“Thank you for always being you. It’s refreshing.” This was said to me by casting director and human being extraordinaire, Twinkie Byrd, on July 16th, 2015. When she said that to me, I felt really good. It also made me pause for a second to reflect on how much I HAVE changed as a person. To take stock on the journey that I have taken to become the person that I am today. “Thank you for always being you.”
Because there was a time where I wasn’t being me. At all.
I was born and raised in the projects in Brooklyn, NY. Let me be more specific: I was born and raised in the projects in Brooklyn, NY as a gay man. Not an ideal scenario. Growing up in the dangerous projects, and knowing that I was different since the age of five, I was afraid of being killed. So as a result, I shut down and became incredibly shy. I had no voice growing up. No point of view. Whenever I DID speak, I had to be really careful how I sounded. Too feminine sounding? Death.
I was also the fifth child out of six children. My older brothers and sisters didn’t want to hang out with me because they were all teenagers or young adults by this point. They did not want to be seen hanging out with a kid. And so I felt that being me wasn’t valuable or worthy. The only way I could stand out and be seen and heard was to act out. To be somebody else. I think that’s part of the reason why I became an actor. To be seen. To get attention. To feel worthy.
Having no voice and pretending to be somebody else became a recurring theme in my life and it got progressively worse. I desperately wanted to fit in and be liked in elementary and junior high school. I wanted my classmates to see that I could be a cool straight kid. I failed miserably. Students would tease me and not be friends with me. I ended up doing school plays because it gave me a voice. It gave me an opportunity to be seen and to be a star in a way that I couldn’t be at the school cafeteria or on the school playground.
Going into high school, I kept pretending to be somebody else because I still desperately wanted to be accepted and to be validated. Being ME was never valued and high school is all about appearances and all this other ridiculous peer pressure. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to fit in. So much so that I even denied where I came from. Up until high school, I attended an elementary and junior high school that was within walking distance of the projects. So the majority of the school population was made up of students from the projects. We all knew we lived in the projects, so whatever. There was no need to pretend we were rich.
But high school was a different story. I had to take a train into a better, residential part of Brooklyn to attend school. I went to a really good public high school that wasn’t a block away from the projects. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by white students. And these white students came from middle class to upper middle class families. Many of these white students lived in houses; had working parents who owned one or two cars; had material things; had intelligence; had an outlook on life that was more positive and abundant vs. my projects outlook of negativity, scarcity and death.
So not only did I hide my sexuality, I also hid where I came from. I became Molly Ringwald’s character in “Pretty In Pink”. Molly played a high school character from a working class family who falls for and begins dating an incredibly wealthy student (played by Andrew McCarthy) She was ashamed and embarrassed to reveal to him that she came from the poor side of town. He would give her a ride home, but she always had him drop her off somewhere else so he wouldn’t see where she lived. She always had an excuse as to why she didn’t want him to drop her off at home. Finally, when he insisted on knowing why he couldn’t drop her off at her home, she exclaimed, “Because I don’t want you to see where I live, okay!” She bursts into tears, and even right now, I’m getting emotional writing about it. Damn muscle memory! So, I didn’t tell anyone where I lived.
I even started acting and speaking “white” because I feared that my Latino heritage wouldn’t be valuable. I had an uncle who called me “Kunta Kinte” when I was 12 years old because I’m the darkest in my family. So, I thought my skin color, my Latino heritage, was a bad thing.
June 14th, 2020 Update: How could I forget the time I booked the role of Tulsa in my high school production of Gypsy and the makeup artist made me a few shades lighter so that I could be more passable and more accepting as Tulsa. I remember looking in the mirror after the makeup job was done and thinking to myself with pride, “Wow, this is how I should look.” Thus reinforcing the notion that being darker is bad and that being lighter is everything. With this makeup on, I could not be called Kunta Kinte anymore.
It got even worse in college. I went to Vassar College. Vassar College! A Sister Ivy League School! Vassar declined Yale University’s invitation to merge with them back in 1969! That takes balls to say no to Yale! Vassar is currently ranked #11 amongst colleges in the United States! Vassar had even MORE white people everywhere and a higher economic status: upper middle class to wealthy individuals. On the extreme side of the economic spectrum, I knew a guy who drove a luxury car, who would fly in and out on a private jet and who would wear Gucci, Armani and Valentino as CASUAL wear to CLASS. Girls would go clubbing on the weekends at our underground dance bar in designer dresses, purses and heels during the middle of winter in Poughkeepsie, NY. It is FREEZING cold in Poughkeepsie during the winter! Hell yeah, in this environment, I ran for mayor big time and became Molly Ringwald’s character times a hundred. Ironically, I became open about my sexuality when I went to Vassar, but I sure as hell didn’t say where I lived. I acted and spoke even more “white”. I would say I was Puerto Rican, but not Dominican as well. Why? Because my older half-siblings, who are Puerto Rican, would sometimes make derogatory remarks about Dominican people when I was a kid. And because I wanted to be accepted by them, I believed that the Dominican side of me was wrong. So, I denied that part of me.
