Family Portraits: Franco De Marco

American educator and civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune once said, “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” PGN started by having a talk with Drexel student Franco De Marco.

PGN: So, where are you from? FD: Originally from South Jersey, but when I was about 2, my parents got divorced and I spent several weekends in Queen Village with my dad. I think he’s still there, I don’t know; we’re kind of estranged. My sister and I were pretty much raised by my mother as a single parent.

PGN: Who’s older? FD: She’s five years older than me. Until we were in high school, she still beat me up, but I was a bit of a terror of a little sister. I always hoped my mother would have another kid so I could have a younger sibling, but instead she decided to have a lot of them by becoming a teacher.

PGN: So you were a brat? FD: [Laughs.] I’d prefer to say “very expressive.” We both played soccer and were very competitive. She started playing first, but then I excelled. She had bigger trophies, but I had more of them. Then when I got to high school, I accelerated and made MVP and the All Stars in my conference.

PGN: What did you like to do besides soccer? FD: I don’t know: Soccer was pretty much my everything. From the moment I could walk, I was the kid in the baby cleats. Now that I’m in college, I’m not playing for the first time and it’s very stressful. I think I might join the gay soccer group the Falcons.

PGN: What was your favorite class in school? FD: History. I love history and I remember how proud my mother was when I won the four-year award for proficiency in social sciences in high school. I thought about becoming a history major but decided to go into business instead. I think my passion for LGBTQ issues came from my love of history and wanting to be a part of history by changing policies and things.

PGN: What’s your background? FD: My dad is Italian and Polish and my mom is Honduran and black. She was born there and, after her mom died when she was 13, she came to the States to live with her sister.

PGN: Do you speak any Spanish? FD: No! I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t. I lack the ability to roll my Rs.

PGN: School? FD: I went to Catholic school from pre-k to high school senior, 15 years. Then I attended Philadelphia University to study fashion merchandising and then switched to accounting. I have since transferred to Drexel and am majoring in finance.

PGN: Was your mother religious? FD: Yes, she was from an island off of the mainland in Honduras and they were a very small, tight-knit group. Religion was a big part of the culture. It was interesting for me trying to come to terms with coming out — first as a lesbian and now with gender identity as I transition — as a practicing Catholic, trying to figure out where I stand with the church. If I wanted to get married as a male in a Catholic church, I wouldn’t be able to. They don’t even acknowledge trans people. A friend and I were recently having a discussion as to whether or not we would ever switch denominations, but the Catholic church is very, I don’t want to say cult-like, but you do develop very strong ties.

PGN: I recently interviewed an openly gay Catholic priest and he said the same thing. Everyone told him he should join a denomination that accepted gays, but he said that he loved the church he grew up with and preferred to start his own welcoming Catholic church. FD: I’m not currently practicing but I can’t imagine switching faiths. A welcoming Catholic church would be amazing.

PGN: Tell me about your first coming-out. FD: In the eighth grade, I first came out as lesbian to my friends, my sister and my dad. The only one that really mattered to me was my mom. I wanted to sit her down and tell her myself, but I never got the chance. She came to pick me up from school one day and she asked some guy if he knew where I was and he responded, “Oh, the lesbian? In the gym.” That night she was sitting on our leather couch when I got the “We need to talk” summons. We struggled with it for the rest of my high-school days. She was afraid of all the typical things, me never having kids, getting married or being happy, even though I tried to tell her that I had aspirations of a family with kids some day. The second coming-out was actually in my sophomore year of high school, when I came out as trans at 15. I struggled more with that than my attraction to women. As far back as I can remember, I recall thinking that I was a boy and I even remember my mother once asking me if I wanted to be a boy when I was very young. I told my sister who told me that she’d love me and that I’d still be her sibling no matter what. Then I started dating a girl who convinced me that my desire to transition was because of other stuff I wasn’t dealing with and really demonized it. Because I was infatuated and impressionable, I let her dictate her desires to me and I buried any thoughts of transitioning. When I entered college, I still had everything bottled up and was filled with this intense anger until I decided to look inside to see what I really wanted, and that’s when I decided to transition. It’s what I knew was right for me and for my happiness and sanity. So now I’m coming out as trans again. Surprisingly, my sister is not taking it as well. She’s very concerned and wants to make sure I’m 100-percent sure. I am and my last hurdle is telling my mother. I’m hoping to do it this weekend.

