By Elle Warren
One time, at one of my brothers’ hockey games, my mom, sister, and I sat at a small cafe inside the rink. Note: this is an old memory. By the feel of it, I’d say I was five or six. It’s possible we were not at the rink at all, but I think so. Around that time is when I’d started drawing. I liked to draw people. I liked to make characters. Crayons and paper at the ready, I started to draw our waitress, a lanky brunette. On her torso, I drew two half-circles sloped downward. Mom saw and said, “Danielle, you’re not supposed to do that.” The place inside that holds shame yawned open. I didn’t know what was wrong with drawing someone’s body as it is. I’m not sure if this was before or after I’d asked Mom about her boobs. About why she had them and what they did. I do know it was soon after Jenny, my childhood friend who lived across the street, and I stopped kissing. We acted out scenes we saw in the movies our brothers and sisters watched. She usually made me be the boy, which I didn’t prefer, but I did want to be someone who could enjoy kissing a girl. We were, of course, just children. Just curious and exploratory. Nonetheless, when she told me we had to stop, I wished I could go back in time. More shame, this time with the added stab of rejection.
The afternoon at the rink was a few years before Mom handed me the American Girl Doll book about my changing body that I stuffed in a cupboard and didn’t look at for weeks. After she asked a couple times if I’d opened it, I took it out of the cupboard and leafed through in my room. There was this illustration of the stages of boob development. I remember her asking what stage I thought I was in and feeling squeamish. I did not want the secrets that my body seemed to represent. Didn’t want the weird air of hush-hush and demureness. The old man at church telling my friend and I we were the prettiest girls in the room. I wanted to play animal at recess (you and your friends pick an animal and run around pretending to be them) and arm wrestle the boys.
I wanted No-Skirt-Wednesdays, where my friends and I made a pact to not wear skirts on Wednesdays. I wanted camouflage and the kind of sneakers my brothers wore. Pinks seemed to carry a connotation I didn’t fully get and didn’t want to. Seemed to mean I was supposed to like baking and learning to do laundry. Be okay with giving men some kind of free pass. To what I didn’t know yet.
The Catholic church I grew up going to stands high, a stone monolith. It’s at least twenty stories tall. There are no stained glass windows. There are no windows at all except a few skylights at the very top, a couple football fields away from the pews. A 1970s-esque orange runner paves the path between pew sections and covers the platform where the alter sits. We went to church every Sunday. Until I was four or five, I made myself a throne out of hymnal books during each mass. I put one under my butt and stacked a few on either side of me to make the arm rests. In retrospect, it’s a wonder my parents let me. My dad was a stickler for church etiquette. Whispers or laughing earned scowls. This was a sacred place that deserved our utmost respect. Genuflects. During mass, right before communion, all the children–those younger than second grade who hadn’t had their first communion yet–were invited to leave with a catechist teacher. The teacher would stand at the front of the behemoth church while the priest recited a blessing. I didn’t always go. I didn’t like the feeling of reentering the church afterward and not being able to find my family. It was like losing my mom at the grocery store except for it smelled like old women’s perfume and there was no fluorescent lighting. Hardly any lighting at all. I did, however, love the feeling of finally spotting them. One of my siblings would be leaning out the end of the pew, smiling and waving. It made me feel like I belonged somewhere. I belonged to them.
Beginning in first grade, I attended catechism on Tuesday evenings. It was on one of these nights that I first learned of God’s wrath. The story of him sending fire down a mountain or something. I could do research and find the exact story. Could quote the bible. The truth is, though, I just don’t want to because I know I’ve got the gist right. I learned the concept of a vengeful God. I know I raised my hand and asked, “I thought God loves us no matter what? I thought it was unconditional?” Disclaimer: I’m not sure if I used the word “unconditional” or not, but I did read fervently and live with three teenagers, so it’s possible. I can’t remember what the catechist teacher answered. Some explanation that was supposed to make sense. Maybe something like, “Yes, but God also wants us to do what he says” or “God is very powerful.” For the first time, I felt afraid of and confused by god. Who was this guy, really, and what did he want from us? Whatever it was sounded like the opposite of freedom, but I didn’t want to be chased by his flames, so what was a small girl, in her burgeoning body, to do?
In middle and high school, catechism gives way to youth group, a group meant to feel trendy and youthful to retain future constituents. Once, we played an activity where the leader asked for six volunteers. Three boys and three girls. They were matched in pairs. Jeopardy style, the leader asked a series of questions about fashion, cars, cooking, and other gendered topics I’m grateful I don’t remember. The moral of the game, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, was that boys and girls know different things. Therefore, they’re the perfect complement to one another.
