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Like so many other lesbians and gay men around the world, I was concerned about the consequences of coming out to my parents. I came close to telling them a few times, but at the point of no return, negativity suddenly invaded every cell of my body and, panic-stricken, I would steer my words in an entirely different direction.
Reflecting on those moments as I prepared this project I still felt the residue of those panic attacks – tempered down through the years, but whose remnants still bit and burned. I often thought of my parents pottering about their lives back in Ecuador. I wondered whether it was fair to deny them the true knowledge of who their daughter really was. Did they deserve to know, regardless of the consequences?
Much of my conflict and inhibition stems from the religious aspect of my upbringing. Just like eighty per cent of the Ecuadorian population, my parents and extended family are all devoutly Catholic. I have been an altar girl myself, brought along to church from a young age. The older I grew, the more restless and impatient I was while there, and by the time I was a young teenager I’d decided the religious life was definitely not for me.
I remember a particular sermon during one Sunday Mass in which the topic was homosexuality, although the priest was careful not to use that term. The terrible consequences of any union not between a man and a woman were made very clear. The priest’s words resonated deep within me like no other sermon had before. Even though I did not yet fully understand how his words related to me, it seemed like they were aimed directly at me. It was as if feelings that varied from what he established as ‘right’ were to be relegated to the immoral, dirty and unforgivable. It was clear that my own priest had rejected me, and from that day on I no longer felt welcome at church gatherings.
Both my mother and father have always accepted priestly teachings without question. Dad always makes the sign of the cross as a greeting, followed quickly by a tender kiss on the cheek; and Mum keeps a shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe near her bed. God was a constant presence in my home. He was always providing the necessities of life and approving of, or disapproving of, this or that. He was both a kind benefactor and a harsh judge. It was He who had praise heaped upon him for each meal we had, even though it had been my mother who had worked long and hard to prepare it and my father who had worked his shifts to at work to pay for it.
'Since they accepted so fully the teachings of the Church, I had every reason to believe my parents also fully rejected people like me. That assumption fuelled the fear I had of coming out to them. Later on, it became more than my assumption – it flowed directly in their own words. '
Once, at a family gathering with parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, someone mentioned having seen two women kissing each other intimately at the airport. I don’t remember who said it. What I do remember is suddenly being surrounded by a dozen shocked faces, all clearly agreeing to its indecency. That was followed by more than a few homophobic remarks, and although it had not been anyone’s intention, they all seemed to be aimed directly at me. I remember sinking into my seat, trying not to be noticed and hoping the conversation would soon turn elsewhere. The nail in the coffin was my father saying, ‘I’m so relieved that is not in my family.’ The words hit me like a punch to the stomach. I did what I could to keep my emotions hidden.
At the first reasonable opportunity, I disappeared into the bathroom and, with the door locked, let it all out. It was I who my father had unknowingly rejected. The pain and distress boiled to the surface. My heart overflowed with emotion and my tears ran in streams down my cheeks. I wondered how I could ever re-join my family. I managed it, eventually.
'In truth, I have never felt angry towards my parents for their views. I understand that the notions they hold about homosexuality are born of unquestioned ignorance. The fact is, they had never had any reason to try to understand what it means to be gay. Their generation was defined by an attitude of machismo where women stayed at home and served the men of the house. Everybody lived with their parents until they got married, and everybody believed in God and went to church. '
Thankfully, that machismo attitude is much less prevalent today, though it still exists. Society in Ecuador is still very conservative and religious, and homosexuality can often be a particularly sensitive subject. Only eighteen years ago, homosexual encounters were still illegal, and prior to a constitutional change in 1997, sexual activity between same-sex couples was punishable with up to eight years in prison. Even now, with legal protection and a more enlightened younger generation, the influence of the previous generation is still a force in Ecuador. Many young men and women are kicked out of their homes when their families discover they are gay. They are also often harassed and abused in the street. Growing up in that environment made it difficult to accept who I increasingly suspected I was. I often struggled with it, sometimes denied it. But it hadn’t always been that way.
