The holidays are a strange time for me as a queer stripper who was raised Catholic. It’s been a long time since going to church was something that I did regularly—probably close to a decade, honestly. The decade before that, however, not only did I go to church but I also sang in the folk group every Sunday and practiced every Wednesday night—perhaps the longest standing extracurricular of my life. I was baptized as a child, received the sacraments of communion and confirmation, and I’ve been to confession, though nowadays I prefer simply to go to therapy.
And then, in my early twenties, I came out. Even after coming out, I would still go to church. Occasionally, I’d go home to visit my parents on a Sunday morning. Singing in the choir made my dad happy, which made me happy. It was like a call back to older and simpler times, much like Christmas is for me now. But where there’s nostalgia, there’s also sadness. Each year, our Christmas tree is a little smaller, and we take out fewer boxes of decorations, just to save ourselves time and trouble. We’re all adults in my family, and neither I nor my brother has children, so some of the wild, innocent excitement of the season is gone. And replacing it is longing.
I’ve found this to be even truer and more acute since the 2016 election; since then, each holiday season, it’s felt like there is precious little innocence, kindness, compassion, and generosity in the world. In their place, I’ve found fear, anxiety over the future, and loneliness.
A few years ago, apropos to something I can’t even remember at this point, I said off-handedly, “Jesus was totally a femme.” It’s something that stuck with me, and I mull over it occasionally around Christmas time. It was one of those bizarre, off the cuff statements that ring so true that it’s hard to forget them: simple, matter-of-fact, but not meant to be pored over or scrutinized too closely. Now that I’m older, I’ve moved away from organized religion into a type of spirituality that is fluid and amorphous. Like many a queer femme, it involves incense, crystals, prayers, and intentions written down on tissue paper and sent spiraling out from an iron fire escape to meet the city as smoke. Sage to clear my room and clear my head. The tough love of my tarot cards. Damned, probably, in the eyes of the Catholic church.
I don’t think I’ve set foot into a church since last Christmas, to be honest, though I still remember something my aunt told me years ago—that whenever you walk into a new church, you get to make a wish. Still, the bells of the church near where I live bring me comfort that is beyond words.
Although my spirituality isn’t necessarily religious, I think it is connected to my conceptualization of Femme Jesus, and the stories that I was raised on as a child: parables of generosity, forgiveness, and justice. I think they contribute at least in some part to my decision to become a therapist, and my capacity for forgiveness and resilience as a stripper. To me, Jesus is a femme, because the stories about him remind me of all the things I recognize as femme: a tireless giving of self, a life spent in emotional and intellectual labor, a fierce belief in the betterment of the world, and the determination to get there—even if it hurts. And yet, there’s also the Jesus who has good boundaries, who can express frustration and heartbroken disappointment with his distinctly masculine disciples. (And who still loves and believes in them just the same, while letting them know, mincing no words, that they better get their shit together because they have a lot of work to do.) How femme it is to preach a message of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and humility—and to have a bunch of men take that message and use it to sow discord and oppression on earth.
Catholicism, to me, is a distinctly misogynistic religion. My favorite stories were never the ones that encompassed that misogyny. I was drawn to Jesus in the marketplace, flinging merchants’ wares and coins about in his rage and sorrow for the way greed had replaced giving in the society he lived and preached in, as it does now. I loved to hear, over and over again, the miracle of the fish and loaves, where thousands of people were able to sit, listen, and hold space together over the course of a day, and everyone had enough to eat. When I was younger, I thought it was real magic—fish and loaves appearing out of thin air. As I got older, I remember talking to my dad about this story once. (In his spare time, my dad loves to read scholarly books about the Bible, a critical unpacking of the traditions we’d both been raised to accept as truth without looking closer.) He told me an alternate theory about the fish and loaves: that everyone had brought something with them, just something little, and as Jesus preached, they were moved to share with their neighbors, with the strangers beside them. I remember thinking, that is a miracle greater than making fish and loaves appear out of thin air.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that I was also fascinated by Mary Magdalene—the tenderness with which she bathed Jesus’ feet in oil, and dried it with her hair. The pure, physical, human intimacy between them in every story I can remember of them in the Bible—more so than his disciples, who seemed only to cause him stress and who took without offering anything in return. It was clear to me that she, more than anyone else, was at his right hand; two femmes adrift and fighting to make change in a violent and unjust world. Mary Magdalene, more than any of his disciples, knew how the work and the struggle are embodied.
As sex workers, we work with our bodies. We receive, we transmute, and we transfigure pain into pleasure, grief into peace. We, too, are misunderstood. We, too, are subjected to hatred and violence, simply because of who we are, and what we do. We, too, deserve better. We, too, carry on. To me, there was a kinship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus that I couldn’t even describe as a child. I just knew it was there.
I go to church on exactly one night a year. (That’s right, I’m one of those Catholics.) But Christmas is the only time the church feels welcoming to me. A few years ago, the words of the Nicene Creed were changed. From “We believe” to “I believe”; from “for us all and for our salvation” to “for us men and for our salvation.” This prayer never really spoke to me—just now I had to Google it to remember the words—and I was never a perfect Catholic. In my childhood, I used to read Harry Potter under my desk in Sunday school; in my teen years, I would most likely be daydreaming about making out with celebrities during the gospel. Now I’m clearly still a lapsed Catholic, and my conceptualization of Femme Jesus and the Bible stories of my youth is much like my queerness—remembered and misremembered, cobbled together from many sources and experiences, fluid and changing, and distinctly my own.
But there’s still something about the trees lit up with tiny fairy lights, the poinsettias, the voices echoing carols up to the high vaulted ceilings, and the thick darkness of the cold night outside on Christmas Eve. Something about family close by in the warmth of our apartment, our small tree lit with rainbows and homemade ornaments over 20 years old. I can catch a glimmer of that excitement, that innocence, and that joy—and it feels, just for a night, like healing.