Three vignettes from the past with lessons for the future

Published 27, Oct, 2016
Author // Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía shares three stories from different parts of his life, each of which taught him something

Three vignettes from the past with lessons for the future


I worked as an art teacher in the public school system of NYC for fifteen years. Thousands of children crossed my path. I have many pleasant memories or let’s say, I choose to remember the pleasant ones.

For my last ten years or so, I worked in East Harlem, NY. It was an impoverished community and the children were for the most part African-American and Latino. Today for some reason I was thinking about one of those students.

His name was Anthony and he was a very special child. I first met Anthony in third grade. Anthony was what people often label “sensitive”, “artistic”, “creative”, “flamboyant”...

I loved him from day one.

One day he saw my then-boyfriend Denis’ picture on my desk. He immediately with a mischievous smirk asked me, “Who is that and why do you have a picture of a man on your desk Mr Garmendia?" The question was very direct and full of honest curiosity. I knew that my answer needed to be assertive, positive and one that would satisfy his curiosity.

I answered “That is my friend Denis Anthony, he is the most important person in my life”, to which he whispered under his breath “boyfriend” and walked away.

Fourth grade went by and Anthony discovered the fictional character “Xena Warrior Princess” from the late nineties TV program. One day, in the middle of a watercolor lesson, Anthony decided to paint using a significant amount of pink in his picture. Some other child made fun of it because according to him pink was a girl color.

Anthony got furious and jumped on his desk. Once he balanced himself he screamed, “Don’t fuck with me! I’M XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS!”

The other child shut up and I was speechless and very proud of him. “You go, Anthony, you are on the right track,” I thought to myself.

I wonder where Anthony is today? What is he doing? Does he remember me?


My Cigarette Date

Here's an old story about hook ups and the nervousness that comes attached to meeting and trying to impress a stranger.

When I was in my late twenties I was living in Puerto Rico and going to the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras to pursue a degree in theater. It was at about the same time that I was finally coming out of the closet and I was very inexperienced about dating. Soon I realized how stressful dating was but I pulled it together and as agreed, went to meet this guy in a great disco called “Stars” that was located on the penthouse of the gayest hotel in San Juan.

I arrived on time, went to get a drink and stationed myself in a corner. In the early eighties a lot of people smoked cigarettes but I was never into them, I hated the smell, the way my voice was affected and overall the fact that I always choked on the smoke.

The guy arrived, late but at least he was there. Since we had already described the clothing we were going to wear and our overall appearance over the phone it was easy to find each other in the crowd.

The first thing he did was offer me a cigarette, I thought to myself, “Should I smoke it, or just say no like Nancy Reagan?” Well, peer pressure in those days and at that age was strong so I accepted it. We started talking about who lived closer, I imagined to hook up for sex after a few drinks. I put the cigarette in my mouth and lit it.

Something was wrong. The guy started to laugh! I'd lit the cigarette backwards! Totally embarrassed, I confessed that I didn’t know how to smoke and he patiently showed me how.

That was the ice breaker and the night went really well after that. I guess sometimes making a fool of yourself can be the honest gesture that somebody can find cute.


Hell's Angels

I used to work as an art teacher in a very impoverished neighborhood in The Bronx, NY. My school was located in Crotona Avenue and the surroundings looked like Hiroshima after the bomb.

There were many challenges attached to this job. Serious structural problems with the building, heating issues, lack of books, paper and overall educational materials, vandalism, low school attendance and serious discipline problems, among other things. The school was failing.

The population was for the most part Hispanic and African American. I imagine they were for the most part living under the poverty level as well.I met beautiful people, committed parents and exemplary teachers who gave their best every day to change the lives of the children and the community.

Right behind the school, in plain view from the playground was the Hell's Angels' Bronx headquarters. A lot of their children attended our school. We actually had to interact with them every day during regular visits to the classrooms, in the morning and at dismissal time.

I imagine every reader must have an image of just how a Hell's Angel, generally speaking, dresses. As a gay leather man, who actually used to wear my biker jacket to school and dress in full leather for Halloween, they never intimidated me. For me, it was nothing but a form of heterosexual drag! Many of them were heavily tattooed, some of them with swastikas. Tattoos don’t scare me either but the Jewish teachers were understandably very intimidated by them. I have always been openly gay and openly HIV-positive in all my jobs, so I’ve never had a problem with people “being who they are”.

I believe in teaching by example. Though we carry this awful virus or love in a different way, we are just like everybody else.

Many of the Jewish teachers refused to interact with the Angels. They realized very soon that I had no problems and apparently the Angels didn’t have a problem with “the gay art teacher”. I became the designated person to deal with The Hell's Angels. Not only because I spoke fluent Spanish and could communicate with many of them successfully but because they indeed never showed any kind of intolerance or bigotry towards me. I was always respected by them, and even shook their hands goodbye at dismissal time.

I want to make clear that I’m not a supporter of hate in any shape or form but I also believe that fear of the unknown is the root of many of today’s problems in society.

I was never scared of The Hell's Angels and my agenda with them was to open the minds of their children to the beauty of art. That was it. I was not looking to hang out with them or share any anti Semitic ideas.

Our deal was unspoken but very clear, it was all about respect, you don’t discriminate against me for being a homosexual and I won’t bring up the obvious political and societal differences we had. I understand that the world is full of complicated and touchy issues between people with different ideologies, but I have also learned from personal experience that generalizing and labeling groups is never the smartest thing to do.

I don’t expect everybody to agree or understand this story but I would encourage every reader to try not to let fear dictate who should they interact with. We are all human, we are all different and unique and the key to a successful interaction is mutual respect.

And if I had never taken the chance to talk to the Hell's Angels I would never have learned this lesson in life.

About the Author

Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía

"I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s. Living in Puerto Rico, and growing up there was a bumpy process. I was very aware of my homosexual identity at a very early age, so fighting the stigma was a very intense journey in my native island.

I love art. The Ponce Art Museum was my shelter since I was in high school. As my first job ever, I guided bilingual tours for locals and tourists from all over the world.

In high school, I was introduced to music and theater, after that, I chose to pursue a B.A. in theater at the U.P.R. ( University of Puerto Rico ). Rio Piedras campus.

In college, I discovered many things about myself. My sexual identity became established, my religious beliefs changed dramatically and my awareness of my role in society became the first and biggest challenge of my life. I became a proud gay man, an atheist and an activist. The political climate in Puerto Rico was very far away from recognizing any kind of gay rights so I knew that I needed a community that I could call my own, and be myself. After several years in Puerto Rico, in my twenties, I moved to N.Y.C. to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Education and Art Criticism at New York University. I decided to stay in Manhattan. Here I found myself. I discovered my passions, causes to fight for, and the strong community that I always dreamed of. I became a passionate man with strong convictions.

After graduation I became a N.Y.C. school teacher. I taught art in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Upper Manhattan for 15 years.

Sometime in my twenties, I was exposed to HIV. I tested HIV-positive and after a serious depression, came out strong and victorious. I became an AIDS activist. My passions in life became the gears that fed energy into my existence.

Very early in my N.Y.C. years, I became a staunch liberal. All my causes were related. I was trying to survive in a world where not everybody cared if I did or not. Politics made clear who cared for me as a human being.

That’s why I’m very vocal about my postings. Not because I want to convince anybody, but I do it for those who, like me, once needed some direction in life. I want to share the "real" me with those friends with similar beliefs or at least respect for my beliefs.

Today, I still live in Manhattan. I’m legally married to my husband Denis Beale and I’m disabled. My life is not easy, I have several health related conditions that are a real challenge these days. This bring me to another one of my causes. From personal experience, I believe in the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). 

I consider myself a loving, compassionate and spiritual person. I have no patience for bigotry, especially the kind of sanctimonious bigotry that wraps itself in prayer and fake compassion.

This is a synopsis of who I am. It would be really helpful to start introducing myself with my favorite warning. Warning: I’m human, far from perfect, passionate about life, the pursue of difficult answers, and the conviction that we are all equal."

Felix has been featured in The Huffington Post’s Queer Voices; see the piece here

You can follow Felix on Facebook here or here, on twitter @PozHeart and also on Instagram, here.