Cordaro Dont'e Santiago grew up a bit of an outcastan overweight, observant kid who watched his family dysfunction and felt personally responsible.
As he got older, he realized he was attracted to men, but as a young Black teenager trying to navigate high school life, being out and finding men wasn't easy. I Will Never Be #1 In His Life: The Story of Dating Downlow Men: Volume 1, covers Santiago's early life and sexual experiences as the first installment of a longer memoir. He spoke with Windy City Times about his reasons for telling his story.
Windy City Times: Parts of this book are so raw, emotionally and physically. Were you hesitant to put so much of yourself out there?
Cordaro Dont'e Santiago: As I was writing this, I wasn't worried at all. I thought, "oh, it's going to grab people with its intensity." I didn't get scared or nervous until two weeks before I released it. I was like, wait, a minute, do I really want this much information out? I did not really think I was going to release it. I was just writing as a form of therapy.
I've been writing this book since 2012. Things just kept happening that I kept adding and I felt like if I didn't just put something out there, I never would. The book is not for everyone, and I knew that when I wrote it, but I was not going to sugarcoat anything just to make others feel comfortable. Life is uncomfortable sometimes, and I wanted people to feel that.
When people read the title, they think it's a tell-all book. A lot of people have deserted me because that's what they thought this book was. Guys who I was dating who still weren't ready to come out. A lot of people have not supported me because they thought that to support me would be to support the lifestyle, and they don't agree with it. My church congregation has sort of turned their back on me. Those things I was preparing myself for, but that still doesn't make it easier.
WCT: What convinced you to put it out publicly?
CDS: The Pulse Nightclub [mass] shooting really made me say, "I need to tell my story because there's no telling who else has gone through this." The hatred involved in that shooting made a lot of men, friends I knew who were on the down-low, afraid to say it. They were one step closer to saying, "you know, I'm ready to just be free," and then that shooting happened and they said, "you know I can't do this." And then what gave me the final push was [film] Moonlight. [With] Moonlight, you would think the author of that and me were in the room talking. I felt instantly connected to it.
WCT: A lot of moments you write about are humiliating: You were bullied, [and] you had to come out to your mom when you were 14 in front of the school principal. What effect did that have on you?
CDS: My mother knew all along. She was just avoiding the whole conversation. In that moment, it all became real for her and she didn't know how to handle it. The reaction my mother had toward [my coming out] wasn't for meit was for her. But the whole humiliation I suffered in school was really because I trusted so much. I opened myself up to so many people. Just having a listening ear was enough for me because I didn't anyone else to talk to. If a person was pretending to be my friend to get information, I didn't know the difference because that's what I needed at the time.
WCT: How much do you think parents affect their kids' sex lives?
CDS: I think they do more than they realize. My mother was with a lot of men. There were certain things that I saw, certain things that I heard. I was just very curious, and I think that curiosity is what made me really more interested. I saw a lot, and it was never a conversation. She never sat me down and had "the talk." I'm not sure if they just didn't think I saw, or comprehended, or if they just didn't want to have that conversation.
WCT: This is volume one. What happens next?
CDS: The title really starts to stick in volume two. Part one ends with me getting into college. College life changed me completely. I got older. I explored my sexuality more. Guys approached me who were interested in me, and that had never happened before. Before that, everyone I was intimate with was just for intimacy. I started to experiment more now that I was more confident in myself.
WCT: What particular challenges do you see your community facing in the future?
CDS: Before Donald Trump became president, I felt like we were going in the right direction. I felt like more people wanted to be proud of who they were. But with the rumors of the things he plans to do, the fear came back. The African-American gay community, we react to fear. Fear is what drives us and makes all of our decisions for us.
I experienced it with my long-term boyfriend. He would have good days when he'd say, "I'm ready to be out, I"m ready to be with you," and then he'd have days where he'd hear about a gay-bashing or a Black person getting kicked out of a church, and then fear would settle back in. And if we keep doing that, that's going to be our downfall. There's a stereotype that we just want to have sex with everybody, and we don't want to love, and that's just not the case.
I Will Never Be #1 in His Life is available on Amazon as a paperback or for Kindle.