Pride Issue: Life Keeps Getting Better for David Miranda

A gay man's journey from the barrio to the Ivy League--and back again

David Miranda had always suspected that he was gay. The child of immigrant parents in the South Bronx, he tried to pray away his feelings, but the confusion and anger and self-hatred kept returning. At age 11, he tried to kill himself.

When Miranda entered a room full of other gay working-class youth, it was, he tells the Voice, the first time he met "kids like myself." In the crowded, dingy offices of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, since 1979 an organization devoted to the needs of LGBT youth, "I found a place where I could be safe."

Now 37, Miranda looks back on that experience as "the day my life changed." After a few more bumps in the road, he finished high school. Prestigious Sarah Lawrence College offered him a scholarship. His first job was in Paris, where he guided Africans through the logistics of obtaining student visas. He helped AIDS Project Los Angeles set up a youth-empowerment program. Eventually, he returned east, to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Back in the Bronx as a public defender, Miranda has become an advocate for the poor and a role model for troubled gay youth.

One subway ride took lawyer David Miranda from despair to deliverance.
Caleb Ferguson
One subway ride took lawyer David Miranda from despair to deliverance.
David Miranda’s troubled past informs his work as a Bronx public defender.
Caleb Ferguson
David Miranda’s troubled past informs his work as a Bronx public defender.

By the time Miranda turned 11, he had figured out he was gay. He just couldn't figure out what to do about it. His father, who drove a cab and pumped gas before becoming an auto mechanic and opening a garage of his own, was seldom home. When he was, he yelled at David to "learn to sit right" and "walk like a real man." His stepmother once told him, "The reason you are the way you are is because your mother wanted a girl."

If "home was never a safe place," St. Raymond's, a Catholic elementary school, was hell. After enduring being called "faggot" every day, the last straw came in sixth grade. A classmate had committed suicide. Miranda was determined to follow him. He swallowed a bottle of Windex. When that didn't work, he downed a whole bottle of Tylenol. "Every time I took another pill," he recalls, "I felt glad that I was that much closer to death and that much farther from having to live a miserable life. I was hoping it was all over, and I'd never have to wake up again."

He spent a long night throwing up, after which "nothing had changed." The school guidance counselor had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital, which gave him a three-month respite from his tormentors. When he got out, he moved in with his mother. He hoped Brooklyn was far enough away from the Bronx to give him a fresh start. But the students at John J. Pershing Junior High only subjected him more bullying.

By the 1980s, inner-city schools had reached their nadir. Miranda escaped to the 42nd Street Library, where he would spend hours in the Main Reading Room, or he wandered through museums. He stayed out late most evenings, hanging out on Christopher Street or in the Part Authority Bus Terminal.

He managed to pass the entrance exam into Brooklyn Tech, one of the city's highly competitive magnet schools. But "at that point I was gone," he says. "I didn't fit in with the smart kids. I didn't fit in with the cool kids. I fit in with the hustlers at Port Authority." He continued to cut classes and experimented with drugs. He cycled in and out of the same psychiatric hospital.

Finally, he decided he had to reveal his horrible secret to someone. "I have a very big problem," he confessed to the school's guidance counselor. The one-word response stunned him: "And?"

The guidance counselor and an ad in a citywide school journal he had begun writing for led Miranda to take that fateful walk up the flight of stairs into Hetrick-Martin. "Seeing kids just acting in a good, comfortable way," he says, "that was when I learned how to be a kid. I found a space where I could be safe. It literally saved my life."

Manolo Guzman, who counseled Miranda at Hetrick-Martin and now heads Marymount Manhattan College's social sciences department, fondly recalls him as "one of those young people so incredibly smart that he was able to find his own moral compass. It's because they have the capacity for critical and independent thought that they have the pain they go through. 'Trouble' is confused with weakness. People who have no trouble in life develop very little strength."

Gay youth "need to know that they're not alone, that there are other young people like them, that they're part of a larger community," Hetrick-Martin's executive director, Thomas Krever, tells the Voice. "You can be five miles away from Christopher Street, but it might as well be 5,000 miles away. It takes a lot of strength and resiliency for a kid to walk through that door. At 14 or 15, you have to navigate one of the most challenging mass transit systems in the world. Thirty percent are not out to their families. Still they come."

At home, things didn't improve. Miranda fought so badly with his mom, she threw him out. Back at his dad's, the arguments got so intense that one night he threatened to jump out the window. In a last, desperate cry for help, he swallowed another bottle of Tylenol. When that didn't work, he came out to his parents, who worried aloud that he would die of AIDS. They were saddened that he wouldn't marry or have children.

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 thenthere 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." ❤

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