Illustration by Anna Buckley

Uncovering my queer Latinx identity through literature

June 26, 2018 8:00 am

Google “Latina lesbian.”

You’ll probably find a list of links to PornHub. “Bisexual latina,” is slightly better, but not by much (and you might notice that, suddenly, “threesome” becomes a more significant part of your search results, too). This is probably the most apt description of the narrow variance in queer Latina representation that’s existed throughout the majority of my life.

I have no queer family, or at least no queer family members that are out. That’s the thing: Catholic Latinx folk don’t really talk about that. I might have heard “jokes” about los wekos—a Guatemalan derogatory slang for gay people—and I got the sense that it would be shameful for men like my brothers to talk or dress a certain way, but that was the extent of my familial exposure to the idea of queerness.

Bisexuality, for my family, is an impossibility (as it sometimes is in even queer spaces; bisexual erasure still looms, dense and gray, over the community). Even into high school, when I struggled most with the nagging thought that I felt attraction to more than boys, I told myself it couldn’t be real. I liked boys, after all. Books, always a safe extension myself and where I uncovered curious thoughts, offered descriptions of possibilities left silent in my normal life. And it was a book that first made me wonder if I was bisexual.

Just a few weeks before my thirteenth birthday, as I hoped for some insight into what I thought would be the amazing beginning of my teen years, I stumbled upon 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen. I was reading the book only a few feet from my mother by our kitchen table when one surprised me—the protagonist realizes he’s gay after kissing a boy at the movies. I always remembered how that kiss was described, one they’d shared after drinking soda and eating popcorn:

a “Coca-Cola kiss.”

I shut the book quickly as I finished that sentence, heart racing, knowing that I’d read something wrong. I glanced at my mother seated beside me, reading a passage from Josemaría Escrivá’s The Way. She glanced back at me and smiled wanly before returning to her passage.

I returned the book the next day. When I saw it back in its place a week later, I hid it behind the other books on its shelf. I was scared to look at it.

That was me, 12, attending a private Catholic school. Every day, I’d sit in class wearing a black-and-blue plaid uniform, listening in on religion classes that often reminded us of our place (as, specifically, young women and young men) in the world. At that point, I’d already gone through after-school chastity lessons where I’d learned that one of the key components of a healthy marriage was “fruitfulness.” This did not connote sexual knowledge; I imagined babies like giant pears in my stomach.

CSA Images / Printstock Collection

Nobody had ever talked to me about being gay, or what that might mean outside of its wrongness, and I’d never heard it described beautifully, almost as if poetry—Coca-Cola kiss. I wondered about myself, but I figured that’s what all straight girls did. So I didn’t think about the possibilities outside of straightness.

Still, I read books. I read books all through high school, young adult novels that often caught me unaware with lesbian or gay sub-plots and themes, or books that I’d heard had queer narratives but pretended not to know in advance, like someone shouting “I’m not listening!” when they already know what the other person is trying to say.

The thought kept coming back: Do all straight girls sometimes, maybe, sort of like people that aren’t boys? I didn’t talk to anybody about this, not even my boyfriend at the time, not my male friends who’d already come out, nothing. I had no queer friends that were girls. Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if I’d had that, another person like me when I was younger; would I have been able to look at them and, in turn, be better able to affirm who I was? Say, “Yes, I’m like you” and thereby admit that I am that to begin with?

Maybe, but that didn’t happen. I shoved the thought back. Another hidden book in a shelf.

I may have finished novels by other queer Latinas before, but it wasn’t until I read a passage from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera in college that I did so consciously.

“For the lesbian of color, the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behavior,” Anzaldua writes. “Being lesbian and raised Catholic, indoctrinated as straight, I made the choice to be queer.”

I realized that I hadn’t been able to make that choice. In its absence, I looked for other avenues of expression. The books. Knowing this set me in a frenzy.

I became a nesting crow; I gathered up little shiny pieces of queer things in my spare time, like queer movies about religious girls, music by artists like Kehlani and Niña Dioz, stacks of America Chavez comics, and I told my boyfriend, my only confidante for a long time, all about them. “Did you know Kehlani is pansexual? Is Shego from Kim Possible kind of hot or is that a queer thing? Have you seen But I’m A Cheerleader?”

My boyfriend is the first person I came out to when I started feeling comfortable with saying those words—“I’m bisexual”—two years ago. I’m in love and happy, so there didn’t seem to be a tangible reason to come out. I have all the markings of a straight person. Wouldn’t it be easier to keep it myself? Why, in situations like these, does it not feel easier? I feared what would happen if my strict, Catholic, Latinx family uncovered my identity. I wondered why inaction felt so stifling.

Finding myself in literature and music was like building a collage of me, snipped from pieces of media that weren’t quite me but maybe part of me. I just wanted to know what I was feeling was real. When I didn’t have that, I felt like I had to choose one thing about myself to live with at a time.

But I’ve never been only one thing. Most people aren’t. I’m not only Latina or American. I’m not fully in the closet, not fully out. I’m not gay and I’m not straight. I’m something that is just its own.