Alfred Cotto has been negatively impacted by stigma in just about every facet of his life.

As a teenager, he was ostracized by his entire family after his mother discovered a note written to him by another male teen. “When I was 14, my mom was cleaning my room while I was away and she found a note from a guy and flipped out,” he says. “She told everyone in the family, all our family friends.”

“She started to treat me differently. Everyone in the house treated me like I wasn’t wanted,” says Cotto, who is 29 and was raised as a Muslim. “She kicked me out when I turned 18.”

“It was a religious thing for her,” he continues. “I got the cold shoulder, the silent treatment. In the middle of the night she would talk to my sisters, plotting against me. I would pretend I was sleeping but I heard everything.”

“Personally I really define myself by my sexuality. It’s a huge part of my life,” Cotto says, adding he was 9 when he first realized he was gay. “People treat me differently when they realize I’m gay. It’s been like that as long as I can remember. It’s why I’ve been ostracized from my family, why I’ve lost friends in the past and why my life took this shape.”

His family travails were one reason he entered the state mental health system when he was 14. “I was never treated the same again,” he says of the stigma from his ensuing diagnoses. “It’s like a switch was flipped.” 

While Cotto has been homeless a few times and faced other challenges, he has had successes despite his faced adversities. He has a college degree and is starting his master’s in the fall to become a mental health counselor. 

“I have no regrets because I was myself. I did the best I could given my circumstances, given the lack of support system,” he says. “Despite everything I’m proud I was able to overcome these obstacles and be resilient and be myself rather than conform.”

That message is one he hopes will resonate with others who might be facing adversity and stigma. “Fuck what people think. Fuck conformity. Be yourself and whatever happens you just have to be strong,” Cotto says. “Be proud no matter what happens.”

He hopes people hearing his story will realize that judging others is harmful. “You never know what someone else is going through,” Cotto says. “Be open-minded and non-judgmental.”

And Cotto believes his experiences ultimately will make him a better therapist. “It will allow me to be empathetic and compassionate to others,” he says. “My clients will be heard and understood.”