Teen Idols

Once upon a time, 33 years ago, I was clearly a troubled youth. I was 14. My parents wanted to help. Could I just tell them what was going on?

In a terrible miscalculation, I told them. I came out as questioning.

My mum panicked and sought out advice. She turned to her mother’s Catholic friends who suggested a hard line approach. My mum could push me towards heterosexuality by the strategic use of homophobic harassment. Her contacts further urged her to use “tough love” and throw me out of the house.

She tended to agree with the bigots, but she balked at making me homeless. I look back and know now that it’s possible to love and hate at the same time, in the same breath, as the same gesture. I spent four years in a perfect synthesis of maternal Catholic love and hate.

Things improved dramatically after I left home. My mother eventually, mostly came around. And then, with little warning, in 2002, she died.

My dad, who had virtually no speaking part in this drama, never talked about this. I don’t even know if he knew what was going on. I’ll never know. He died in June.

According to Kiddushin 17b, there is a Rabbinic law that allows a Jewish convert to inherit from his gentile father. He splits the inheritance with his brother so that the gentile gets the religious items and the convert gets money.

We delayed my dad’s funeral for a few weeks due to travel difficulties. My brother proposed stretching this out to at least five months. Instead, I took over planning. I booked a Catholic church, a priest, an organist, a florist, and a caterer and made arrangements with the cemetery. The priest asked which readings to use. The organist asked what hymns to play. My brother did not respond to these questions, so I did. I listened to hymns on YouTube and read gospel verses, searching for something at least inoffensive.

My dad was Catholic. His friends were Catholic. I stayed close to the community norms of what he would have expected and presumably wanted.

The sages say, in the case of ‘a convert and a gentile who inherited the property of their father, a gentile: the convert can say to his gentile brother: “You take the idols and I will take the money.”’ But I took the idols and placed them for the funeral. I wrote a check to the Catholic church, whose schools educated but harmed me. Whose followers tormented me and loved me. Whose hospitals are allegedly right now gambling that they can safely but illegally deny every kind of healthcare to trans people, because they have deep pockets and trans people don’t.

I didn’t want the idols, but I couldn’t escape them while also doing right by my dad. I tried to pass them off to my brother, but didn’t. Kiddushin says, ‘Once idols have come into the convert’s possession, it is prohibited for him to exchange these objects with his brother, as he would thereby be benefiting from idolatry.’ They’re mine now, but any benefit is counterbalanced by harm. I could atone for this on Yom Kippur, but I feel I shouldn’t have to. This is the opposite of what I felt when actually doing the planning. It had to be done, so I did it.

The end of a difficult relationship brings intense focus to the difficulty. Here is a murky not-knowing. But the missed conversation about my teen years feels like a relief. It’s better not to know. There were no good answers. I took only those idols that I had to take.

Crucify Him

I recently read the suicide note of Leelah Alcorn and keep thinking about how far we haven’t come since I was a teen. This is my story. It comes with a trigger warning. Don’t read it if you knew me before I was 18 – none of us need that.

