Illustration: Sarah Larnach
Illustration: Sarah Larnach

The Sunday EssayOctober 9, 2022

The Sunday Essay: Leaving Alabama

Illustration: Sarah Larnach
Illustration: Sarah Larnach

When your upbringing is a rich brew of Catholicism, Baptism, and evangelical summer camps, all played out against the patriarchal backdrop of Alabama, your intense attraction to other teen girls is best buried deep. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Sarah Larnach

When I was 12, at an all girls’ Christian summer camp in North Carolina, I got my first gay crush. She had silky black hair and almond eyes and a smile that split me open. The first time I saw her, we were in the dining hall. There was something about the way she took up the whole pitch-sized hall – her skin electric, outweighing the size and sound of chair legs screeching around tables of teenage girls buttering bread and spilling lemonade and singing worship songs. But there she was, a few tables over from me, a syphon of orphic energy like one of the archangels described in the book of Revelation, wings covered with thousands of fluttering eyes instead of feathers. The thought of her gaze falling on me was enough to trigger Armageddon.

In all those summers at camp, we only acknowledged each other once. She was in front of me waiting in line to jump on the water trampoline, her one-piece Speedo hiked up over ice pick hip bones, her nylon shorts rolled twice at the waistband showing light hair on the backs of her thighs.

Do you want to get on with us? She asked.

No, y’all go ahead, I timidly replied.

She terrified me in the most rapturous way. I couldn’t go near her.

I knew the crush was a sin, but I didn’t dare admit it in prayer. Repenting would have made it real. Instead, I memorised Bible verses: Proverbs thirty-one thirty, charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting but a woman who loves the Lord will be praised. She was in the cabin with the cool, pretty girls, so I convinced myself my infatuation with her was merely jealousy of her beauty and popularity. Charm is deceptive, Mary. Don’t be deceived.

Then, on one earth-shattering evening, she played Danny Zuko in the camp’s rendition of Grease. I watched her from the audience with a slack jaw. Her hair was hidden in a backwards baseball cap, and, tucked into baggy jeans, a white singlet grazed her breasts like cling wrap over a tray of meringues. As she sang go grease lighting, finger pointing directly at me, I felt a rupture in my chest like a continent breaking in half. It’s because she is dressed like a boy, I told myself. That’s why I’m feeling this way.

Nearly two decades later, I finally came out.

I was told outright homosexuality was evil, that it meant an eternal sentence of teeth gnashing and skin scorching. But that never felt targeted at me – it always seemed geared towards men. Looking back, I wonder if they even believed women could be gay. Sex was so wrapped up in penetration and power, they likely couldn’t conceive of it occurring without a cis-man. Two women having sex would be a knot unable to be untangled, a seeing eye to eye that would have confused the hell out of them.

Sermons geared towards girls focused on how we could best accommodate men – how to warp ourselves, a stress ball squeezed so many times it never returns to its original form. I was taught that man was created in the image of God, but women, we were a bone pried from Adam’s side. Barely even a counterpart, we were a fraction of lost flesh, the juice sucked dry from the marrow. Ephesians five twenty-two: wives, submit to your husbands for they are the head of you. I was not my own.

When I was 13 I was given a purity ring, three tiny pinpricks on a paper-thin band. A dog collar would have made more sense. It symbolised my body belonging to men; first, to God, and then, my father. Of course, when the time was right, my father’s ownership of me would be traded for my husband’s. When I was twenty-one, I was told I had to come out… as a debutante on the arm of my father, presented as a suitable wife in a lamington pink ball gown. I had no grid for being a queer woman in the South because my survival hinged on men, on these scales they so delicately tipped in their favour.

My entire culture was, and is, still dependent on the illusion of the binary. Without it, men have no power. We southern cis white women have bought into the binary because of the privilege it allows us. We know we will always be regulated by men, but as long as we keep conservatives in power we won’t lose our race privilege. We play along with the social hierarchy: dressing up as housewives, cooking dinner and spreading our legs when demanded, giving birth to heirs who continue our racist legacy. So dedicated to this binary we are, that Kay Ivey, Alabama’s second female governor, signed the country’s most anti-trans bills into law in April. SB184 and HB322 ban gender-affirming medical care, force teachers to “out” students to their caregivers, ban conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with students, and ban students from using toilets in line with their gender identity. The quick processing of these laws reflects the white-knuckled grip Southerners have on their power, which has nothing to do with the Bible; rather, it’s a fearful reaction to the TikTok generation. Of course white women aren’t leading the fight on this – BIPOC queers are, as always.

