Teaching how to heal and how to forgive.
by David-Elijah Nahmod
When Belo Cipriani was 26 years old, he was viciously attacked in the Castro, San Francisco’s famous “gayborhood.” It wasn’t a gay-bashing, though, because Cipriani’s attackers were gay. They were once his closest friends. The unimaginable beating he endured, in which he was repeatedly kicked in the head and directly in his eyes, left him totally blind.
Why they attacked him remains unclear, but it appears these former friends were offended that Cipriani was no longer associating with them.
Now, seven years later, Cipriani is at peace with what happened to him, and has accepted his life as an openly gay blind man. He’s a published author, a teacher, and so much more. He spoke to OutSmart about his extraordinary journey.
David-Elijah Namod: Where are you from?
Belo Cipriani: I was born in Guatemala City to Brazilian parents. At three months of age, my parents left Guatemala for jobs with the Red Cross in Mexico. After living in Mexico for four years, my parents decided to relocate to San Jose, California.
Can you share your coming-out story?
I came out to my family as a teen, and they were very accepting. My mom attended a few PFLAG meetings and took me to the local gay center. She allowed me to date, have boyfriends, and let my gay friends hang out at our home. I feel like I became closer to my four sisters after I came out. If anything, coming out at 16 was the best thing for me. I no longer had to pretend or act—I was embraced fully for who I was.
What exactly happened the night of your attack?
At 26, I was assaulted by a group of gay men in San Francisco’s Castro District. These guys were at one point my best friends growing up. They were a group of gay boys I met when I first came out in San Jose. We were like brothers, but had drifted over time. When I stumbled upon them in the city that night, I was happy to see them. They greeted me with insults and instantly jumped me.
Was there any chance that your sight might have been saved?
Although I had many eye surgeries, they all failed, and I was left blind. The initial shock lasted a few days. Then, I became seriously depressed. It took a few months for me to work through my depression, but eventually I was rehabilitated. I credit my family for my recovery—in particular my mom. She moved into my condo and didn’t just help me learn to be blind, she helped me heal emotionally. She never told me it would be okay. She told me that blindness would be hard but not impossible to manage. She also said that blindness would bring people into my life that I otherwise would never have met. She was right!
Do you still hope for your sight to be restored?
My cause of blindness is retinal damage, and currently there is no medical way to fix it. If a magical cure appeared tomorrow, I would not take it. I have accepted my blindness just as I have accepted getting older. I am very happy being a blind man, and I think it serves as a filter. The quality of men I date and new friends I meet has definitely improved since I lost my sight. I no longer have flaky or selfish friends. All the people in my life are kindhearted.
You’ve since told your story in the book Blind: A Memoir. Can you talk about that?
After being rehabilitated, learning Braille, adaptive technology, and receiving my first guide dog, I went to graduate school for my writing degree. I was tired of the inaccurate portrayals of the blind in books and movies, and wanted to do something about it. I think writing became a sort of therapy for me. I think one of the attributes of my positive attitude is that I pour all my feelings, both good and bad, onto the page. When I finished my memoir, I began to feel free. On the day my book was published, I forgave my attackers.
The book has made several high-school and college reading lists. It also landed me a guest lectureship at Yale and my current appointment as Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. My next book will be a novel, and it’s about dreams.
I’m a full-time writer, but I also make time for other projects I am passionate about. I do stand-up comedy and blog for business publications. I also train Capoeira and am the highest belted Capoeira player in the U.S.A.
Has the loss of your sight affected your ability to date and find boyfriends?
When I was sighted, I was the hunter—the one who always made the first move. As a blind person, that has changed. Dating is not easier or harder, just different. I don’t do online dating, and tend to rely on meeting men at social events. My ex-boyfriend is a model; I met him at the supermarket. He began to help me get my groceries, and I didn’t realize he was not a clerk until a clerk offered us assistance. He admitted to just being a patron, and we both broke into bashful laughs. At the cash register he asked for my phone number.
And now you work with Guide Dogs for the Blind?
I am their spokesman, and featured in their new documentary. The short film tells my story and explains all of the different services the agency offers to blind people at no charge. Guide Dogs for the Blind is the largest guide-dog school in the country, yet they receive no government funding.
We don’t hear much about blind people, or disabled people of any kind, in the LGBT community. Can you address that?
What many people forget is that disabled individuals make up the largest minority group in the country. They come in all sizes, even from the LGBT community. I feel that disabled people are not always included in gay movies or advertisements. In fact, many people are not aware that there is a big number of disabled gay men and lesbians.
OutSmart readers may contact Belo Cipriani through his website at belocipriani.com—and also find out more about the blind LGBT community at Blind Pride International (blindlgbtpride.org).