Every year on Palm Sunday, the Catholic churches of my youth would do a small bit of drama, where they would semi-act out the scene where Pontius Pilot condemned Jesus to death. The priest played Jesus. Other readers played the other speaking parts. And the congregation played out the braying mob who called for Jesus’s blood. ‘Crucify him!’ we called out in unison. Or rather, chanted in a dull monotone. Repeating the same scene we did every year for the 18 years I was compelled to attend Catholic mass.
My parents were devout Catholics, and so was I by default for my childhood. Before I could read, they took me to a picket at a women’s health clinic, where I carried anti-abortion signs filled with the mysterious symbols of English writing. I went to Catholic school. I played trumpet at mass. I volunteered at my parish, putting together the paper inserts of church bulletins. Church was a place I could go and get some peace away from my family for a bit.
I don’t know if we had more or less dysfunction than other aspirational, middle class families. The popular thing to do in those days was take your misbehaving kids to therapy, so my mother took us. I went to three different shrinks until I was a teenager and I never trusted any of them. They were not there for me. They were there for my parents. Anything I said to them would be repeated on.
For my brother, they wanted to know why he didn’t like school. For me, they wanted to know why I was not conforming to gender roles.
I’ve repeated this story many times to shrinks since, to the point I don’t trust my own memory of it any more. They also weren’t looking to help me, but were working as gatekeepers. They ask about the parts where I didn’t fit in, but they don’t ask about the part that hurt. Here is the part that hurt: I didn’t know what I was – I only knew what I wasn’t. And what I wasn’t was normal. I told my parents at 14 that I liked girls. They were the first people I told. This was a huge mistake. My mother told other parents. Their kids told everyone at school. I was bullied – sometimes by my friends. (They got teased for spending time with me and shielded me from that, mostly, but also became frustrated with it. I had no official support at school, but neither did they. Why would a 14 year old know what to do when getting flack from all sides for even hanging around with somebody who seems so queer?)
It was Catholic school. Everyone was in the closet. The LGBT staff were afraid they would be fired if they came out. The only teacher who addressed LGBT issues at all was the religion teacher. He had us read about Sodom and Gemorrah, because he thought it was funny. When we didn’t understand the story, he claimed that it was God killing all the ‘faries’.
And thus my safe-haven of church evaporated. I’d read Ratzinger’s letter to American bishops about the pastoral care of homosexual persons. I was ‘intrinsically disordered’. I was unwelcome at church, bullied at school and bullied at home.
My mom hadn’t just outed me as school. Family dynamics had shifted considerably. I was no longer the perplexingly non-conformist child. I was the black sheep. My brother, finally freed from that role, relished his newly raised status. He and my mom would trade queerphobic quips and hate speech at the dining table. I felt unolved and unlovable. If I should somehow attract someone on the basis of unnatural lust, they were not welcome. I could never bring a partner home. There was no place for me in the world.
I pondered suicide. If God hated me, he would send me to hell, which would not be an improvement. Or else, he might not exist, in which case there was hope for a life without him. I knew that happy LGBT people existed and if I could make it, I could join them. I pondered running away from home, but decided to hold out until I turned 18.
My parents did love me; they were just really shit at communicating that. My mother’s friends told her to pack me away to conversion therapy. To throw me out of the house and leave me homeless. In the end, the advice she did follow – to bully me straight – was the kindest advice she received. She thought Jesus wanted her to make my life hell, so she did. But not enough to kill me or make me homeless or make my plunge into the minimum wage, insecure life of an emancipated minor.
I turned 18 and I went to university. I’d picked my uni based very largely on how LGBT- friendly it was. I went from being an outcast to being popular. I got into a relationship. But I didn’t know what it felt like for people close to me to be nice to me. The relationship was awful. And I used my social capital to bully other people.
When I was at university was when I first heard that transgender men existed. I was immediately interested. My my girlfriend, who I spent 9 years with overall, forbade transition. She was a lesbian, she said, so if I transitioned, she would leave. I was used to threats, conditional love and non-acceptance, so I agreed. As we bullied away most of my friends, who did I have aside from her?
My life became less and less tenable. And finally we broke up. She’d had enough, I’d had enough. It took a few years of questioning and of me desperately trying to force myself into boxes that didn’t work, before I finally did transition.
This isn’t an ‘it gets better narrative.’ My mother died and I inherited money. I used it to transition and then move to another continent. My life is ok now. It’s really good in fact, but this is not only because I stuck it out. It’s because I have privilege. I can’t make promises to trans kids that things will definitely get better for them. I desperately wish I could. I can say: the future you think you see is not the future you will have if you stick around for it. You will be surprised if you stick around. I really want you to stick around.
When I first moved away from home, at 18, my parents told me not to come back. But it was half-hearted – the kind of rows people have to make separations easier, but with the particular viciousness of our established dynamic. They paid my student feeds. They called me after a week to ask when I was going to visit. They met my girlfriend and came to see her as part of the family. All their threats vanished. Their disapproval slowly melted away. They forgave me. I forgave them. I stayed at my mother’s bedside when she had cancer. There was love there. Some clergy told them not to push me away and in the end, they went with the kinder version of their God. Their love gradually triumphed over their queerphobia.
Not every religious person has access to loving clergy. There are many in pastoral care who will happily sacrifice other people’s families to feed hatred. There are many who will turn their backs on their own families. They can’t face the truth of it, so they call their abuse ‘love’. It’s what Jesus wants.
And so, they stand in a mob, dully shouting ‘crucify him’, at their own children, just like we did at mass every Palm Sunday.
We like to think, when reading history, that we would have provided haven on the Underground Railroad, or joined the Resistance in Nazi-Occupied France or marched with MLK or somehow been on the side of the angels. When we read about privileged allies who helped Others at great personal risk, unless we’re part of the Other, we imagine ourselves as one of the allies. Of course we would have known that something so evil was wrong. But on Palm Sunday, the liturgy forces us to acknowledge the lie of this. ‘Crucify him!’ we say of the ultimate victim – the one we have defined as someone who never did wrong. The news might say ‘he was no angel’ about most innocent victims of state violence, but Jesus was better than an angel. Christians read every year about how the chief priests persuaded the crowds to say Jesus was guilty.
When clergy say Jesus demands violence, cruelty, abuse, neglect, ‘conversion therapy’, homlessness and death for LGBT people, they order parents not to love their children. They say Jesus does not love. They say Jesus is a monster who deserves no loyalty or respect. The world would be better off without such a hateful God. We’d all be better off if they would just crucify him.
Whose side are they on?