So, there was always this sense of incompletion and not really being me at any given moment. You always got a percentage of me, but not 100 percent of me. I could be gay in certain situations, but not in others. I could be from the projects in certain situations and around certain people, but not in others. I could be Puerto Rican, but not Dominican. Fuck me with a mental spoon.
Pretending to be someone else was about survival. Literally and figuratively. Both just as terrible. Literally surviving from being killed in the projects. Figuratively surviving from being humiliated and ostracized by my friends, colleagues and peers.
It has taken me a long time to be the person I am today. When I sit down and take a look at myself, I really enjoy my sense of humor, my sense of subversiveness, my intelligence, my wit and my point of view. I’m proud of my sexuality and my heritage. I’m grateful for all the wonderful blessings that I have and that I’m able to share with the world. I’m happy that I’ve gotten to a place where I really don’t give a shit what anyone says about me. The moment I stopped running for mayor, the moment I stopped caring about what other people thought, the moment I stopped wanting to be everyone’s friend for all the wrong reasons (for THEIR validation), is when I truly experienced freedom. What you see is what you get and that’s it. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m done growing and evolving. After all, my intention is to continue becoming a better form of myself, a better version of who I was yesterday. I still have things to work on. This will be a life-long journey to continue being the best, most evolved version of me I can be.
Here are some turning points that were instrumental in helping me get to a place where Twinkie could say, “Thank you for always being you. It’s actually refreshing.”
**After I graduated from Vassar College, I met my best friend Geri at work. We were customer service representatives at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. We were required to do two weeks of training before we could officially start. On the first day of training, she arrived two hours late and she marched in like a grand diva wearing big sunglasses, high heels, and a huge purse dangling from her arm. My first reaction was, “Who the fuck is this bitch arriving two hours late?” We eventually warmed up to each other and hit it off within a couple of days. She later admitted that her first impression of me on the first day was, “Who the fuck is this yahoo wearing a cowboy hat?” Hey, Madonna’s “Music” album was all the rage at the time and the era and imagery was all about urban, modern cowboy culture. So when the Queen of Everything speaks and begins a trend, I comply.
Geri and I are still very close to this day. She’s beautiful, smart, funny, has great taste in style and has such a foul mouth–which I love. We would hang out often after work, and sometimes, she would drive me home. And yep, Molly Ringwald’s character possessed me once again. I would have Geri drop me off in a good part of Brooklyn, and then I would walk several blocks home after she drove away. This charade kept going successfully until one night, she asked me if she could use my bathroom because she really had to pee. I could’ve died right there in the passenger seat. I started to panic. I started thinking of alternative bathrooms that she could use instead.
But I couldn’t say no to her when I failed to think of alternatives. I didn’t want her to pee on herself. So for the first time in my life, I came clean about where I lived. And after I was done apologizing for where I lived, and then expecting her to throw me out of her car, she looked at me and said, “Jorge, I don’t give a fuck where you live. That’s not why I’m your friend. I’m your friend because I love you. And if anyone is going to judge you based upon where you live, then they’re not your fucking friend.” In that moment, I finally knew what a real friend was. I knew that I had a friend for life. That moment was instrumental for me. I wasn’t ashamed of being from the projects anymore. We parked in front of my building, she met my mom, my mom loved her and probably thought there was still hope for me (Oh snap! More on that in just a second!) Geri got to pee and the rest is history.
**Another turning point was moving to Los Angeles. I now had to become an adult and support myself. To make my own rules and live by them. As soon as I moved to Los Angeles, I had the blessing and honor of studying with and being influenced by two incredible acting teachers. First and foremost, Richard Lawson. He has been INSTRUMENTAL in my journey of self-discovery and empowerment. I always speak about Richard and how he has changed me. But I also need to acknowledge my very first LA acting teacher, Gary Imhoff.
