If Sergio Suhett had stayed in Brazil, he would be dead. Twenty-three years ago, when he fled, coming out as a gay man was tantamount to a death sentence.
Rhode Island – and eventually the University of Rhode Island – embraced him, and he gave back by working on student projects that reflected his commitment to social justice.
“I want to help people,’’ says Suhett, of North Kingstown. “I’ve been through so much in my life – good times and bad. I know what it’s like to experience sadness and joy.’’
For his exceptional work at URI, including on the #MakeYourGreenCount social media campaign, he’ll receive the PR Excellence Award for Leadership from the Harrington School of Communication and Media on April 1.
Suhett’s story begins decades ago in a working-class suburb of Rio, as the middle son of a father who worked in a plastics factory and a mother who earned money sewing clothes.
At the age of 8, he knew he was different from the other boys in his “macho’’ Brazilian culture. He was skinny. He listened to Mozart instead of playing soccer. And he had crushes on boys, not girls.
The other kids teased him, calling him “sissy’’ and “Mommy’s boy,’’ and sometimes they kicked him in the face until he bled. His father forced him to fight back, and he did but failed.
High school was a nightmare of more bullying. In his first year of college he met a young man who would give him the courage to be gay and love another man. Their year together was happy, though all encounters were in secret.
“We would set up a time in downtown Rio when the city was mostly empty,’’ he says. “I would have a hat on to hide my face. He’d drive by, and I’d get in. We were both so afraid of getting caught.’’
Brazil in the late 1980s was a terrifying place for gay men, who were regularly beaten, arrested and, in some cases, murdered. Although he was closeted, Suhett says some perceived him as gay and randomly attacked him on the street.
Once, he was standing at a bus stop and, to be courteous, smiled at another man. His response: a punch in the eye. Suhett went to the police for help, but instead they interrogated him. “I’m the victim,’’ he cried, standing up from his chair. The officers hit back hard – with their fists.
“Most of the marks were on my body,’’ he says. “But they gave me a black eye I couldn’t hide.’’
The awful truth revealed itself: “I knew then I had to leave Brazil, that I had no protection, no future.’’
He fled to the United States to live with his sister, married to an American man, but it would take years before he could find his footing. He polished granite tabletops, made pizza, cleaned houses and worked as a janitor, blowing leaves off parking lots. Once, he slept on a park bench for a week when he was homeless.
In 1995, living in San Francisco, he met Jon Anthony Carr. They fell in love quickly and deeply, eventually moving to New York City, where Carr found work as a corporate travel consultant with American Express at the World Trade Center. His life was spared during the 9/11 attacks only because he was delayed 3 minutes for work.
“Things changed after that,’’ says Suhett. “We began to look at life in a different way.’’
In 2008, the couple took a big step: They married in San Francisco in the same City Hall where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio tied the knot. The next stop was Rhode Island, where Carr grew up. Suhett worked as a case manager for AIDS Project Rhode Island, helping HIV-positive men and women live dignified lives, and he applied to colleges. URI was his first choice.
Being an older student worried him initially, but he quickly adjusted. The younger students were friendly and caring and enjoyed collaborating with him. At first, he pursued a health studies degree, then switched when he realized he had a passion for public relations. “I love meeting people, and I love helping them promote their causes.’’
His classes and teachers have been excellent, he says, but it’s the hands-on experience with public relations projects that he values most. He coordinated an HIV awareness program on campus and a social media campaign for the theater department.
By far, his most fulfilling project was the #MakeYourGreenCount social media campaign to raise money for Edesia, a Providence nonprofit that makes Plumpy’Nut, a peanut butter paste distributed to humanitarian groups to fight childhood malnutrition globally.
“We made a difference in lives all over the world, and we did it right here from URI,’’ he says. “How cool is that?’’
In addition to the public relations leadership award, Suhett, along with the three other URI students who worked on #MakeYourGreenCount, also will receive the PR Excellence Impact Award.
“Sergio is the real thing,’’ says Regina A. Bell, a URI lecturer in public relations. “We in the Harrington School of Communication and Media encourage students to be in tune with the global marketplace. Sergio totally gets it. He recognizes that each one of us can make a difference, whether in Rhode Island or globally. His world has no barriers. He genuinely gives of himself.’’
Sergio’s painful days in Brazil are with him always. Besides the emotional damage, a crescent-moon scar from the police beating marks his right eye. Still, he is grateful for the goodness that has come his way – his husband Jon, his community work, his URI education.
"Most of my years have been trying to survive,’’ he says. “Now, I’m living.’’