Perina Family Story
The Perina Family of Bellerose, New York
Interview by Angeline Acain
Huge snow flakes were falling diagonally this March morning, the east coast was experiencing one of its worst winters. At a snail’s pace I drove carefully to Bellerose, Queens, to interview Barbra Ann Perina, the new executive director of the Queens Rainbow Community Center, and her wife Deborah Matut-Perina. As the snow was piling up around me, I was wondering if I should’ve rescheduled. Despite the weather conditions I was glad that I had braved the blizzard to interview this wonderful family and actually made our morning appointment on time.
Deborah and Ebony, their large black dog, greeted me at the door. I was directed down a hallway to their kitchen table where we start the interview.
Deborah: I’m originally from Brooklyn. When I was eighteen I joined the marines where I was trained in electronics such as video taping and television. After the marines I lived in Texas for a while working in the oil fields and television but eventually moved back to New York. I currently work for CBS as a maintenance engineer, I fix all the equipment. Shortly after I started working at CBS I wanted to learn how to fly planes. So I enrolled in a flight school located in Queens where Barbra, who at the time was Bob, was a flight instructor. That’s how we met. We’ve been together for 17 years.
Barbra grew up in Astoria, Queens. While we were seeing each other she moved to Texas for a while, actually she was trying to forget me, but she used to visit me every weekend. Eventually she moved back to New York. Barbra walks in and helps herself to the first of a series of cups of coffee. Everett, their son, exits and enters the kitchen several times during the interview.
Deborah: When we first moved to Bellerose, this neighborhood was not as diverse as it is now.
Barbra: It was very middle class, blue collar, white, Irish Catholic.
Deborah: Barbra transitioned here. At first people would talk, “Oh my goodness! Those are weird people, what’s this neighborhood coming to?” They had the same prejudices people have until they get to know you.
Barbara: We moved here shortly after Everett was born about eight years ago.
Deborah: A lot of Asians, African Americans, and Indians have since moved into the neighborhood which is nice. I chose to work the midnight shift at CBS so I could be here when Everett came home and also to get involved with his school. I joined the PTA and people would see that we were a loving family who cared about our son and our home. But once I received a hate letter.
Barbra: An anonymous vehement hate letter was left in Deborah’s PTA mail box at school. But they made a mistake because they didn’t know who they were dealing with. I made one call to the first deputy commissioners office at the police department and that afternoon the entire hate crimes task force took over P.S. 18. They fingerprinted the teachers, interviewed the parents, the principal was very upset because the task force literally took over the school. They took the letter to forensics and dusted it for prints. They narrowed down the suspects but the suspect family ended up leaving the neighborhood because they realized they were going to get nailed. They never admitted but it was obvious.
Deborah: It was obvious because what was written in the letter were the same things that were actually said to our son, word for word. Because the way we are, Everett can’t understand how kids can hate.
Barbra: Hate is a learned behavior. It was good to see the hate crimes task force take this seriously but it was because I sit on the police council and had access to the first deputy commissioner. I also teach at the police academy. But if I didn’t sit on the police council and didn’t teach at the police academy I wouldn’t have had that access. The average queer identified individual who is the victim of anonymous hate mail would not get that kind of response.
Most people know that we are loving parents and that Deborah’s very involved at Everett’s school and that Everett is very much loved and very intelligent. People also know that I’m politically involved, we have a lot of house parties here and a regular guest is Alan Hevesi (New York State Comptroller). We’re your average family that happens to be a little more connected than most. But a lot of people around here are politically connected, it’s that kind of neighborhood, they know the state senator or congressman. Deborah helps run the block party where I set up the music and all the neighbor kids know us. At Halloween we do this huge…
Deborah: Haunted house, we use our whole house. The kids love coming here. The parents come in with their kids five or six times. We even received a letter from a parent thanking us for making Halloween so special.