The delusion of white women is so deep in Alabama, I wonder if we have some sort of collective Stockholm syndrome, if we actually like it this way. Until my mid-twenties, I happily allowed men to make choices about my body. When I was 18, I was drugged and raped by a friend from church at a party in front of a crowd. Afterwards, I was kicked out of my Bible study and chastised by church friends because I “lost my virginity”. It was my fault – I had worn a low-cut dress! I had a crush on him before it even happened! I wanted it! At a fraternity party months later, someone sprayed graffiti on the basement wall: “Mary Mosteller and the bloody elephant massacre”. That’s what they called it – so much blood on the sheets and floor they said it looked like the slaughter of an elephant. The young man who did it apologised to my father, I forgave him, and then we dated for a year. I believed our relationship was God working good from our sin. Losing myself to men was so ingrained in me, I wonder now if I actually cared for the men I dated, married, slept with; or if it was just some submissive and reverential root that calcified in me. How could I surrender to my feelings for women, when it meant abandoning my obligation to men?

The first person I told about my attraction to women was my sister. I was 23. We were walking along the beach in Charleston, South Carolina, murky ocean lapping at our feet, palm trees immobile in the thick air as if the humidity encased them in resin. Sadly, it wasn’t so much a coming out as it was a repentant confession: I’m attracted to women and I know it’s a sin.

I shovelled my toes into sand, uncertain and awkward.

I don’t know why I am feeling this way. I think it’s because of society’s oversexualisation of women, I said.

What do you mean? She asked.

You know, like, the media portrays women in ads and music videos with barely any clothes. It’s objectifying. I think I have been manipulated by that, like seeing models and celebrities has made me start objectifying women too. Made me start, like, being attracted to them.

Seagulls crossed the blurred horizon, the water unsure when it became sky.

That makes sense, she agreed, quiet, kind, listening. I hardly remember her response, only a vertiginous daze. My solution was to stop watching so much TV – and definitely stop watching lesbian porn in secret.

That year, 2014, some invisible tentacle ripped me out of Alabama. The pressure of the South was too much; like canned fruit, I had fermented a little. I landed in Aotearoa in a tornado of culture shock. I struggled to understand the way Kiwis hold their vowels so close to their chests. Grandiose American outbursts were replaced by mumbling mocking and self-deprecating jokes. And every time someone asked where I was from, they started singing my least favourite song: Sweeeeet Hoome Alabama.

Yet, I made friends. The vagina-owners I met here didn’t make sense to me. They dyed their hair orange, didn’t wear bras, didn’t shave their legs or armpits; they were career-driven lawyers, doctors, engineers; they made decisions, and people followed their lead. They didn’t listen to men the same way I was used to, didn’t feel the need to respect their wishes or admire them unless earned. It was astounding.

My friends in Alabama were having their first babies at 23 and getting Botox at 29. They had reformer Pilates memberships and went on crash diets while their men drank themselves bloated beer bellies and stayed at the office until 9pm instead of helping care for their children. They called themselves bad wives for being too tired to cook, for eating too much, for not being in the mood to have sex. Meanwhile, in Aotearoa, my friends and I would go out dancing on a Thursday, cuddle, drunk until 3am four-deep in a queen-sized bed stained by the grease of empty pizza boxes; then go to work, get promotions, rule the world. I’ve never felt so loved.

Aotearoa is far from perfect, but comparatively, it feels hopeful. To see women in office, conversion therapy banned, gun laws tightened, and the beginnings of decolonising education has re-instilled some of my faith in humanity. In Alabama, I was not taught anything about the Choctaw tribes whose land I was occupying, the land my ancestors stole. During my teaching degree, I took a paper on Te Ao Māori and Social Justice in the Education System. This learning is my most catalysing experience to date. Every construct in my world crumbled, and suddenly all I could see was injustice. This learning cemented in me what had always felt wrong: my version of Christianity was rooted in white supremacist patriarchy. This was the nail in the coffin of my evangelical identity.

