"The fact that there are gay people in Alabama is all the proof you need that homosexuality isn't a choice."
(As quoted from my memory of one of his stand-up specials.)
I’ve never had a great memory. It used to be a running joke between my childhood best friend and I that my mind (and unrelatedly my stomach) was cheesecloth, a hole-riddled plastic bag, useless. My family, friends, and acquaintances became a backup hard drive of my memories, of my life. To this day, despite my best efforts, I struggle to recall not only what I ate for breakfast, but also that incredible conversation I had a few days before, the watershed moments of my deepest friendships, even entire people who I spent years in close proximity with. But I do remember that squirrel shaped candle I bought the aforementioned BFF. The point is that my memory, for all intents and purposes, is shit.
That makes the following memories all the more important and grounding for me.
It was the first time I ever felt attracted to a woman. I was hanging out with a neighborhood friend in her basement. She turned on some show on HBO. There was a woman on the show with glorious breasts held in by a tiny tank top. My friend and I kissed. We were four.
My parents bought the Guinness Book of World Records 2000. One page featured the most downloaded image of all time (in a time before the internet as it is today): a blonde busty woman in a tiny shiny pink bikini. I would take the book to my room and stare at the image, feeling a rush in my body that confused and exhilarated me. I would unleash this euphoric frustration in the bathtub, the shower, my bed. I was ten.
We got a computer with access to the internet. Knowing nothing about the subject due to my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, I typed “sex” into whatever search engine there was in 2001. I hit enter. I gravitated away from the assault of penises, and toward images of women together. I felt an intense passion mingled with self-hatred, shame. I had been told before about the evils of homosexuality, but never exactly what it was or why it was so wrong. I was eleven.
I would spend the next 14 years as a self-imposed closeted ascetic, and self-denying closeted queer. In high school I spent hours on my knees, praying in the dark for God to deliver me from my homosexual thoughts and urges, reading over the Bible, wondering why I had been afflicted with impure thoughts, and wondering what I was doing so wrong that God wouldn’t remove these thoughts from me. I would imagine sex with a woman, breakdown in intense sobbing and mourning, and then cut myself to release the build up of excruciating inner pain and to punish myself before the Lord.
Does God call people to injure themselves in response to sin? I would say no, but it was a last-ditch effort. I was tormented by what I thought was a sin occupying the space directly below blasphemy of the Holy Spirit on the imaginary scale of sin I had been raised to believe in. (For those unfamiliar with Christianity, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is said to be the one unforgivable sin, but what that means is a whole series of books in and of itself.) I spent my days in prayer, reading the Bible in my spare time, attending church two to three times a week, going to private Christian schools from birth through my first semester of college, traveling to India and Mexico to spread the Gospel, journaling daily on the nature of God and my spiritual life and journey, reaching out to the marginalized, just…doing my darnedest.
Yet no matter how well and true to God I lived my life, no matter how hard I screamed or cried, no matter how much I begged and pleaded I could not escape the thoughts, the sin, the shame. Why? Why wouldn’t God hear me? What was I doing wrong? The self-hatred began before I ever reached puberty, and only grew exponentially with the uncertainty that adolescence brings us all. I saw myself as grotesque, as though a slime excreted from my mind coating me in abjection and vileness. I felt unworthy of even being the shit under someone’s shoe. How did I have friends? How could people like me? If only they knew what I thought about. If only they knew how disgusting and base I was. Jesus may have hung out with prostitutes and criminals, but it didn’t seem like he wanted anything to do with me.
In high school I had a well-meaning but highly unqualified teacher who led a once a week lunchtime girls’ group for all the females in my grade. We made vision boards one day, cutting out images and words from magazines that we felt defined our lives and selves. Who we were, are, or wanted to be. I cut out the word “sex”. When it was my turn to share I intentionally went over the hundreds of other images and words first. My heart was beating fast enough to power a rocket into outer space, my hands sweaty, mouth dry, “So. I’m really scared to share this with you all. Like, what if people hate me for sharing this? I’ve never shared this with anyone else before. I look at pornography. Or I have a few times before. I struggle with impure thoughts.”
The room went silent. Every single one of my female classmates stared at the floor, picked tiny bits of crust off of their sandwiches; worse than chirruping crickets, it was human muteness – living, breathing dead air. Even my teacher/group facilitator remained silent and avoided eye contact, “I guess that’s where we should end today. Thanks for sharing with us.”
