As you can imagine, Miami is very Hispanic. And not just Hispanic, there are a whole lot of Cubans over there. So as a Cuban-American I’ve had the unique opportunity to experience being a minority and a majority, in that I was brought up a Cuban among mostly Cubans, and then living in Richmond for about a decade, I’ve experienced being a brown person among mostly whites. If I can sum up the difference, I would say that to be Cuban in Miami is to be a person and to be Cuban in Richmond is to be a Cuban. And while it’s never been explicitly expressed, in one scenario I’m standard issue, and in the other, I’m off-brand. This is not to say, however, that there was less racism back home. In fact, racism in Miami looked a lot like racism in Richmond. You still got a feeling that whiter is better, just that the white standard was a few shades darker in South Florida, and the cultural standard, more Hispanic. As for how my community responded to queer identities, I would say they were passively homophobic, but deadly nonetheless. It wasn’t the kind of homophobia where you’d get shot for saying you’re gay, but it was the kind where you’d get teased and learn to hate yourself to the point where you might just shoot yourself for being gay.
My father is a Baptist minister and my whole family is pretty devout. To give you an idea, my grandmother was the kind of person who would try to proselytize a waitress when we were out to dinner. They weren’t exactly fire-and-brimstone Baptists, but they were still deeply religious. Anti-homosexual sentiments weren’t emphasized at home and gayness was seldom mentioned in my dad’s sermons. But despite an absence of overt hatred, it was still very clear to me early on that it wasn’t ok for me to be gay. And that led to a lot of uncertainty, shame, and self-hate.
How do you define bullying?
I would say it’s anytime someone in a position of power, uses that power against someone of lesser or no power—whether that’s social status, physical strength, class, or financial position.
Your song “Schoolyard Warrior” tackles being bullied head on. Can you share more about your experience with bullies in school?
In school I got teased for being effeminate. This was mostly in elementary and middle school. Kids would call me gay. Sometimes they’d use other words, but essentially that was the charge. They’d call me gay, I would deny it, and it would cause me a whole lot of grief. I even got into a couple of fights over it.
I was so defensive about it, too. I protected my straight identity so much, that I even put up a firewall within myself. I remember school trips would terrify me because I was afraid that I might accidentally reveal the truth by saying something in my sleep. It was such a deeply ingrained homophobia, that well after coming out, I couldn’t even utter the phrase “I am gay”.
I know we’re talking about bullies here, and I believe we need to educate kids to be kind and considerate.
I say all of this because I now realize that I gave the bullies the power to harass me. All along, the attack was only that I was gay. They called me a “Sissy”, “Faggot”, a pajaro—and they were all right! I was and still am all of those things. And it’s only by embracing that about myself, by saying proudly, “I am gay!”, that I can take their power away. Had I been brought up in a home, in a church, and in a world that said queer identities are valid and moral, I would’ve been proud to be who I was, and there would be no weapon for bullies to use against me.
Do you still find yourself encountering bullies as an LGBT Latino adult living in Virginia?
Not really, but I recognize that’s not the case for all LGBTQ people or other minorities in Richmond. I happen to live in an area that’s relatively inclusive, so standards of colorism and homonormativity have expanded far enough to bring people like me into the mainstream liberal fold. But I know that’s not the case for all queer people or POC, especially for trans women of color.
What do you find the most effective way to approach a bullying situation?
I guess it really depends on the risk of violence. As I mentioned earlier, I think the best way to deal with bullies is to disarm them. To counter their attacks with self-love and pride. But sometimes the hostility can be life-threatening, and that approach isn’t a realistic option. In those cases, I have no advice but to survive anyway you can until homophobia, classism, racism, sexism, colorism, xenophobia, transphobia, and all other systems of oppression can be effectively dismantled.
Do you think bullies can change? If so, how?
Yes, bullies can change, but it takes a lot of unwiring. It takes convincing them that using their power against the powerless is immoral, because it is unfair and it is unkind. But we’re primed to be bullies. We see bullying behavior as a virtue. We see our politicians and preachers do it, and we admire it. We need to teach bullies to be ashamed of their bullying behavior.
Your released the moving tribute “50 Hearts” as a response to the Orlando Pulse tragedy. You are also the intersection of so many of those same identities. Can you explain how this song came about for you an what you want to achieve in sharing it?
I wrote “50 Hearts” with my band, My Darling Fury, the day of the tragedy. As a gay Latin guy from Florida, it hit really close to home. I guess what struck me the most was the horror of it, how even our safe spaces aren’t safe. And it was a tragic reminder of how toxic homophobia is and how it’s still alive and kicking. I wanted to address that, the tragedy of it. But I also wanted it to be a call to action to the queer community and to our allies, to be bolder, louder, and prouder when we can. To challenge and dismantle homophobia.
What do you think people should be doing to create safe space for people of different cultural, sexual or religious identities? What can we change the culture to do better?
Speaking up and challenging harmful rhetoric—in person and online—and recognizing that being passive in situations where there are oppressed and oppressors is to be complicit with the oppressors. Keyboard warriors get a lot of flack, but all of us act according to what we believe. And what we believe is shaped by the rhetoric that surrounds us. It’s important that we take an active stance to add to the rhetoric that gives power to the powerless.
Music has been a valuable outlet for you to share your stories. What do you think would encourage others to come forward in whatever medium they choose to share their experiences overcoming bullies or other hostilities?
Visibility is a big one. There’s a lot to criticize about Caitlyn Jenner about and there’s a lot you could say about the new Ghost Busters movie, but seeing people of diverse identities telling their own stories and being successful, is the most empowering and encouraging way to motivate others to do the same.
If you could say one thing to anyone who is the victim of bullying, what would it be?
Challenge it if you can. Disarm them with your pride and self-love if you can. If you can’t, survive and challenge them later. Look for support anywhere you can find it—whether there are teachers or friends or family you can speak to. Find outlets for you to deal with your struggle, whether that’s art or sports or whatever.
Danny Reyes is a queer, Cuban-American singer, from Miami who lives in Richmond, VA. With My Darling Fury, he writes songs about life, love, and adversity, while embracing his gayness and Latin identity. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.
The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.