The word “pato” is commonly used in the Latinx community to describe a gay man. While some of us wear pato like a badge of honor, in our society – where toxic masculinity is so heavily embedded – it’s a term that’s also hurled as an insult. Particularly in the Latinx community, where machismo is ubiquitous, there’s an expectation of what it means to be a man. You’re supposed to act and behave a certain way because “that’s what a man does.” And if you don’t meet those expectations, you’re judged and mistreated. Oftentimes, queer men don’t fit into this very narrow definition of masculinity, which can set off a chain reaction of self-hatred that can prove difficult to break.
Growing up in my family, there were certainly things that were pushed on me in terms of my masculinity and manhood. And as a young boy, I certainly felt different without really knowing what gay meant. I wanted to play with toys marketed to girls, I naturally popped my hip, and I would practice Britney Spears’ choreography, while unknowingly lusting over Chris O’Donnell in Batman & Robin. Whether or not my parents picked up on these tendencies or not, I’m unsure. But I do know, they expected me to learn how to fix things and share my father’s same interests, including sports. However, I still have vivid memories of miserably striking out everytime I played baseball, and I didn’t find watching the sport enjoyable whatsoever.
Over time, I’ve learned to find beauty and strength in my vulnerability and high emotional intelligence, which has helped me recognize that masculinity is not this one uniform thing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be increasingly more comfortable with my femininity. I have simultaneously leaned in to my Peruvian and Puerto Rican roots and my queerness.
The effects of living in a toxic machista culture can be difficult, but like so many queer folk, the Latinx community is not only resilient enough to get back up again, but they also learn to own and embrace all pieces of themselves. I spoke to three Latinx men to gain insight into how they navigated their queerness in a pervasive machista culture.
Johnny Sibilly, an actor and social media personality currently appearing on FX’s POSE, grew up alongside the women in his family, because he admired their strength, vocalness, and vibrancy. He wanted to learn more about them, so he stuck close. When any male figures in his family saw him around women, they’d encourage him to play with the boys – almost as if they suspected he was queer and wanted to stop it.
As Johnny grew up, the men in his family never spoke about their feelings because they were under the impression that emotions are solely a woman’s domain. And sometimes, because machismo is so ingrained in our culture, he resolved his issues with his fist. During our conversation, Johnny recounts a memory that at one time brought him gratification: “One of the times I felt the best about my masculinity is when a kid that used to make fun of me for being gay in school, I stood up to him one day and beat him up. I felt so proud being able to tell my mom and dad that I won the fight, because I felt like they would like me better for some reason. I always tried to be what they wanted – until I didn’t anymore.” This is representative of the ways queer youth look for acceptance in their families and allow masculinity to take over.
Eventually, he found another outlet. “I found drama club,” he adds. “I found a place where I could put my feelings into.”
Earlier this year, Johnny starred in YouTube series Drag Babies, where he played the drag daughter to famed drag queen, Peppermint. Just as it took him some time to fully embrace himself, it took his mom some time to get there. “My mom was uncomfortable the first time she saw me in drag, and then the other day she called to tell me how much she loved me and the show,” he says. “It warmed my heart not just because I felt accepted, but because I saw that there was growth. Even at the age she was at, she was able to move past her own preconceived notions and accept that I was being creative, that I was her son, and that I was talented. I think all people have opportunities to grow, it’s just if they allow themselves to do so.”
Mathew Rodriguez, a staff writer at INTO, was raised in a household with a lot of feminine energy. He describes himself as a flamboyant child with dreams of becoming an actor. However, this seemingly innocuous career goal was a threat to his masculinity for his uncle. “You can be an actor, but not play a homosexual role,” he says recalling his uncle’s words. Comments like these highlighted that the men in his life – his uncles on both his mother’s and father’s side – had expectations of him. Being unable to meet them, he felt like a “failure because you’re not acting the way you should be acting.” Eventually, he made the decision to not buy into their ideals of masculinity, which means he grew further apart from his tíos.
With that, he was able to break the cycle. Machismo mentality is learned behavior that is passed on from generation to generation. For Matthew, one way we can unlearn this kind of behavior is that “Latinx people need to allow women to speak up. It’s allowing women to be more human and allowing us to learn from them. Machismo asserts itself as the only way to be, and queer kids are going to feel like they’re failing.”
A lot of responsibility falls on parents to ensure their kids feel safe and comfortable to be themselves. That means if your son feels connected to femininity, they should be allowed to embrace it. “If your child wants to express femininity and you are a woman, then celebrate that because they’re reflecting it from you,” he says. “Children have personalities but who they are comes from emulating and I think we have to get over it. Parents should celebrate when their child wants to be feminine.”
From a young age, many queer Latinx men are supposed to play and enjoy sports, and go outdoors. Those who don’t fit within those confines have a harder time. That’s what writer, editor, and co-host of the Food 4 Thot podcast Fran Tirado felt growing up.
In his youth, his dad signed him up for every sport imaginable. Growing up with a lot of male figures, their desires took precedence over what anyone else wanted. Instead of roughhousing with his cousins, he found himself enjoying books and theater – things viewed as strictly feminine. Additionally, his “girly” voice was a source of shame.
Having the mentality that who you naturally are is bad can be a poisonous lesson to teach yourself over and over again. “When you spend time hating yourself, undoing that is committing fully in the opposite direction,” he says. That’s exactly what he did as he got older; he embraced his feminine side. He indulges in bright red manicures and acts and dresses exactly as he desires. “Being exposed to different versions of masculinity…,” he says. “It isn’t until exposure over and over that this mentality is unlearned.”
As I continue to navigate my queerness and my masculinity, I have to make decisions about the way I will react. Say I’m with a group of masculine men that underestimate me; one of two things happen: I either have such a desire to prove that I can do what they can do (and do it better at that), or I lean into my femininity more, which makes some men uncomfortable and makes me feel in control. For Fran, it’s about defaulting to the feminine side. “I will go out of my way to make a straight man feel insecure,” he adds. “I use my femininity to intimidate them.”