I was five years old when I began to notice that I was somehow different. I was aware that I was drawn to girls. Not sexually at first, of course, but there was something about them that intrigued me in a way that boys didn’t. Maybe it was that I identified more with boys and their energetic nature. I felt like I already knew them, that I was already one of them, but girls and their girly ways were more mysterious and fascinating.
These feelings were at odds with what I was being taught about gender roles and how we were meant to interact with each other. As children, we were programmed to subscribe to the limitations of gender; little boys to be the strong ones and little girls to play dress-up and be nice. I was taught that a man coupled with a woman was normal; it was what I had seen on TV and what I had known through my parents, family and neighbours. But it just wasn’t the attraction that I felt inside.
I remember clumsily trying to justify my attraction to girls by thinking that if I dressed and acted like a boy, the feelings I was experiencing inside wouldn’t be as wrong as what I had been programmed to think. If I acted like a boy, it would be okay for me to like girls, and it would be just fine to one day be with a girl.
My mother had told me that, after having two daughters, my father longed for a son when I came along. I assumed that story reflected the fact that he was disappointed when I was a girl. I remember one incident when I was about six years old. The whole family was gathered around the table for a meal. It was a hot, sunny summer’s day. I had stood up and proudly declared to my father that I was a boy so he could stop wishing for one. I remember feeling so happy in anticipation of making him happy.
But instead of receiving the reaction I was expecting – a big smile and opened arms – he just looked confused. A flash of anger in his eyes followed. I’ll always remember his voice, astonished, as he said, ‘No, you are a little girl.’
I remember feeling complete shock at those overpowering words as they cut through my pretensions like he had used a giant axe to pop a balloon. As a six year old, I obviously had not fully grasped how the whole gender thing worked, but the realisation that I would always be a girl, no matter how much I wished the opposite, was painful for me. While other memories of childhood became blurred or faded away entirely, that one has stayed with me.
It wasn’t long after that incident that I cut my hair short. I was already dressing like a boy and preferred boys’ toys and playing sports to girly dolls and playing dress-up. I’d spend the rest of my childhood that way, determined to be boy-like in everything I did. It came naturally to me. And so it should have; it was who I was.
When high school came along the social rules changed, as they do for everybody. Being normal insofar as being a teenager was concerned, I wanted to fit in and be just like everybody else. The insecurities that all teenagers have hit me hard during that period, and I no longer felt completely comfortable being the tomboy on the outside, even if that’s what I would always be on the inside. Peer pressure made me want to conform to the norm, so I grew my hair and I started wearing girly clothes. I hated them.
Back then, all my friends either had a boyfriend or wanted one, and the pressure to be like them was intense. So, inevitably, I also tried attracting boys. At parties I wore heels and dresses, and I would play with my hair, hoping to be asked to dance like all the other girly girls. Even now the memory makes me cringe.
My first kiss with a boy wasn’t as terrible as one might imagine. It was typically awkward, I suppose. The feeling I remember was the rather bland sensation of wetness on my mouth – no emotional bells or whistles.
That feeling never really changed, no matter how handsome the boy or how well we got on. There was always something missing.
I didn’t discover the true value of a kiss until I was nearly twenty. It was my first kiss with a girl and it was everything those previous kisses had not been: immediately exciting, exhilarating and enjoyable. A few years later, I would fall in love for the first time.
'A relationship between two women is like any other. Love is love in whatever shape it finds itself, and sex is not only about pleasure but is a reinforcement of the bond between two people. It is a symbol of trust and faith in one another, an expression of need and dependence, and yet at once a vanquishing of fear and insecurity. Relationships become quotidian; the bedroom becomes a space of intimacy, and the shared moments are all the same, regardless of the combination of genders in the relationship.
I found myself to be no different than my mum and dad and their expressions of love.'
It was on one of my trips to the US that I first came out to my sister, Naty, who has always been very open-minded and liberal in her outlook on life. I was eighteen or nineteen years old then, and Naty only two years older.
Naty was very much a girly girl when we were growing up. She has always been very responsible, keeping her room clean, getting good grades at school and helping my mum out. We were very close. I would confide in her about everything.
