By Jared Chausow
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Slowly, however, they started to come around. All parents eventually have to deal with their children forming personalities independent of parental expectations. Guzman has found that working-class parents of color, contrary to popular opinion, are no less enlightened or sympathetic than their well-off suburban counterparts. "They're more concerned about the hurt they'll face than not having a girl- or boyfriend," he says. "They're scared of what the world will do to their kids."
Miranda completed his secondary education at the Harvey Milk School, the nation's only high school catering specifically to the needs of LGBT students and anyone else severely affected by bullying. Founded by Hetrick-Martin, Milk is now run by the city; Hetrick-Martin continues its after-school and support programs. When Miranda was there, it was still a single room where one teacher dealt with students at every grade level.
Miranda loved it. "I became just a kid going to school," he recalls. "It normalized the school experience—all those things other people take for granted."
His parents' attendance at his 1993 graduation marked the turning point toward accepting their son's identity. They took pride in his scholarship to Sarah Lawrence.
At college, Miranda realized the vast gulf between his upbringing and that of many of his classmates. "When you grow up poor," Miranda said, "you don't realize you're poor. We were homeless briefly. Sometimes we had to turn the oven on because there was no heat. That's just your existence."
Guzman believes that race and class are ultimately far more significant than sexual identity for Miranda and the vast majority of Hetrick-Martin's 2,500 clients. "I saw them first and foremost as people of color from working-class backgrounds," he says. "And then there was the gay issue."
Miranda kept feeling the need to return the barrio. That was where he had his family, a boyfriend and, he realized, a personal history that offered him unique insights into the effects of social injustice.
After a six-year hiatus, in 2004 Miranda matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "In came this tough guy," recalls Dean of Students Gary Clinton. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'Are there any gay people here?'" Clinton assured him that, yes, there were several, all very active in the LGBT student organization—including himself.
According to Clinton, it would be a mistake to assume that even though Penn Law is in the Ivy League, a highly selective school in the uppermost tier, all of the students are alike. "This is not an enclave of privilege," he says. "There's a wide variety of life experiences." Up to 40 percent of the entering class is people of color. The first major law school to require all students to do pro bono work, Penn also has generous loan-repayment program that encourages students to go into public service.
Miranda briefly tried the corporate route, but after the economic meltdown joined the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that provides counsel to defendants unable to afford a private attorney. In retrospect, he's glad he gave up the lucrative but ultimately unsatisfying work of a private law firm. Every day, he is one of many defense lawyers attempting to navigate the Bronx Courthouse's dilapidated corridors, "a place where dysfunction is expected," according to a searing New York Times series on the worst justice system in the city. The Bronx accounts for more people in jail awaiting trial than the other four boroughs combined and over half of all cases extending two years or more.
Miranda acknowledges that he has to work within a broken system, but he now understands that this is the best use for his education at such a prestigious law school and where he can do the most good for those who most need it. "The difference between a 12-year-old trying to commit suicide and an adult is that, as a 12-year-old, your circumstances are set," he says. "An adult can do what he needs to do to move the world, to change it. I came from this community. I have a cousin who spent most of his life in prison because of a drug crime. Each of our clients is entitled to respect and the best advocacy they can get."
His parents have become his biggest supporters. His dad brags about his son the lawyer. His mother gives him advice about his romantic life. Sitting in the living room of his Washington Heights apartment, his dog at his feet, Miranda projects an aura of confidence and, yes, contentment. "I'm doing what I like," he says. "I wanted to do this work. I'm happy." ❤