by NicoleMarie

When I was around eight years old, I really, really wanted to be a nun. For some reason, the prospect of eventually marrying and having children terrified and preoccupied me from a young age, and joining a convent seemed like the perfect escape. I was also very religious at this time. Not in a strict Catholic way, but in a spiritual way, where I would recite silent prayers in my head sporadically throughout the day. Prayers for my classmates – every morning, we would recite the Our Father after each student was allowed to put forward an “intention.” “Intentions” were prayers directed towards certain people – often people, anyway – kids would pray for their sick dog, or a friend they knew was suffering, or the more general victims of disease, war, famine, etc. Sometimes they would pray for a sick relative, or a friends’ sick relative. When I found out about these people, I would pray for them sporadically throughout the day. Not out of selflessness, but out of fear – what an awful thing to go through, I hope that doesn’t happen to me, I would think. A phrase composed itself to music in my head around nine years old, and I would sing it to myself when I heard of something bad happening, or something bad would happen in a movie, or I would read about something bad happening in a book, or in the news: Please don’t let that ever happen to me. Please let me be safe from harm. For a long time I considered these to be a form of prayer, and so considered myself a very spiritual person. So being a nun seemed naturally appealing to me – I wouldn’t have to get married, and I would spend my life devoted to God (my appeal for this second part was two-pronged – I did, as someone who went to Catholic school for nine years, genuinely want to be a good/pious person because I thought it would be the Good thing to do, but I also believed that this would keep me in God’s good books and keep myself safe from harm). At 23 it’s now quite easy for me to look back and recognise these as very early signs of my OCD and lesbianism.

Alison Bechdel recalls being overwhelmed by sudden bouts of what she calls a “terrible sadness.” She says that these bouts of sadness “almost always happened in church.” In her adulthood, she says that she experiences this sadness on the rare occasions when she does attend church, and, also, after sex. It’s not hard for me to imagine how the two must be connected as someone whose residual catholic guilt still permeates my sex life, even after over ten years of atheism (I used to say agnostic, since I “believe in something,” but a lot of that something – what I used to think was a karmic force – was actually just whatever I’m trying to ward away by performing my compulsions). I always told myself that I wasn’t involved with anyone romantically in high school because “nobody wanted me” – partially true, especially in my first years, before I got contacts and got my braces off. Part of this was, of course, that I wasn’t out – even to myself – and, despite having a crush on a different boy every year, was repulsed by the idea of sex whenever it became even a slight possibility. I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 18, and even then, only because I had felt it was “time.” A large part of it, though, was the residual shame regarding sex and, especially, taking pleasure in it. In grade 8, I learned that sex is good, once you’re married. It’s sacred when it means bringing a child into the world. It is only sacred when it means bringing a child into the world. If you have sex using contraception, even if you’re married, it’s sinful. If sex without the possibility of a child is sinful, even if it’s straight, even if you’re married, you can imagine what this means for premarital lesbian sex. Of course, I don’t believe this anymore, and was even skeptical of this philosophy when it was first taught to me (that day was when my class toured the church and, also, the day I stopped considering myself religious). All that’s left of it is the lingering sense of shame.

I watched the first half – if that – of Benedetta. I didn’t like the movie, so I never finished it. But the titular character did rationalise her lack of sexual attraction towards men the same way I did mine from a very young age. Benedetta has visions of Jesus, her husband. Their relationship is clearly that of husband and wife; they are shown kissing, and possibly being more intimate with each other, but I never made it that far into the movie. Nuns were always described to us in school as the “brides of God,” which they are. Several friends have asked me if I really do think that convents are natural breeding grounds for lesbianism, and on a surface level, I usually say yes – it’s easy now, especially with the popularity of the “sexy nun” Halloween costume (which I will probably always defend as being hilarious) and the stereotype of boarding schools and other all-girls institutions as environments that cause their inhabitants to seek sexual pleasure among their peers (not true – I went to a boarding school, and the homophobia was so rampant that I didn’t come out until my second year of university) – to laugh and say, of course. But Benedetta was – in my own personal experience, as I have no doubt that there is an abundance of other representations of the same phenomenon, as the point I’m trying to make is that this is exactly how young lesbians cope with their sexuality when their religion forbids their desires – the first time I had seen a depiction of how my lesbianism expressed itself as piousness when I could not yet understand it. I did not want to love a man, I thought, because the only man I could love was Him. Women weren’t even a consideration at that point. All I knew was that being with a man was a repulsive idea to me, and my only alternative was a life devoted to God.

Bechdel also talks about the “intoxicating lightness” she felt after her first confession. More specifically, after reciting the prayers that serve as penance for one’s confessed sins. I was seven years old at my first confession. I never sat in the confession booths – the ones I have only ever seen on TV – but instead in a tiny cubicle made up of sweaty gym mats in my school’s gymnasium. When the priest told me what I should do as penance – a few Hail Marys, a prayer that our class had been taught in anticipation of our first confession, and a few more Our Fathers – I left the gym and went into the library, which, coincidentally, was the school’s old gym and still had the same flooring, only older and yellower. I knelt in the silent area designated for prayer and recited the Hail Mary as instructed. Three for my sister, because I confessed to being mean to her. And three Our Fathers to repent for the sin of hating myself, a creation of God. I remember bursting into tears when I told the priest, “I haven’t liked who I am.” Not because I felt sad about disliking myself, but because I felt guilty for hating myself. My strongest compulsion, which I still perform several times daily, comes in repetitions of threes. The relief Bechdel describes after performing a ritual to atone for her sins is one that I have clearly been seeking since my first confession.