The Unattainability of Absolutions: How Growing up Catholic has Shaped my Queer Identity and my Relationship with Literature & Writing

“My mothers daughter who at ten years old knew she was queer. Queer to believe that God cared so much about me, he intended to see me burn in hell; that unlike other children, I was not to get by with a clean slate. I was born into this world with complications. I had been chosen, marked to prove my salvation. Todavia soy bien católica— filled with guilt, passion and incense and the inherent Mexican faith that there is meaning to nuestro sufrimiento en el mundo.” (Moraga ix).

When I set out to write a blog post based on option C, I was determined to make it joyful or somehow celebratory relating to my queer experience. As usual when I set out to write something contrived, it was a miserable experience, and I sounded more miserable on paper than joyful anyway. I don’t know why I felt the need to write something uplifting; maybe to avoid getting too personal, or to refute the widely held conceptions that all stories of queer identity need to be wrapped up in shame and guilt and trauma. But this is not fiction; this is truth, something that used to come so easily to me.

I think a lot of queer kids learn to lie at a young age, learn shame and guilt so early and hold it so close to their chest that it gets all tangled up in their innermost identity. I believe guilt is largely cultivated and valued in the Catholic Church. I don’t at all think that Catholicism is an inherently bad religion. I think there are parts of it that are absolutely beautiful. I still feel the swell of my heart at church when the scent of my childhood is released from the thurible. I still pray to God every day, multiple times a day, and feel the guilty prickle of my skin when I tell someone I am no longer Catholic, that I don’t know if there is a God. At night, I shut my eyes tight and complete the same ritual I’ve done as long as I can remember, because if I don’t pray for the safety of every person I love in my life, something bad will happen to them overnight. I feel silly doing this and sillier writing it out. I turn 20 this week, and I still revert to a child in prayer.

Like Cherríe Moraga, I knew I was queer at a young age. I did not have words for the identity, but I did have words for the punishment. I had always been a truthful child to a fault; I would tell my mother when I did something wrong, so much so that she would tire of my constant admissions. I craved my mother’s forgiveness like she was God herself, even if the matter at hand had nothing. When I realized that I was queer, it felt like a lie by omission. It felt like that sticky feeling of sin, where usually I would run to my mother and beg her to absolve me, I could not do that this time. I had to make a home in that terrible sensation, hoping either it would go away or God himself would come to me in a dream and console me, tell me it was allowed, that the priests and the Sunday school teachers and even my parents, with their offhand remarks, were wrong. 

The only way I have ever known to quell the voice in my head that acts as a twisted, condemning Jesus is to see my thoughts on paper. I write all of my terrible thoughts out as fiction and read them back. Once it is in the world, even just sitting quietly in a notebook, no one can take the thoughts away from me or make me destroy them. The only other way I know to feel absolved of the “sins” of the thoughts is through reading the words someone else has written, that affects me so closely. It is important that Moraga published this piece. It is important for queer people, especially queer children who may not have a label for their identity yet, to see themselves in the words of not just their  own, but of others. God is always in my head, a manifestation of the guilt I had internalized and cannot get around to this day. But he is quiet when I am writing, or when I am reading something that absolves me like my mother used to. 

The Fragility of Tolerance

In the midst of his long-winded ramble to Belize, Louis voices a revelation central to the AIDS Crisis in America. He states, “That’s just liberalism, the worst kind of liberalism, really, bourgeois tolerance, and what I think is what I think is that what AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred” (Kushner 94). Louis’s speech underscores the fragility of the tolerant façade those in power claim to have in regard to marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ community. When there is the opportunity to exploit or neglect these groups to make them less powerful, this opportunity will most likely be taken. The Reagan Administration’s ambivalence toward the AIDS Crisis exposes this.

True political impact is made when minority groups band together in a refusal to wait for tolerance and instead assert and demand their own rights. This is something that Larry Kramer emphasizes in the article “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer argues that there is only one solution to getting the attention and assistance of those in power, and this is “numbers and pressure and our being perceived as united and a threat” (Kramer 585). While Kramer is correct that dramatic measures such as this need to happen to bring about change, he goes on to scorn gay men who are unable to come out. Kramer states, “I am sick of closeted gays… Every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us… I have less and less sympathy for men who are afraid their mommies will find out or afraid their bosses will find out” (585). Kramer is absolutely right that there needs to be mass amounts of pressure put on political figures by the LGBTQ community, but he does not acknowledge that there are men who are simply unable to come out due to lack of economic stability or their own safety. Many of these closeted men are also dying from AIDS, but do not have the means to take action against injustice. The conversations about tolerance and taking action that take place in Angels in America and Kramer’s article continue to be relevant in today’s political climate.

Subverting Connotations of Wilderness in Brokeback Mountain

While reading for another class, I found a portion of the text that discussed the film Brokeback Mountain. After I finished the novella, I read this passage again and found that these concepts tie into the book as well; they explore how Brokeback Mountain subverts historical conceptions of a sexualized wilderness, in which pure, virginal land serve as a place of domination for heterosexual men.