The head of St Vitalis of Assisi

Alas, I’ve missed the auction of the head of St Vitalis of Assisi, which I guess is just as well as it was expected to go for at least £700. Still, I kind of feel like my entire life as an RC might have been heading for that purchase. I’ve gone on saint-head related pilgrimages and generally have a fascination with relics….
As I see it, the major problem with having a first class relic like this one is where to put it. St Vitalis is the patron saint of STIs and it doesn’t seem fair to keep such an obviously useful saint to oneself. The owner of the head really ought to build a chapel for it. As I don’t have any kind of space for such a construction, the head would be doubly beyond my means.
Indeed, as I live in a two room flat that’s already a bit overly full of stuff, storing the head until I could build a chapel would present a major problem.
I really don’t want a holy relic on display in my bedroom. A skull of any saint looking down on my bed would be a bit of a mood killer. I can’t decide if this particular saint would be better worse than other saints. On the one hand, he is kind of appropriate, if you don’t mind his dead, judging eye sockets. But on the other hand, do I want to send the message to overnight visitors that supernatural help is required in addition to the normal precautions?
I think he could also be distracting in the living room. Alas, I don’t even have room for him in my living room. It’s already stuffed to the gills with rather too much furniture, two tubas, a bass amp and a synthesiser. I have no idea where I could even find space for a head.
He may have died in 1370, but the kitchen seems unhygenic even for a very old and holy skull. And the bathroom is humid, which might lead to corruption of the sort saints are supposed to be spared. A mouldy relic would not be very nice.
This leaves the toilet, which in some ways is the ideal space. I have unoccupied space on top of the cistern, where he could gaze down upon possibly afflicted areas as guests wee. It also gives the faithful a private place where they can take a moment to determine if the saint’s prayers might be helpful before invoking them, and/or possibly calling their local GUM clinic. On the other hand, it does seem somewhat disrespectful to the saint to perch his head in a loo.
(American readers of the linked BBC article should note that in British English, an “outhouse” is a kind of a shed. In American English, an outhouse is a privy. So moving from an outbuilding to a toilet would be a reduction in his circumstances.)
Alas, I’ve been unable to discover ho bought the head, how much they paid or what their plans are. Do I want to know? I’m not sure.

Catholic Church PR

So the Catholic Church paedophilia crisis continues to look worse and worse. I try not to follow this story too closely, but it’s hard to miss, especially given the appalling misbehaviour of the church hierarchy. The ways they’ve been making excuses lately also does not help.
For instance, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League ran an advert in the New York Times, which said that priests molesting children is somehow the fault of gay people thus reminding people that in addition to enabling the rape of children, the church has also campaigned heavily against the civil rights of LGBT people, including stripping us of marriage rights in California.
Then, on Good Friday, a vatican sermon linked the news coverage of the systematic and widespread rape of children to anti-semitism, with the logic that calling attention to a conspiracy to protect rapists is somehow like the genocidal murder of 6 million Jews. Which, it should be noted, the church didn’t exactly have a problem with, since they never bothered to excommunicate or even dissuade their faithful churchgoing member, Adolf Hitler. Indeed, if you are looking for the organisation that enables the raping thousands of children and murdering millions of jews, well, here’s one that stands at the intersection of both.
Will they next compare media attention and police investigations to the Spanish Inquisition? Perhaps to the enslaving of Native Americans in Missions? Maybe it’s like denying women access to reproductive health care?
Their message seems to be, “Hey, in comparison with the other horrible abuses we’ve participated in, raping a few thousand little kids isn’t so bad!” When I try to think of what would Jesus do, I think he would tell them to STFU.


