Burning the Empress Card: When My Parents Tried to Exorcise My Gay Demons
The oil-soaked Evangelical ritual that proved to be my baptism.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
Growing up in an Evangelical family, I had been cloistered from the secular world my whole life. At 14 years old, Jesus was my Justin Bieber, an approachable, caring, gentle-eyed male figure that I was obsessed with. A man I could make into what I wanted— a boyfriend, constant companion, father figure. My connection to the son of God made me feel special, like I had a superpower. I felt genuine fear for those who didn't believe in him because I knew that they would burn in Hell. Hell was a place that I envisioned as the inside of a volcano, glowing with pools of sulfur and molten rocks, where Catholics, Jews, single mothers, and people who did yoga would suffer for all time.
Within this sheltered world, I wasn't allowed to watch He-Man because it dealt in occult themes. I had been banned from reading Dr. Seuss because my mother thought the art was freakish and evil. I believed that chain letters were spells cast by the Devil. I participated in a pro-life rally where I held signs saying 'Abortion Kills Babies' and 'Abortion Hurts Women.' I was told that sex outside of marriage was one of the worst sins you could commit. I never questioned any of this. I believed it all.
My family had been seeped in the Church for decades. My grandfather was an Evangelical preacher starting back in the late 40's. He, along with my grandmother, uncles, and mother, would travel the world, singing hymns from the album they had released—an album that featured my mom singing 'Let Me Touch Him' in a duet with herself. My grandfather would preach a high drama sermon where he would shake his fist at the audience, shouting about the power of the Devil to tempt them through many attractive disguises like sinful movies and short skirts.
I didn't know homosexuality even existed until I was 14. I had performed in a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and met gay men in the chorus who had a complete lack of shame and a bright authentic charisma that I had never encountered before. In the next two years, I would start to secretly watch the music video channel (in Canada, MuchMusic) and see all of the different kinds of people that existed in the world. It was when I encountered Madonna, then at the height of her sexual provocation with 'Truth or Dare', her Sex book, and the 'Erotica' album, that my isolated world cracked open. The concept of unabashed female sexuality, exploration of desire, and the idea of two people of the same gender having a sexual relationship exploded into my isolated world like a fire bursting to life in a dark room.
By 1996, I had graduated high school and had found the Internet. I spent hours every day in chat rooms, discovering secular music, literature, and movies that were completely foreign to me. One night, I chatted with a user named Andie, who I believed was a man, and he flirted with me very aggressively. When I logged on the next day, Andie told me that she was actually a woman. This catfishing shook me more intensely than expected. It wasn't until a few days later that I was able to admit to her that it didn't matter if she was a girl. In fact this made me even more attracted to her.
For most of my teenage life, the only real intense feelings of attraction I had ever felt had been for the beautiful girls in my school, like the senior with the dark blonde curls and soft green eyes who had always been kind to me. I thought about how when I would rub myself at night over my underwear and under the sheets, I would think about lips kissing a full breast, about the soft curves of a woman's hips. The orgasm like slamming a shot of gin with a chaser of crippling guilt. These desires were a festering sickness inside my mind, a perversion that was keeping me from the safety of the Church, the love of Jesus Bieber, the love of my family, the ability to make a boy want to date me. Even though I prayed and prayed asking to be free from these urges, nothing changed. Jesus had abandoned me and I felt lonely and scared.
Andie was a married mother of two who lived in Florida with a military husband who was usually gone for months on deployments. We would talk on the phone for hours, her Southern accent cooing endearments in my ear in between shouts at her children to stop fighting. She would mail me photographs of herself, a full figured woman in her early 30s who, to my 17 year old eyes, looked so old. We would have graphic cyber sex in private chat rooms, where she would describe herself going down on me and making me cum in her mouth. These images made me literally tremble with lust and I would frantically rub myself while I one-handed typed my long strings of consonants in response.
My relationship with Andie made me feel accepted for who I really was and not ashamed of it. I sought out other things that made me feel this way. I spent the summer becoming obsessed with Xena: Warrior Princess, going to Lilith Fair, and hanging out with the gay boys I had met in the drama department in high school. I regularly visited my great gramma, a spiritual, loving, incredibly smart woman who had been a part of Golden Dawn in the 60s, studied the Course of Miracles, praised my interest in Wicca, and bought me my own deck of tarot cards.
I didn't make the decision to come out. My mother cornered me one day when we were alone in the house. She made me sit on the end of my bed next to her and said she had something important to talk to me about. She had noticed my interest in questionable secular media. She pointed to the Empress card that I had sitting on my nightstand. I stared straight ahead, terrified. Then she finally asked me, her voice shaking with fear, if I had ever had gay thoughts. In this moment I had to decide whether to continue to hide or to declare who I really was. I decided to stop lying. It was the bravest thing I have ever done.
"If I tell you the truth, you'll be mad at me." I responded. I couldn't look at her reaction, turning my face to the wall and pulling my hand away from hers. She let out a sob and asked Jesus for help. I had no interest in any help from Jesus by then. Jesus was the teenage crush that I had long since outgrown.
