Big Think Interview With Jarrett Barrios
Jarrett Barrios is the President and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). We was previously the President of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, and was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and state Senate. He is the founder of three nonprofit organizations: Oiste, a Massachusetts Latino political organization; Acceso, a humanitarian organization that provides outreach to Cuba; and The Commonwealth Seminar, which seeks to diversify the Massachusetts state legislature.
Question: What was it like growing up gay?
I grew up in Tampa, Florida. My family was immigrants from Cuba, not during the Castro era, but before. They worked in cigar factories. They were union organizers and really a strong commitment to family and to; I guess I would say, they would probably say class justice. The idea that nobody’s going to give you anything, that you have to work together with your counterparts if you’re going to get better schools, if you’re going to have better benefits at work, better salary, healthcare, these sorts of things. And that idea, I think, probably seeped into me as I was growing up. My grandfather in particular, who was a pretty radical labor organizer in his day, talked a lot about that.
So, a lot of my ideas around, you can’t take justice for granted, but you have to work for it really come from my family. I was the first kid from my highs school to go to Harvard. It got up north on a dare from my mother to apply to Harvard College, never in a million years – I mean she didn’t know what that was, I‘d never seen snow, I’d never been north of Washington D.C., I didn’t own a coat. So, I landed back, 24 years ago now, I landed in September, 1986, in Cambridge, Massachusetts without much of a clue about what to expect. But rather quickly became immersed in a new community, not one that was based in my family unit. My extended family back in Tampa, but one of fellow Harvard freshmen and other students who were part of the real political community that I became involved with in college.
Question: When did you first come out?
Jarrett Barrios: I came out – I first came out to friends when I was 15, in my junior year in high school. Then to family when I was 16, 17, to my parents, a very sort of Cuban coming out. You know, I’m talking to this guy that I’m interested in dating and my mother’s listening on the phone because there’s no privacy at all, nor should there be any expectation. And then there was an explanation that I had where we kind of discussed it with some words that were loudly expressed. And eventually we figured it all out. It took a couple of years, but we reached our peace and my mother and my father, and really my entire family has been wonderful in their embracing of me as an equal partner in our family experience.
Question: Are there similar issues of discrimination and prejudice faced by Hispanic and LGBT communities?
Jarrett Barrios: Well, I grew up in a Latino family. I grew up gay, openly gay since I was 15. They’re alike in some ways, and different in others. Perhaps one of the most important differences is that, because of my last name, because of people in my family who speak with accents. Because of the fact that we speak Spanish and the food that we eat, and all of these other kinds of cultural markers, it is often extremely clear to somebody that my ethnic background is different than theirs and it’s an ethnic background, at least in the United States, is called minority, and in many cases, and in many places, is considered “less than.”
Being gay is a little different. You don’t wear that on your sleeve. It’s not part of your last name; it isn’t in your accent. And so, the first and foremost difference is, you actually have to come out and tell people that orientation. You have to invite people to understand. That’s not to say that people can’t be discriminated against because they’re perceived to be gay. That wasn’t the question. The question is how is it different? And an important difference is that I have to announce my inequality. I have to announce to people my difference and my sexual orientation as not the majority’s sexual orientation, which opens me up to discrimination.
I was born subject to that because of my ethnic background as a Cuban American, as a Latino. And that’s a very important difference. Now, in some other ways, not much of a difference at all; I think I’m a lot more understanding and empathetic to the debate around immigration in the United States because of my experience as a gay man; as an outsider. I’m much more open, and in turn I think it is much more easy for me to engage around civil rights, around the equality of lesbian and gay families, and lesbian and gay people in the workplace and in the military because of my cultural experience growing up in a blue collar neighborhood where I was raised with stories by my grandparents and my parents of discrimination based on our ethnic background.
Question: How has being gay influenced the way you’ve raised your children?
Being gay has opened me – helps me understand how one can be misunderstood. How you can be trapped in the lens of somebody else’s’ stereotype. Whether it’s “all kids are like that,” or “all teenage boys are like that,” or “all gay people are like that.” And it’s made me thing more compassionate. Not necessarily any less strict with my sons, but certainly more understanding, I think, of the challenges that they are facing and really, the challenges that I, as a parent am facing, to make sure we grow them into fine young men. And you know, teenage boys are, you know, it’s day-by-day on that score.
Question: Do you feel, living in Massachusetts, that you have full equality?
Jarrett Barrios: You know, it’s wonderful living in Massachusetts because we are – we have the option of full equality, of legal equality. And that’s important to distinguish between legal equality at the state level and full legal equality, which would include federal recognition of our marriage, of our family, which isn’t the case because of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.
