“My dad has gotten sicker and sicker from heart issues…It’s hard for me to say, ‘Well I don’t come to your house because you don’t accept me and you don’t accept my relationship with my husband.’”
Sam continued explaining the complexities of their family dynamic in an even, conversational tone as if they’d long since accepted the weight their sexuality bears within their conservative Latino family.
“I don’t want to be the reason why my dad goes into cardiac arrest,” they went on. “I don’t want to be the reason why my mom hates me for the rest of her days because my decision put my dad in the hospital.”
As they spoke, the weight of the world resting almost imperceptibly upon their shoulders, one couldn’t help but wonder: How many queer and gender-nonconforming people must maintain the peace within their families at the expense of their identity? How many within the LGBTQ community are shouldered with the impossible task of muting themselves for both their own safety and the comfort of a heteronormative society? How many? Just by talking to Sam, it feels like a vast understatement to say some.
Born 33 years ago as Samuel Emilio Torres Duque in Valencia, Venezuela, Sam — known in Birmingham’s drag community as Sharon Cocx — has deep roots. Spanish and Afro-Venezuelan on their father’s side, with Afro-Columbian, Columbian and indigenous blood through their mother’s lineage, Sam spent the entirety of their childhood steeped in Latin American culture.
There were fond family memories: “So, my great grandmother killed a man,” they deadpanned, recalling a story told by family matriarch Mamita (who lived to be 115 years old) about killing her rapist bare handed as a teenager.
“Mind you, this woman is telling this story to, like, 5- and 6-year-old kids,” they laugh. “We’re literally sitting around listening to this story like, ‘Tell us more!’” More laughter. “My family has no chill.”
But it was darker, more painful moments that affected them the most.
Sam’s father, a Baptist minister, adhered to a near-biblical discipline style that made it clear how he expected his children to behave. The household yielded very little space for children’s voices or uncomfortable conversations, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Sam to speak up about their own traumas steadily building behind closed doors.
“I was sexually abused by a family member,” they divulged. “And it was constant.”
The truth of what happened to them at the hands of an older sibling when Sam was between the ages of 8 and 14 would eventually be revealed to the family but at the time, they were forced to face the abuse alone. This would be the beginning of a lifelong balancing act: keeping the peace within the family by repressing trauma (and, a natural side effect, memories) and keeping the truth from spilling out.
“There are different levels to sexual assault, and I was groomed by my brother,” Sam explained. “I was groomed by the belief that what was happening was okay, but it had to be a secret. A lot of my childhood I internalized and I put back and I don’t really remember. Which is a shame…I would love to remember things about my childhood that I don’t because I completely blocked all that out the moment that I realized what was happening was wrong.”
The abuse ended when Sam was 14 and their brother moved away, but the aftershocks of childhood trauma would continue to color Sam’s sexual experiences well into their early 20s.
“[The trauma] made my sexual experience an unhealthy one,” they said, detailing the many encounters with nameless partners that characterized their pre-marital life. “That’s the only thing I knew how to do…There was no relationship. It was always sex, sex, sex.” Eventually, Sam would meet their husband, Barry (another Birmingham drag queen known as Reese Eve Cocx), and learn the value of real intimacy. It wouldn’t be until four years into their relationship, however, that Sam’s parents would learn the truth about their son’s sexuality.
Sam didn’t come out as much as they were brought out, though, and tasked with the damage control that would be necessary after their brother told their parents the truth. “All this unraveled at the hand of my abuser. Now that my brother had the information in his hands and could do anything with it.” It didn’t take long for him to tell their parents the news, effectively altering Sam’s relationship with them to this day.
Their father sat stone-faced and quiet next to their sobbing mother, who was curled up in fetal position wondering aloud where she’d gone wrong. Their mood shifted again when Sam disclosed that their brother abused them, which they hid “because I’ve always been so afraid to be the reason why my family falls apart.” Sam’s father promptly broke out into tears while their mother grew enraged, threatening to kill Sam’s brother.
Over time, their parents never openly spoke of their son’s abuse and resulting trauma. And as for their parents’ relationship with their husband, Sam learned not to mention it around their family, as they’ve never met Barry and refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the relationship. Nevertheless, Sam insists everything is fine. “I had already started doing drag, so I had a community. I didn’t care to lose that connection with my parents, because I had a gay family.”
The loss of connection wound up extending to religion too. The icy and dismissive reactions to their coming out, plus the church’s history of shaming queer people and subjecting them to conversion therapy, spurred Sam’s departure from the Baptist church. This led him to practice other forms of spirituality like paganism, hoodoo and Santeria, or Celtic, African and indigenous-rooted practices that are considered demonic and blasphemous by the Christian faith. “There is no space for queer people in Christianity. I’ve slowly realized that,” he explained regretfully. “I was a wishful thinker, hoping that one day I could be on stage singing at church in my queerest outfit. And for some people that might be a reality, and I respect that. But for me…there is no safe space for queer people.”
A lack of safe spaces would prove to be a common theme in their life: Sam’s parents still don’t know they do drag or identify as nonbinary. “You see these nails?” they ask, click-clacking the black acrylics on their hand. “They will be off my fingers by Thursday because I have to see [my parents] on Friday.” For Sam, rebuilding a connection with their mom and trying not to burn familial bridges seems to be more important than seeking acceptance from those whose own personal limits may never allow them to fully understand.
When asked how they reconcile this lifestyle with the “Be Yourself” message they often use with younger queers in the community, Sam shrugs. “Put everything in a balance…it’s important to know what battles to fight,” they explain empathetically. “Are these nails really important? Are these nails really worth me having an argument with my parents on my birthday? If it’s worth it for you to walk away and tell your family, ‘Fuck you,’ then do it. But that’s not the story for everybody.”