No one ever mentioned it again.
My mother took me to a male Christian counselor. He confirmed my worst fears. He berated me, screaming in my face with words of condemnation saying that if I cut myself I was an active sexual deviant, and that I was lying about not having acted on my urges. (To my credit I’ve always been a ridiculously “good kid” who looks like a stereotypical “bad kid”. I couldn’t figure out how to get myself into a sexual situation if I wanted to at that time, and I sure did want to…while also not wanting to. Being a fundamentalist Christian while going through puberty is weird.) He called me a whore, told me what an evil and malicious being I was. I was fourteen.
During my four years in high school I signed numerous abstinence pledges, and rallied behind anti-homosexuality ideologies and movements. One day my 8th grade best friend, Amy, (a friend made in my ONE year of public education) sent me a message. (“A” for my friend, “M” for me.)
A: So…I’m dating someone.
M: That’s awesome! Who is it???
A: Promise you won’t get mad?
M: Duh. Why would I get mad? WHO IS IT? O_o??
A: Her name is Jenny.
I broke down in tears. How could my best friend betray me like this? She had been in my home! I couldn’t be around a bi-sexual in private. What if she tried something? How could she do this to me? I went so far as to send an aggressive, dehumanizing email to Amy letting her know as much. I told a teacher at school the next day, and she echoed my concerns, “I can’t imagine how difficult it is for you to go through this right now. Let’s pray over it. This is not how friends treat each other.” Amy ended up slinking back into the closet, telling me she was just confused, and then lived in hiding from my hateful ideology while remaining my friend. We fell out of touch over the years, but always remained in each other's periphery. We were fourteen.
During the election (I believe it was Kerry vs Bush) one of my favorite teachers, who was also my mentor, told me she had voted for Kerry. I couldn’t believe my ears. We talked about it in the hall for hours. I told her that generally I agreed with liberal ideas – taking care of others through social programs, caring for the environment, etc. – but just couldn’t join the party because they believed in homosexual rights. Her response?
“It’s hard for me to believe that you would write off an entire belief system just because of homosexuality. Maybe you should take some time and rethink it, and learn about it.”
This mentor would, post-high school, tell me to watch the L-Word, to consider having sex with a woman, and then have me stay with her lesbian friends in Boston on my first solo vacation. I didn’t realize what she was doing at the time, but now I am flooded with gratitude for the tiny seed she snuck into the brittle, dusty soil of my soul. I was fifteen.
See, she was normalizing homosexuality for me. It had always been something wildly foreign and other. I didn’t have to process it more than praying to God, because I didn’t ever have to come into contact with it. Turns out homosexuals are, like, regular human beings. Gayness isn’t contagious, and it isn’t a perversion. I wouldn’t come to these realizations in regards to myself until I had divorced my husband in my early twenties. My biggest regret in marriage being that I had never been with a woman. A regret I never voiced. My ex-husband would crack jokes about his soon to be transitioning close friend, make sweeping and grossly uninformed generalizations about homosexuals ("They're all perverts. Every single one. That's part of what it means to be gay." Real true quote from him.), and use homosexuality and feminism as insults. I went along with it because he saw every conversation as a chance to exercise his power, as a chance to destroy. I was scared. I was twenty-three.
In my twenties, after I left the church for myriad reasons (including the treatment of homosexuality), I stood up for gay rights, but still had no interaction with homosexuality, and pursued men exclusively. Several months after leaving my husband, my friend Phil and I were kicking it at my apartment. We had been talking for some time, and the conversation reached a natural lull. We sat in a third-trimester pregnant silence. That same rapid heartbeat was inching up my throat; anxiety sweating out my hands.
“Hey, can I tell you something?”
“I…I’m attracted to women. I’m, I’m gay.”
“Yeah, that honestly doesn’t surprise me. Thanks for telling me. How do you feel about saying that out loud? How do you feel about telling me?”
We laughed for a while, the adrenaline dispersing through my body. Of course, Phil knew. Of course, it was only myself I had been deceiving. I began the process of coming out to my family and close friends. My little sister cheered and flapped her hands in excitement. My friend Amy (we had rekindled our friendship) was overjoyed. I was twenty-five.