But at the state level for sure, we are about as equal in Massachusetts as anywhere else in the United States as a gay family. Now, what does that mean? Well it means that I have the same challenges and frustrations raising kids, but I also have the same rights that are necessary for me to take care of my kids, whether it’s access to school records, whether it’s being able to get the hospital to take care of them. If my husband’s name is first on the list, I’ll still be recognized because we are legally married. If I were to die, we wouldn’t face additional tax burdens because your relationship isn’t recognized; countless ways, 600-700 different ways. We are held to be equal in Massachusetts that I wouldn’t be in another state. And that’s very important.
My younger son tried out for the local baseball team. We moved recently; a couple of years now, from Cambridge, which is where I was in the legislature where I served, to Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. And I live in a part of Jamaica Plain that was where a lot of Dominicans lived, where a lot of Dominican folks lived, and a lot of lesbians. So, we had the best little league team in the city. It was the place everybody wanted to come. And the tryouts happened, my son made the team – he was thrilled. The second day of practice comes home excited. The third day of practice comes home and he’s in tears. And I asked, “Nathanial, what’s the problem? Do you want to talk to me about it?” You know, 13, he’s a tough kid; he’s not going to let anything – let me see any vulnerability or weakness. So, I call his coach and his coach explained, you know, “I was going to call you Jarrett. The baseball team, they were practicing today and there were a couple of other kids that Nathanial was trying to make friends with, and they were calling each other gay. And Nathanial, in an attempt to make friends offered up that his two dads were gay, not understanding that they were using the term “gay” in the way that it was derogatory;” making fun of each other. And so when he offered that up, they clearly ate that up and began to ridicule him. Which totally hurt, disoriented and defeated him in his intentions, you know, in his new neighborhood, new community, new team to be a valued member and embraced member of his baseball team. And that was very hard. It was hard because, you know, we live in Massachusetts. We live in a place where we’re nearly legally equal, but there’s no court and there’s no legislature that can change how Nathanial was treated on the baseball diamond.
Question: Are Americans more open minded than they used to be about LGBT equality?
Jarrett Barrios: As people understand that inequality, they’re fair-minded. Americans are fair-minded. And they come to understand who we are much more completely and are then open to supporting, not just legislative endeavors for equality, but cultural frames, which we cast how we are understood. I think about separate from coming out, the other ways that we win support. And I have to tell you, there are, particularly in 2010, the media. And by that I mean, news, and entertainment is the most, after coming out directly to people, the most important, the most powerful way to help people understand who we are and therefore for gay folks; gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered people to achieve our equality. And as impatient as I might be, there’s an importance to that impatience. We must be impatient to ask America to treat us equally. It’s important to understand that we aren’t going to, in our impatience win that by yelling at a few Congressmen. The way to win our impatience – our equality and use our impatience to our advantage by taking it to the streets, taking it to the people we work with, talking to the people in our worlds. And by supporting the media that tells those stories fully and fairly.
That, if it’s a news story about gays in the military, the stories about gay men and women, who are serving with honor, but a being hounded out of the military, which is wrong. And people understand that.
The stories of couples that simply need to take care of one another. What more traditional value can there be in America? What more conservative value can there be than the institution of marriage and what it entails. Taking care of others and having the basic rights to take care of one another to protect, not just your family, but the institution that we call America, to allow ourselves to reproduce that for the next generation. That’s marriage.
And that’s something that I think Americans, when they understand it, not through the lens of somebody’s sort of radical conservative agenda to raise money off of, you know, poor old ladies in Iowa. Right? That they’re sending the mailers out where they characterize gay folks as the devil. But when the see the reality of our lives, you know, we have kids. We get older, need to take care of – we have pensions that we need to pass on. There’s no benefit to anybody else. There’s no damage to anybody else’s marriage by giving the benefits, the responsibilities of marriage to our families. And we need those benefits to take care of each other.
When people understand that through stories that are told responsibly through the media, news stories, or on television. The television show, “Brothers and Sisters,” where they were hoping to get married and then Prop 8 passes and that couldn’t happen; these are responsible ways of communicating important values and in many ways far more persuasive. Far more impactful than any amount of lobbying that we’re going to do on Capital Hill to win our equality.
Shows like “Glee” and “Modern Family,” which give realistic, sometimes all too realistic portrayals of gay families and gay people are very, very important to helping America understand, particularly those Americans who don’t think they know anybody who’s gay. Or who know somebody who’s gay, but those gay friends and family members have never bothered to sit them down and tell them that they’re second class and they deserve to be treated fairly. It’s amazing to me how many of my gay brothers and sisters, my bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters don’t tell their friends and family why they deserve equality.
Recorded June 17, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman
A conversation with the President and CEO of GLAAD.
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