The Closet Let Me Feel Anything and Everything

This essay contains descriptions of parental abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) and sexual assault.

feature image by Sarah Sarwar

The concept of the closet has served as a source of trauma and oppression for a majority of queer folk. It is heavy with the absence of light — many of us spend our entire lives with our hands in front of our face, searching for the slightest indication of daybreak. Some are able to run from it entirely, leaving the door ajar; others settle in and never leave. The former can be broken down even further: those who escaped without the luxury of being able to look back, and those privileged enough to abandon it while still being able to croon at it from a safe distance. Whether we do it involuntarily for the sake of nostalgia or self-reflection, the outcome is the same: it only seems to offer varying amounts of unnecessary pain.

I’m the first to admit that, in the deepest parts of me, I find the physical form of the closet to be filled with some of the best parts of my childhood and adolescence. But it wasn’t wholly beneficial. No – in fact, it also proved to be one of the worst parts of my upbringing. I spent countless hours enclosed in different closets across different homes in the nooks and crannies of the South Mountain preserve in Phoenix, Arizona for fear of coming out and then some. I hid in the closet because I was being abused by my parents.

They too lived under the weight of something dark and heavy. My parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, were 24 when I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. One let a visa expire after a fateful cyclone washed away everything they owned, while the other crossed the Sonoran Desert. In order to survive in a new country, they were led toward a sect of Christianity by my paternal grandparents who were already established in the U.S. This religious community cast their faith in a post-World War II minister by the name of William Marrion Branham, a self-proclaimed “prophet.” Though the chapter my family belonged to was predominantly Latinx, other racial and ethnic groups across the world similarly identified themselves as “Message Believers.” Our bibles were often carried along with a small booklet documenting a particular “message” recorded at revivals held across the country during the 40s and 50s. In them Branham warned of the last days, with a rapture bound to arrive at any moment. Most importantly: hellfire awaited whoever failed to be baptized and born again. None of the effort truly mattered anyway — the heathens and the chosen were predestined.

Misogyny was masked in piety and never questioned in the pews.

I didn’t need the vocabulary I possess now in order to understand that what was already deeply wrong with the world was concentrated here. Misogyny was masked in piety and never questioned in the pews. Minutiae about women was placed under a magnifying glass and called doctrine. Their hair was to remain uncut (I once recall my uncle yelling at my aunt for dishonoring him by cutting her split ends off), skirts (the closer to the ankle, the holier) and sleeves were required dress, and any form of affection — whether a side hug or a peck — was to be saved for the ephemeral marriage bed. Any woman who strayed, Branham stated, was not only indirectly disobeying God by resembling their husbands, but embraced the “demon of Jezebel” by doing so.

Phoenix Tabernacle was fucking intense, and we didn’t understand how much it toyed with our basic psyche on a daily basis. Though my parents were by no means religious prior to migrating, they followed suit. With limited resources and a personal history already rooted in deep pain, they understood the value in latching onto people with similar perceptions of diaspora, nationality, and family, however feeble those connections were.

Surprisingly, being born into the church was less difficult than being born a Magdaleno – years of the generational trauma that traipsed the desert grew roots near their feet. Molestation, deep poverty, death, disease, natural disasters, drugs, betrayals, abandonment: it could be said that nothing beneficial in their lives held water for long. I grew up learning that not only would I be eternally confused by the dichotomies of religion, but family life as well. Being the first-born meant indulging me one moment and punishing me the next, often without just cause. And the punishment was corporal. Though religion played a part in justifying these abusive behaviors, my parents hid behind the idea that ”that’s just the way it was.” This made it easier for them (or anyone else in my extended family, for that matter) to take advantage of my body and emotions. Perhaps being Mexican amplified the principle; our penchant for familial closeness blurred the line between concern and criticism. As a result, my feelings were often diminished if not ignored. The consequences of being their child brought about a comprehensive list of unintended evils: bruises, cuts, punches, slaps, whippings, spankings, and objects thrown at me. Sometimes these psychological demons compelled them to drag me through the hallways by my hair and blamed it on watching The Exorcist at too young an age. A story told through the body. To be exempt from their anger meant not fully belonging to the family. But I knew that simply coming into the world was enough to feel like I didn’t belong. Being Mexican, being a girl, being a hairy, sun-smooched girl who hated dresses, strayed from boys at Sunday school, and openly challenged men and elders — the cruelty of machismo would be my cross to bear.

The harsher my parents were, the softer I became, much like the masa para tortillas my mother would make that never seemed to stiffen.

The older I got, the more I felt my gut — what I would call my deep-seeded magic not yet manifested —react to the violence and neglect. At certain points I would burst into tears before a hand was even laid on me, a psychic reaction to pain of sorts. The harsher my parents were, the softer I became, much like the masa para tortillas my mother would make that never seemed to stiffen. Visions of safety and belonging began to filter in, too; on the worst nights, my brain replayed the same dream: jumping into and falling through water fountains-turned-into-waterfalls. I’d watch myself fall into their bed without ever waking them them up. A desperate longing to be by their side without any semblance of conflict.

In real life, visits to the homes of classmates became more frequent. They served as an escape into the lives of healthier families, lives that I pretended to be a part of. Running away to public places like plazas or libraries gave me reassurance that I could exist in the world without supposedly making it worse and enough strength to crawl back in through my bedroom window for another week. Other people became my hope. Call it survival instinct or magic: as much as I was reminded of my worthlessness, something intangible held onto curiosity and tenderness for the world. Even so, traumatic experiences kept me from asking for outside help.

At the age of 8, I experienced my first heartbreak: my dad cheated on my mother and left us. Unfortunately, he kept coming back. For context: they consciously separated, though not legally, which made things complicated. In the instances when I would find him sitting in my mother’s rocking chair to say he was home for good, I felt massive waves of relief thrash about inside my tiny heart. His time spent with us was filled with the same cycle of violence, but I almost welcomed it if it meant having him back. Days later I’d wake up and find him gone, suddenly aware of what the yelling I heard the night before meant. As the years went by, I was able to identify their falling outs by noticing the drastic changes in all five of my senses: eyes would find a broken dish or punched-in wall, ears would hear a deafening verbal fight (and subsequent silence), hands would touch the sheets my dad failed to rearrange before disappearing, mouth would taste the stress that came from picking at my lips, and the smell of the cigarette smoke that permeated the back patio bothered my nose. Meanwhile, my mother fell further into numbness (already brought on by lifelong neglect from her mother). This feeling intensified to the point of self-harm on both our ends. We’d eat less and sleep more. Say less and yell more. Hug less and avoid more. Somehow, my magic pointed me towards the only place I knew I could let myself feel anything and everything: the closet.

It was in the closet that I found out what I should have known about me all along.

During this time of familial unrest and, at the same time, toxic amounts of ridicule from classmates, I withdrew to my bedroom closet and found refuge sitting on top of my shoes in the dark. There, I became friends with Sylvia Plath, Sandra Cisneros, Jerry Spinelli, Emily Dickinson, Judy Blume, among others. I developed relationships with teenage girls like me and different than me on websites like gURL, my Autostraddle equivalent in the mid-2000s. Best of all, I discovered that being enclosed in such an intentional way made being myself easy, especially through writing. I began filling Moleskine notebooks yearly (today, I have seven on my bookshelf). It was in the closet that I rehearsed for musical theatre auditions, crocheted half-finished blankets with rainbow yarn, and came out to myself freshman year of high school. It was in the closet that I found out what I should have known about me all along.

This process of recollection lived in the same period as my parents’ separation. To tangle things even further, my parents finally left the church. I left the cult a year afterward and continued to attend the church connected to the private Christian school I attended. Meanwhile they decided to reclaim the time they lost by retreating into inappropriate coping mechanisms: partying like they were 23 again when, in reality, they were in their early 30s. It became commonplace to wake up past midnight and hear a boisterous crowd outside my bedroom door. Glasses being broken, couples arguing, club music failing to remain within the threshold of dance-worthy and incapable of being heard by Mina and Jerry’s 12, 6, and 3-year olds. Sometimes he would slink into my bedroom and sit at the feet of my daybed. I realize now that he sexually assaulted me. At the time, however, I only felt pity to see him drunkenly cry over how much he loved me. And though my body felt stiff and awkward, I let him kiss, hug, caress, and weep next to me. Those rare nights were a daze and still are.

The mornings following were torture; their intense hangovers put me in a position where I was responsible for cleaning up the varying messes they left behind mere hours ago: beer bottles, liquor bottles, styrofoam containers of cheap fast food, half-smoked cigarettes, nubs of joints, credit cards, and crumpled dollar bills. Credit cards were stacked in a corner and dollar bills were pocketed. The thing I couldn’t touch, however, were the strangers strewn on couches and every once in a while, the bunk beds my baby brothers shared. Luckily, they were found sleeping with the nanny we lived with. After having to see such disarray — including that of slovenly figures going back to their own homes and even their own children — it becomes difficult for me to condemn the closet. It offered me stability in chaos perpetuated by the ones who were supposed to keep me from it in the first place.

Then came the long-winded blur of my teenage years; a different-albeit-similarly painful period. When I wasn’t trying to sift through the shame of bleeding in front of peers, there was the task of managing the amounts of blood involuntarily drawn out by masculinities, by my father’s anger, by baby brothers and their sharp fingernails, and a high school boyfriend’s illusion of love. At 16, I learned that my father had cheated on my mother yet again and fell into my boyfriend for comfort, only to be sexually assaulted multiple times. Standing up to him didn’t matter when his and my entire family blamed me for it. Can you imagine all of them sitting at tables dressed in pink tablecloths, green spider chrysanthemums centerpieced to death, watching the birthday girl dance with him as a form of punishment?

Forbidden crushes I developed on girls settled here lest I say something and risk expulsion at school.

At least I had Tumblr; through it, I fell in love with my pen pal – she had long, black hair, fingernails lacquered in turquoise, and an endless array of freckles. She instilled in me an admiration for semicolons that would be stored in a yellow shoebox for years to come. The shoebox lived on my desk, while I took its place in the dark, stale corners of my wardrobe. Forbidden crushes I developed on girls settled here lest I say something and risk expulsion at school. The taboo relationship between father and daughter also festered in secrecy — one word out of turn and I risked deporting both of them. It wasn’t until college that my tightly bound wounds became known to a select few.

The prospect of coming out filled me with obvious worry, but it quickly morphed into disappointment. Nothing changed to the point of devastation. I was still the same daughter to my parents, and I secretly resented them for it. I came out to my mother as she was getting ready to go out, her upright body tipped toward her vanity mirror. The words fell onto her clutter of makeup and she kept applying what looked like contour. “Don’t tell your dad just yet,” she said.

Once I did tell him, it was all over — I became an exotic creature. He hopped on the bandwagon so hard that it nearly tipped over. His own struggle with sexual trauma and a lack of boundaries permeated my delicately constructed ones. This is where I learned that sexual harassment could be inflicted upon someone without touching a single thing. Questions included how and when I lost my virginity, who the “man” in a lesbian relationship was, and how I determined whether my sex life was about “fucking” or “having sex.”

If they could enthusiastically respect my sexuality, why was it so hard for them to respect my body, my mind, and my voice?

Feeling proud was hard when they felt prouder than you did. The initial hesitancy I carried in bringing my first girlfriend home was tossed aside to keep up with their welcome dinners and affirming handmade “nuestra casa es su casa” posters taped on the outside of my bedroom door. Even my 21st birthday became a chance to celebrate: the cake my mother ordered was purposefully decorated with thick rows of colored frosting in the shape of a rainbow, a cloud of sugar at the end of it. Oftentimes, I felt guilty for wishing that they were overtly homophobic because it meant cutting them out of my life would be easier. If they could enthusiastically respect my sexuality, why was it so hard for them to respect my body, my mind, and my voice? Even today, with news of the Me Too movement on every screen in nearly every household, I wonder why it has proved almost impossible for people like my father to grapple with his own toxic behaviors. Sometimes abusers aren’t ready, and it’s not required of us to have to wait up for them.

