Paolo and Eva Leivas-Andino, via Second Act Stories

“I realized that day that I had failed my son”

Life jolts brought on by emotional trauma can be especially searing. For Eva Leivas-Andino, a new life began when she realized that she had not been there for one of her son, Paolo when he was a child, struggling on his own to understand that he was gay. “I left this child totally alone and abandoned while he was going through this,” she says. “I realized that day that I had failed my son.”

Read an excerpt from Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation about Eva’s story below; you can also hear an interview with Eva conducted recently by Andy Levine for his podcast Second Act Stories (click here to listen to the podcast on Andy’s website; the episode also is available on iTunes and Stitcher). Andy interviewed me recently about Jolt for the podcast.

Eva Leivas-Andino’s jolt began when she concluded that she had failed as a mother. Her story continues with an overwhelming sense of fear and self-centered motivation — but ends with transformation born of courage.

I find myself thinking about Eva’s fearlessness on a rainy January day, sitting in a meeting hall behind a Presbyterian church in a comfortable palm tree-lined residential neighborhood of Miami, Florida. About 30 people have gathered here — a diverse group of high school teachers, psychologists, social workers, nurses, parents, and high school-aged children — Latino, white, black; young and old.

They are here for a daylong seminar offered by the YES Institute, a Miami nonprofit organization that provides education on sexual orientation and youth suicide prevention. (The name originally was an acronym for Youth Empowerment and Support.) The course, Gender Continuum, “deconstructs the concept of gender as binary and offers new views expanding our ability to think about gender,” according to a brochure. “This course demystifies transgender and provides education that leads to healthy responses for families and providers.”

The day begins with introductions of speakers and participants. One mother, Diane, stands with her 15-year-old son, Charley, who is gay (names of all the seminar attendees have been changed to protect their privacy). “The challenge is how my son is treated in school — it’s been a struggle to help him and get him into an environment that is loving and caring,” she says. Another mom, Emily, describes how she adopted a daughter at age 14 who was transitioning her gender and had left home after being rejected by her birth parents. When Emily took her in, she was ready to drop out of high school; Emily is here to understand more about gender identity and her daughter’s challenges. Joanne, a high school teacher from Delaware, has traveled to Miami out of concern about a “suicide cluster” that emerged at her school.
 Eva is at the back of the room. A conservatively dressed older woman, she rises to speak. “I’ve been part of the staff here for a long, long time — I first came here 19 years ago when I was very desperate, very upset, very sad. I was the mother of four children, and I had no support, no information about what my son was going through. And I was very afraid, because what was going on in my family was not good for me, and it wasn’t part of the plans I envisioned for my own future. I am so incredibly happy to see the young people here, because when my son was your age there was no place to go to help him deal with questions about his orientation, and he couldn’t even come to me, because I was so scared. So he grew up dealing with it alone.”

Eva just might be the person you’d least expect to find in a seminar on gender. She came to Miami in 1961 at age 17 with family members, political exiles from Cuba. After a brief stay in Florida, her family moved to Puerto Rico, where she met and married her husband, Jorge. The couple lived in California and Florida, raising two daughters and two sons. “We don’t say we immigrated; we say we are political exiles,” Eva says. A warm, embracing woman, she grew up in a very traditional, conservative family. Now in her early 70s, she is the YES Institute’s head of donor development. She leads courses for religious communities, schools, social service agencies, hospitals, and police departments in South Florida, and has helped YES expand its training throughout Latin America.

In 1997, an emotional jolt changed Eva’s life. It happened one night in New York City, where she was attending a performance of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde with her son Paolo. The play, written by Moises Kaufman, focuses on the imprisonment for homosexuality of the 19th-century Irish-born author. The third trial led to a conviction and sentence of two years of hard labor. When the curtain came down, Paolo was sobbing uncontrollably. “Paolo got up and disappeared, so I went out to the lobby,” says Eva. “When he came back about 10 minutes later, I could tell he’d been crying. He said to me, ‘One hundred years and nothing has changed.’”