In the book Ecocriticism, the evolution of connotations of the wilderness throughout literature and film are explored. The author asserts that Brokeback Mountain as a novella subverts some of culturally pervasive connotations of wilderness: “The film challenges the heteronormative assumptions underlying both the construction of ‘cowboy’ masculinities and, more subtly, the sexual coding of wilderness as a virile, heterosexual space” (Gerrard 60). The wilderness plays a large role in the film and novella, specifically acting as symbol of Ennis and Jack’s attraction, both sexual and romantic. Historically, both in real life and in literature, the wilderness is often viewed as a place of domination and conquest for heterosexual men. In Brokeback Mountain, it is seen by Jack and Ennis as a safe space for queer sexual acts (though this does not translate into a safe space for queer identities for either of the men). Jack perceives the land as not just providing a space for these actions, but a direct influence on them. Jack says to Ennis, “Old Brokeback got us good and it sure ain’t over” (Proulx 26). Instead of the men having dominion over the land, the land has power over them. Not only does the wilderness influence the men to “transgress” from the “norm” of heterosexuality in regard to their sexual acts, but it also allows for romantic tenderness that cannot exist elsewhere: “What Jack remembered and craved in a way that he could neither help not understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger” (Proulx 43). Ennis can only allow himself to reciprocate Jack’s romantic desire for him in the mountains, away from civilization, where they feel invisible and protected by the wilderness.

Self-Worth in Queer & Two-Spirit Indigenous Communities

Walt Whitman views himself as the poet of America; in “Song of Myself,” he uses his poetic voice to embody different minorities and tell their stories. Whitman asserts his right to existence without explanation or compromise in the line: “I exist as I am, that is enough/ If no other in the world be aware I sit content/ And if each and all be aware I sit content” (Whitman 413-415). In this quote, Whitman claims his very being as worthy; this worthiness is independent of standards of societal acceptability. The sentiment that individual worthiness should be something that one does not have to prove, and something that others cannot take away, is echoed in a sentence from Qwo-Li Driskill’s Introduction to Sovereign Erotics: “Sovereign Erotics is for those who- like so many of us- had no role models, no one to tell us that we were valuable human beings just as we were” (Driskill 1). Driskill claims in their book, published over 150 years after “Song of Myself,” that queer and two-spirit Native Americans have not had the freedom to internalize the ideas Whitman embraces in his poem. This forces us to call into question Whitman’s authority as the true American voice, and as someone who can speak for minority groups such as queer Indigenous people. The distinction between the two quotes also brings to attention the nuances that come along with race and self-acceptance in queer communities.  

The differences in the pronouns used in each quote reveals further differences between Whitman’s version of queer self-worth and Driskill’s version. Whitman states, in regard to his self-worth, “if no other in the world be aware I sit content” (Whitman 414). Whitman addresses his audience from a first-person perspective, continuously declaring his individual worth; he does not need others to be accepting of him and draws his feelings of value from a place inside of himself. In contrast, Driskill uses the pronouns “us” and “we” in the quote. Driskill directly states that the intended audience for their book are people who have shared the lived experience of being Native and queer; this address to the audience about shared worthiness is purposeful. Driskill claims that providing others with a source of self-worth is not only important, but the reason that they contributed to the book. Whitman does not need anyone to recognize his worth, but Driskill asserts the necessity of providing a community of role models as a source of worth for others. 

Addie and Rebecca: Defining the Undefinable

In the chapter “No Kisses is Like Youres,” Karen Hansen explores the relationship between Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus through an epistolary format. I am going to explore Hansen’s hesitancy to make a definite determination on the nature of the relationship, and how this hesitancy ties into her calls to action at the end of the piece that center around a more in-depth scholarship dealing with the complexities of nineteenth-century women’s sexualities, specifically in the African American community. On page 199, Hansen evaluation of the relationship includes the considers several possibilities. She makes it clear that she does not want to try to force twenty-first century contexts or terms onto the relationship between Addie and Rebecca. Hansen states, “In agreement with others studying nineteenth-century sexuality, I find it inappropriate to label the relationship as lesbian. This term was not part of mid-nineteenth century parlance and not part of the culture’s consciousness” (199). Hansen’s awareness to the label shows not merely the disparity modern vocabulary and the vocabulary of the time, but also, the differing conceptualizations of female sexuality of the time. While the term “lesbian” existed at the time, it is possible that the women were unaware of it in their tight-knit, enclosed community; or perhaps, they chose not to define their relationship as this. It is possible to see Addie’s impassioned letters to Rebecca as a struggle to describe the depth of what she feels toward Rebecca, or a choice to not fully define the relationship in a way that is to be understood by society. Upon considering the former possibility, it is evident in Addie’s words that she has romantic feelings toward Rebecca: “You are the first girl that I ever love so and you are the last one… if you was a man, what would things come to?” (Hansen 187). However, the idea of a romantic monogamous female/female relationship is out of reach in the letters, not because of a limited imagination, intellect, or passion, but because sexuality is shaped by the era. Hansen’s ideas are similar to the ideas Jonathan Katz posits in the chapter “’Homosexual’ and ‘Heterosexual’: Questioning the Terms.” Hansen posits three theories, which on the whole, do not subscribe to the rigid binaries of either homosexual or heterosexual. At the end of her piece, Katz declares his goal, which is similar to Hansen’s; he aims to “empower a pragmatic, strategic conceptual advance, allowing us to ask new questions” (179). Hansen draws on Katz’s ideas that it is necessary to reject the strict, modern binaries of homosexual and heterosexual, and instead asserts the need to gain a deeper understanding on nineteenth-century sexuality in order to more completely understand the nature of Addie and Rebecca’s relationship.