TW: Catholicism, discrimination, judgemental people, sexual harassment
It’s probably going to surprise people to know I’m Catholic. I’ve done the mental gymnastics, and it’s a thing I’m happy to identify with and it’s important to me, so that’s it for that.
Part of this is that I do not go to Mass. Every time I pony up and pull myself together and go, I end up coming home exhausted, an emotional wreck. Physically, it’s exhausting; I don’t kneel, but I still have to get up and down and walk around enough that I end up lying on the floor, that dreaded band around my waist, and my knees protesting every time I try to stand and my ankles twice their natural circumference, nearly perfect in their swollen roundness.
I would happily cope with that if Mass was a safe space.
One time, on one of the many Catholic groups I’m in on Facebook, I spoke up about how people treat me at Mass. This was in response to one of the many ‘if you don’t attend Mass you’re missing out on God and you’re not a real Catholic’ posts. I was careful in how I said it, explaining that I had tried several different parishes and this was a thing common to all of them, and I was simply unable to travel further.
Not a single person in the group, one of the more militant ones, was anything but supportive for me, and not a single person said it was normal, expected, or that I should go anyway.
I have been glared at by the Archbishop, who physically recoiled from me when I was in his line for the Eucharist. He gave it to me, because the rule is to give it and then clarify after, but he pulled away, so he wouldn’t touch me. He deliberately looked away from me and avoided greeting me during the recessional (when the celebrant parades out at the end) while he did everyone else at the end of a pew.
I was cornered by a deacon (this is creepier because deacons are allowed to be married and have sex) who told me I was beautiful as his ‘thank you for coming’ speech in the foyer. “What is this look called?” he said. “Is it goth?”
“It’s how I look,” I wanted to say. But, I couldn’t. I signed to him and he just kept talking. “What’s your name?” I wasn’t allowed to leave until I took my phone out, typed my name, he told me I had a beautiful name, he grabbed my hands and blessed me, and he told me I could go see him any time.
The Archbishop was watching. He turned away, refusing to greet me at all.
It’s not actually the clergy that are the problem, nor even the strange ways some priests interpret things in their homilies (the most memorable being the one who went on about Jesus being nice to a woman on her period because periods are dirty but forgot to mention how Jesus making her periods stop so she wasn’t dirty played into that…. I wish Jesus would make my periods stop like that, no more need for insensitive doctors!).
The problem is the people. And it’s a church. And if I hit someone in a church, it would cause quite the stir.
So I didn’t hit the man who grabbed my butt in the choir loft at the anniversary Mass, because sending him over the railing would have probably upset the people standing beneath it, and would certainly have drawn attention. He took my glare and polite dismissal as reason to come up to me in the hall, and it took my mother interrupting him (entirely by accident, except it’s funny how they cut the cake just then…) for him to get the message.
I was polite to the man who refused to accept my curtsey for the Sign of the Peace, and just kept holding his hand out even though it was obvious that I was assisting in the Mass and needed to return to my duties. He also cornered me after, and only left me alone because when he asked if my kanzashi were really weapons, I said yes. He later offered me a job because he liked me so much. At the same Mass, another man spent twenty minutes talking about how lovely it was to see a woman in a corset and he needs a corset because he has back pain and nobody wears corsets any more and I must be Irish because of my hair and it’s so nice to see a young person at Mass wearing a corset. There was also non-consensual hugging.
I stopped going to one parish entirely because the priest thought it was okay to whack me on the arm with a stack of bulletins, because the offertory attendant thought it was okay to whistle at me rather than treat me as a human, because I was told I ‘had to’ attend Sunday morning Mass and I could just sit in the choir loft if there were too many people, because people wouldn’t let go after insisting on shaking hands, because… then one lady found me at the post office, cornered me against the door, and insisted I return because they missed me, and she’s celiac so she knows how hard chronic illness is, and God will fix my voice, and I have to email her (I still haven’t – she told me off for not switching the character map to put the @ in on my phone, and I decided that writing to her to explain all this would just be pointless and get nothing done).
Last year, because I wanted to, and it’s my favourite, I went to the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral. It’s like, the second-most important Mass of the year. People came up to me during the Service of Light, while we were all standing around outside in the cold, holding unlit candles and struggling to hear over the wind, to tell me how nice I looked. And not just that – the colour suits me! The skirt is so lovely! It’s a wonderful shape! Your hair is so nice! Did you do it yourself? During Mass. And it didn’t stop. Random people were coming up to me to compliment my appearance, complete with grabbing and stroking. The thing with the Vigil? There are a lot of people who go who don’t go at any other time of the year (Mass of Obligation, sacraments, etc., etc.,) so these were complete strangers, not even people who were passingly familiar because I saw them at weekday Mass before getting there and home again became physically impossible.
What I’ve described can be boiled down to three points:
- Because of my appearance, I am treated differently – either with disdain and rejection, or as an object. This prevents me from engaging with the Mass, because I always have to be conscious of who is around me. I have to stop and look at what I’m wearing and how I’m presenting before I attend, and then I have to be self-conscious and careful.