Change didn’t come quickly though. Coming out felt like a soft launch that took several years, and for some time, I felt like I was living a double life. There were gloriously free days – woozy from purple Pal’s at Big Gay Out, pink glitter stuck in my hair even after two washes; and dazed after a soft kiss in my bedroom with my flatmates cheering on the other side of the door. And there were days I felt fake – unsure whether a Barbie-pink sock-hop skirt was gay enough; or told by a crush that she thought I was bad at telling men no. Even with all the acceptance here, I was afraid of being ostracised from this community I had always been a part of but barely interacted with. This was made more challenging by backlash in Alabama. Acquaintances spread rumours around my hometown that I left my ex-partner for a woman; cousins called worried that it was actually a mental illness causing me to have manic episodes. Coming out here was difficult enough, so I distanced myself from home, blocking anyone that might slide into my DMs in an attempt to force me to repent for my backsliding ways. This was made easier by the closure of Aotearoa’s borders, and I didn’t go home for a few years.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not having to deal with the backlash in person. I feel imposter syndrome that I missed a fundamental part of being queer, that I didn’t have the rage so many young queers experience when raised in unaccepting religious homes. And yet I am experiencing that rage now as I come out to my family and friends. There has been rejection, except I have the privilege of having more tools in my kete and three years of therapy guiding me through it. This time of separation helped me forge my identity. In leaving home, I came home to myself.

This July, I went back to Alabama for my grandmother’s funeral. While reading through my childhood journals, I found one from the year I had my camp crush. I scoured the pages for her name. She wasn’t mentioned. Instead I found lines talking about the boys who worked in the kitchen or the male tennis instructors who were twice my age. My only allusion to queerness was this one line: The kitchen boys were there last night and they are sooo hot! I am at an all-girl’s camp; they are my only option. At first, I was disappointed. Why hadn’t I written about her? Then, I noticed pages ripped out, twink smeared over paragraphs, and I remembered an old feeling: fear. Of course I didn’t write about her – I was terrified of someone finding out about the feelings I justified to myself as misplaced. This line was overcompensation, a performance to try to convince myself I was straight.

When you come out later in life, people have a lot of questions. When did you know? Why didn’t you come out earlier? Why have you been lying this whole time? These questions came from family and friends, but the worst person to hear them from was myself. After years of convincing myself I wasn’t gay, I have now had to convince myself that I am, and that there is no certain way that it is supposed to look.

Taking my time to get here could come down to demeanour – some of us fight, some of us freeze. Submission was easier for my nervous system. We hear a lot of stories from people who fight against, but there are those of us who lie quietly in the background, wondering if we will ever be brave enough. In the end, the reason it took me so long doesn’t infringe upon my queer identity. I should not have to justify my story to anyone, not even myself.

While I was home in July, I came out to my oldest friend. We have known each other since we were two – we’ve bathed together in bathtubs and baptism pools, witnessed each other’s first crushes and first communion. She has stayed in the South, largely adhering to the cultural norms we were raised in. Yet in the ebbs and flows of our friendship, no matter how much I have withdrawn, she has still pursued me. That evening, we sat at an outdoor restaurant, our chilled wine glasses perspiring on thin napkins. She probably already knows, I thought, it’s obvious from social media and the writing I have published. I fiddled with my glass, making doodles in the condensation with my fingertip and fingering the stem between sips.

I want to tell you something, I said nervously. You may have already seen it, the story I came out with?

Which one? She asked.

The one about the first girl I dated.

Cool, she said. Where can I read it?

On my Instagram, I said. I am bi, by the way.

I figured, she laughed. Thanks for telling me. Were you nervous? To tell me?

No, I lied.

I’m glad, she said. I love you.

I love you, full stop. Not I love you even though you’re gay, not even I still love you.

She continued asking if I had gone on any good dates lately – normal questions. As I spoke, I watched her brown eyes on me. Her pupils looked open, like stiff windows with creaky hinges thrust wide, letting in a sea salt breeze and kicking up dust.

Keep going!