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By Kevin Quinn
You are a brown boy who gazes up into the lights of the church—those magical, enthralling, bewitching lights—and decides he wants to be a woman. You want to wear those hats whose circumferences rival the earth’s; you want to wear the mink coats that the mothers of the church wear with pride and authority, boasting their holiness as well as their desperate need to keep up with the Pentecostal Joneses; you want your hair to sway under Holy Ghost electricity so that you, too, can writhe fantastically in the aisles—shriek with the sonic agony of an orphan—then get up, dust yourself off, and wipe your righteously undone face. You want the stillness of femininity: its cooling, bountiful waters; its assured delicacies; its naked sympathies; its eternal knowing of itself. You want to tell sizzling secrets in living rooms, insinuating yourself into bridal showers so that you, too, can guffaw over the uses of intimate apparel. You want to hammock in the honey-dipped drawl that sings, “Girrrrrrl!” as women—united, particular, spectacular—call to each other. You want to bend your wrist in defiance of masculine order, bend it so snappily that it might be the prelude to taking off in flight.
Flight. Flight. From the indifferent gaze of the men in the pulpit whose eyes laugh at the smallness of the women flourishing riotously through those aisles. From three-piece suits that sit smugly in power, unable to love away the terror of their children who panic in insufficiency. From ministers who talk deep and sweat with vulgar might, who pray for you with the same greediness they use to suck chicken bones. From basketball games that test much more than your ability to shoot a lay-up. From cackling aunts who know what you really are and fix their mouths to say it at holiday gatherings when they—unholy, sinful, and lost—speak with drunken, frozen clarity. From choir rehearsals when the pastor’s daughter decides that perhaps you are singing too much, though she doesn’t know that you will cry yourself to death if she doesn’t give you the microphone just one more time. From 8th grade English classes when the boys know (but never say) that you would trade all of your straight As for a chance to see them naked. From hours in the day when you are not by yourself, when you are relentlessly visible and not even the face that everyone calls handsome is enough of a rainbow. From too many relationships with girls where you hope your smile is a cure-all comfort. From fathers who beat you because they catch you kissing your best friend. From lies, prickly though comforting, that render you a gangly, misshapen version of your somewhat self.
See yourself run, at twelve, to Jesus, a man whose welcoming arms are absurdly large, whose tolerances cannot be exhausted. They are bountiful enough to suffocate bleary-eyed fear and splintery doubts that you will never be manly enough. So, you will sing to this Jesus with unbridled commitment; you will preach for this Jesus until the congregation bends under your every word, stupefied by your devotion and captivated by a boy far too young to know so much about God. You will lift your hands in worship to this Jesus, with the aid of tambourine and keyboard; of hair-raising hymns of desperation and joy; of promises of good fortune and triumph; of fatherly approval and private assurance that you won’t end up a sissy; of spiritual varnishes that hide the truth. Yes, you will make your home in Jesus’ house because you don’t know where else to go. And for a moment, you will stop running and bask in a rest that means God loves you. You will not worry that puberty will not be fooled by you, because you are doing exactly what they told you to do. Your family will smile or else touch you with a delicate stick to see how many holy tricks you can do, and you will perform for them with sincerity and glee. You will believe that you are anointed, called, chosen, and specially appointed, and you will learn how to be lonely if it means that nothing else will matter. They will call you a minister and ask you to pray for them. They will want to know what the future holds for them, and, informed by the clarity of the ignorant, you will tell them. God will speak to you, and you will know that, finally, you are all right.
Right. Right. Which is why Jesus will go with you to high school, where nothing will be difficult. Everyone will love you, even when they see Jesus on your Ralph Lauren sweaters. You will be intelligent, gifted and talented, so you will stay calm when you go to the video store and rent French movies where you know the men will end up naked. God will forgive you when you masturbate, so you will return to your AP classes where your ability to write exemplary essays will surely mean that you are not a faggot. God does not bless faggots, and you are blessed, they all tell you over and over and over again. So you will know that you are fine. You will know that God has smiled on you because adults will not care that you are sixteen as God speaks through you. They will lose themselves when you sing and deem you a perfect man of God. And you will believe that your struggles are no match for the love you have for Jesus, who would never let anyone know that you would kiss a man and serve God at the same time, if you could.