- This is a place and setting where men (mostly older white men) feel entitled to sexualise me and force me to be involved in that sexualisation through physical and verbal means. Because I have respect for where I am, I’m not at liberty to obviously reject them. (Two of the circumstances I described above were at a funeral.)
- This is a place and setting where people feel entitled to touch me (outside of the Sign of the Peace, there is no demand for this, and most people are happy just to nod and murmur anyway) and pass judgment on me based on whatever it is. (Sure, it’s usually my appearance, but there’s also things like ‘only puts $5 on the first plate’, ‘does not kneel properly’, ‘does not sing the responsorial psalm’ etc. It’s like a goldfish bowl of judgment. I just start off already being judged.)
And quite frankly, I don’t see how having a relationship with God necessitates going through all that. While I’m quite happy to go through physical pain in order to attend (some churches have terrible, migraine-inducing lights, on top of the whole my-knee-doesn’t-work-for-kneeling-and-I-can’t-always-stand-back-up and so on), I can choose that. I don’t choose being sexually harassed, and I don’t consider it a sacrifice of devotion.
I should add that none of this is new, or particular to me being genderfluid and wearing corsets and having piercings and having nice hair (that half the time doesn’t feel like it’s mine and I have to remind myself that it is and I shouldn’t cut the ferret off my head). It’s not limited to one city, or one parish, or one archdiocese (though admittedly, my experiences outside my archdiocese are limited to CFC and the Jesuits and one weird hermitage absolutely everyone side-eyes). The fact that the diocesan office wouldn’t even get back to me about whether they were using glitter ash for Ash Wednesday is even irrelevant (they do, however, now have an app that tells you when and where the nearest Mass is). While Pope Francis is on about how people should say please more and family is great, the things that have been in place for many years aren’t changed.
The community, except, apparently, in a few places where my online Catholic friends attend (generally in the US, if you can believe that), is so unwelcoming to diversity that my visible difference opens me up to being patted like a stray cat who just happened to not be fast enough. The community allows sexual harassment and coercion, because nobody has ever said it’s not okay, and the victims are made to feel like they’re the outcasts because nobody else ever interferes. In a holy place, you’re not meant to be afraid, and you’re not meant to cause a scene. (We’re all taught that, because instead of dealing with kids being kids, they get taken out of the main liturgy now, and if a baby cries, there are old person death glares and strategic isolation as solutions. You don’t disrupt Mass, and you don’t deck people or throw them off the choir loft.) Tacit approval of these actions comes from the inaction of other people and the inherited expectation that you learn to cope with it, because *insert excuse here*. (My favourite is that they’re old men and they grew up like that and don’t know better. Hm. Is there a .gif of Sebastian Bach as Jesus screaming ‘Heal yourselves!’ from when he was in JCS? If there was, I would embed it right here.)
I don’t want to go to Mass and have to be constantly aware of everything. I don’t want to have to lie about carrying weapons or be glared at by the celebrant, or treated like a doll or a sex object. I don’t want my experience of the Mass to be interrupted by people who think their thoughts are more important than my (and their, and everyone else’s) time with God. I don’t want to have to hide in order to attend without being afraid (and, given how I used to attend in trackpants and a sports shirt and still got all of the above despite being twelve… it wouldn’t work anyway).
And so, while I’ll probably be upset that I’m not dragging myself out and standing/sitting/walking for three hours on Easter Saturday, at least I’ll feel safe, and welcome, and at midnight I’ll crack my $15 vegan gluten-free egg just like always, and I’ll watch at least one of my many many in-which-Jesus-dies-again-and-I-cry-again movies and maybe I’ll even go walk around outside holding a candle to symbolise the Holy Spirit and won’t get told off for not walking through the Mercy Door (or the Jubilee Door, or whatever they want to call it this year, because there’s always a reason) even though walking half a city block in a crowd of people isn’t advisable when one’s knee has stopped bending. And I will miss all the things I love and are special to me, but at least I’ll have bodily autonomy and won’t see people being openly disgusted or fascinated over it.
While I’m on religion, just a side note – can all the fetishising of priests stop, please? Does absolutely nobody going on about how they would sin with Sean Bean and would defrock their priest if they were Catholic and he looked like that see how hurtful they’re being? (I typed bean there.) It’s not just reducing the Mass to a fetish that bothers me, but how it normalises treating priests as sexual objects when they’re not meant to be objectified (and have you seen the news, people? There are many people for whom this fantasy you’re espousing in public on Facebook happened and was hurtful…), but it also contributes to the attitude above where a place of worship is a sexual hunting ground. It also completely ignores so many things and promotes misconceptions of religion as a result (I got told off for pointing out that a clerical collar is not a habit and that ‘defrocking’ does not actually mean undressing…). Admittedly, I’m probably the only one who felt uncomfortable enough to actually leave fandom spaces over the whole thing, but now it’s invading the less-specialised places as well. If it’s disgusting for people to comment on social media about what they’d like to do to their favourite actress or whatever, why does it suddenly become okay when it’s about a character, or a particular occupation? (There is no why. It does not become okay.)