I often joke that the Catholic Church made me queer. Not because the rigidity and repressiveness of Christianity’s dogma seems tailor-made for someone with my personality to fight against with every ounce of strength I have, but because if you looked hard enough, it’s exactly as R/B Mertz describes at the beginning of their debut memoir, Burning Butch:
“Catholicism was a musical; there were sets and props and costumes and songs and mysteries, and a beautiful androgynous man who died because he broke the rules; and it turned out, breaking the rules was the right thing to do. When they killed him, he came back to life, just like characters on stage do, to sing another song, say one last thing, before the story concluded in his glorious ascension in heaven, like a middle finger raised slowly and dramatically against all the ones who’d said he was no good.”
Even aside from the flamboyance of its pageantry and aesthetics, I also found — as a young, not-yet-out queer person growing up in the Church — there was a lot of resistance to the status quo hidden in the corners and shadows of its texts and teachings. I spent a lot of my time in my after-school Catholic Catechism classes reading the stories of the saints looking for something in them that resembled who I felt like I was becoming. When I got to high school and learned how to read the Bible (and all literature) more closely, I explored the places where it felt like queerness was hiding in plain sight in the stories of King David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and even Jesus himself. I tried to find spaces where people like me were written into the story with kindness and reverence, even when all of the voices outside of it threatened to ruin me when I came out to myself and everyone else. It took stepping away from the Church for me to realize the real struggle wasn’t necessarily against g-d, but against the dominant beliefs and culture of Catholicism created and enforced by the members of the Church.
Mertz’s memoir chronicles a similar battle to reckon with the trauma of oppressive religious dogma and transcend the trappings of its teachings. After their parents’ divorce, Mertz’s mother moved them to the outskirts of Washington, D.C where she met and married Mertz’s stepfather and subsequently joined a conservative Catholic community. Growing up homeschooled with their seven siblings, Mertz lived a public life of rigorous religious participation — in everything from masses to prayer groups — and a more private life of consuming musicals and plays and writing their own. Dealing with both their abusive father and the repression they faced in their mother and stepfather’s religious community, Mertz struggled against their nascent queer feelings and did their best to follow the Catholic rule of law. At a moment where they were given the choice to attend a secular college and potentially be in a space where this struggle might be alleviated somewhat, they chose to attend a conservative Catholic college where they, eventually, couldn’t run from the truth of who they are any further. In a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes heartwarming twist, it’s in this extremely conservative space where Mertz was finally able to detach themself from the tether of the Catholic Church’s oppression, begin dealing with the trauma of their past, and learn to embrace their identity entirely.
Jumping back and forth through the years of their life, Mertz takes us from the very beginning of this journey to 2020, where they are openly queer and nonbinary and have experience as both a published poet and essayist and an adjunct writing professor. Although there are some spots where the prose is a little uneven and repetitive, Mertz manages to organize the stories of the conflict between their personhood and the Church, their friendships, their relationships, and their family life in a way that is compelling and provocative. Their prose is brimming with fascinating connections between themself and their experiences and Christian doctrine and striking metaphors that illustrate the pain and splendor of escaping the bondage of oppressive religious ideology and culture. Most powerfully, though, Mertz offers new perspectives on the actual humans who get wrapped up in following and enforcing the tenets of radical Christianity and how it’s possible for them to transcend their beliefs, as well.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the text, Mertz details what it was like to come out to their mother and stepfather. Before this point, Mertz had gone back and forth in their decision to actually do it, consulting people around them on whether or not they should, finally deciding to come out to their mother as a “smoker.wp_postsOn one Easter Sunday in 2007, Mertz realized:
“The resurrection of the dead meant that the dead could become the living just as easily as the living could become the dead, and that it would go on like this, in gardens and graveyards and memories, everywhere. The miracle wasn’t any particular outcome, but the fact that change was possible at all, that transformation was possible.wp_posts
With this hard-earned hope in tow, Mertz tells their family they’re gay and their stepfather responds in a more gracious way than they could have imagined: “You’re perfect. You know, I always thought that the Church was wrong about gay people. Now I’m definitely sure.”
At the beginning of the memoir, Mertz describes the first day of the fall 2019 semester at the Catholic college where they were adjuncting as a visibly queer and nonbinary person. In a deeply relatable moment for me, they ruminate on their name and how they will introduce themself to their new students and who their students are and will be after the course is finished. They think of their dad’s abuse and their restrictive upbringing in the Church, and then they’re grounded by the conversation they’re having with their students in the classroom. They write, “PTSD whispers to me every day that all the things that happened before will happen again, but my students remind me that I don’t know everything. I’m not stuck in that old loop–I’m not a movie; I’m a live show and I’m distracted about my freshman of college, and how different the whole world was, and how it was the same, too, like flicking a light switch on and off in a room over and over again. I’m supposed to teach them about the significance, the power of stories, but mine is still confusing to me.”
By the end of the memoir, we’re back in the classroom with Mertz and their students, long after Mertz decided to leave the Church and forge their own spiritual path, and the story seems infinitely less confusing to them now that it’s been ordered and told out loud for all of us to read it.
It would be easy to say, on the outset, that this memoir is more necessary, more urgent than ever before, but I think that would be a lie. While it’s true that the culture war against young queer and trans people is currently helping fuel dangerous legislation in several states, including my own, our lives have never been free of the threat of destruction by those around us. Queer and trans people have had to live in contradiction to the reigning beliefs of the status quo for centuries. In some circumstances, like in Mertz’s and my experiences with Catholicism, it’s simply impractical to try to find yourself wholly, and it’s impossible to fully write yourself in. So you have to break those bonds and create a new way of being that allows you to live proudly as you are. I think we’ve always needed books like Burning Butch out in the world reminding us that it’s possible to fight back, to overcome, and to survive despite all odds. If nothing else, that’s the gift that Mertz’s memoir gives us — an example of what it means to live and choose hope over and over again.
Burning Butch by R/B Mertz is out now.