Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stardust


Nearly 20 years ago I turned by back on organized religion, and any belief I once had in fate or God faded with my youth. Recently I attended my aunt’s wedding and that was my first time in a church in several years, and definitely my first as transgender woman.  While I was excited to share in her special day, I had my some own apprehensions.  But it felt reassuring to be included in the event, and it was a chance for me to show my aunt how much she has meant to me.  It was also an excuse to buy a new dress. 


After driving two hours from Maine to Massachusetts, I barely had enough time to run to the bathroom and throw on my dress at the the house we rented for the night. Tropical Storm Andrea, had exited New England earlier that morning, and the sun was working hard to peak through the uninvited clouds. With my brother and his wife, we drove the short distance to St. Anthony's Church in neighboring Cohasset, another in a line of attractive seaside communities that form a chain along the South Shore from Hingham to Duxbury.  We arrived exactly at 2 o’clock, the scheduled time for the wedding.
My Sister, Me, My Mom, & My other Sister


I parked in a shady spot and we walked along the sidewalk to enter through the rear of the church.  Still outside, I could hear the sounds of an organ escaping from the stone exterior through a few opened stained class windows.  While the music had started, I was hopeful the bride was running late.  It’s a family thing, specifically on mother’s side of the family, an inherited trait to be late.  I’ve even noticed that my own punctually has faded recently, and it makes me wonder if there’s some truth to the family curse. But on this glorious day, she was on time.  Up the stairs in my buff colored five inch heels, I could see through to the church and noticed a group of priests processing down the aisle, I then saw the beautiful bride and her cream colored dress standing next to her soon to be husband. My mom was beside her, wearing a stunning cerulean blue dress and newly styled gray hair, she looked fabulous.  My mom is my aunt’s older sister and was the maid of honor.  As we quickly exchanged kisses on our cheeks, I noticed the bouquet of flowers in my aunt’s hands matched the floral print on my dress. I knew the moment I saw it on the mannequin in Macy’s, it would be was going to be perfect.

With just a minute to spare, we quickly walked into the hall of the church, not realizing we were on the wrong side, turned up the right aisle.  My sisters noticed the three of us and waved us over.  As the wedding party gathered at the rear of the church we passed across the front, crossing over and eventually sitting with the rest of my family and extended family of cousins.  Lead by an imposing looking group of priests, I believe 5 to be precise, plus one deacon, the bride and groom smiled the entire length of the church as the music serenaded them down the isle.
Parade of Priests
While was very anxious about seeing family friends, epspecially my parents' friends for the first time, I was also confused about being in a church again. I was raised in a religious home, my mom is from a stoic French-Canadian Catholic family and my Dad is from a boisterous Boston Irish Catholic family. As a child I was expected to follow their path, attend church weekly and participate in catechism; I also developed an unhealthy relationship with guilt, fear, and shame. 


This past week I was a surprising choice as guest speaker at RCAD's (Religious Coalition Against Discrimination) board meeting in Portland, Maine.  I served on a panel with two other colleagues for a discussion about being trans*.  We each took turns, sharing our stories and relationships with religion, then answered questions from the members of the coalition, including priests, ministers, reverends, lay people, and rabbis. That evening I tried to be mindful of the role religion has played in my life, even including a story from when I was 12 and confronted by parents about my gender confusion. After being asked if wanted to talk to a priest about my issues, I declined the invitation. I had a feeling it wasn’t going to help.    

Driving home after the talk, I turned off the air conditioner, it makes me sleepy,  and “rolled” down the windows. With the warm summer air blowing through my car, a feeling of sadness and regret grew within me. I forgot to share with the group how much one priest had meant to me as a teenager, but I don’t think I could have done it without showing some of the anger I still harbor from the way he was treated by our community and the Catholic Church. 


As a closeted trans* teenager, I struggled to understand my sexuality and gender, and I didn’t find a lot of comfort from the Church’s teachings. While many of the stories and rehtoric were filled with love and understanding, I felt ashamed and afraid of what I was.  I did church as an obligation, but also found the well dressed people, the art, and the ceremony fascinating.  Finally a new priest came to our church and I gravitated to his charisma. He had a warm smile, sense of humor, and gift for song that was a welcome addition to aging our parish.  He also recognized something special in me, encouraging me to become the leader of our CYO, (Catholic Youth Organization), even convincing me to sing in our annual church musical on several occasions, and I can’t sing. For those of you unlucky enough to have heard me sing "Don't bring Lulu," know I speak the truth.

He was different than any priest I had ever known; he laughed and danced, and seemed to enjoy life.  While I had my hunches he was gay, I knew he couldn’t admit it as a priest. As a college student, I began to experiment with my sexuality, dating and hooking-up with both girls and boys.  And while this was the 80’s and the fear of contracting HIV/AIDS was gaining attention in society, I, like so many, never thought I would be directly affected by it.  Coming home during the summers during college and after graduation, I did see him on a few occasions. One was at a funeral service for a close friend who died in a horrible car crash a year out of high school.  Another was at a special wedding, where he joyfully married my sister on another beautiful June morning.  The final time, just a month before my own wedding, he was lying in an open casket at his own memorial service. 
My Favorite Priest and his Warm Smile
On the drive to the viewing with my mother or my sister, I can’t remember anymore, they courageously informed me, what no one was talking about, he had died from complications related to HIV/AIDS.  Officially his cause of death was kidney failure, and his sexual orientation was never mentioned publicly.  At the funeral home I knelt next to his body and thought about all the joy he brought to so many people’s lives, especially mine.  His pale flesh freshly painted by the mortician looked strange.  His skin weirdly matched the faded satiny white fabric that held his lifeless body.  While I don’t believe in heaven, I’d like to think his soul is resting peacefully.  


Subsequent to his passing away, someone from my hometown, claimed the priest had molested them.  This was at the height of the sex abuse scandal in Boston, and accusations were flying like witches from every corner of New England. Sadly, most were true, and painfully sad to listen too.  But eventually, this accuser’s story was found to be a fabrication. Apparently it was an attempt at seeking attention and/or getting back at the church.  That follow-up story wasn’t prominently covered in the news.  In fact, just a few years ago, when I mentioned that priest’s name in passing, a friend commented, "I thought he was a sexual predator."  I shook my head in disbelief.  It’s heartbreaking to think that at the end of his life, he was so alone, with the truth hidden behind robes of secrecy and a fear that being gay was abhorrent behavior, punishable by death.  People even said HIV/AIDS was God’s way of punishing sinners, people still do.  

In the years since, I’ve only gone to church a few times, mostly for special occasions, like baptisms, first communions, anniversaries, and the rare wedding.  I’m sure my aunt was nervous on her big day, but I was anxious too.  Standing taller than most of the congregation with my heels, I knew I was being seen by many, and probably judged by a few.  Sitting, then standing, then sitting again, I tried to follow the rules and rituals, but felt like an imposter.  I couldn’t pay attention to the prayers and the gospel being read into the microphone, and lost interest. 
Happy Couple Exchanging Vows
My mind wandered for several minutes but eventually I turned my attention back to the alter as the couple was about to exchange their vows. I imagined a day I might be a bride, and I don’t know if my sudden tears were from joy or fear, or both.  I was so happy for my aunt and the thought of second chances, but I'm also afraid of being alone and never finding love again.  

I wondered what the priest from my past would have thought if he saw me at my aunt’s wedding, proudly standing in church alongside my family, wearing a yellow and blue floral dress and an uneasy smile.  Mostly, I hate regretting never having the chance to thank him for believing in me.