PGN: What does it mean to you? FD: It means a huge weight off my shoulders. I never felt completely comfortable in the lesbian community. As a lesbian I never felt, “This is me,” but it was the only thing I could do to express my attraction to women as a female-bodied person. But from the time I had conscious feelings, my gender identity was not matching up with my sex or assigned gender. That brief time in school when I first came out as trans was joyous, taking on a male name and using male pronouns.

PGN: In school? FD: Not with teachers but with my group of friends. There were quite a number of queer kids in my school, so when I came out, as lesbian, there was a flood of LGBTQ people that I met. It was great, until you had to deal with nuns saying horrible, horrible things about homosexuality. But we had a few beacons of light: I had a great guidance counselor who really got me through it.

PGN: I think your generation is going to turn the world on its head. If straight people thought they were confused by the LGB community, they haven’t seen anything yet. Even progressives in the LGB community are struggling to know what’s PC and how do we understand and support the “T” and “I” part of our community. It’s so diversified compared to us and we’re pretty widespread. FD: Yeah, people don’t understand how deep it goes. There are so many stealth people as well who keep it private. If someone isn’t making their transition public, you’d never know. They’ll move and slip back into society with a new gender.

PGN: I’m thinking more of the public aspect. Just like there have always been gay people, but when we came forward as a movement and coming out became less dangerous, people were shocked to see how large a portion of the population we were, and I think they will be stunned to see how many people are intersex, gender-variant, etc. FD: Yeah, and it is varied with trans people who identify with anything from straight to queer to gay to lesbian, there are so many different variations.

PGN: When I was in Korea, they were fascinated with the subject and kept asking me, “So if a person is female and they become a male, do they date women or men? And if a guy is dating a guy and he transitions, does that mean that they are now straight?” I did my best to explain that there was no set rule. FD: I was just talking to a friend about this: How do we handle trans 101 for allies? How do we handle it for ourselves? There are many trans people who don’t identify with the gay community or may be ostracized within a community that’s already a small group dealing with its own challenges. It’s going to be very interesting.

PGN: Why Franco? FD: Well, my full chosen name is Francesco Alexander De Marco. It honors my Italian roots and just seemed to suit me. Alexandra is my sister’s name so it’s a connection to her as well.

PGN: Tell me a little about your activism. FD: While I was at Philly U, I petitioned to change their policies and commitment to diversity to include gender identity and expression, though I actually had one of the members of the GSA who was not happy with it. He had that “Don’t rock the boat” mentality. The petition is currently with the legal department and I’m still following it to make sure it goes through. The process prompted me to get more involved, and I volunteered to do some work for The Attic and then Equality Forum. Through there, I met Perry Monastero, who offered me a summer internship. I got to work on policymaking, which was inspiring, and Perry also turned me onto role models like Maggie Stumpp, the senior vice president at Prudential Financial who transitioned in 2002 and remained in her position at the company. Outside of that, I’m doing my own research on the LGBT community. I truly had no idea of the depth and scope of our struggles and triumphs. I’ve been on a crash course to learn as much as I can.

PGN: That’s great. So many young people take advantage of the rights they have without appreciating where they come from and how tenuous they are, especially with this new conservatism sweeping the country. FD: I actually won the Sally Tyre scholarship last year and one of the questions that they asked was what I thought was a big problem for youth. I said the disconnect from our history. I’d heard about Stonewall, but I knew there had to be more. I slowly but surely started teaching myself and now I reach out to others and elders who can share their knowledge with me.