“Le pape Benoît XVI a déclaré samedi qu’un monde sans Dieu qui ‘ne sait plus distinguer entre le bien et le mal’ était soumis à la ‘terrible menace de la destruction’ . . .” (http://www.tv5.org/TV5Site/info/afp_article.php?idrub=2&xml=070908102101.5mq6e2lp.xml) Roughly translated by me: Pope Benedict XVI declared Saturday that a world without god ‘can no longer distinguish between good and evil’ and is in ‘terrible risk of destruction.’

Well, goodness, just the morning I bit the head off of several live kittens and since I’m an atheist, I felt no guilt about it whatsoever. This afternoon, I intent to stomp on tiny, adorable puppies and then climb up to a high place and shoot passersby with a sniper rifle. then, I think I’ll take a sledge hammer to bicycles parked on my street and smash them. Just because.
Ugh, this cold I’ve got has put me in a horrible mood. Not bad enough to smash bicycles, though. I still love bicycles. But anyway, I don’t think I have the energy to operate a sniper rifle, even if I knew how. I’d get up the first set of stairs on the bell tower and then need to stop for a nap and realize I forgot my handkerchief and then pout while I trudged homeward. Anyway, at no point, while smashing bikes, or trudging along dragging a loaded rifle on the ground behind me, or snatching puppies from children and stomping on them, at no point would I face arrest. Because the Netherlands is a secular state and as such has no idea whatsoever about good or evil actions. So wanton destruction of the beloved pets of kindergartners is totally within the law.
Meanwhile, over in Iraq, where an evangelical christian american army faces secular insurgents, there is terrible bloodshed, but not when it faces religious foes. For further example, in another part of the world, the extremely religious Osama bin Ladin just made a videotape proclaiming his entirely peaceful feelings towards the secular-in-name-only American government. And for my final example very godly american congress person (I’m too sick and lazy to look up whom) recently suggested that the American military response to another terrorist attack should be to bomb Mecca. This good and holy action would certainly not increase the chances of world war three.
And that’s the news from Bizzaro World. Meanwhile on Earth . . . is the pope even on Earth? What is wrong with this guy? How fucking arrogant is he to say that atheists have no moral basis! I’m sure god whispers directly into his ear (even while Bush weeps on his shoulder) and he’s got some sort of insider information that using condoms to prevent AIDS in Africa would be a terrible sin and invading Middle East countries right and left is a great idea.
I’ve known people who believed deeply in God and whose spirituality is/was exemplary and whose deeds and faith were good. None of those people believed themselves to better than anybody else. But the Pope does. Clearly, he’s following the model of Jesus who drove tax collectors and prostitutes from his midst and said of people who claimed to follow him, “by their words, you shall know them.”(*) Just as clearly: forcibly trying to convert everybody to Christianity as a path to peace is a really, really fucking great idea. You get right on that. I’ll be here, digging a bomb shelter.
(Since not all of you went to Catholic school or bible study or whatever, Jesus was criticized during his life for hanging around with tax collectors – who were agents of foreign occupation, and prostitutes. Also, the quote is “by their FRUITS, you shall know them.” In other words, if somebody says they’re for go(o)d, but causes all sorts of death and destruction, they’re not actually for go(o)d and are not the kind of folks you would want to, say, give leadership over high profile religions or extremely armed governments.)

8 June 2007 15:54

No better time for typing than while sitting at a Laundromat. They should come with wifi. Today, I went in the cathedral while Xena barked her little doggy self dizzy. afterwards, the ticket sales person yelled at me for tying her so close to the cathedral. I think I’m very lucky that she did not call the police to have poor Xena removed. There has got to be a way to get her to stop barking. She only does it when I’ve left er alone and she fears that I will never return. When I’m around, she never makes a peep.

