by Tana Michaels
Leo Romo, 56, a Perceptions board member and activist, who won Triangle’s Catalyst Award in 2004 “for being out in the community,” is currently active in over ten other groups and organizations that range from the area’s Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG), the statewide Triangle Foundation, to the national Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the NAACP. He regularly attends conferences, serves on boards and travels extensively.
But Romo says it wasn’t always so. Coming out is a process and it was no different for him.
Raised Catholic on Saginaw’s east side, of a Mexican father and a white mother, Romo’s mixed heritage came with its own prejudices. “I couldn’t play with a little girl in junior high because her father said I was a Mexican.” It struck Romo as a terribly wrong, unjust way of thinking.
Interested in politics at a young age, Romo held class offices in school and began an interest in the greater political scene in sixth grade.
“It was no surprise that I majored in poli-sci,” he laughs.
Describing himself then he says, “I’ve always been liberal. It was always okay to be gay, but I explained away my own attractions to men while I was in college.”
Romo was an award-winning elementary school teacher. If he were still teaching today, he would “definitely be out.” Sixteen years ago e went through several surgeries to correct a brain malformation. Unfortunately, he had to endure a second and third operation that left him temporarily paralyzed, blind and deaf. He was forced to retire from teaching.
“The surgeries were the most powerful experiences in my life…in a positive way. I consider myself a living miracle,” said Romo.
Married for 14 years, Romo has two daughters and one grandchild. After the divorce, he began to seriously explore his own sexuality. “When I first realized I had an attraction for men I was afraid,” he said. “I woke up in a cold sweat in the night saying, ‘I can’t be gay. I have kids!'”
“I dated women, but I was more interested in guys. I was bi-sexual for eight or ten years. I had a hard time accepting that I was bisexual let alone gay.”
There came a time when he could no longer deny who he was.
“I was dating a woman for almost a year and I really cared for her, but I realized I just couldn’t be with her anymore. I was attracted to men. After that, I never turned back and that was 11 or 12 years ago.”
“Once I came out to myself, I preferred being totally out,” Romo said. “I believe in being honest with yourself about who you are.”
Responding to the conservative Christian belief that he’s going to hell for being gay, Romo added with a smile, “I don’t believe in hell. Churches were made by men and Church policy is made by what people think the bible says.”
Beaten and robbed outside a gay bar in Flint, Romo doesn’t consider himself a victim of a hate crime and remains unafraid. “I always prefer to be just who I am. I might have gotten beat up anywhere,” said Romo. The 1993 incident left Romo hospitalized for “a month or two.”
“There are all kinds of people. Some are nice, others are not. If you take a mix of people and put them in a room, you’ll find that people are people. They have different ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, etc. The real question is, can you accept people as they are?”
“Each person should have the same rights as others. If I come out as a gay man, I lose rights. For instance, I raised my daughters, but couldn’t adopt a lover’s child. It’s wrong. I can be legally kicked out of an apartment. I want them to know that you can’t do this because it’s wrong.”
There’s more than just the legal issues. There’s social issues as well. “I was in a bar the other day,” Romo said. “I was watching people dance when it occurred to me that if I wanted to dance with another man, I don’t think, socially I’d be allowed to do that.”
Romo is a regular visitor to the capitol building in Lansing. “I want them to know who I am.” he said. He stays informed by reading and discussing current events. “If you want to do something, find good teachers.” said Romo. His teachers are Triangle’s Sean Kosofsky and Jeff Montgomery, and Between the Lines editor, Susan Horowitz. “We share good information. Information keeps you aware of what’s happening. It’s my food,” he said.
Will we see gay marriage become a reality? “Oh sure! Of course we will. We already have it in Massachusetts.” It’s a matter of equality for Romo, not gay or straight, or black, white, or Mexican, but equality for everyone. He looks for a future where none of these things matter. “Being closeted hurts us. People should be who they are. Sexual-orientation, gender identity and self-expression should be nothing at all, like the color of your hair, or being left handed. Who cares?”
Summing it up, Romo said, “Coming out is a personal story. Some will tell the world, some tell only intimate friends and others never “tell” anybody but they attend GLBT events or support another way. All ‘stories’ are valid and part of LGBT history.”