guess who, even if you don’t tell me.”
“Okay, good. Eat your food.”
That satisfied me for the time being, but as the days rolled on, I started sifting through my mom’s friends, the ones I saw most often, to see if I could figure out who the gay was. Time passed and I had narrowed it down to Gilbert, my mom’s friend who was always over our house. He didn’t seem to have a wife, so I figured it must be him. Her response when I asked her if he was gay was a series of robust and sonorous peals of laughter so powerful she hiccupped and cried. (26 years later Gilbert is my stepdad. I was obviously way off on that one.) I let it go for a while after that.
One Sunday morning, my mom’s friend Mary came over for breakfast.
Mary was my unofficial nina – godmother type. I had an actual nina that baptized me, but she and my mom fell out of touch. Mary had known my mom since before I was born, since my mom moved to LA when she was 18. When my mom needed a babysitter, she went to either my grandma or Mary, depending on my request (and, of course, their availability). I loved going to Mary’s house. Her apartment was bigger than ours and it had carpet. She had all kinds of artwork up on the walls and she had cats. She and her friend Judy used to take me for walks around the neighborhood. When I would spend the night, they would let me stay up late and watch movies with them, even though I’d fall asleep 10 minutes into the movie. When I stayed over during week days, Judy would take me to school. She was Jewish, so, of course, I asked her all kinds of questions about being Jewish and how it was different than Christian. Mary used to take me to the zoo and Dodger games.
That day that Mary came over for breakfast, I noticed things I hadn’t noticed before. Mary wore her hair short. Shorter than my mom’s. Mary’s hairstyle looked a lot like my uncle’s hairstyle. And I noticed her watch.
“Mary, how come your watch is so big? My mom’s watch is smaller than that.”
“That’s because it’s a man’s watch.”
“Oh. Why are you wearing a man’s watch?”
She blinked a bit and looked at her watch, then looked at my mom.
“The same reason you like to wear your green sweatshirt. Because you like it. She likes big watches, mija.”
A few days later I was having cereal before school as my mom was bustling around the kitchen making lunches.
“Mary’s gay, huh?”
She paused briefly, then continued what she was doing, not looking up from the sandwich bread.
“What makes you think that?”
“She wears big watches.”
And there went her room-shaking laugh. “That’s what makes you think that??”
“Well, yeah. And she doesn’t wear makeup and she wears cologne like my dad, not perfume like you.”
She kept laughing.
“So, is she?”
She came over, hugged me big and kissed me on the forehead.
“Go on, get ready for school.”
“I know you said you weren’t going to tell me, but that’s okay. I know I’m right”
And what did I know? I knew that Mary and my grandma were my favorite babysitters. I knew that Mary had cats and let me stay up late when I went over her house. I only knew vaguely that her watch and her hair were indicative of something I didn’t quite understand and that whatever it was, there were people in the world who thought that it was bad. But it seemed ignorant to me to call someone gay in order to hurt their feelings. Because in my world, gay was family.