PGN: I notice you’re a fashionista: What was your best and worst outfit? FD: Best outfit, oh, there are so many! I love getting dressed up: I’m a bit of a dandy. You’ll rarely see me in jeans or a T-shirt. For Dyke March in New York, I wore a sailor suit. I went to the Herstory Archives and all these older lesbians were like, “Hey, sailor … ” It was a lot of fun. Worst outfit was when I was little and my mother made me buy a dress. In protest, I picked out the ugliest dress I could find. It was white with a green flouncy skirt and covered with pictures of fruit. It was hideous.

PGN: Any phobias? FD: Snakes! I can’t take them. My sister once threw a rubber snake at me in a toy store and I freaked out. I had to sit in the car. She wanted to get a real snake and I swore I’d never come home, so my mother vetoed it.

PGN: Who would you want to have lunch with? FD: Anderson Cooper from CNN. He’s beautiful and I loved the way he covered Hurricane Katrina. He was the first one to really cover the atrocities and talk about the fact that we dropped the ball. My sister was going to school in New Orleans and had to evacuate, so it was really personal for me.

PGN: And his mother is fashionista Gloria Vanderbilt … FD: Yup, he’s just everything wrapped in one.

PGN: Favorite possession? FD: My soccer trophies and my first blanket, which my mother gave to me. That and my “Star Wars” memorabilia; I want to eventually have a full Storm Trooper ensemble.

PGN: What type of music would we find on your iPod? FD: If only I had one … I listen to a lot of dance, techno and house music and anything that comes up on RuPaul Radio.

PGN: The hardest thing about being trans? FD: The red tape. Currently at Drexel, I’m jumping through hoops trying to get people to use the right pronouns and get my preferred name on my class rosters. I’ve listed it, but I’m still getting called by my legal name in classrooms and it’s frustrating. I’m clearly presenting as male, but being referred to as female. Trying to find a therapist is hard, but you need it to start the process and get hormones, etc. My sister is very scared of the change, and I am too, but it’s what I want. Then there’s also the social challenge of becoming a queer-identified multi-racial male — trying to find balance and my place in the world.

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? FD: OK, first I wanted to be a dentist. My childhood dentist recently reminded me that when I was a kid, I wanted to buy out his practice. Then I wanted to be an architect; probably spent too much time with my Legos. Then I wanted to go to the Naval Academy until I realized that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” thing wasn’t going to work too well with me.

PGN: What animal would you want to come back as? FD: A prissy lap dog, preferably a French bulldog with a sweater. Or a bear, a little cublet, which also happens to be my nickname right now. I’ve started a blog as “The Dandy Cublet” so I can keep a record of everything that’s happening as I transition.

PGN: When did you last cry? FD: Yesterday. I was bawling my eyes out in the women’s study department. It was one of those overwhelming red-tape days and I just lost it. I was trying to get into a queer theory class, which I thought would really help me with transitioning, and I was told it was for upper-level students. That was the last straw for me. It ended up being serendipitous because the woman I lost it in front of proceeded to help me. She asked about my experience transitioning at Drexel and tried to help me get financial aid and other support.

PGN: Which “Star Wars” character would you be? FD: In the actual “Star Wars” world, I want to say Anakin Skywalker, but I’d probably be Darth Maul, the bad guy with the double-edge sword and the crazy face tattoos. He also gets to wear these beautiful robes. Now in the alternate universe, I’d be Darth Revan, he’s a very complex Sith lord from the Old Republic. [Laughs.] That’s probably the geekiest thing I’ve said all day!

PGN: Trait you’ve inherited from you mother? FD: Her strong will and determination. If we want something, we don’t back down. She’s given me an amazing amount of drive to succeed. I think that’s why she’ll be OK with me transitioning, because she knows that if I want to do something, just like her, I won’t back down. But I feel like I have a part of everything about my mother.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].