My mother found out from a poem I had written and published in my university’s arts and literary journal. She asked me what the poem meant. I told her. The conversation that followed was warm, personal, loving. She said she had no idea because I had never talked about a girlfriend or brought one home. I laughed internally, in what world would I have come out to my fundamentalist Christian family, let alone bring a girlfriend home to them? If I had told either of my parents I was queer ten years earlier, I am certain the reception would have been less friendly. If my depression got me sent to horrific “Christian counselors”, then where would my homosexuality get me sent? Fear of being electrocuted and beaten into spurious heterosexuality is quite the deterrent.
I told my father over lunch one day. My father told me he loved me, told me not to act on it or make any rash decisions, and explained that while he loved me, he could not accept this because it is a sin. This is the same father of mine who is a sociopathic narcissist, who spent four years in jail for conning his church out of nearly a million dollars, who once told me it was a shame that Freddy Mercury was a fag because he could have done so much more with his life if he was straight. He then went to the church he worked at to teach a series on LGBTQ and Christianity. I asked if he wanted me to come speak, “No. We don’t need to tell anyone about this.” I was twenty-six.
I was most nervous about telling my big brother and his wife, not because they are harsh or rigid people (they are in fact, some of the most welcoming and loving people I know), but because the stakes were higher. If they rejected me that meant I would no longer be part of my niece’s life, of my brother’s life; he had long been the family member I was closest to and got along with best.
“Hey guys. I want to tell you that I’m queer.”
“You know, we don’t really understand what that means, but we love you. I mean, you know we believe homosexuality is a sin, but we love you and know this can’t be easy for you. Like, if you ever wanted to bring a partner over for dinner or something, we’d be more than happy to welcome you both into our home.”
I was twenty-seven.
I had come out, but I still hadn’t done the work, and I wouldn’t for another year. I didn’t know how to find lesbians. I felt like a bewildered and disoriented, queer, bizzaro-world David Attenborough lost in the tall grasses of sexuality with only a pair of binoculars, a shitty outdated field guide to gays, and a tiny rainbow flag stuck in my explorer’s backpack. I mean, there were gay bars and campus groups, but I felt like an outsider even in the LGBTQ world. Not that I really tried to foray into it, but I was scared. I was so proud of myself for having come to the realization that I was queer and for coming out, but some part of me still lamented that I couldn’t just live a “normal” life. As my mother told me during our conversation, “You’ve never chosen the easy path in life.”
It has never been a choice. That much should be obvious by now.
I fought for decades to be straight. I did everything short of killing myself to get rid of my queerness. But when I looked in the mirror at 25 and told myself, “I’m gay”, my lungs expanded, a fog flew from my mind, and I broke down into the peace of being real. Many people aren’t as fortunate as I have been. Many do kill themselves or are rejected by their most loved ones. Some are murdered – slaughtered – for embracing, instead of denying and destroying, who they are.
I grieve for young Amy who retreated back into the closet because of the hurt and hate from me and others like me. I grieve for my younger self that spent years self-flagellating in a tempest of confusion and self-abhorrence. I grieve for the children being locked in church basements and tortured until they renounce themselves. I grieve for those still living quiet lives in the closet, never knowing if it’s the right or safest time to open the door. For all those who believe their core and authentic self is punishable and deserving of an eternity in Hell.
It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.
But, you know, I also grieve for the lawmakers, religious leaders and believers, for all those who are unmoving in their hatred for homosexuality. (Side note: Not all lawmakers and religious folk…obviously.) They don’t know the power and freedom of self-acceptance. They are themselves locked in their own dark closets believing that hatred and torture are ways to love, are God’s ways to love. It’s not anyone’s job to change anyone’s mind. We can only be ourselves authentically, honestly, and with great passion and abandon. We can only rise above the noise, and throw ourselves into constant cycle of learning and unlearning and relearning. That goes for everyone, regardless of who you go home to at night.
And now I’m twenty-eight. Next week I'll attend an LGBTQIA+ support group for the first time. Amy somehow managed to love me throughout all of this, holding out hope for my eventual change of heart. We're true best friends now. What a human being. Love is my only agenda, and I will push and lobby for that good shit until the day I die. I’m here and super queer. I flourish and love and rage into a world filled with those who would erase and condemn the very core of who I am. Come at me. I got enough love for all of us, baby.
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© Alessandra Ragusin 2016-2020