One day we were out shopping, just walking around, laughing and talking. We stopped at a shop and picked out some clothes, and while we were in the changing room I just blurted it out. I said it very casually, as if I were just telling her I was hungry. Naty looked at me with an angry expression and said something along the lines of, ‘Why would you tell me this now?’ She left the dressing room upset and we didn’t speak for the rest of my trip there.
I went back to Ecuador understandably disheartened, but after a few weeks I received an email from her. In it she apologised for her reaction. She had needed some time to analyse what my being gay would mean for me, for her, for all of the family.
Now she accepted me completely, but was worried I would be prone to more suffering and that my life would be harder. Her attitude from that moment has been amazing and incredibly comforting to me.
Our eldest sister, Vero, has always been the sister I could go to if I ever found myself in trouble. Vero always knows how to solve problems, and I think we all rely on her heavily. It took me a longer time to tell her I was gay, although not because I was afraid of her reaction.
Eventually, it happened quite naturally. We were out eating together when I told her I had something to tell her. ‘It has to do with my sexuality,’ I said. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why I don’t have a boyfriend?’
She just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, I figured.’
She said she had wondered about it before, and she told me she didn’t care, though she expressed concern about my parents. She thought they weren’t going to react well to the news and that I should be prepared for that.
Whatever their reaction, I knew I would need both my sisters present when I told my parents.
The idea of telling my parents had never really appealed to me. I’d always been sure of their rejection of me. I was okay with not coming out and I’d never felt bitter about it. Neither of my parents has ever displayed a curious nature. They never snooped around my room when I was young and they never asked me whom I was dating or whether I was ever going to get a boyfriend. I always appreciated that.
During the initial stages of Unveiled I had told them a little about what I was planning to do, insofar as it involved me taking pictures of them and myself at home. They were accustomed to me working on various projects so they weren’t at all surprised that I had a new idea to work on.
The technical aspect of photographing such a delicate moment concerned me greatly at first. How exactly would I go about it? I couldn’t just say, ‘Hi, Mum. Hi, Dad. By the way, I’m gay!’ and then pull out the camera and start snapping away. I needed to be as respectful to them as I possibly could and I needed their reactions to be as natural as possible. It was thus essential that they become accustomed and desensitised to the presence of the cameras. If they were surrounded by them all the time in the weeks prior to the ‘big talk’, then hopefully they wouldn’t see my filming them as disrespectful and nor would their reactions be influenced or inhibited by the presence of cameras.
I arrived in Ecuador a few weeks ahead of when I planned to tell them. I had all my gear: my medium-format camera, my thirty-five millimetre, digital cameras and a massive list of ideas of what kinds of pictures to take. I had many different ideas about how and where to photograph my parents, but it wasn’t until I started spending time with them that I knew immediately how I wanted to start.
I spent three weeks photographing them. Usually, I would start in the morning, waking up early and sneaking into their bedroom, carefully tiptoeing around the bed while taking pictures of them sleeping. My mum would always be the first to wake up and I’d get the ‘Why must you do this now?’ look.
They get ready at the same time every morning; and they share the bathroom mirror; each of them doing their own morning ritual, my father shaving and my mother doing her daily facial cleansing. I also started following all the daily errands they run. They got acclimatised to the constant photographing much faster than I thought they would. After a few days, they were practically pros.
One morning, when I was sleeping in for a change, my dad woke me up. He had shaving cream and an eager smile on his face, he asked me whether I wanted to photograph him shaving. His enthusiasm was adorable. Whether or not that was mostly his secret revenge for me previously waking him up with my camera, I’ll never know.
'It probably helped that he had always been something of a photographer himself. Since I was very young, my dad always had a camera in his hand, either filming us or taking pictures. I knew deep down he was thoroughly enjoying those days with me and my camera. He likes to think that I got it from him.'
Mum has never been a fan of getting her picture taken. She’d see the camera, and I’d see her mouth twitch in a sign of discomfort. She would ask me when I was going to have the camera around, in order to get mentally prepared. Mum has always been very much into her looks, the type of woman who would always match her earrings with her handbag and her handbag with her shoes. Despite her discomfort, she would willingly pose for me and wouldn’t grumble when I caught her unawares.