Barbra: Most people in this neighborhood have gotten to know us and realize gender, gay or queer issues are not important in the larger scheme of things. We still have to shovel our snow, mow our lawn, and fix up our house. We were the first in the block to do major renovations on the outside of our house and everybody on the block followed. Our house was one of the crappiest looking on the block but we had bought it for a really good price. Everett goes to a Unitarian Universalist church school. I’m Episcopal, Deborah’s Jewish. As far as his schooling goes, we wanted him exposed to everything and have a broad education in terms of religion and the Unitarian Universalist church does that. It is non-denominational and their Sunday school curriculum does include alternative families.
Deborah: Also, a lot of alternative families attend this church. Everett is a very intelligent nine and a half year old. He speaks to adults on a whole other level. He’s been involved with Barbra and the politics.
Acain: You also have a daughter (Barbra requested that her daughter’s name not be included in this interview).
Barbra: My daughter is in college studying to be a doctor. I told her she should specialize in geriatrics so she can take care of her old lady in her old age but she wants to specialize in pediatric genetics. She lived with her mom and would come over during the holidays and school break. She had to deal with my transition but she never talked about it much, she talked about it more with Deborah.
Deborah: I wasn’t her mother but we were very close.
Barbra: My daughter knows that before my transition I was a miserable human being and a drunk. After I transitioned I became a happy, caring human being who is sober. Losing a father or father image through parents separating is not as difficult. I’m Everett’s father but he doesn’t have that father image, it’s difficult but we work around it as family. I think later on if he is interested in baseball and football it will be hard.
Deborah: Even in school he’ll write, “My dad, she…” The teacher would correct him but I corrected the teacher saying, “No, he’s right.” And they stopped correcting him. The kids in school would also ask questions like, “He said his dad is a woman?” So I explained everything to them and they were fine about it. Everett addresses us as mommy and Barbra.
Barbra: He only has one mommy. He is our biological child but our situation is unique.
Deborah: She’s dad but she’s Barbra. We decided this because if they were out alone and Everett’s calling her dad, we didn’t want anyone thinking, “Oh my god what’s going on here?”
Barbara: Sometimes it hurts. I have to take the good with the bad. It’s better to deal with that emotionally and work it through than to be dead.
Deborah: Rather than all the alcoholism. Everett remembers when she wasn’t happy, he was in nursery school.
Barbra: You expect him to remember?
Barbra: Everett has mild Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and post-traumatic stress which causes anxiety and separation issues. He has a mild neural deficit which affects his writing. But his IQ is in the superior range. He reads practically on the college level. We taught him to think abstractly. He comprehends and problem solves very quickly but he thinks faster than he can write and that frustrates him. He gets along better with adults than with kids because adults understand him but kids aren’t thinking on his level yet and it creates some friction in class. He has some emotional issues and the school labeled him emotionally disturbed. I went through the same thing as a kid so I can relate.
Deborah: There’s no classification for a child with his needs. It’s very frustrating.
Barbra: His school could not deal with him and we had to pull him out but I’m not going to pay for a private school. The board of education needs to live up to their obligations, they need to find a way to work with our kid, that’s their job. So finally they said they would find a school for him but the schools they recommended were totally inappropriate. The students were doing third grade work in what they considered the school’s “fast class” but Everett is ready for sixth to eighth grade level work. Now he is not in any school and the district is not too cooperative.
Deborah: They said we’ll have an emergency meeting but we are still waiting.
Barbra: Until we find some place we may do home schooling for a few months and putting him back in P.S. 18 might be an answer if this process is delayed. It’s not urgent for them but it is for us. It bothers me that we have to get this taken care of and make the calls.
Deborah: It’s not right. What about all the other parents who are going through this? There are so many children out there like Everett. Especially with this country wide initiative, “No child left behind.”
Barbra: After we build all our bombs and kick the shit out of Saddam then we’ll take care of the kids. September 11 was especially hard on Everett. I don’t know why anyone was surprised about 9/11 we saw this in 1993.
Deborah: I was working in the World Trade Towers at the time of the 1993 bombing.