The cathedral had a lot of Mary in it, as was to be expected, but also a lot of St Christopher who was the partron of some of the guilds who decorated the church. There was only one reliquary with two saints in it, but I could not tell who they were or what parts of them. Relics have fallen out of favor and aren’t boasted in the same way they would have been in the past, alas.

The church has an astonishingly tall steeple, all filled with bells. An incredible, unbelievable number of bells. They give concerts there during the summer, starting next week . Alas, I will not get to hear the huge number of bells playing live, but even just the hourly chimes are fairly impressive. They do trills on the bells, something one hardly ever hears, in my experience (which, admittedly, is not vast). The church has two organs. One of them is the older one, but they also have one from 2003, designed specifically to play the works of Bach, but, the informational sign added, it’s ‘touch’ allows works from many periods to be played.

While English speakers don’t often hear of new organ works, there is actually a quite active school of organ composition in Mexico. And of course, there’s Henry Brant and others in America turning out new works. Bach is ok and all, but you’d think there’s already an adequate installed base of organs for playing his works.

The church also had quite elaborate confessionals. This is a wooden structure designed to hold one officiating priest and two sinners (who may also be priests). The priest is in a chamber in the middle and the sinners are situated on either side, in a sort of a nook equipped with a kneeler. It is enclosed on three sides and has a bit of a privacy shield. The priest turns his attention to sinner number one who has a script. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been [x time units] since my last confession. Since then I have [ list of sins ].” Then the priest talks for a bit about the sinner’s sins, possibly offering advice and assigning the sinner a penance, which is to say a list of prayers that the priest assigns for the duration assigned. When I was a youth, it was usually three ‘Hail Mary’s and an ‘Our Father,’ but it could be a great deal more to be repeated at specified intervals. If you die before these are finished, the dogma used to state (and perhaps still does? the afterlife has changed a lot in the last few years) that you would have to go to Purgatory until your prayers were completed. But back to the sacrament. After the priest assigns the sinner a penance, iirc, they say the act of contrition together and then the priest offers absolution, which is the assurance that God has forgiven all of the sins, including the ones the sinner forgot to mention, but not including the ones he or she omitted on purpose. After this is completed, the priest turns his attention to sinner number two. Meanwhile, sinner number one makes the sign of the cross and vacates the confessional so that a new sinner may sit and wait for the priest’s attention. It’s a sin to try to overhear the hushed conversation on the other side, although if you did, you could confess it right away, at least.

The confessionals in Antwerp feature extensive wooden carvings, including pained looking saints. That carved saint weeps for your wrongdoings. I would feel intimidated to have so many holy figures so pained by my surreptitious glancing at images of naked ladies. Alas and woe. St Peter weeps!

Today, I learned that map of the national bike routes in Belgium is out of print. Nobody seems to have any copies left and nobody can say when it will be printed again. I did find a map to get me as far as Brussels. It’s not until I leave there that I run short of map.

7 June 2007 22:01

Today, I awoke and then went right back to sleep. A bed! a mattress! Pillows! The hotel guy had been a bit disparaging about the room. “It’s very small.” But you can walk upright in it! And I don’t need to sleep on the floor! Amazing! But alas it was just for one night.

I tried in vain to find maps. I bought a book about Belgium. The Routard was the best one. French travel books are better than English ones. Everyone should learn to speak French just so they can read the poetry of the Routard. I bought chocolate. I searched for a new hotel room. I found one. I ate some food. I ate some more food. I walked around a bit. I ate some more food. And then the whole day had evaporated. Nice!

There are statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere in Belgium. Roadside shrines abound. But there are especially a lot in the city of Antwerp. She is the patron mother goddess saint of the city. Anybody who put a statue of her on the side of a building got a tax break. (Protestants were not so welcome in town for a long while.) The statues here often involve her holding a baby Jesus. The city hall has one such statue. It’s hundreds of years old, but I’m curious about whether or not there’s separation of church and state. I saw a little brick house holding an electrical transformer, which had a tiny chapel dedicated to Mary sticking out of it. I don’t know if the electric company was angling for a tax break (or if said break sill exists in modern times), but this was clearly semi-official at least and also clearly relatively recent.

