I came of age as a feminist very early in life. I believe I was about eight. Catholicism was requisite for membership in my family, and so I was educated by Catholic nuns. It was the 1960s, and they still wore the formal habits, with a square-framed black headpiece that covered their heads and cheeks, encased within a heavy black vestment that drug the floor. We joked that they must have been bald. They were large and slightly intimidating figures who dispensed our religion and discipline with the same unyielding crucifix.
The nuns were the first strong women in authority I knew. The women in my family were…family. I loved them, I accepted them as authority figures, but somehow the nuns were some mystical exterior force that must be obeyed, like the police or the priest. You didn’t argue with the good sisters.
When I was in about third grade, I remember several of us girls decided we wanted to be nuns. We’d knot our school sweaters over our heads to make a veil, and wore our rosaries around our necks, and clasped our hands under our chins in pious prayer at the playground. The boys laughed at us but were just a little afraid. We sometimes knelt in silence and imagined that we were married to God like the nuns had explained was their identity.
It was a way of showing our allegiance to women who had authority and power over our fledgling reality. They could make our lives miserable or glorious, and that was real power in our lives. Having a formidable nun wield a paddle over one’s backside was the epitome of powerlessness, and so we tread very lightly.
By the time I was a teenager, and going to another Catholic school with another order of nuns guiding the formation of my academic skills and my faith, I began to understand my unequivocal allegiance to women, and women’s issues. I lacked the vocabulary to express my loyalty to women, but I felt it strongly. The music I listened to, the books I read, the heroes I followed were all women. I was consciously aware of it, and it electrified me to know that I gravitated toward women only.
By the time I got to college, I had figured out there was more to my predilection for women than writing styles and vocal range. It was a time of the most awkward fledging from the life and orientation of my family to one that was more of my own making. Out I came, into the bright light of day and the world of women who loved other women in that way of married people. There weren’t any marriages in those days, but we still got the point, and we still loved.
I wasn’t entirely prepared for some of the nuances of gay life and was stunned to find racism well represented there. It was still difficult to distance myself entirely from my Catholic upbringing, or my Catholic family. There were…issues. It was easier to internalize that conflict and drown it in alcohol. Many of us did that because the well of pain within us was enormous and we needed respite by any means necessary.
Those were the days, my friend. Some of us didn’t make it. We died of alcoholism and drug addiction, of suicide and self-denial, and then we died of AIDS and the indifference of families and country. We died.
We still die, everyone dies, but not so much in the shadows of shame and abuse that seemed reserved for us. Now we die in storied incidents of hatred and bias, our culpability still debated at the altar and in the public square. The altar and the public square are often the same places, intersecting in bakeries and restaurants. My question remains the same – what does God need with a birthday cake?
In these days of instantaneous communication, including photos and video, I am frequently stymied by the question of certain high-profile members of the community who are somewhat problematic. Because of their media stature, they are often seen as spokespersons for all of us. That happens in marginalized communities, and that’s unfortunate. My problem, however, is how to disavow the message and positioning of these folks without disavowing their membership in the community.
When I was a kid, still vowing to become a nun, I was taught that you never opposed other members of your community in public. We had our disagreements, but you kept that behind closed doors. You didn’t air the proverbial dirty laundry in public, outside of the community.
But we did share those squabbles publicly. It was too great a burden to keep silent, and so we discussed and processed and debated it all because there was no other way to form a cultural idiom. We had to understand who and how we formed a collective. Today, I struggle with Caitlyn Jenner. I struggle with Candace Owens. I struggle with Marjorie Taylor Greene. I cannot support them, I cannot reconcile their vitriol. They do not reflect my values despite being members of my identity groups. I cannot support them, because they do not support me, but it does not feel good.
Self-differentiation seems to be a measure of maturity, or ethics, or self-knowledge, or something that displays that one possesses self-knowledge, that you know who you are. That’s wonderful and highly desirable for many, but it is painful. It often results in divorcing yourself from your culture, from others like yourself. It can be a very lonely place to be.
I know that I am not the only member of the GLBTQIA+ community who feels conflicted about Caitlyn Jenner. I know that I am not the only Africa-America person who feels entirely divorced from Candace Owens and her political stance. I know that I am not the only woman who feels disenfranchised by Marjorie Taylor Greene. Despite that knowledge, I still feel very alone in my struggle.
There’s no requirement that we all agree. There is, however, a requirement that we all know why we do agree, or don’t. I feel that I stand alone to a degree because I do struggle with these people. It’s only by questioning their positions and examining what I share with them in terms of identity that I know where I stand. I know why I don’t agree with them, and I know why they cannot represent me. It’s about the intersections, I’m afraid. There are simply no absolutes.
I am a child of the 1960s, who came of age in the new millennium. Yes, I’m a late bloomer, but better late than never. There isn’t one experience that I’ve had that could be eliminated. I have needed them all to be right here, right now. Every minute of my future depends on every second of my past, as painful as that was. I can’t change the past, but I can pledge to not repeat the most painful episodes. In doing so, I craft a future beyond anything I have known. That’s how it goes.
Nobody ever said this was going to be easy. Nobody ever said there would not be steps, missteps, starting over, and failure. I am the one who says there will be a success. I am the one who says let’s do this. I am the one who says get up. Cornel West spoke of something Samuel Beckett once said, that has resonated with me. “Try again, fail again, fail better.”
I hope that today I am failing better.