Ariel, in his own words: “I have never felt guilty or shameful about being gay; however, one of the greatest experiences I faced as a result of my sexuality was letting go of the expectations that society and my family planned for me. Society tries to teach us what is right and wrong, and coming out of the closet is a rebellion against those expectations and rules. You have to learn to live not just to be accepted, but to be yourself. The world out there is a big place and there is a space for everyone.
I came out when I was very young at the age of 14. Being still an adolescent, I had to educate the people around me, especially those whom I loved the most, like my father. This was a big challenge because they had little-to-no understanding of what it meant to be gay: for them, the raunchy, dirty sex acts where the first things to come to mind. Moreover, these were always filtered through a religious/moral lens. They were not immediately able to think of the love and companionship that might be involved in my relationships. Coming out at this age was especially difficult because one depends on his/her parents for everything.
Now I’m glad I came out when I was so young because my family has had many years to process, learn, and get over their fears and prejudices. Today, I live very openly with my family and they are very accepting of my life. For example, when my boyfriend comes to visit from the United States, he stays with me in my bedroom at my father’s house. During holidays, he comes to all of the family parties, and my grandmother even buys him a present. Today, when others see this, they often tell me how lucky I am; however, what they don’t realize is that this level of acceptance took more than ten years.
Panama is a very small country with a very small gay community. Gay people want things to change, but they are too scared to do anything about it. Because of pervasive homophobia in society, many feel that there is more value in staying in the closet than taking the risk of coming out. Moreover, there is a lot of discrimination (gender, race, class, etc.) within the gay community itself. Change is happening, but it is slow and incremental.
To come out of the closet, I wrote a letter to my mother (as I was used to doing at the time to say important things), but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. She talked to my father that the same night and then the nightmare started. They thought I was confused and sent me to a psychologist the very next day. Thankfully, he was a good man and didn’t try to change me.
My mother was upset and did not talk to me for several days; however, I did not pay that much attention to either of my parents because I never thought I was doing anything wrong. After a few days, my mother got over it and soon became my best friend—I could even talk to her about boys. However, in a country where machismo runs strong, there was not much that she could do immediately to change my father. Within the space that she had, she did what she could to protect me. I was lucky to have her by my side.
For my father, it was much more difficult: he was so sure this was a choice and that this was something that I could change if I wanted to change. I could have made things easier for myself just by telling him that I was going to try to change even though I had no intention of doing so. But I refused. I told him that if it was so easy to change, that he himself should try to change his heterosexuality to be attracted to men. We stopped talking and we grew apart. Every once in a while, he would repeat his question, but I always had the same answer.
While most of my friends were out having fun at this age, I was at home grounded because I refused to change. Now, I think about it as a joke, but I was basically grounded for six years with very limited freedom or time to go to parties to socialize with friends. The upside is that I had plenty of time to read, think, and understand my sexuality and what it meant to be gay. This only made me more confident in my ability to combat their homophobia with well-articulated arguments.
Coming out is a continuous process: as we go to our jobs, hang out with friends, shop for groceries, spend time at parties, go to large dinners, we are constantly meeting new people and one never stops coming out. If you are not entirely honest or coy, people will often gossip about what you are doing, so I just prefer to be honest to remove all of their fun.”