Heavenly Bodies


Heavenly Bodies is a photo series that invites Queer People of Color to re-imagine heaven through the queer body. Too often, religion has excluded, vilified, and persecuted queer people. Heavenly Bodies is an attempt to reappropriate heaven. What does heaven look like removed from homophobia, sexism, transphobia, etc? We are imagining new afterlives.

Photos and Interview by Maria Esquinca.

Stephanie, Pansexual

This interview has been edited for clarity

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How do you identify?

S: I’m pansexual, and I like to think myself a little bit as androgynous. I don’t really like associating with either/or. I just like taking elements of femininity and masculinity and using it to create my identity. That’s what it feels like, yeah.

Are your pronouns they/them?

S: I’m still she.

These are things that I feel like I’m barely realizing, not barely, but coming to terms with. So, like with time I’ll get to the they/them. But I’m taking it slowly because this is how I’m realizing that I am.

Do you identify with the word queer? Do you like that word? Does it have a special meaning to you?

S: Yeah, I like the word. I identify with it because some of the best people that I met are queer. And I guess it also depends what queer means to a certain person, like what does queer mean to you? If you don’t mind me asking.

That’s what I was going to ask you. Haha. Well to me queer, it kind of has a political undertone. And it’s an umbrella term for LGBTQIA, but I feel it’s like saying chicanx instead of Hispanic. I feel it has a political edge to it.

S: Well yeah, you said it perfectly it’s an umbrella term. It isn’t, I don’t know.

But does it has a special meaning to you? Why you like to use it? Or?

S: Yeah, it does have a special meaning to me because I feel like when you say queer to people, and when you say you identify as queer to people, it throws them off, because El Paso is progressive, but it also has a lot of really traditional ideas here, you know?

And, people have this idea, queer is like glitter, corporations make it seem glitter and gay and loud. But queer, like you said it’s a political term. People fail to grasp that, they think it’s almost a bad thing. It’s like calling someone a fairy, or a lesbian a dyke. People think queer is an insult. But its not, you know? Its far more important, I guess, is the word.

Has that been your experience? You tell people your queer and they freak out a little?

S: Well, some of them, especially like when you date, you know? And you try to talk about sexuality with the person some people respond to it.

Straight guys?

S: Yeah, straight guys are like ‘woah, I don’t know.’ And then they try to be like ‘well that’s cool, being gay is cool.’ But after that they’re a little on the fence. It’s weird. But its because machismo here, I’m sure it’s big in Miami too, it’s a Latin thing. You know? And then some guys try to romanticize it, well not romanticize it but they’re perverted about it. They become perverted about it and they’re like ‘oh, so you’re freaky.’

Oh my god.

S: Its crazy dude.

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And how do you think? I guess you kind of touched up on it but how do you think being a fronteriza, and being queer at the border has impacted your identity?

S: I think it’s the reason why it’s taken me so long [to be] ‘this is how I am’ because my parents are Christian. My parents are from Juárez, they’re Mexican, and Mexicans are always spiritual. So, I was raised in a Christian home, and my parents to this day still make comments like ‘oh, being gay is ungodly.’ I keep my mouth shut and I always try to tell them ‘they’re people too.’

Like they’re apartment duplex owners and they rent out to a gay couple so it’s weird, like I know deep down they don’t care, but because they’re Mexican Christians they have to say things like that, you know?

But yeah, I think being raised in a culture that is so extreme… I mean like it was out of the question, like how could I ever question if I was gay or straight or anything like that? And now that I’m more aware, I’m more connected to what’s happening around me, like the politics, the social shifts and stuff. I’m realizing it’s ok.

But yeah dude being a fronteriza affected it [my sexuality] a lot. Because Catholics feel the same way too sometimes. And just Mexican culture like maricon, still to this day they’re very homophobic, they’re kind of sexist, a lot of the men, the older men, and even men nowadays, men that are just following in their family’s footsteps.

And do you think it [the border] has positively impacted you in any way, or do you think it’s more conservative?

S: Um… living in the frontera? I would say it has equally impacted me. I know it’s a ying and yang but seeing other Latinx people come out and stuff like that. Even here in El Paso they’re starting to form a community, there’s a community and we have pride parades and stuff. And, people are becoming more open here in El Paso it becomes easier for me to open. It has impacted me positively too.

How did religion affect your sexual identity?

S: It affected me a lot. Yeah, well yeah I was raised Christian. When I was little I believed in God. I would pray before my TAKS tests and I remember just doing that. When we would have to take TAKS test in elementary school I would go to the bathroom and pray, like I was really Christian, we believed, and I still do, in a spiritual way. We’re not alone, that’s a different conversation for a different day. I believed in God, it was always out of the question. No gays. No homosexuality, but the older that I got and the more I started paying attention to the shifting climates and conversations going on around the world, that’s when I became more aware that homosexuality is real.

Homosexuality is the norm, because it really is, we’re on a spectrum. You know? There’s a small percentage of people being completely straight, completely gay, everyone just falls on the spectrum and realizing that I was like ‘oh, okay. It’s normal for me to be attracted to people that are the same sex as me, or transgender.’ It’s like there’s nothing bad about it. Opposed to how I was raised to think that it’s completely out of the question to even think someone other than a man is attractive. You know?

So you think that it took a while was maybe because of religion?

S: Yeah, I think so.

And Mexican culture because even my grandparents they were Catholic but they would still say things like ‘being gay is not good.’

Are Christians equally as conservative as Catholics?

S: It’s because I don’t know how Catholicism works or how being raised in a catholic home is like so I feel like I would be very quick to say it is worse, but I don’t know.

Like do they interpret it through the text?

S: Yeah, so being Christian you have to follow the ten commandments. Granted with Catholicism you have more opportunities to mess up, and then just confess, and then keep trying to do your best, and with being Christian you have to behave at all times like you can’t fuck up.

You can’t confess?

S: Yeah, like there’s no confessional. I mean if you confess, you confess to God

So, what happens if you sin?

S: Apparently you’re condemned.

What?!

S: Yeah, that was my upbringing.

And my mom still does it, they wear skirts all the way to their ankles like t-shirts. Nothing revealing. No jewelry.

What does it say about jewelry in the Bible?

S: They find some way to find all this crazy shit dude. They always find all these ways to justify everything in the church.

Wow, I didn’t know.

S: Religion is foolish. I don’t think it should be taken so seriously like in this state [Texas].

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And what is your idea of a queer heaven?

S: Honestly my idea of a queer heaven is just a space where people can be themselves like truly be themselves though, not where everyone looks the same and they’re like ‘Oh we’re ourselves.’ No, they’re not, they look just like everybody else, you know? Like 1984 style, but just a place where like, kind of a little bit like in here where everyone is just doing what they got to do, just being who they are, not having to explain themselves. Also, not having to be uncomfortable talking sexually with other people because you’re afraid that maybe something you say is going to throw them off, like to me how I told you its happened before, just I hate to use the word because I feel like its cliché, but I don’t know any other word, just accepting. You know? Like a very accepting place where you don’t have to explain yourself and you just do what you got to do, just as long as you’re not harming anyone, you know? Love isn’t harmful. It can get toxic, but it’s not harmful, you know?

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Alexis, Bisexual

This interview has been edited for clarity

How do you identify?

A: So when I first came out I identified as bi, but then I realized there was a lot of biphobia. So, I felt kind of ashamed to be calling myself bisexual. So, then I started identifying as queer for a while but after a lot of reading and also unpacking a lot of biphobia I realized that I prefer identifying as bisexual because I feel like bisexual people take up the most of the LGBTQUIA, there’s like a big percentage of us.

What does the word queer mean to you? Or how would you describe it?

A: I think queer, to me, just encompasses all of the LGBTQIA. This is just my opinion. I feel it’s like a gender-neutral way of identifying yourself within the spectrum of sexuality. And again, it goes down to your comfort level, like with my experience of bisexual and queer. For me it was like ‘oh I’m queer because I like everyone. I don’t just like men and women.’ And so I think it just depends how comfortable people are with certain labels. To some people labels don’t exist, so for them it’s just easier to be called queer. So that’s how I see queerness as a gender nonconforming umbrella term.

How has being from the border impacted your sexual identity?

A: I grew up in a very catholic home, even though my roots on my dad’s side are Palestinian. So, there’s like that Muslim aspect. But I think its definitely hard because there’s a lot of very conservative people, like even though I like the frontera and I think the frontera is very radical in itself, I feel its (queerness) is something people aren’t used to. So, even finding your own community, to me personally, has been kind of hard. I do know a lot of bi, specifically bi women, but finding that place as a bi-person has been hard because of the biphobia even within the community that we have. And I haven’t had the privilege to explore the LBTQ community in Juárez unfortunately. But within the communities that I have found, I feel they’re super amazing and it’s really nice being able to be in queer spaces where people are super radical and just very open to a lot of things.

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Do you think its (biphobia) more prevalent here because of the conservative culture?

A: I know a lot of people in other cities that are experiencing the same issues that I’m experiencing. So, I know its not like an isolated event like ‘oh we live in la frontera, everyone’s biphobic.’ It’s not that. But I do think that because we do live in a predominantly catholic community the thought of being bisexual is not something a lot of people can synthesize. I don’t know if I’m using the right word, but they’re like ‘yeah gay people are fine. And like everyone should be accepted.’ But the minute you’re like ‘oh, well I’m bisexual,’ they’re like ‘oh, you got to pick one.’ You know? They’re just like ‘no, no, no, you gotta pick one. You can’t be promiscuous.’ And it’s like ‘well fuck.’ You know? And I’ve heard that from several people. And even though I’m open about my bisexuality, I feel like I’m not as open as I wish I was because that’s something that I fear from people, of them being ‘oh well you’re either one, or the other, you can’t be both,’ type-of-thing. And so, it’s really weird navigating (that) as a bi person who is dating a man right now. When people are like ‘oh you’re not bi, you’re dating a guy.’ And its like ‘ok? and then?’ It’s not my fault I’m attracted to men. But I’m also attracted to everyone else. It’s pretty prevalent, at least here because there’s a lot of Christians and Catholics in the community, so it’s a weird space to navigate. Where they accept being gay, but they don’t accept being bi.

But the minute you’re like ‘oh, well I’m bisexual,’ they’re like ‘oh, you got to pick one.’

When did you find out you were bi?

So, I think I’ve always known. Because I always loved all of the girls in all of the things I would watch. For sure. For sure it was Poison Ivy in that Batman movie, I was like ‘that’s it. Yes. I’m gay as fuck.’ She was the love of my life. I was obsessed with her. You can ask my mom and she’s like “Uuuu la poison ivy.” So, I think that was always my thing. I always liked the super, badass, evil women in all of the things I would watch. But I didn’t officially accept it. It was something I had to internalize for a long time. So, I didn’t really accept it until I got to college when I was like ‘oh I like girls. That’s just how it is.’ But I think it was always there.

It was Poison Ivy in that Batman movie, I was like ‘that’s it. Yes. I’m gay as fuck.’ She was the love of my life. I was obsessed with her

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How did growing up in a catholic household impact your identity?

A: Dam, so I feel I’ve gone through a lot of like phases in my life like when I was younger I was super pro-life, which is funny because I work for an abortion fund now. So, I feel like I went through these things where I was super hardcore with my parents beliefs, and what the community brought me up on. And even going to school in Juárez, I don’t ever remember encountering someone who was not straight, or not cis, or not catholic, like it was always a thing you know? So I think that’s another reason it took me so long to accept myself because it was just such an internalized thing, even to say that I was pro-choice, even though I knew I was pro-choice (it) was really hard for me because I had all of this internalized “pro-lifeness” that my parents kind of instilled in me. So, it wasn’t until I got to college that I was able to be really outspoken with my parents and debate them about their beliefs

I don’t ever remember encountering someone who was not straight, or not cis, or not catholic

So I think organized religion makes it a lot harder for you to come into terms, and even within the… I got confirmed when I was in high school and even the rhetoric there was just very anti-gay, very anti-abortion, anti-trans. There was just a lot of these things, and even unlearning that was like ‘oh my god.’ I had to put in a lot of work to get to where I am right now. A lot of it through social media, because I’ve learned through a lot of women, through other people who had similar experiences that are fucking smart and put all of their thoughts on social media. So, just reading a lot.

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What is your idea of a queer heaven?

A: I don’t think it’s a place where everyone goes to. I think its individual experiences for people. So, individual experiences in your life where you had moments of a lot of love, and a lot of support, and where you truly felt yourself, and your best self. I feel like that would be a queer heaven, memories that you hold really close to yourself. You know? For example, for me it was with my grandpa. You know, if I were to die today, I think being with my family, and specifically my grandpa would be heaven for me because my grandpa was someone that I fucking loved the shit out of. And even though he passed away when I was six years old, he’s someone that I’m still carrying in my heart a lot. And so, I feel like it would be these little memories that you have where you could truly be free within yourself, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that everyone has those experiences. But it can be anything. The smell of your mom’s cooking, or being with your partner, or raising a child. Something that you felt so much love that you could just explode and die and that’s it, that’s the heaven for you. So, I don’t see it as a paradise because I was thinking about it a lot and I was like ‘oh maybe something beautiful.’ But I feel as human beings were very complex. Like, you can be in a very beautiful place, physically, but not necessarily personally or emotionally. And sometimes you can be in the most difficult situations like geographically, or emotionally, or things like that. Like for example, I see a lot of Palestinian resistance and to me that is so fucking beautiful, and that’s something that shouldn’t be happening. Palestinians shouldn’t be having to fight for their right to fucking live but the fact that they are so willing to fight for their homeland, and for their rights, and for their people, that love that they have for their community is so overwhelming because you see it everywhere. To me, that feeling of love, I think that would be a queer heaven for me.