In the roadside chapels, it seems that Mary is much less likely to be holding Jesus. There’s often a smaller statue of him to Mary’s right. Another saint might be at her left. (Her left, not the prayer’s left.) Often these chapels have candles and little notes addressed to Maria. Interestingly, the smaller side placement of Jesus suggests that he’s in second place. Which is sort of logical given that he’s the kid and all. But, looking at all these chapels dedicated to her, I think there’s some truth to protestants’ charge that Catholics worship Mary. And that she’s a goddess figure.

She’s an interesting Goddess figure in that she’s usually not at all feminist. Her presence is often reactionary. She was obedient, submissive, etc and her high status makes women feel more represented. Places with a high level of devotion to Mary tend to have a lower level of feminism.

Also interesting about Mary is that she’s both Maiden and Mother. She’s rarely depicted as a crone, even at Jesus’ death or afterwards. In the Middle Ages, before the Assumption of Mary was invented (in the current dogma she had her own, personal rapture), the dormition of Mary was a popular devotional image. Dormition meaning death – the final sleep. But now, she is forever young – depicted as the same age whether she’s holding Jesus as a baby, weeping at the foot of the cross, or ascending into heaven. I know of one sculptor who is making images of her as a crone.

Finally, what’s interesting about Mary is her relationship with Jesus. Mary is the queen of heaven. So what does that make Jesus? He’s not the prince of heaven. There is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. God is three persons, but also one person. St Patrick explained this with the shamrock: three leaves but one plant. But the reason it’s a capital-M Mystery is because it’s unexplainable. If Jesus and God the Father (and the oft-forgotten Holy Spirit) are all equal and there’s only one god, then they must all be that one god. So Jesus is his own dad. Jesus and God the father and the holy spirit are all king of heaven. Which means that when the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, that was the same god who is the Father who is Jesus who is the Holy Spirit. Which is to say that there’s a lot of precedent in the west for deities getting a free pass on the incest taboo and I think Christianity is not an exception to this.

Anyway, Belgians seem to agree that there’s something about Mary and so the stick her every where. But there’s an important difference between countryside shrines and city statues. The city statues are for Our Lady of tax evasion. As mentioned above, having one on your street exempted you from certain taxes. Therefore, all the city ones are officially sanctioned. Also as mentioned above, the almost universally have a crowned Mary holding a crowned baby and the country side ones often do not, but rather have a giant Mary standing over a small earth and a snake.

The urban, official Mary is Mary the mother. The rural Mary is Mary the independent power. If Mary is popular among the people, it’s natural that she would be the subject of the town’s cathedral and the patron of the city. But the subtle differences in her presentation reflect differing heirarchies. The Mother Mary is the submissive servant of God, although a queenly one. The rural Mary is much less reactionary in her iconography. One could believe that her image would inspire devout women to excel instead of submit. By putting an official image of MAry around the city, civic and religious leaders were able to take a popular movement and channel it into submission.

In other news, my landlord left a comment on my blog before I called him. In it, he was threatening to call interpol on me. I’ve never been an international fugitive before. I know what you’re thinking, “what could possibly be so illegal in the Netherlands?” Fear not, I was not abducting and murdering cute toddlers. No, my rental contract had expired and so he was contacting all sorts of people telling them to cancel their contracts on me. Like my insurance company, which I guess is not going to reimburse me for my stitches (at 17€ each).

In most states in the US, when your rental contract expires, your tenancy shifts to something called month-to-month. This means you have to give 30 days notice before you leave and you just keep paying rent to the landlord. Is this not the case in the Netherlands? I was paying my rent every month. Except this month, apparently I’m paying an extra supplement in the form of out of pocket expenses incurred by having my insurance suddenly cancelled. I suppose I should have verified that he received the email that I sent him with my new phone number when I first got the phone.

Um, other news. Xena is acting weirdly freaked and I don’t know why, but it might have something to do with being in a loud, strange city. Children stare at the bandage on my chin. My mouth is all swollen and apparently I’m even less intelligible than usual. I really want a chiropractor to fix my neck. I can almost eat. My ear hurts from my jaw smacking the ground. I recommend avoiding smashing your chin into the pavement. Also, Nicole looks horrified whenever she sees my gash.

Tomorrow, I’m going to go look inside the giant, lovely cathedral and I will find a map of the route to Brussels, damn it!