Gary started my LA journey of being myself and finding my voice when about a year into my studies, he told me to connect with my sexuality and to put it up in class as a personal monologue. He recognized that I was acting through a filter because I was afraid of being discovered or outed. So my work was not as rich and fulfilled as it could be. I would act cautiously and carefully. A year later, he told me to reconnect with my roots and put it up in class as a personal monologue. He recognized again that the denial of my heritage was causing me to act through another filter. How could I be personal and real with my acting if I was drawing from a fake place? Connecting to my heritage meant connecting to me, to my home, to my history, to my genetic makeup. Drawing from who I REALLY am and not who I was PRETENDING to be. These denials were not only negatively affecting my work as an actor, but they were negatively affecting my life as well. Both personal monologues became these John Leguizamo-inspired, mini one-man show extravaganzas that received standing ovations. Turning points indeed. Shortly after the second personal monologue, I put up a scene for Gary and during his critique, he said to me, “You sound different. You are more grounded and centered. You even look more black.” I laughed out loud, as did the class. Gary got the ball rolling for me accepting my sexuality and my Latino heritage.
**The community of true friends I have built and nurtured out here has been another turning point. Pulling in the right friends based on love, respect, integrity, drive, passion, fun, no judgements or criticisms, but willing to express tough love to help me get to the other side and be all that I can be. I love you all.
**But the biggest turning point was in December 2009. I came out to my mom…again.
I was in a relationship that I was happy with. He was someone that I knew I wanted to introduce to my family. My mom’s birthday was coming up in February and I thought that would be a great opportunity to introduce him to everyone. Only one problem: I needed to make sure that my mom knew I was gay. I first came out to her the summer after my sophomore year at Vassar. She was completely shocked. She was trying to comprehend my sexuality and the Catholic guilt flowed through her: “God made it to be man and woman. Not man and man. God does not want it this way.” After that conversation ended, my sexuality was never brought up again. Neither by her nor by me. And so for years afterwards, I continued living in a blur, in a fog, in front of my mother and in my life in general. Even though I made steps forward in the area of sexuality with Gary Imhoff and Richard Lawson, I was still incomplete and hiding somewhat. This time, however, I wanted to make sure that she was crystal clear about my sexuality. I was prepared and willing to lose the love of my mother so that I could be ME.
I wrote a letter in which I came out to her again. I told her I was in a relationship with a great guy and how happy I was with him and with my sexuality. The letter was positive. It was not about blame or pointing fingers. It was not about dwelling in the past. It was my intention to clear up any confusion or ambiguity. I mailed out the letter and decided to wait at least a week before I called her. It was the holidays, so I took into account how busy the post office would be. When I finally called her, it was the most amazing phone conversation I’ve ever had with her. She told me she received my letter and that she didn’t care that I was gay. She loved me as her son and she loved me for who I was. She also added that she didn’t care what anyone else thought about me. That if they had a problem with me, they could go fuck themselves. She was very happy for me and my relationship and could not wait to meet him. She also said that she never forgot when I first came out to her. She said the reason why she never brought it up again was because I had never brought it up again. Since I never brought it up again, she figured I went through a phase (And that’s why I could see her excitement when she met Geri.)
LOL Jesus, Mary, Joseph, God! If only I had spoken on this sooner, I could’ve saved myself years of—Ahhh fuck it. No point dwelling on the past and what could’ve been. The point was that my mom and I were now on the same page and her unconditional love and acceptance blasted the door wide open! I immediately came into focus. I connected to who I was because I was no longer hiding. I was no longer pretending to be someone or something else. With her love and support, I didn’t care anymore what others thought about me. My brothers and sisters love me as well by the way…the gay AND the Dominican sides of me 🙂
The walls finally came down! I started settling into my body. My true voice started to emerge. I had a point of view. I expressed myself. My true being started to emerge and affected all areas of my life including my art: I’m a better actor, writer and dancer as a result. Other dynamics and colors came to the forefront and made me a complete, whole person. Being gay is just a wonderful part of my make up. It’s not my entire life. Or as one of my good friends, Lindsay, said to me recently, “You’re a power gay. You don’t show it off. You don’t make a big deal out of it. You just are and get shit done.” But I don’t apologize for being gay, nor am I ashamed of it.
Growing up in the projects is no longer a source of shame. Being Dominican is no longer a source of shame.
I am me. I don’t apologize for it anymore. I inspire people. I make people laugh. I am handsome. I am dangerous. I make people uncomfortable. I am a listener. I am a rock. I am a leader. I am a lover. I am subversive. I am light. I am dark. I am tough. I am vulnerable. I am masculine. I am feminine, etc.
I am a HUMAN being living my God-given purpose on this planet: To be an artist.
I hope that this blog entry inspires you in some way. Perhaps someone out there is currently experiencing what I have experienced before. Just know that there is a light on the other side. When you find yourself and your voice, honor it and protect it! Or, if you are already being yourself, I hope you advance that further too because I’m on the journey of self-improvement for life.
I love being myself and my voice 🙂