Queerness can be a joyful expression of love, an affirming assertion of identity and a community where one can find belonging — a celebratory calling into the fold, a home in which to reside. And while all of that is true — Queerness is joyful, welcoming and gay (in every sense of the word) — Queerness can also be heavy and heartbreaking. Many of us can testify to the bitterness that comes along with realizing our identities in communities that don’t understand us and often don’t want us around.
I remember the first time I recognized the word “lesbian” — I grew up in a Roman Catholic school system where “gay” was treated like a bad word, a taboo. My third-grade teacher had been fired for marrying a woman, and we were told that we could only pray for her, not save her. All I had known up until that point was the Faith and a distinct fear of God, and it made me hate her — perhaps for what she made me realize about myself or perhaps out of childhood ignorance. Even then, I knew that I existed in a different state of being than many of my peers; toeing the line between gay and straight, the traditional masculine and feminine. I didn’t have a real consciousness of it or the words to place it, but it was real, it was tangible and it was utterly terrifying.
In my schooling, doctrine was clouded by the immense hatred that humanity could hold. I was taught that gay love was merely an illusion of real love and that homosexuality was a difficult sin for God to forgive. Church leaders, priests and teachers alike taught me that sowing fear into the hearts of gay people was the only way to truly love them — we were meant to be concerned with their salvation and to show them the way to Jesus. I was taught hatred before I could understand hatred and was told that people like me were sick and damned.
As a small child, I spent countless hours in a church pew. I remember standing in service, psalm book in hand, singing my little heart out — the music had always been my favorite part; a full choir and pipe organ producing sounds that would swell to fill the entire church, sometimes almost punching through the rafters. Back then, it felt like a celebration of the “salvation” that we were destined for — eternity with God in Heaven.
As the years wore on, something changed — the hymns of my childhood, normally joyful exultations of a return to God and a triumphant existence in Heaven, became a distinct and potent sadness. Rather than joining in, I became mute, standing still in my pew, staring up at the gruesome scene of a crucified God who hung silently over us all. At the time, the sadness seemed incomprehensible, leaving me squirming in my seat, just waiting for mass to be over. During service, I could feel the prick of tears in my eyes and sorrow that I could not understand — it turned into explosive outbursts and hatred for those who loved God. Now I see that sorrow and anger as mourning; mourning my salvation, and my perceived loss to sin and sickness.
I remember specifically hymns like “Jesus Remember Me” becoming a desperate prayer — don’t forget me, don’t forget me, don’t forget me. A single repeating stanza rang through the congregation, usually unaccompanied by any instruments — an eerie reprise that seemed to last forever. It became a plea to my family not to shut me out, not to leave me behind when they made it to Heaven. It became a plea to God so that he might not forget how hard I tried to change or the years that I had spent loving him. The song transformed itself into all the desperation that I felt — everyone I loved was destined for a promised land, but all that was promised to me was an eternity of pain and punishment.
“Here I am Lord” transformed into an attempt to reconcile myself with my faith. Choirs singing “I will go Lord / If you lead me” became a plea to God to tell me what to do. I begged for a sign that my Queerness would damn me to Hell, that I was wrong for loving in the way that I needed to. I pledged myself to change if he only told me how. But how could it be wrong — loving in a way that felt so wholly honest and pure. I needed some assurance that I wasn’t bad, I wasn’t evil and that I didn’t deserve the fate that had been laid out before me. Every girl that I had ever loved, every kiss that had ever brushed my lips felt guiltless and innocent — perhaps it was the sign that I had been searching for the whole time.
In light of my Queerness, something that once was so joyful had been bathed in grief and mourning. Pain had been sowed in my heart like the mustard seed, and I was Salve Regina’s poor banished child of Eve. As I grew and aged, the perceived damnation only existed for myself — an internalized hatred that told me it was okay for others to be gay, but not for me to be. I still struggle with what once was so deeply ingrained in me; the beliefs I held about damnation were more so out of resignation than hatred, and what is taught in a conservative school in mid-Michigan is surely not representative of me or the Catholic Church as a whole. I ask that you not judge me too harshly for buying into what was fed to me from the moment I was baptized — I am continually unlearning all that was taught to me.
Hymns truly are such a beautiful form of art, with deep resonance and melodies that pierce the soul. I am deeply saddened by my inability to experience them again in meaningful ways. I don’t consider myself religious any longer, but I do often find myself at the doors of my childhood church searching for something unnamed — perhaps assured belonging, a nostalgic sense of comfort or even a higher power of sorts.
Burned into my memory, even after all these years, I can still recall the melodies and words, and even see the pages of the psalm book in my mind’s eye. Years of hurt and grief cannot be washed away in any baptismal fount — nor am I willing to revisit the religion that hurt me so badly — but forgiveness is the greatest power that I can hold. I am not yet ready to be the prodigal son who returns to the place that raised him, but sometimes art that hurts us can be a powerful source of healing and identity and can be the exact avenue of relief that we desire, if only we allow it to.
Daily Arts Writer Claire Sudol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .