By Jeff Walsh
Gina Gutierrez was born in San Francisco, and lived only an hour away from it throughout her teen years. In 1990, while a senior in high school, she was prominently featured in the educational film "Gay Youth." She then attended Hampshire College, in the queer-friendly Amherst, Mass. But now, Gutierrez is living in a small town in Puerto Rico. Her close-cropped or shaved head seen in the video, is now waist-length. Her "little boy body" in the video, as she calls it, is now more filled out.
Gutierrez is in Puerto Rico doing field research for her thesis. Her Puerto Rican girlfriend, whom she met in Amherst, was also one of the reasons for the move. But Gutierrez is still amazed sometimes when she looks around her and realizes how much her life has changed.
"When I went to college, I just always imagined I'd come back to San Francisco. I never thought I would go anywhere else," she says. "And I'd been really involved in Hampshire in the gay community, and then when I met her, I felt I needed to do something different. I had been active in the community for my life until then, and I needed a change to start doing some inward stuff."
In a place with no discernible gay community, Gutierrez is like a fish out of water. There are gay people there, she says, but just no sense of community among them.
"Living in Puerto Rico, I think I'm going through a different phase in my life and facing different challenges. I've lived in really gay-positive places all my life, and I've been really active and enjoyed being in that kind of community," she says. "Here, in Puerto Rico, there is no gay community, per se. There are a lot of gay people who know each other and see each other at bars and stuff. But I would say in terms of identifying a community and being able to say, 'Oh, well, you're gay, too, and we face similar social issues,' bringing it to that political level, I don't see it happening at all."
She says part of the reason is that the Puerto Rican culture is based around the family structure. "I don't think people see that much of a connection between ... because you're gay and I'm gay, we have a strong bond. It's not really like that. You have your family bond and nothing precedes that. Your next step from there is to find your partner and have your life from there and that's it. A lot of people I know here are in long-term relationships, although I'm not living in the metropolitan area, so that could be another issue.
"I know San Francisco is definitely not like that, there are a lot of people around. The people I've met are all in long-term relationships and that's it. They work, once in a while go to a bar, with their partner, and that's it. That's been kind of hard. What I wanted to do is come here, find the gay community, find an internship and make my niche there, because that's what I'd done in San Francisco. I found organizations, and started things and it's always been very easy for me, but then coming here, I just don't know where to start.
'Just another challenge'
Being so far from an organized gay community is new for Gutierrez. "I went to high school in Los Gatos, and it's definitely not a gay positive place, but I knew that all I needed was a car to go someplace to escape all of that. I never thought I had everything easy, because Los Gatos is a really repressive place and it was difficult to grow up there. But then, now that I'm here in Puerto Rico, I know what I'm missing, because the resources aren't as easy to find here.
"When I went to Amherst, I had no idea about the area. I went to Hampshire because I liked the school, I didn't know anything about Northampton or Amherst. I didn't know how gay friendly it was, that all the schools had gay programs and stuff. So, I was really surprised and happy, because I didn't have to change my lifestyle at all. I was really used to being out, and at Amherst it wasn't an issue at all. Northampton has a really high lesbian population, and that was really fun. San Francisco is really gay male oriented.
But Gutierrez is taking everything in stride. "My big issue is how to deal with Puerto Rico. I love the people. I have a good time with my partner here. And I think this is just another challenge.
"I'm used to things being done a certain way, and I'm coming from a certain set of cultural assumptions that if you're coming from a minority, you're going to want to organize. It just seems that's my cultural logic, is that you want to be around people and make it an issue, politicize it until everyone accepts it. But that's not the way things are here. So, it's just a matter of shifting my assumptions. And I really want to stay away from being judgmental about it all."
Gutierrez does have much time to worry about the lack of community, either. "I'm doing research here, so I spent all of my time at the library or home reading, so I haven't done too much exploring."
The Real World
Gutierrez is best known for her featured role in Pam Walton's documentary "Gay Youth." Shooting on the film began in 1990, and finished in 1991. The film, which is a powerful educational tool, has interviews with many young gay and lesbian teens. Two teens are broken out into larger roles within the film. Bobby Griffith, who killed himself rather than accept being gay due to his conservative upbringing is the one teen. His segment is carried by his mother, Mary, and a narrated voice reading wrenching entries from Bobby's diary, as he hopes he will die rather than face another day gay. Gutierrez is the second teen, the polar opposite of Griffith's story.
Her segment begins as she performs a dramatic monologue about being lesbian in front of a classroom of her peers. Afterward, the students discuss the piece and Gutierrez being the school dyke.
"I was really excited about (the film project)," she says. "That's the reason I came out, because I found out about the project. I just knew from all of my other gay friends that I had a different outlook on life. I saw something in my future, which is pretty different from everybody else. So, I knew I really wanted to be in the project, because I didn't think she would find anybody else my age who was out and had plans.