Eva already knew that Paolo, then 28, was gay. He’d revealed that eight years earlier over a meal in a restaurant, but it didn’t have the effect he’d hoped for. “I wanted it to be out in the open and a point of discussion,” he explains. “Instead, it became the elephant in the room.” At the time, Eva recalls, “all I could think about was, ‘What will I do with this? What are people going to think of me?’ I was so horrified and afraid. It was all about me. When my son told me he was gay, I wasn’t able to utter a word — it’s difficult to describe that moment for me. It was a moment of, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been suspecting this forever, and all I am thinking is — it’s a loss. I am losing what I thought he was. As a parent, I had an idea of what life would be like with my children — we’re all going to live in the same neighborhood and meet for barbecues. So you have this plan, and one day something happens and your plan changes completely.”

Watching the play with her son burst open the dam. Eva and Paolo went to a restaurant and ordered a bottle of wine; Paolo confessed how desperate and lonely he’d been growing up “in the closet” in their conservative-minded Cuban-American home in Miami. Paolo knew he was gay when he was 11 years old. “It was very painful to grow up living under her roof — it did a lot of psychological damage. I could always hide the fact that I was gay, but I really struggled with a lot of feelings of unworthiness, and I thought that I was less deserving because I had what I considered to be an affliction. I would hear people in my own family talking about faggots.” Over the years, he considered suicide.

For Eva, Paolo’s unburdening that night after the play revealed something terrible about herself. “I left this child totally alone and abandoned while he was going through this,” she says. “I realized that day that I had failed my son.” And that painful truth set her on a new life path. She opened up about Paolo to friends and heard from a neighbor about the YES Institute. She took a two-day communications course, then volunteered for the group. That led to her full-time work with the organization. Today she marvels at the changes she’s gone through. “If none of this had happened,” she says, “I’d probably be playing bridge.”

The YES Institute works with children, families, educators, counselors, law enforcement, and civic leaders to promote a better under- standing of gender identity. At the program’s core are one- and two-day workshops on communication and education. The group’s suicide prevention work is focused on adult education. “The kids are fine. It’s the adults who are messed up: the parents, psychologists, teachers, lawyers, doctors — everybody,” Eva says. “They are afraid; they don’t know what to do. These kids are hearing that gays are to be punished; gays are a mistake from God — they go to school and they are bullied and discrimi- nated against. If we educate the adults, the environment changes. And if you do that, there is no problem — you eliminate the fear. It’s so simple, but we don’t get it!”

The work of YES is about breaking down fear and creating empathy for the “other.” “We’re afraid of things we don’t know,” Eva says. “It’s so much easier to put you in a category — this person is gay; that person is not. You are Hispanic; I’m not. You’re a man; I’m a woman. You’re black; I’m white. It’s so much easier for me to put you in this ‘other’ category because then I don’t have to deal with you, because you’re not like me. Rather than that, let’s agree that we’re in this together and that we need to work together for a common purpose. In our case, our common purpose is to protect children and youth. We can work with anybody, and education is what sets us free to do that.”
Eva has heard parents say they’d rather see their child die than be gay — and that’s a self-centered reaction she understands from her own experience. It’s what gives her credibility with parents in crisis.

“Looking back on it, the day Paolo told me he was gay was the single most devastating moment of my life. I am Cuban, so I have to be perfect — and this was not part of perfection. I was deeply ashamed. I love my son, and I would give my life for him, but I was ashamed — deeply ashamed. I didn’t worry about Paolo and what would happen to him — my concern was about me. And because I had no education, the first thing that is coming into my mind are thoughts like, ‘He is going to start abusing children; he’ll never marry now that he is gay or have a family or friends or a job.’ This is what parents think. And when I stand in front of people and I’m real about it, I say that and it still hurts, because I need to be perfect. I did not respond to my son with generosity; I rejected him. But this is what will open doors for the other mother in front of me who is feeling exactly the same. So it’s about being authentic.”