Barbra: She was the pregnant woman who was air lifted off the roof. September 11 was a terrible tragedy but ten years ago six people lost their lives, thousands were injured, Deborah almost died. There was a whole group of people who were traumatized and just because the buildings didn’t topple down, which is what the bomber wanted, doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy. And only now they are including the families of the six people who died in 1993 in the funding.
My biggest concern about war is that billions of dollars are going to bombs while budgets are being cut for education, health care, social services and Medicaid. As far as a personal emergency plan, we’ll drive to the airport, steal a plane and fly to Canada (laughs). If the terror alert is high don’t take the mid-town tunnel or the 59th Street bridge into Manhattan, take the Throgs Neck Bridge. But you can’t be fearful of these maniacs, locking yourself in with duct tape on your windows and doors. Instead you are diligent and aware and go on with your life. I’m so jaded after 9/11 because I spent eight weeks on that pile as the clinical supervisor for the peer unit of the fire department. I was involved with the mental health and emotional well-being of the medics and EMT’s there. It was a humbling experience.
Deborah: We try not to talk about it in front of Everett because he gets so wrapped up in it. He’s been really affected and experienced post-traumatic stress. If he hears anything about it he becomes very frightful.
Barbra: He connects 9/11 with the 1993 bombing because his mother almost died. He knows that his problems with writing, his neurological problems and some of his emotional problems may be tied with the bombing. He was born premature and almost died. He is a sensitive, loving, caring kid, who is brilliant and if you mention 9/11 it makes him depressed. He loved those buildings.
We had just flown down the Hudson a couple days before 9/11. He wanted to go flying before school started so we took the plane down the Hudson River down past the World Trade Towers, he loves seeing the Statue of Liberty from the air. A week later the buildings were gone.
Acain: I’m changing the direction of this interview. Barbra, tell me about the Queens Rainbow Community Center.
Barbra: For LGBT youth there’s the Generation Q program which is every Friday night. There’s an Alcoholics Anonymous group and we’re starting a theater workshop for queer youth and adults. We do social service by appointment and referrals in person and over the phone. Right now we are a big clearing house. We are working with Reality Check, a youth empowerment against big tobacco program which is part of a division of the New York city department of health.
My mission is to have numerous overlapping funding streams so that I can expand programming. I made two promises when I took the job, the first is that the center won’t close under my watch and second is that it will expand. I picked the worst time to take over as executive director of a queer identified not-for-profit from a fiscal stand point. There is a 5 billion city deficit and 12 to 15 billion state deficit, there are major cuts across the board. So where does the money come from? Corporate and personal giving is down. Foundation giving is down, they are more particular in who they give money to. So it’s going to take some time and I won’t start a program I can’t sustain. Every program has a price tag and there’s nothing worse than starting a program then having to close it because lack of funding.
We’re slowly expanding our Generation Q program which has gotten huge, there are fifty to sixty kids now. The kids are doing more field trips, retreats and leadership trainings. Within two years my vision is to be a multi-diversified, multi-service agency similar to the center in Manhattan. I don’t know why, but some people are afraid of the area in which we are located and are afraid to travel there. The location is good for us fiscally and adequate for our needs so one of things we are starting to think about is being a “center without walls.” We’re starting a smoking cessation program for queer adults and youth and are planning on holding this group not just at the center but at different locations in Queens. It’s queer specific because tobacco companies tend to target queer people differently from non-queer people. It’s also about understanding how big tobacco companies target queer people. In San Francisco, in 1996, Philip Morris did a market study geared directly at gay men in the Castro area. Their acronym for the study was SCUM (Sub Culture Urban Marketing), and were calling gay men scum.
Being executive director is a challenge fiscally and problematically but I like it. I have some fierce people who work and volunteer for me. Deborah is involved and Everett comes and plays with the kids every Friday night.