But yet again, you will not worry. Yale University will call to let you know that you have been accepted, and you will know this is because of your hard work and Jesus. Though you will smile with the discomfort of the inexperienced when you hear your friends talk about what other teenagers do, you will know that you are paying a precious and welcome price to be different—to be the Lord’s chosen. You will revere your cocoon, for it will prove to be exactly what it should have been: holy protection from the world (deceitful, plentiful, attractive) around you. It will take you safely out of Jesus’ house and set up shop in your heart, where it will be fortitude enough, you think, when you trade high school hallways for a college campus. You will know what to do when you get there. You will know the Bible verses that Jesus will not let you forget. You will know how to laugh even when you disapprove. You will know how to excuse yourself when you need to go and pray. You will know how to speak to God. You will know how to listen to God. But you will not know your name.
Name. Name. They will name you Mr. Deacon and Mr. Evangelist and Little Jesus during your last year of high school, and you will think that is what you are when you step onto Yale University’s campus, where, like a blizzard invading a desert, suddenly no one will care. Your stomach will go hollow when you see handsome men in all the aimless glory of their youth. You will reach for Jesus’ hand to walk you to class so the men will not smell the lust in your eyes, so they won’t see the desire on your lips, crawling out of your skin, begging for just one of them to touch you. Then you will pray, Lord, what is this? as you pretend you do not need gay pornography. Again, you will pray, Lord, what is this? but you will sleep in on Sundays and not go to church, where they’ve always told you God will answer you. At home, they will ask you how you are doing, and you will answer just fine, but you will not know exactly what they mean anymore when they talk about God’s Plan. God will play a trick on you and get bigger than your heart and bigger than your mind, bigger than your closet and bigger than your shoes, bigger than your voice and bigger than your smile, bigger than all the Bibles you have brought with you that will sit on the corner of your desk. And you will not know what to do. You will read John Milton and Alexander Pope, James Baldwin and Nella Larsen, Plato and Foucault, and you will love them all. And something will happen to your mind. And again you’ll pray, Lord, what is this? And you will hear the answer: Me.
You will be terrified. And you will be uncomfortable. You will be angry you didn’t know you could ask, and then ask again. God will play that trick on you again, and you will start to enjoy sleeping in on Sundays. But you will be afraid, because you will not know what to do. You will hear your family call you a failure—a man of God gone far too into the dark. And you will try to straighten up and fly right. You will go to church one more time, and you will start to cry, but when you come home you will pray again, Lord, what is? Then, you will remember the answer. You will dry your tears and keep the answers to your questions a secret.
Secret. Secret. That you kiss boys and do not mind. That you do not really know where your parents got their God. That a beautiful novel is worth more to you than a church revival. That you have begun to use those words that were never supposed to come out of your mouth. That you are relieved the beautiful men seem to like you, too. That after one relationship with a man whose intensity shocked you, you are ready for another, or four, that will go more smoothly. That nothing has ever felt like this. That your friends, who have chosen you, know you better than your family. That you did not put a noose around your neck, not even the one the church gave you in order to kill the carnal man. That, actually, you can feel God smiling.
Because you know that you are not a minister, or a homo, or a sissy, or a faggot, or effeminate, or sensitive, or soft-spoken, or weird, or mysterious, or particular, or finicky, or different, or out there, or dramatic, or a queen, or a girl, or a sinner.
Your name is Kevin, and you are great; you are fabulous and complex; you are everything you are and nothing that you are not. And you live. Boldly and without shame. And you snap your wrist without ever wanting to fly away again.
Kevin Quinn was born in Detroit, MI. He received his B.A. in English from Yale University and has spent his career writing and teaching high school English. He is currently finishing a memoir, If I Should Die, about his life as a teenage evangelist. He lives in Hong Kong.