"This gayness we can cure." She finally said in a firm tone that held absolutely no doubt.
Evangelical Christians love the opportunity to dramatically show off the power of their faith, as I witnessed thousands of times throughout my childhood and adolescence. Every summer, my brother and I would travel with my grandparents throughout the Prairies, the Midwest of Canada. My grandfather, a solo act now that his children were grown, was continuing his tour of revival meetings. Moving out of the tents of his earlier days, he would perform highly theatrical services inside big churches. These buildings were institution-like, square rooms inside a square building. The sanctuaries, as the rooms where the services were held were called, were cold, echoing, windowless. On the sterile white walls were giant banners depicting Jesus on the cross with phrases like "the blood of the Lamb" surrounding his desiccated corpse. A large wooden pulpit was the centerpiece where all eyes were directed.
I watched my grandfather, high up in this vaulted position, preach the same sermon over and over. By the end of the summer, I could recite it verbatim. His shouts would ring through the high ceiling, echoing back like God was agreeing with him. He warned that the Devil was always there ready to destroy your life. He bellowed out scripture from the thick, gilded edge Bible he shook in his hand. He told the enthralled congregation that they were possessed by demons, that Jesus was the only way to freedom, that they had to be made pure in God's light. The finale of his sermon was the altar call. With a low, commanding tone, he would tell people to come forward and be set free of the demons that were enslaving them. I watched, over and over, as he would press his palm to the forehead of sobbing men, women, and children. He would loudly pray for their soul's purity, shouting into his microphone louder and more fervently until the afflicted would begin to shake violently and babble gibberish.
This phenomenon was speaking in tongues, a secret language with God where one could speak directly to him though the repetition of guttural noises. The hypnotized audience would call out encouragement during this, the noise of the shouts and my grandfather's amplified voice mixing with the jabbering made reality seem altered, hallucinogenic, crazed.
This God-given ability to perform what to the lay person would be described as an exorcism became more and more popular going in the 90s when the Satanic Panic movement was at its height. Evangelical Christians believed that there was a secret underground of Satanists rising to power, insidiously infiltrating the minds of teenagers through expressions of the occult like heavy metal music, Dungeons and Dragons, and Freddy Kruger. Eventually this casting out of demons wasn't only something that a preacher like my grandfather had the power to perform. Christian bookstores would sell tiny vials of holy oil to anyone who wanted them. This oil had been blessed with the power to scare demons and was used to anoint people and objects that were believed to be tools of Satan. After I had come out, when I would go into my brother's room to steal change from his change jar to buy smokes, I would see a vial of this oil on his shelves. It was a small blue bottle, much like the ones that I get my cannaboid oil in now. It was unlabeled but I knew what it was and its intended purpose. I never dared to touch it, viewing it with a mixture of disgust and a still very strong fear of God.
In the months after I came out, the tension in my house was like a living thing, growing bigger and bigger until it filled every room. It was rarely talked about, other than asides from my father about how disgusting it was that I watched Xena, or a family friend leaving Christian literature on my pillow. My mother was silent, though, going through life like a martyr carrying a particularly heavy cross. I knew something was coming, that this tension was going to break into a confrontation with me and 'my lifestyle'.
In late 1996, I had returned to my teenage bedroom from a weekend trip to my great gramma's. As I started to unpack, I noticed a ghostly hand print on the wall. Looking closely at my collage of actresses I was currently obsessed with, I saw greasy blotches on Lucy Lawless' perfect, Bettie Page banged face. I frantically looked around the rest of my possessions to see these hand prints on all of the things that represented the newly emerging part of my identity. The life drawings I had been doing in college of nude models had huge slick discolorations on them. The sculptures I had made of Venus of Willendorf like goddess figures looked like they'd had pork drippings staining the unglazed clay. The expressions of my sexuality had all been irrevocably marked and in some cases destroyed. I could feel the assault of this violation slamming me in the chest.
The message of these dripping stains was clear. My family viewed my queerness as the work of a demon that was possessing me. It wasn't a part of who I was, it was evil that was living inside me. As my mother would later say to me, "I love you but I hate the gay part of you." There would be no unconditional love, not when who I really was something that they didn't understand and feared.
I learned months later what exactly happened. My family had invited a group of people from the church I had attended to come over while I was gone. These were people who, like my family, I had trusted and loved. They gathered inside my bedroom to loudly and vehemently tell the gay demon to stop tempting me, that my soul belonged to Jesus and the Church and ultimately, to my family.
Then, as so often happens with religious extremists, things got out of hand. Being so threatened by these representations of this thing in me that they feared, the need to force Christianity onto me physically manifested into soaking hands in oil and destroying the expressions of self that were being so brazenly displayed.
Afterwards I would lay in bed and look at these hand prints all around me, and feel the force of the anger and rejection that they represented. Six months later, my parents told me I was no longer welcome in their house. When I was in my own apartment, I hung up new images, marks of my real self on my own walls as an act of reconstructed pride. I've always kept those two stained goddess sculptures with me. Now they sit on my bookshelf as a reminder to be brave, to be unashamed, to not fear the unknown, and to always be who I really am.