Another time, the priest of our church popped his head in. I have no idea what we were talking about, or if he knew what we were talking about, but he said something like, “How can you know you like an ice cream flavor you’ve never tried?” I don’t if he was referring to sexuality at all, but that’s how I interpreted it. He’s right, I thought. I’ve never even tried either one, so what do I know? I’m sure I’m not gay. I remember going through the rest of that night caught in a spiral. Trying to solve my sexuality which seemed in and of itself a failure. Obviously a sin.
I was a senior in high school when same-sex marriage was legalized. In mass the Sunday after, our priest, Father Phil, announced that regardless of law, he would not be officiating same-sex marriages. The congregation gave him a standing ovation. I sat and looked around, bewildered. I was not as impressionable by the church at this point. I was eighteen and knew there was much of Catholicism I disagreed with. I’d recently raised my hand in youth group during a conversation (read: teaching) about abortion. “What about rape?” I asked. I once again don’t remember the answer. Only that I was unsatisfied. Despite my growing separation between self and church, in five years, when it was time to come out to my father, I would replay this moment in my head. Him, joining the flanks of people rising to their feet.
I had a boyfriend once who was able to convince me that the pull-out method was safe. Everything I know about sex education I have learned from Google. I must have Googled can I get pregnant from…. a dozen times during the course of our relationship. He was twenty-eight to my twenty. He embraced a Peter Pan aura about him. My mother had just died. I stopped praying. I was devoted to very little except a desire to be witnessed by him. A need for my body to be confirmed. To be convinced I was real. A real breathing, walking mass. We had copious amounts of sex, a much more socially acceptable sin than the one I wanted. Or, rather, the one I feared too much to know I wanted.
It is July, three years after Peter Pan man, when I tell Dad I have a girlfriend. We sit on his back deck eating spaghetti. My sister is there, too, because I asked her to be. I do not know what to expect. I don’t think he will disown me, but I do not know whether he will say something that irreparably damages our relationship. I am so scared of not having any parents. It’s hard to know which would be worse: a dead parent or a parent who is alive but does not love me how I thought. My hand, holding a forkful of penne, shakes. My voice shakes. I cannot remember the last time I was this nervous. Cheerleading tryouts? My first date?
I tell him, and he is phased only slightly. Confused more than anything. He asks, “And you think this is like, a forever thing?” I prepare myself to defend that it’s not a phase, say, “What do you mean?” “Well, it wasn’t that long ago that you had a boyfriend, right?” True. I had introduced him to a boyfriend the winter before. “Oh, yeah,” I say, “I would identify as bisexual.” I wasn’t actually so sure of that by then—falling in love with a woman allowed me to be honest about my prior relationships in a way I struggled to before—but that seemed the simplest thing to say for now.
Later, he will ask why I felt the need to have my sister present. “What did you think I was going to say?” He’ll ask. I tell him what he already knows: you are a lifelong Catholic. The Catholics are not exactly known for embracing sexuality. He shakes his head. “It’s [sexuality] a very personal thing,” he says. “I think most parents just want their kids to be happy and fulfilled.” I am astounded equally by this almost instantaneous acceptance and ignorance to the fact that it’s not that simple for many parents. That people in my situation often find themselves parentless, or parented with factions of themselves dismissed, and therefore parentless.
Sometimes, I walk outside and want everyone to know I’m gay. I have a Proud sweatshirt. I have a favorite olive beanie. I have neutral colors and cargo pants. None of that is the point, obviously. Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to be gay. The point is what the point is for so many: I was once very ashamed and am now very out. I am now very out and I still come up against the shame that was bred in me so early. I still expect people to think my love is weird or wrong. I am still the girl who sometimes feels strongly against skirts. And, at other times, wants nothing more than to wear one. I still like sneakers. I better understand the color pink but not what my body communicates to the world without my knowing. I am new to myself only at first glance. Looking deeper, I am who I have always been. I am who I danced away from, by force, and am now dancing with, becoming one.
Elle Warren is a poet and writer exploring themes of grief, OCD, queerness, joy, and a fierce commitment to being alive. She holds a B.A. in English & Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University of Denver. You can subscribe to her free newsletter at tinyletter.com/ellewarren or sign up for her poem-a-month mail subscription at patreon.com/ellewarren. Though she has a complicated relationship with it, you can also follow her on Instagram @ellehasatypewriter.
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