Maria Hernandez-Peck – Identity and Awareness

“She was like an Auntie Mame.”

Well, [my awareness of LGBT matters] comes all the way back from home [in Cuba]. Now, we were a very wealthy family. My father had two cousins—two female cousins—that were like sisters, okay? One of them was my Aunt Teté. [These cousins] were really interesting, because they had a governess that was German; she’s the one that taught them English, so they spoke English with a German accent. It was really interesting. But my Aunt Teté, even though she had been married 14 years and that marriage broke up, she was lesbian. Very openly lesbian. She had a partner that liked to write and produce plays. She built her a theater—the theater is still there.[1] Whenever there were family things—and this is Cuba [in] 1950s I’m talking about—my godmother, my father’s sister, would say, “Well, dear. They have their problem”—the problem being that they’re lesbian—“but they’re family.” So, they were invited as a couple. It was very, very common that that would be the situation.

I just thought my Aunt Teté was great. I just loved her and, you know, she was like an Auntie Mame. Did you see the movie “Auntie Mame?” [Aunt Teté] used to smoke with this long cigarette holder. She had a black Buick convertible with red leather seats. She left me the ring that she always wore on her pinky. I remember her smoking and then, you know, this big chunky ring on her pinky finger. I think that what I saw, and I think in the culture too, the emotional connection is between women. Not so much between a woman and a man. But, you know, it’s always frowned upon. Well, because it was not acceptable, they were referred to as invertidas [inverts].

[Then, outside of the family,] I was very, very connected to somebody when I went to boarding school. It was just a real emotional connection. This was boarding school in Philadelphia. An American girl and myself. And [the school administrators] thought it was very wrong. You know, you’re not supposed to have special friendships. Well, I think the problem for the nuns was that I was one of the Spanish girls and she was an American girl, and they didn’t see us really connecting. But, you know, it’s interesting that, 60 years later, we’re still in touch with each other. We know when the other one is in trouble. Like right now: I’m concerned that I haven’t heard from her. I just sent her an email saying, “Are you okay? I am concerned I haven’t heard from you.” Throughout life we have always known when the other one is having a difficult time. Now, I’ve seen her through the cloister. She entered the cloister, then left the cloister. [I’ve seen her] through four marriages and six kids. Now she’s a Buddhist nun. I saw her for the first time since we left boarding school about a year and a half ago. We spent a whole day in Seattle. It was like we had never [parted]. It is a very strong connection.

I remember one Sunday . . . I was in my room one Sunday afternoon polishing my shoes. [This friend,] Cathy was in the library, I think.[2] [The sister-in-charge] called me in and said, “Where were you two?” I said, “Well, I don’t know where she was. I was in my room polishing my shoes.” There were always these assumptions that there was something wrong going on. And the people who were engaged in—whatever they were engaged in—were never called on the carpet. It was people like me! I know that there were people that were engaged in more than, you know, Cathy and I being friends. Hispanic girls stuck with Hispanic girls. That was the acceptable thing. But I didn’t go there to speak Spanish. I went to learn English. Well, you know, once they created this situation between me and Cathy, then my friends became the daughter of the Japanese Consul to the United Nations and a girl that [was a] refugee from Hungary. Those were my buddies then.

[After I came to Eastern Washington University], I had a lot of students that would come out to me. I was very uncomfortable with the whole issue of sexual orientation. You know, I think I was questioning my own sexual orientation. I think it has taken me all these years to come to terms with where I’m at in terms of that. So, I thought, “How am I going to handle this?” I figured the best way to handle it was to teach a class in it. [Dean John] O’Neil was a sweetheart—I just loved him—he would say to me, “I don’t understand any of it, but if you want to teach a class, go ahead.” So, I decided that I would teach the class; the emphasis on the class would be historical oppression and the impact of coming out on self and significant others. My feeling on that was that we never can spend enough time with people as we would like to serve them—that we really needed to know what was out in the community to be supportive of the people who were on this journey. So I got connected with all these folks: PFLAG, Katie and Harry [Urbanek], Charlie and Ann Wood. I can’t remember how I found out about [PFLAG]. Probably through the [Spokane] AIDS Network. [They] may have said, “You need to meet these people.” But I became very connected with them. At one time, Tim Bartlett and I were co-chairs of PFLAG for several years.

Even when I was thinking of marrying Bob Peck, I said, “Well, you know, I need to tell you that I’m not quite sure where I’m at in terms of sexuality. You need to know that.” And you live with that. So, then, I think the way I handled that was the fact that, if I cannot be in a relationship with a woman—because it’s not acceptable religious-wise or culturally—I’ll just have a life of service. Which is what I’ve had all my life, is a life of service. You know, you serve the community and you give the best that you can to the community. I think there’s a lot of people that have gone through that. You know, my brother committed suicide. So, I’ve been doing therapy work since he committed suicide. I’ve been doing therapy work since. I came to the conclusion that I’m not oriented towards women, by doing the reflection.


The problem that I have is that I teach [about sexuality] from a Social Work perspective, okay? In the last couple of years, I’ve had people who [have taken another class] in terms of queer theory. They tell me they can be whatever they want to be at any time in their lives. And I said, “I’m not here to teach queer theory. I am here to talk about the journey that people go through.” So, you know, I get some very negative feelings from that. I always say to them, “Anybody who has come out to me, hasn’t said, ‘I have chosen this because I want to,’ but ‘It has been a real struggle for me to come to self acceptance.’” Now I was reminded of that this last time I taught the class, because I had some students in there that had been in the military and were out lesbians. [They talked about] what they had experienced. One of them said to me, “You know, it’s great to celebrate our identity but, at the same time, we have to learn how to help people deal with the internalized oppression that we have experienced in terms of our journey.” When you are just terribly positive, you don’t do a very good job in dealing with this other stuff. You have to maintain a balance, in my perspective.


[1]MHP clarified: the theater was the Sala Hubert de Blank.

[2]Cathy is a pseudonym.


Source: Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 3 June 2013.