She has always been a woman of routines. One of her favourite pastimes is to watch soap operas. It’s rare for her to be at home and not have the TV on. One day we were sitting down in the kitchen having a chat. She had just finished her afternoon snack, which regularly followed her daily nap. She took out her handbag and lit a cigarette. As we talked, I couldn’t help but admire her calm demeanour and the light above her head. I couldn’t resist, so I set up the tripod and asked her to just keep doing what she was doing as I prepared a roll of medium-format film. She was a great sport, but deep down I knew she was annoyed because I was blocking her afternoon soap opera.
Dad is a workaholic and has dedicated his life to running his business. He plays guitar sometimes and collects tons of music. I can recall his obsession with music from a very young age. He’d spend hours and sometimes entire days with his vinyl records and CDs. It was difficult to ignore my dad’s love for music, as most weekends he would wake us up by playing his favourite songs loudly. Given some drawings from when he was young that I found, he also had the potential to be an especially gifted artist with a pencil or paintbrush.
He is more of a natural in front of the camera. He enjoys the attention. He likes to act like he doesn’t pose, but in all the pictures he knows I’m taking, I know he is secretly posing for me.
I think for the best part of my life I have known him wearing his suit and tie. His moustache has always been there too, ever since he met my mum. It’s his signature look. She swears she’ll divorce him if he ever shaves it off.
Of the photographs I took throughout the weeks I spent with my parents, some of my favourites capture the natural interactions between them.
'They’ve been together for forty-four years and can be quite an adorable pair. I would catch them bickering at each other over the littlest of things. There are so many moments that I took for granted and only noticed when I started to examine them through the lens. I was able to not only photograph my parents but also observe them in a way that I never had before.'
I started paying more attention to obvious details like how they walked, but also subtle things like the glances and looks they gave before speaking and little gestures they made when they were listening to someone.
I became so involved in their daily routines that I slipped into the role of an anthropologist, of sorts. I had become a silent member in their relationship.
The day of......
As the day came closer, I conducted last-minute tests with everything already in place, sitting in all the different chairs to see how the light fell on my face.
When the big day came, I set the cameras in their positions.
Everything was ready…
My mum got up quite early as usual, and prepared my dad’s breakfast before heading out to church, as she did every Sunday. Dad spent the morning watching TV in his room before he headed to his studio for a guitar session. It had begun as a pretty ordinary Sunday for them. But that was about to change.
At one o’clock, all five of us were together. I realised it had to happen then or never. I could tell that my sisters were almost as nervous as I was. I positioned them according to my carefully drawn plan. It felt surreal as they sat down.
With everyone in position, I went to check the three cameras. I programed them to go off every five seconds, which was more difficult than it should have been because my hands were beginning to shake with nerves. The shutters started going off and I put on some background music just to muffle out the sound the shutters were making. It was an instrumental record I had asked my dad to have ready for me, featuring Spanish guitars and violins. I wanted something a bit classical, rather than trusting the radio and ending up with this moment accompanied by some over-the-top salsa.
I took my seat at the head of the table. I felt my heart pounding. I felt their eyes on me. I noticed that my parents were uncharacteristically nervous too. My dad was wearing his serious face; it was that look that had always made me want to run in the other direction when I was a little girl. He was expecting something serious, but clearly had no idea what.
As I started talking, I found it hard to maintain eye contact with anybody at the table. Even over the music, I could hear the sounds the camera shutters made every time they captured a new photograph. I hoped they weren’t too distracting. Mostly, I was thinking I couldn’t believe the moment was finally upon us.
I started talking about love and acceptance. I talked about how important family was and how we must always come together. I went on like that for five minutes or so. At that point I could see tears in the eyes of both my sisters. Their support had been such an essential part of the process; they had walked every step right alongside me.
I told my parents that there was something I hadn’t been able to tell them before. They didn’t move an inch. In fact, they barely seemed to be breathing. They just kept staring at me. The expression on their faces was tense and worried. I could feel their uneasy anticipation. The shutters keep clicking.
