Belen refused to print a wedding announcement after Richard Rodriguez, right, wed his longtime partner, Cédric Mahé.
Belen refused to print a wedding announcement after Richard Rodriguez, right, wed his longtime partner, Cédric Mahé.
photo courtesy Richard Rodriguez.

Belen Grads Petition School to Recognize Alumni's Gay Marriages

Richard Rodriguez’s heart thumped as he walked into his ten-year high school reunion at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, the famed all-boys academy in western Dade that boasts graduates from Fidel Castro to Perez Hilton. But the Cuban-American with short-cropped black hair and a wide smile wasn’t worried about how his job or physique would stack up against those of his classmates. He was nervous about the reaction to his date: his partner, Cédric Mahé.

To his surprise, though, Rodriguez felt nothing but love and support from his old classmates at the famously conservative Catholic school. About 60 twenty-somethings sipped red wine and Bud Light, traded stories, and posed grinning around a table with their dates for a photo to run in the alumni association magazine.

Rodriguez’s real shock didn’t come until a couple months later, when the alumni magazine arrived. Cédric was gone, cropped completely out of the shot.

“After I complained, the principal told me, ‘This isn’t a policy, please pass along my apologies,’” Rodriguez says. “I was hoping they’d be a bit more accepting.”

He was wrong. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in June legalized gay marriage nationwide, several LGBT alumni — including Rodriguez, who wed Cédric this summer in France — sent notices to the alumni magazine about their nuptials. All were rejected, and last week, the school put its foot down: No gay marriages would be noted at Belen.

"The Catholic Church recognizes that marriage is between a man and a woman and because of the Catholic identity of the school, Belen cannot publish same-sex marriage announcements in any of its publications,” says Rev. Pedro Suarez, the school’s principal.

To Rodriguez and others, it’s a slap in the face to a group of alumni every bit as proud to have graduated from the prestigious school as their straight classmates. Belen’s move also comes at a delicate time for the church, as Pope Francis — himself a Jesuit — has personally met with gay activists and preached a softer message on LGBT rights.

“It's unfortunate when you don't recognize what is a fact of life in the world,” says Joe Garcia, a Belen alum and former Democratic Congressman. “Our first Jesuit pope is already moving the Church along a trajectory in a very positive way on this issue, and I would expect Belen to do the same.”

The original photo from Rodriguez's class reunion, with his partner Cédric Mahé on the right.
The original photo from Rodriguez's class reunion, with his partner Cédric Mahé on the right.
courtesy Richard Rodriguez
The alumni magazine cropped Cédric Mahé out of the photo in print.
The alumni magazine cropped Cédric Mahé out of the photo in print.
photo courtesy Richard Rodriguez

There are few Catholic schools in America with more storied histories than Belen, thanks to the school’s roots in Cuba. Queen Isabella II of Spain personally founded the academy in 1854 in the heart of Havana, handing it over to the Jesuits, an intellectual order known for rigorous academics.

Belen soon became an elite school, training future political and military leaders — including a brilliant student who entered in 1942 named Fidel Castro Ruz. The charismatic Castro was voted the school’s best athlete in 1944 for his exploits on the baseball diamond. But Castro would also be the school’s downfall. In 1961, two years after his revolution had booted Fulgencio Batista from power, Castro’s government seized Belen’s property and booted its priests from Cuba.

Like so many others fleeing the Communist regime, the Jesuits ended up in South Florida. In late 1961, Belen reopened, first downtown and then in a Little Havana complex. The school soon became a focal point for the Cuban exilio. It was a locus of continuity where children could get the same tough Jesuit education and dose of Cuban culture their parents had enjoyed on the island.

As in Havana, the school began pumping out top politicians, lawyers, and businessmen, from former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz to Republican state Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla to current U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbello. In 1980, the school moved out of Little Havana to a 30-acre campus in western Dade County, but it has kept its strong Cuban-American roots.

For all its virtues, though, Belen has never been an easy place to be young and gay. The combination of Catholic education and old-school Latin American culture all wrapped up in an all-boys hothouse meant that for decades, gay students have overwhelmingly stayed in the closet. That was the case for Javi Perez, a 2009 graduate who secretly dated a fellow student during his senior year.