Deborah: You hear stories from the kids about how their families mistreat them. I can’t understand how a parent can treat their kid that way because their kid is gay. Some of the kids are homeless or in group homes because their parents threw them out. Some of the kids don’t tell their parents they attend the program but it is a safe and caring environment. They see us as role models and possibilities that exist. All the kids I’ve met there are wonderful.
Acain: I’m changing the direction again. Tell me why you like living in Queens.
Barbra: Queens is the most diverse borough in the world and it has a lot to offer. Living in this neighborhood is nice because you have all the advantages of living on Long Island, it has that suburb feel, it’s all houses with big backyards, no apartment buildings and urban sprawl. You can practically walk across the street and be in Long Island but we don’t have Long Island’s high property taxes.
Deborah: Queens is quiet, there’s parking. Every time Alan (Hevesi) comes over he says he feels like he is in the country.
Barbra: Clearly, there are still some areas in Queens that have that Archie Bunker mentality and that’s unfortunate. Like I said, when we first moved here this was a very blue-collar white Irish Catholic neighborhood, there were no people of color. But over the years there’s been a dramatic change. This is still a blue-collar neighborhood but they are people of all racial backgrounds. It was wonderful to watch the diversity of the neighborhood change and there has not been terrible resistance. Some people left, our former next door neighbor went back to Ireland. Good riddance. He clearly did not like the direction the neighborhood was going.
Deborah: We go to nearby Alley Pond Park where they let you run your dogs up until 9:00 AM. Everett loves animals.
Barbra: Everett is the most well-traveled nine year old that you will ever meet. We’ve traveled all over the United States. Every time I go to a conference I try to drag them along.
Deborah: We went to Albany for Alan Hevesi’s inauguration. We were in Boston last year for the fourth of July because Barbra had a conference. We rode a boat on the Charles River, watched fireworks and listened to the Boston Pops. Traveling is a nice education for Everett.
Acain: What does Everett want to be when he grows up?
Barbra: Why don’t we ask him? Barbra calls Everett into the kitchen.
Acain: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Everett: A vet.
Acain: How many animals do you have?
Everett: Six. I have a bunny, two dogs and three cats.
Acain: What is a favorite activity you do with your parents?
Everett: Play board games.
Acain: What is your favorite?
Everett: Harry Potter clue game.
Acain: So you are a big Harry Potter fan?
Everett: I’m a big magic fan.
Acain: Where is a favorite place you traveled to with your parents?
Everett: Washington, D.C. I liked the monuments.
Deborah: What was your favorite activity that we did in Boston?
Everett: We went on a boat and saw fireworks.
Barbra: Tell her what you did when we were in Philadelphia on the battleship (a tourist attraction which features simulated missile launches on a monitor).
Everett: What did I blow-up? I forgot.
Barbra: You forgot?
Everett: Oh, yeah. It was Osama Bin Laden!
Barbra: It’s become a cliché – love makes a family – it’s gotten so pissy, but it is really true. We are about as alternative a family as you can get, right? But…
Everett: You owe me a quarter. Deborah laughs
Barbra: For what?
Everett: You said a bad word.
Barbra: Oh, pissy? Pissy isn’t a bad word!
Everett: You said it again! Fifty cents! Barbra reaches in her pocket and hands over the money to Everett while still talking.
Barbara: People shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves and be fearful of what other people think. People should be true to themselves because they will be fine. I’m truly blessed. If it wasn’t for the support of Deborah and my friends, I wouldn’t be here today I would dead. I am an example of what people of trans experience can be if they have that support and choose to be true to themselves. We are a very healthy family, very stable and comfy.
Deborah: People need to realize that everyone is basically the same with all the same feelings. You’ll be surprised at how people will react when you are honest and open. It’s better to allow yourself to be out there and educate than to hide. The more people are honest and open with their feelings, everyone else will realize that they feel the same way no matter what the situation. If you are open and honest, it does make for a better place to live because our kids can grow up and be honest, open, caring and loving and hopefully the hate will go away. It’s tough but it’s something you’ve got to strive to do.