I’ve been on a thirty-year search for context without realizing it. Having found some, I’m still looking for more. Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Carmen Maria Machado read from her new memoir, In the Dream House. She spoke about her experience and process both as a human being growing over the course of thirty-some years and as a writer who has achieved some success where her work has resonated with that magical tipping point in the public. Machado writes from a vantage point within the queer community and her recent memoir focuses on her time in an abusive relationship with another woman. Late in her talk, she discussed the importance of finding context for our own experiences within the art we consume and how important it is to obtain that context at a young age. For both Machado and myself, childhood was nearly devoid of context from queer perspectives during that crucial time when our identities were still forming out of the unruly mix of nature and nurture. In adulthood, such context has become incredibly important, especially given a better understanding of the formational power of literature. A close friend recently suggested that life is really a search for stories that offer a context for understanding our experiences of ourselves. When we find a story that illuminates our own and provides a framework for authentic experience and growth, we experience a profound sense of relief and clarity. Few people turn to art for entertainment only. Context for our experiences is what we really hope to find.
But context can be damaging just as easily as it can be life-giving. It can shoehorn an individual into an unhealthy worldview just as easily as it can open a pair of eyes to more authentic expressions of the inner self. Only in the past few years have I really begun to unpack the consequences of an all-encompassing context I was raised in: a fundamentalist Christian household and subculture. (Dear reader, if you are a Christian and your practice is bringing genuine goodness and health to you and those in your life, then more power to you, but I won’t shy away from the fact that my own experience was quite to the contrary.)
As it happened, growing up in America in the late 90s/early aught Evangelical Christian subculture kept me almost entirely clueless as to any stories or persons who might have shown me the simultaneous terror and triumph of learning about my queer identity before I was well into adulthood. I don’t remember many specifics of my childhood (warning sign) and most memories about anything gay or queer are deeply buried images or emotions that have only resurfaced after much careful coaxing. One of these memories is of Ellen Degeneres publicly coming out in 1997. I recall being soulfully drawn to the spectacle, impressed and intrigued by the mixture of sadness and courage in her eyes and also by how upsetting it seemed to be for most of the people around me. But, ultimately, this recollection is dominated by the memory of my mother commenting that it was a real shame because Ellen used to be so funny. I found it incredible to learn that a person’s value as a comedic wit (another identity I was beginning to form at the time) could be completely negated by “choosing to be homosexual.” Ellen used to be so funny. What a shame. It was incredibly instructive for young me to learn that within the context of our Christianity (an ultimate context which trumped all other contexts) a person’s social value was inextricably tied to not being gay and not disturbing God’s gender norms. It’s at this point in the story that most people I grew up around would have begged me to impart to you how loving they were, as a rule. Yes, it was always incredibly important to the Christians in my life that they be understood as extremely loving, caring people, especially when they were talking about the gays. Regardless, through experiences like this one with Ellen and my mother, I saw Christians distort love to mean that we could still care about people like that and hope they found Jesus, of course... but we were going to have to stop watching Ellen. So, over the years Degeneres became associated in my mind with “degenerate” which became associated with that part of myself that had experienced an erection when I saw my adolescent male friend naked or the part of myself that wanted to wear fun, expressive clothes which happened to be only for girls. Dutifully, I did my best to box up those bright parts of myself that began to glow with resonance when Ellen courageously offered the world a context for some of their own experiences. In obedient protest, I set about simply trying to be valuable within the context of a Christianity that formed the only real world I knew—the one in which I had to survive.
Even in highschool, as my discomfort with Christianity grew in light of its nation-building, Republicanism, and cocksurety, I found myself motivated to merely reform Christianity rather than leave it. (I say “merely” as an irony because as far as I can tell it would be no small task to truly reform Christianity into something wholesome and good, a task which has already been taken up several times throughout the history of Western civilization and has only led to more violence and little real change within the religion itself.) I went to a Christian university and married young, as most Christians in my subculture were implicitly or explicitly expected to do, and I continued to consider my personhood and self only within the story of the context I was raised in. I remained restless throughout my early twenties but was too scared to do anything other than try harder to become that which I hated, so I played the game that had been handed to me a while longer. (If I haven’t completely bored you about this and you’re curious what early adulthood within Evangelical Christianity looked like for this particular queer, complete with grooming and gaslighting and everything, see Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self Defense”). Around twenty-six, I could no longer handle the amount of cognitive dissonance surrounding my values, my gender, or my sexuality, and I began to experience a mental breakdown during which I left Christianity, began therapy, and started to experience myself as a valuable human being filled with interesting ideals and desires. I’ve only recently come to understand that the initial mental collapse was my body’s last and greatest attempt to save me and give me the opportunities I now have. Body, I am forever grateful to you for doing what you alone could do.
Maybe, for you, this brief, nonfiction, out-of-context intrusion into your day will provide some much-needed context for one or two of your own stories. I’m glad to see that many young people have more context for their inner self than I had as a child. This makes me hopeful. If my experiences have been dissimilar to yours, I’m glad. Thank you for engaging in the literary pursuit of empathy. But I know there are also others who have had little or no context for some of their most confusing and important experiences as human beings, or who are just encountering resonant stories for the first time. To you, I want to say: You are valuable and who you are is your right. Please create. Make pictures and stories that reveal who you are, how you’ve felt, and what you’ve learned. We’re all counting on you for more context.