"So, when I talked to her about it, she said I needed permission from my parents and I hadn't come out to my parents yet. I was out to my friends and teachers and stuff, but not my parents. I hadn't taken that step. But I thought that the project was important enough that my own discomfort wasn't important. So, I came out to them. I have step-parents, too, so I had to come out to four parents."
Gutierrez is still proud of the five-year-old film. "I think that it's a really good educational tool. It's a really straight-forward traditional documentary and that's really good for high school students. I've been to some high schools where it's been shown and it really does change people's views of things. It's very black and white, it's really easy to get. Within those terms, I think it's good for high school students.
"I met one student at my school who had seen it when he was in high school, and he was really impressed, but I looked really different when he met me. Later, he realized it was me."
Gutierrez also takes the initiative to make herself available to groups near wherever she lives, although she doesn't anticipate a Puerto Rican showing in the immediate future. But, when she was in Massachusetts, the opportunity did present itself.
"I was going through a newspaper and saw that some high school had formed a Gay Straight Alliance somewhere in Northampton. So, I was pretty impressed that they had formed this group, and they were showing the video," she says. "So I wrote to the principal and let them know that I was in the area, and if the students were interested in talking to me then I would be happy to go meet them. And there were kids from sixth grade in there, really really young kids and it was really neat. Nobody stated their sexuality, and their counselor said no one was out, they just brought speakers in to talk to them."
Gutierrez is most proud that many of her friends got to be in the video with her, as they prepared to go to the prom. Her date to the prom still gets recognized.
"Whenever she goes out in San Francisco, people still say, 'Hey, you're the date, aren't you?' It's kind of funny."
'I thought on my deathbed I would come out to them'
Gutierrez began coming out to herself in the ninth grade, when she realized she had developed a crush on a female teacher.
"I realized something was strange about that. Then, I wrote a bunch of tortured poetry for a while. And in my second year of high school, I started coming out to my friends," she says. "And I thought that I would never never come out to my parents. I thought on my deathbed, I would come out to them. My parents were cool, they never gave me an impression that they would disown me or anything.
"I guess every kid thinks it's going to be the end of the world when they find out. My mom had said a couple things like how I should wear more makeup and why is it I didn't have any boyfriends. I had a bad relationship with them during those years, fought a lot and I would sneak out of the house a lot. So, when I heard about the video in my junior year of high school, that was my impetus to take a stand on the issue. If you don't have a real reason to, it's hard to make decisions like that."
It was during her junior year during which she spent months rehearsing the dramatic monologue about a lesbian who comes out to her family. She competed in a theater competition with the piece, and her performance was videotaped, which is what she used to actually come out to her parents.
"I didn't want them to see it because of its subject matter, but it was a really big deal," she says. "I spent months preparing for it and everything, and it was weird for me not to involve them in that. I got the tape, and I said, 'This is something I did a couple months ago. I won third place, or whatever. And the subject matter is really important to me, and that's because I'm gay.'"
Now, things are fine between Gutierrez and her parents. She and her partner spend summers in California with them, and she says her parents love her partner. But it wasn't easy from the beginning.
"My mother spent three months crying after I came out to her," she says. "There wasn't a second she would look at me and not start crying. It was really, really hard. My dad was supportive, but really quiet about it. But as time has gone by, a lot of the jobs that I've held and the organizations I've been involved in, all have to deal with gay youth and that's why I have to talk about it. They know what I'm doing in my life, all my stories. I've kept it a constant part of our conversations. And they're really cool, they're involved in my life like any parent is involved. I don't hide anything and they're not shy about asking me questions. A lot of my friends, their parents know but they don't ask questions."
Finding yourself in books
Gutierrez has been on both sides of the cultural fence. Growing up near gay resources and now being without them, she says every teen can find things if they try hard enough.
"There are a lot of resources out there. Every generation's been working hard to create more resources. Every suburb has something. Books and magazines are everywhere now. And that's really how I started coming out to myself, burying myself in the library's little gay section," she says. "Even if you don't meet anybody that you can relate to, you can always pick up a book, put a book cover over it, and read it when you can."
Of course, watch the copyright dates on books you read. At one point, Gutierrez was reading a book by Rita Mae Brown while simultaneously reading an older psychology book with cures for homosexuality.
"I didn't realize the significance of it, but I thought it was odd how they kept describing antidotes to this. I'm reading Rita Mae Brown and I'm reading these psychology books and I know which one is wrong, and which one isn't cool with me. I was political before that, which helped, so I had a sense of what injustice was and all that kind of stuff.
"So, when I started to realize I was gay, I started looking for organizations to hook into. I knew how to do research to find out what was going on. So, if you can't find a human being to talk with, there are many other things to relate to."
For the time being, Gutierrez is enjoying her time in Puerto Rico and the place she's at in her life right now.
"This is a really inward time for me, and I've spent a lot of my energy doing outward things," she says. "This is the first time I've been involved in an intimate relationship and there's something to that. There's something to feeling comfortable enough about yourself to want to share it with someone else. That's my thing right now."