Reading ‘The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School’ as a bi, former Catholic school student

When 16-year-old Yamilet came out, she lost her best friend and entire social circle. Hoping to start over, she decides to play the part of a super straight girl in her new environment: a Catholic high school.

Sonora Reyes’ The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School follows Yamilet’s struggle to keep her queerness under wraps, especially when she meets her newfound crush, a girl named Bo who isn’t afraid to wear rainbow clothes and speak out against homophobic teachers. The young adult novel weaves a story of teenage romance with discussions of first-generation pressures, migration, mental health, and growing pains.

Growing up, I didn’t know any stories about queer girls, especially brown girls. Like Yamilet, I went to a Catholic high school (mine was girls only while hers is a college student) where we had to wear a uniform. On the days we attended mass, which took place in the school gym, we had to wear a thicker, more formal skirt and a burgundy blazer. Even though I wore the uniform like everyone else, I felt very out of place, because during those years I realized that I identified as bisexual. Reyes’ novel immediately caught my attention.

With the task of taking care of her brother, who often got into fights at his old school, Yamilet ventures into a new social sphere. She falls in love with Bo, who questions the bigoted statements of the school leaders. At one point, a teacher has students practice their debating skills, focusing on whether same-sex marriage should be legal. Bo makes it clear that it’s already legal before he storms out of the classroom; Assigned to the other group, Yamilet rushes to the bathroom to cry after overhearing her classmates discussing why gays shouldn’t get married. In another scene, Bo speaks during mass and asks the priest why being gay is sinful, especially when same-sex marriage is legal; the priest replies that while that may be the case, it is still wrong in the eyes of Catholicism.

It takes effort to hide your true identity, and even more energy to hold on to who you are in a room full of people who don’t think you’re worthy. The homophobia that Yamilet and her brother Cesar grow up around them seeps in. Although Yamilet doesn’t come out all the way at her new school, she quietly rages against the beliefs of others. She feels constantly judged by the Catholic community around her, furious that they don’t accept her full, queer self. And when Cesar comes out as bisexual, she’s angry when she realizes that this was what caused the “fights” he had at school.

Still, at times (like the debate scene) it’s hard for Yamilet to maintain a strong sense of self. Cesar takes the religious teachings around him to heart and is deeply ashamed of his identity. The two are constantly looking for ways to feel at home in their own skin.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal when I was in high school, although it was certainly talked about. When I realized that I had fallen in love with my classmate Nancy*, I initially didn’t think about what it could mean for us to attend a small Catholic school together. Queerness was seen as wrong and strange, and that judgment hung over us like a silent mist.

For years I told myself that I would not publicly publish my experience because my coming out story did not result in physical violence. The micro-aggressions, many of which I suppressed, didn’t seem worth discussing, especially as an adult in a direct relationship with a cis male. Even though I didn’t think I deserved to talk about it, my high school days wore me out. I can’t remember why, but Nancy often joked that the director didn’t like us. I was jumpy and always tried to hide affection between us. I walked through the halls knowing that the majority of students and adults labeled me an anomaly, an unwanted person.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to read Reyes’ novel as a teenager, to hear someone put into words the guilt and fear I felt.”

By writing Yamilet, Reyes gives us an insight into a character trying to find her own place in school, in religious circles and ultimately in the world. Yamilet is still hurt by the way her best friend, Bianca, cut her off after finding out she was cheating on her. I know how that feels; Nancy told me that girls she used to call friends stopped talking to her when they found out we were dating. And I vaguely remember someone saying that if I hugged them too long, I might fall in love with them. I kept spinning that comment over and over in my head, until I got to the root of why it hurt so much – being queer equaled being different or an outsider; not a friend or acquaintance, but someone to be avoided.

Yamilet explains it perfectly in the novel: “When I told her I loved her, she made me feel like a leech, like I was taking advantage of her by being her boyfriend. As if it was only in my favor,” she says. “She didn’t care that I wasn’t ready to come out until then. The years we spent as best friends didn’t matter, because I must have had ulterior motives, and everything I’d done now seemed scary.” I can’t imagine what it would have been like to finish Reyes’ novel as a teenager. reading, to hear someone put into words the guilt and fear I felt.

Now, as an adult, I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea that these kinds of books are banned in schools. PEN America reported earlier this year that 33 percent of books that were “banned in 86 school districts in 26 states” from July 21 last year to March 31 this year were explicitly LGBTQ-themed, or featured LGBTQ protagonists or prominent secondary characters. About 1,145 titles are banned. The report also states that 41 percent of these books “contained main characters or prominent secondary characters who were people of color.” Reyes’ literary agent tweeted just days after the release of The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School that it was already receiving hate. How can a Brown queer girl or Brown non-binary teen see herself today when these stories are censored?

Nancy and I broke up and got back together several times, especially when I became too scared and concerned about the disapproval of those around me. Our relationship was flawed and we sometimes rebelled against our parents. But it was a friendly and loving partnership, even at such a young age. We talked about our nieces and nephews, wished each other luck with homework and tests and competitions. We talked about grief. We exchanged inside jokes and tacky messages on Facebook. I sent her good vibes before the band rehearsed. She modeled what real dedication and passion for a creative practice might look like.

“How can a Brown queer girl or Brown non-binary teen see herself today when these stories are censored?”

It’s sometimes heartbreaking to think how my teen labeled me this as a shameful relationship. I had no queer couples to watch; instead, I repeatedly heard religious and personal statements about how “wrong” it was to be gay.

The shame lingered for years; in college, a friend invited me to visit her hometown during one of our breaks from school. As the date approached, we excitedly made plans and discussed the details. She told me that I could just sleep in her bed, that there was plenty of room. I hesitated when she told me and came to her as bi.

“That doesn’t change how I feel about you as a friend,” she said. “That doesn’t change anything.”

It was a small gift.

Nancy and I kept in touch after we broke up and I started at a new university. She patiently read my messages about my relationship problems. I confessed that I was too scared to date women. Dating guys, I told her, was just easier. Not giving myself the space to explore my full self, as Yamilet does, was safer.

The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School

In my late twenties, I embraced my queerness more fully and made myself louder about it. I didn’t feel apologetic about so many things in life — my decision to live with a partner without getting married first, my multiple tattoos — other than that. I used to feel like a cheater when I raised as bi. But since oppressive policies are still being passed — such as a particular bill that bans teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation — it feels wrong to keep quiet about it.

The final scenes of Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School feel bittersweet, because I know not every gay kid gets such a happy ending. It’s not that Yamilet’s life will never be difficult again – by the end of the novel, she’s stopped talking to her father. But her mother surprises her and Cesar one day with rainbow papel picado and pan dulce.

At an anti-prom party, Yamilet and Bo dance until they fall onto the lawn, and as she sits down in the grass with Bo next to her, Yamilet finally lets go. “Don’t hesitate anymore. No more double lives,” she says. I didn’t feel that brave at Yamilet’s age, but reading Reyes’s writing gave my teenage self a little more grace.

*Name changed for privacy

Eva Recinos Eva Recino’s work has appeared in LA Weekly, SF Weekly, ArtSlant, Complex, Hi-Fructose, PSFK and more.

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