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www.ambiente.us  MAY / MAYO 2008

Somos Familia
by Steve Ralls

Nila Marrone has many moving stories about the
families who have come to her New York PFLAG
chapter, which serves Manhattan’s Latino families,
looking for answers . . . and finding support.  But it
is her story of Esther (whose name has been
changed), the grandmother from the Bronx who
had a remarkable change of heart about her
closest family, that most illuminatingly tells of the
impact Marrone and her fellow PFLAG supporters
have on families throughout the Big Apple.

Esther was “a Dominican grandmother who spoke
only Spanish,â€� Marrone explains.  â€œShe owned an
apartment in the Bronx that she shared with her
daughter and grand-daughter, who constituted her
entire family.�

In June of 2007, Esther learned that her
grand-daughter, age 14, is a lesbian.  And a month
later, Esther’s daughter also came out – a
revelation that, Marrone recalls, “was more than
Esther could bear . . . She threw out her daughter
and grand-daughter from her home and, in the
process, was left all alone.�

Until, that is, she found Marrone’s PFLAG chapter,
with a little help from a subway poster posted by The Ali Forney Center for homeless youth.

Esther “did nothing but sobâ€� at her first meeting, Marrone says.  â€œWhen she spoke, she told us she
believed that she had somehow caused her daughter’s homosexuality, which in turn ruined her grand-
daughter.  Her sense of guilt and loneliness were profound.  We hugged her, consoled her and showed
complete understanding.  Gently, we dispelled her idea that she had anything to do with the sexual
orientation of her daughter or her grand-daughter.�

A week later, the chapter learned that, after our meeting, Esther went in search of her only two family
members to ask them for forgiveness and “beg them to come back home.â€�  Six months later, Esther
returned to the chapter, wearing a rainbow necklace, ring and bracelet, and thanked Marrone and the other
PFLAG’ers for their help.

For many families of color in the Manhattan area, Marrone and her chapter are, quite literally, the only place
they can turn to for help and encouragement when they learn a loved one is lesbian, gay, bisexual or
transgender.  The two-year-old group, a chapter of the national Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians
and Gays (PFLAG), has seen interest in its work grow as more New Yorkers learn about its work.  â
€œMeeting attendance varies from about 10 to 50 persons,â€� Marrone says, noting that the chapter has
also helped to form a group in nearby Newark, NJ, at the request of a local family impacted by a 2003 hate
crime.

“We encourage forming Spanish groups by chapters located in areas with a large Latino population,�
Marrone told Ambiente.  â€œWe offer assistance if we learn they have plans to form a Latino group.  And, we
encourage the formation of PFLAG-like groups in Latin America.â€�  A PFLAG chapter in Westchester, New
York, for example, recently launched a Latino group with Marrone’s help.

Marrone says the formation of Latino-specific support groups is critical because of the unique needs of the
community.

“The essential ingredient is understanding the culture and language of the Latino community,� she
says.  â€œRegarding language, Latinos fall in a broad range that goes from Spanish monolinguals, to bi-
lingual (English-Spanish) to English monolinguals.  Meetings need to be flexible to accommodate their
needs.�

And, she explains, various and important facets of Latino culture are critical in reaching out to families in the
community.

“The responsibility that each Latino has to the family is boundless and forever,â€� she says.  â
€œTherefore, a break with the family is particularly deeply felt.  Many families feel problems must be solved
internally, by family members.  And the family name and image must be protected.  Traditions are highly
valued, change is generally not welcome and privacy is highly prized.�

In addition, a number of social and religious factors also impact Latino families in especially pronounced
ways.

“There is no tradition for forming or joining support groupsâ€� in the Latino community, Marrone notes.  â
€œLimited economic resources are a serious obstacle to joining such groups.â€�  Because most Latino
families are Catholic, Marrone also emphasizes the importance of offering a perspective on faith as well.  â
€œA list of gay friendly priests and pastors is very useful to have. It is important for families to hear  more
open interpretations of Catholicism or the Bible.�

Time and patience, she notes, are also invaluable and necessary as families learn to embrace their LGBT
loved ones.

“Like other communities, Latino communities are very diverse in education, income and religion, to name
only three areas,â€� she said in her interview with Ambiente.  â€œFamily reaction to a loved one coming out
varies from acceptance to throwing the child out.  Most, if not all, Latino parents who support their LGBT
children go through a difficult process of adjusting to having an LGBT member in the family.  Some of them
react emotionally, in a destructive fashion, and expel their children from their home.  We have known such
parents who, shortly thereafter, come to regret their initial, extreme response.�

Marrone’s own journey follows a similar path, although the family never considered disowning their gay
child.

“When my niece and godchild, Maria (then 18), came out as a lesbian in 1983, I became deeply
interested in learning about homosexuality in order to help her and our family deal with the issue,� she
says.  â€œBeing brought up in Bolivia, where homosexuality was taboo, I had internalized a very dose of
homophobia.  Hearing that my lovely niece was a lesbian was a shock that made me face the fact that I had
condemned a whole lot of people while knowing nothing about them.�

Marrone set to work to educate herself and bring her family together.

“As a researcher, I investigated homosexuality and concluded that my niece was a normal and healthy
young woman that needed strong support from her family to deal with a  homophobic society,â€� she told
Ambiente.

Then, Marrone’s family began to grow as she met more and more LGBT people who came to rely on her
as a source of strength, support and inspiration.

In 1997, while traveling in Granada, Spain, Marrone met Frank, a young gay man who had been rejected by
his family.  â€œMy husband and I pretty much adopted Frank, and helped him come to the U.S. and complete
his education,� she says.

Her experience with Frank and Maria led her to become,
for all intents and purposes, a full-time advocate for LGBT
equality.

“As my early retirement approached, it was my experience
with Maria and Frank that convinced me I must dedicate my
time and energy to educate families like Frank’s, so that no
young man or woman would be cast away from their
families because of their sexual orientation,� she says.
“Since then, I have acted as a temporary ‘mother’ to many
youngsters in the U.S., Latin America and Spain.  I provide
them support, direct assistance and help them come out
to their families and recover the family’s love and support�
after being rejected by their parents and relatives.

As part of the “education� mission of her chapter, PFLAG for Families of Color and Allies in New York
City (online at www.pflagfamiliesofcolor.org),  Marrone also conducts workshops for school personnel and
students, for foster parents employed by New York State, and for staff who work in Manhattan’s HeadStart
program.

“The need for accurate LGBT issues for foster parents [and HeadStart staff] is enormous,� she says.

And even as her chapter’s visibility and attendance grows, Marrone knows she will not be able to rest
anytime soon.  â€œUprooting a long-held prejudice like homophobia takes time,â€� she observes. “It is
a process that requires education at all levels of society.�

Marrone, for her part, is ably educating the masses . . .  one Bronx grandmother at a time.


------------------------------------------------

PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, their families
and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public;
and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of
Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to
create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.  For more information on resources for
Latino families, or information on starting a chapter in your area, email info@pflag.org.

-----------------------------------------

ABOUT THE AUTHOR











Steve Ralls is a long-time LGBT activist, and currently serves as director of communications for Parents,
Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).  Steve has been widely quoted on LGBT issues in the
media, including in major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco
Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on national and local radio programs from coast to
coast, and has also been featured on CNN and in other media outlets across the country. Mr. Ralls also is a
regular contributor to Ambiente Magazine. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at
sralls@pflag.org.


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