“There was a tremendous fear of coming out and being discovered,” Perez says. “A lot of it goes back to the traditional Cuban machismo culture. You hear the slightest gay slur or students or teachers laughing at gay jokes, and you fall deeper and deeper into this hole that’s being in the closet.”

But Perez’s experience wasn’t universal. In fact, the student who would later help galvanize Belen’s LBGT alumni into a vocal force came out in the most public way possible at the prep school. Alex Correoso’s personal story echoed in the families of most of his classmates: His parents had both fled Cuba as children and built a new life in Miami. Belen was to be his ticket to broader horizons in America. But Correoso knew that his sexual orientation set him apart, and by his junior year, he’d decided not to keep it quiet any longer.

Belen juniors attend a spiritual retreat during the year, where they’re asked to stand before their classmates and confess something personal. In a Coconut Grove retreat house, with dozens of his peers listening, Correoso calmly announced, “I’m gay.”

The positive response among students, he says, was near universal. “The support I got from my class was incredible,” he says. “The faculty, though, was very mixed.”

Correoso graduated the next year, in 2006, and around 2010 decided to start a support group for fellow gay alumni and students. He reached out to the alumni association to ask about starting an official LGBT group, but the school wasn’t interested. “They said they could not do it due to the ‘nature of the group,’” Correoso says. Instead, he decided to start a closed Facebook group, inviting a few friends he knew who had come out after high school.

In the past five years, the group has grown far beyond Correoso’s expectations. Today, it numbers more than 90 members from Belen classes from the ‘70s to 2014. “I didn't think at any point we'd have this many people or that we’d have alumni from every generation across the board,” Correoso says.

The Facebook group became a place to share stories and frustrations, and last month, a Class of '76 graduate named Victor Vianello shared his tale: He’d married his partner of more than a dozen years soon after gay marriage became legal in Florida and sent the news to the alumni association. But the announcement never appeared in the magazine and the association wouldn’t return his calls.

Other LGBT alumni got involved, including Eugene Ramirez, a well-known TV reporter who’d moved to Tampa earlier this year to co-anchor WFLA's morning newscast. Ramirez still had close ties with Belen, even filming a promo video earlier this year for incoming students, and began pressuring the school for an answer to Vianello's request.

"At first they told me there was just a delay because it had been sent during the big Columbus-Belen rivalry game, but then I followed up," Ramirez says. "I think they were hoping the issue would just go away."

Spurred on by the Facebook group, others began demanding answers as well. Last week, it finally came. “Thanks for the information,” read a note sent to Vianello from Mariano Loret de Mola, a Class of '58 grad who leads the alumni association, “but due to the Catholic identity of our School, we are not at liberty to publicize this announcement.”

Ramirez was outraged. "They don't look at sexual orientation when they're asking for donations or volunteers," he says.

He wasn’t alone — and it turns out that neither was Vianello. On September 24, Rodriguez had sent in his own happy news: In July, he’d traveled to Bordeaux, France to wed his longtime partner, Cédric — the same partner the alumni association had lopped off his reunion picture. Rodriguez’s cousin, a fellow Belen grad, had officiated. But he got the same canned rejection letter as Vianello.

“I still hope that they'll reconsider and realize this is wrong,” says Rodriguez, who now works in marketing. “Do they share alumni’s wedding announcements if they have a Jewish ceremony? Or if they just had a civil ceremony? What about second marriages? It just seems hypocritical to make this stand.”

Many of Belen’s LGBT alumni share that hope. They’ve started an online petition at Change.org asking the alumni association to alter its stance; the petition has nabbed more than 350 signatures.

That support isn’t surprising, Ramirez says. Belen’s gay alumni are proud to have attended the famed school. If they didn’t care about Belen, they wouldn’t be fighting so loudly for recognition.

"This is all coming from a place of love for our school," Ramirez says. "We're not trying to shame it or give it a bad name. We're doing this because we love the school, and we want to be included like any other alumni." 

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