My eyes moved to look at the ceiling as I mouthed the words.
‘Since I was five years old I have known there was something different about me.’
It took me a while to be able to say the next words. I looked down at the table and took a deep breath. As I exhaled, I finally said the words:
How long the words hung there in the silence I couldn’t tell you, but I knew I couldn’t just leave them hanging there, so at some point I carried on explaining, trying to show my parents that there was much more to this revelation than just my sexuality.
‘The hardships have been overwhelming, like feeling different from everybody else from so early on, the suffering and the secrets. Coming to accept myself has been a life-long battle and I have endured a lot of pain in silence for too many years. After going through a long process of self-acceptance, I have reached a point where I am happy to be who I am and I want you to love me for who I am. That is, the real me.’
My parents didn’t react immediately, but I could feel their eyes on me. I took a deep breath and I forced myself to look at them. There was a stillness in their eyes. I could no longer hold back the tears. I could no longer hear the shutters. I could no longer hear the music. Everything was blurry. Everything was tears.
And then, through the blur, voices reached out to me.
‘We don’t care.’
‘We love you.’
My mum and dad broke their stillness as one; their tears matched my own. Their hands reached for mine. My mum’s eyes were filled with tears. She just kept repeating, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care.’ I could barely comprehend what was happening.
I was in a state of shock. Where was the anger? I collapsed onto the table, my head on my folded arms, sobbing. I felt their hands on my head, comforting me the way they so often had to ease me through the discomforts of childhood. Finally, when I looked up at them I saw that they were smiling at me through their tears. My sisters, tissues to their eyes, were also overcome with emotion; they couldn’t believe what had just transpired either.
Dad began talking. He said the most beautiful things. He talked about acceptance and said that whom I choose to love was not his or anybody else’s concern. He stated that the idea I was gay had crossed his mind once or twice, and that he felt I’d decided to come out to them at the right time. Now, at the age of sixty-five, he had the wisdom and experience to focus on loving me, rather than caring about what others thought of me, of our family. He just wanted to support us and to take care of us. He said that he would stand by his daughter even if the other parts of the family would not. If they didn’t accept me, that was their problem, not ours.
We talked for another two hours, probably more. I had a chance to tell my family what I had gone through as a teenager, how hard it had been to accept myself for who I was. They listened intently. I could never have imagined those moments that followed, with me sharing aspects of my life that had once been so hidden and with them so sincerely interested in listening and clearly sharing my hurt and confusion. But it suddenly all felt so easy.
As is her way, Mum remained very quiet. When asked, she admitted to knowing about me for quite some time. It is crazy how intuitive mothers can be. Even though she was accepting, she did voice some concerns. The first had to do with family – all-important in any Latin American household. An Ecuadorian family is usually huge, extending far beyond the immediate family members, to include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, the cousins of one’s uncle and so on. What would they say? I could tell that the concern was stressful for her.
We talked about how I might never be able to come out to all of them. Mum also voiced her concern and general discomfort at seeing two people of the same sex expressing affection. She explained that she didn’t care that I was gay, but would feel uncomfortable seeing me with a girl. I tolerated her concerns; I understood they were not intended to hurt me. I hoped in time that she could come to understand that affection is a beautiful thing, no matter whom it is shared with.
My sisters helped me answer their questions and explain to them that getting used to the idea would take time. Despite their generally positive and accepting reaction, I understood it would take time for them to fully understand who I am and what it means to be gay. They would have to go through a process of their own.
At one point Mum got up to get a carton of cigarettes, placing it on the table when she returned. We all reached for one in unison. None of us were really big smokers, and we rarely smoked together, but those last several hours had been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us.
As I smoked, I realised I was exhausted – and why not? Although those last few hours had been emotional for my parents and sisters, I had been enduring those feelings intensely for every waking minute of every day for the past several months. I hadn’t slept well for weeks, but it would be wonderfully different that night. That night I would sleep with an inner joy and contentment I had never really known before – and I did.