Secret Languages: Being Queer in a Catholic School

By Stefani R.

When I was growing up my family had very little money but I was lucky enough with help from other family members and financial aid to attend one of the most prestigious private high schools in the state of Florida. There was one catch: it wasn’t a secular private high school. It was Catholic, which—much like my mom’s side of the family—laid on the Catholic guilt as heavily as possible. This wasn’t new to me; I’d been sent to Catholic elementary and middle school at my grandparents’ request and expense shortly after my parents got divorced, but high school was different. High school meant having a locker and a homeroom and—most terrifying of all—feelings I really didn’t understand.

Like a lot of girls, I grew up with gifts of Barbie and baby dolls; I wore whatever pink or purple two-piece outfit my mom could find. I was taught to play house and watched Look Who’s Talking more times than I could count. My mom planted a lot of seeds in my head about “Mr. Right” and getting married and having a family…with a man. Of course. Very little was said about sexuality and I had to learn the basics of intercourse from the older boys in my neighborhood. Regardless of how disgusting and clueless they were, they crudely reinforced what I’d been hearing from my mom. I grew up believing my life would turn out something like what she described.

By the time I got to high school, all of the girls I knew were starting to experiment with boys and I found myself not only questioning why I wasn’t, but also questioning why I didn’t feel genuine attraction to any boys… but did for one of the first female friends I made at my new Catholic high school. This wasn’t the first time I had thought about a girl sexually, but this was the first time I had a crush on girl for everything that she was and it scared the hell out of me. Terror aside, I didn’t stop hanging out with her. In fact, I spent more and more time with her, so much so that she eventually started calling me her “best friend.” We shared food, drinks, stories about our families, our deepest secrets, our dumbest fears, and one night, we even shared a kiss.

Honestly, I guess I shouldn’t say we “shared” a kiss…I kissed her out of nowhere during a particularly soul-bearing conversation we were having and she kissed back for a second before realizing what was happening. She pushed me away and called her mom in the middle of the night to pick her up. The next Monday at school, she cornered me in homeroom and said we couldn’t be friends anymore on account of the fact that I was clearly the “other way” and she was not. I felt awful for making her feel so awful and I felt like everything I was learning and everything I knew was telling me that the “other way” was wrong. That I was wrong.

After that night, I decided the only way to deal with this was to have sex with girls without having relationships with them. I figured I couldn’t be the “other way” if I didn’t want to be with a girl entirely. Shortly after, I met the girl who would technically become my first girlfriend. I never called her that, but we began seeing each other every day and most of those days were spent in her empty house, making out and doing just about anything to her body that she asked me to do. It’s hard to explain the combination of shame and happiness I experienced in these first instances of same-sex sex. Eventually the shame began seeping into most aspects of my life.

At the same time, marriage equality was in the news and it sparked a heated debate in my journalism class. My classmates said a lot of terrible things and I, unfortunately, lost my shit. I lost my shit in such a way that my journalism teacher had to take me out of the room to calm me down. I was talking loudly in the hallway while he said he understood why I was upset and that I should know the things I said in class were right. As if I weren’t distraught enough already, I knew my colors were showing; I knew he could tell why I was so upset and I knew the girls’ restroom was right around the corner, so I ran there with tears in my eyes.

I went to his office early the next morning to apologize. Because of the nature of the school, we could never overtly talk about the moment of understanding we had in the hallway the day before. I never told him I was queer and he never told me he was either. We had an unspoken understanding: he knew I was queer and I knew he was someone who knew how much pain I was in because of it. He never let the school’s policies get in the way of trying to help me ease that pain.

Over time we developed a way to communicate without really talking to each other. On days when I felt particularly horrible I went to his office after school to sit with him silently while he did his work. Sometimes I would cry, other times I would scribble furiously in my notebook, occasionally I’d do both. Later that year, I decided to make journalism my perennial high school elective. When he had to leave earlier than usual, he’d let me stay in the Mac lab and work on our newspaper’s layout. Most importantly, we created a language based on book and film recommendations and other things he thought could help me feel better about who I was and had always been. He introduced me to James Baldwin and Alice Walker and told me about how some people believe a lot of Shakespeare’s poems were about other men. He told me to rent Bent and The Wedding Banquet and a lot of other films from the library and to watch them with a box of tissues nearby. He taught me to recognize queer subtexts in films and novels and helped me see I wasn’t the only one experiencing this.

In so many ways, he taught me that I wasn’t the “other way,” but that there was more than one right way. He taught me that I wasn’t wrong or abnormal or immoral; most importantly, he taught me that I certainly wasn’t alone. I don’t think I ever thanked him enough for helping me build up the courage to come out to my dad, to not breakdown completely when I was outed to my mom, and for helping me learn how to surrender to being with other girls entirely and without shame.

As I’m studying to become an educator now, I think about him nearly everyday. I think about the courage he exhibited in the face of school policies and I think about the secret language we shared. I think about how I plan to make that language a part of my future classrooms and how unafraid I am to do so, unafraid because eleven years ago a teacher at the Catholic high school I thought would destroy me taught me to forget what the Church said about my feelings and showed me how to follow them instead.

 

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Stefani R. is a writer, deep-thinker, and most importantly, a human being living in South Florida and working in e-book development. She is a Master’s student studying to be a high school English teacher, has hopes of getting queer authors on the required reading lists for all high school students, and eventually, wants to work in education reform. She says “y’all” a lot and enjoys modernist and confessional poetry, hip-hop, Will Oldham’s songs, strong black coffee, queer theory, and meta-ethical philosophy. She never dresses appropriately for special occasions and hates the taste of arugula.