But college brought spaces to explore the nuances. Latina/Chicana Issues was the first class I took after transferring to a 4-year, and it was in that small room that my magic began blooming. I wasn’t spectacular nor damned — I was me. It was there that I met the spirit of Gloria Anzaldúa, and I’ve grappled with it ever since. Before the class, I didn’t know anyone who deeply embodied the queer, Chicana theorist’s concept of being “bordered,” of occupying a space that is neither here nor there. Most of the time, it was an isolated expanse of self. Though I’ve been out for over three years now, I’ve noticed that the queer community and the people inside of it have only given me direct lines to follow: the coming out, the homophobia that followed (or was always there), and the cutting of ties loosely made in the first place. Meanwhile, my story has had trouble fitting into a narrative that is both linear and digestible. Internally, my struggle to find peace with my parents is linked to my queer identity, but it’s uncomfortable articulating this in that space, too.

We can never fully absorb the other’s struggle no matter how much we empathize. It will sit on the surface of our skin, like pastes made of oats and honey. Eventually you’ll have to wash it off and move on lest it dry up and stiffen your own skinned story. There is only so much imagining what it’s like to have a social worker or family friend come to your home on account of an abuse allegation — one you know is true — but refusing to speak to it because you’re fully aware of the abusers’ undocumented status and the deportations that would follow. I understand how my queer family can only empathize to such a degree. Queer, trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people and people of color feel deeply at the expense of others, so perhaps this dissonance is meant for our own good. Maybe that’s what keeps us so close together; if we could feel more than we already do for one another, we’d implode. We’ll spend our whole lives trying to understand each other and trying not only to accept, but embrace the small amount of space that keeps us from becoming indistinguishable. I’ll spend my whole life embracing the feeling of imbalance. This is the magic we often deny ourselves.

While headlines desperately try to capture the humanity of undocumented families across the country, my parents end up looking like its antithesis.

Multiple forms of intense therapy, medication, and cutting off contact with my biological father has made an incredible impact on my life, but it’s not enough. Our political climate is a constant dumpster fire whose smoke further obscures families like mine from the mainstream. While headlines desperately try to capture the humanity of undocumented families across the country, my parents end up looking like its antithesis. What’s more is that I bear the burden for admitting that it’s complicated. The burden of being loud and proud and working in social justice movements that currently don’t have space for families like mine. Families that have sacrificed everything for their children to grow up in a safe environment while simultaneously tearing it apart. The serpentine nature of my life led me to the queer community only to find another form of venom: that you don’t accept the nuances I carry in regards to my past. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I hope that this fascist administration will bring us closer together without the need to compartmentalize. Or worse, a need to disregard someone’s existence because they identify with the spaces where the colors in our rainbow bleed together to form something nuanced and, often, unspoken. To those who are neither here nor there, who prefer turquoise to blue or mustard to yellow: I see you. And even if I never get to the point where I find an easy way to tell my story, I’ll fight alongside the spirit of Gloria and Frida and Marsha and Sylvia and Billie Jean and Josephine B. to prove to you that you belong here, with us.

Grecia Magdaleno is a nonbinary writer, educator, and artist residing in Chicago + Brooklyn. Living at the intersections of queer and Latinx identity, their work focuses on multiple social justice issues with an overarching emphasis on vulnerability, affect theory (the study of performance and feelings) and restorative practices. Over the past 4 years, they have worked as a national patient advocate and organizer for Planned Parenthood, serving marginalized communities in states such as Arizona, Tennessee, and Illinois. Their work has been featured on Rewire.News, NBC, CNN, and Teen Vogue, among others. When they’re not organizing, you can find Grecia engaging their lifelong passion for the arts through theatre, storytelling, and illustration. They are currently an M.A. candidate at the University of Chicago and are in the process of publishing their first full-length work of fiction.

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