 

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Ashante, Pansexual

This interview has been edited for clarity

When did you realize you were queer?

A: I’ve always known, but I didn’t, I guess, accept it, or come out until later in life, which makes me sound old, but it was in my 20s. But yeah, I’ve always known. It was just hard growing up in a Christian household with parents that aren’t necessarily accepting of the queer lifestyle, or gay, lesbian lifestyle.

How do you identify?

A: I identify queer because it’s an umbrella term, but if I used a more technical term I would say pansexual.

You always knew?

A: For sure, I’ve always had crushes on girls, or, I didn’t the term then, but androgynous or gender nonconforming people. But, I didn’t know what that was (gender nonconforming) at the time, as a youth. So, I think that’s really cool also about the generation now, because they have the language to define themselves, but yeah, I always knew. I just wasn’t out until my mid-20s.

How has religion influenced your queer identity?

A: Clearly in the beginning I was very anti-gay.

For reals?

A: Yeah, I was. I was super conservative. I was raised in a conservative household, so you grow up with the beliefs, and as I experienced more people, because we moved around so much when I was growing up, so I didn’t get the chance to know anybody. So, the only people I knew were my parents and my siblings, really. So, I didn’t get to form opinions, or I didn’t really have the opportunity to form opinions or learn about other identities. Growing up with religion was very ‘homosexuality is a sin, you’ll go to hell. It’s Adam and Eve.’ All of the typical stuff you hear. So, my story is not unique in any way. Just thinking there wasn’t a place in heaven for me if I loved a woman, or loved somebody who wasn’t a man, essentially.

thinking there wasn’t a place in heaven for me if I loved a woman, or loved somebody who wasn’t a man, essentially.

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A: There’s an article that talks about the term homosexuality, because the bible’s been interpreted so many times, [it] has different agenda’s based on who’s interpreting it, that it wasn’t necessarily homosexuality, but sleeping with young boy’s, so pedophilia, more so. So I think that we adapt and change to so many things that holding society up to this 2,000-year-old text  is pretty ridiculous. We are meant to evolve, and change, and grow. So, the same thing should apply to religion, especially, because we are not holding ourselves to other doctrines in religion that state ‘this is a sin.’ So, we can’t pick and choose what God wants, and what he doesn’t, either he’s ok with everything, and loves you no matter what, or we’re all fucked, is how I put it.

So, you were afraid to come out?

A: Yeah, like when I was living at home for sure, just because it’s not that it wasn’t a queer friendly household, it just wasn’t queer friendly for the children of the house, we weren’t raised that way. My parents didn’t have a problem or issue with gay people as long as it wasn’t their children. So, I felt that, I saw it, and I was like I’d rather just keep to myself. I didn’t really date in high school or anything anyways, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Why do you like the word queer?

A: Like I said it’s an umbrella term. It can encompass all range of identities. It’s just, I know that it has, especially for the older LGBTQIA generation, it holds more negative connotations because of how it was used to ostracize or demonize people, but I think the reclamation of it now with the younger generation is cool and shows how language can change and evolve and become more positive for people. And I just like queer because it doesn’t confine my identity to any specifics. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I understand that labeling is important for people, but I like queer because it’s more fluid. It can go with whatever I feel like.

And I just like queer because it doesn’t confine my identity to any specifics.

Do you think living in the border impacted your queer identity in any way?

A: I think so. Like a lot of the people I knew, especially in college, I wouldn’t say they necessarily broadcasted that they were gay, queer, or part of the community, but a lot of people I knew were accepting of all lifestyles, whether that was a different religion, a different race, a different identity. So, I think that helped me become more accepting of who I was, and other people as well. So, it was good. I’m very thankful for my time in El Paso, and also our little gay, club street was always fun. So, I’m very thankful for it I don’t see that community so much in other places.

Really?

A: Yeah, like Vegas doesn’t have a very big queer scene. Even though I volunteer with the center, an actual community is hard to find, where here, I knew where to go, what people, maybe that’s also just because I’m from El Paso, it was home. So, it could be that. I don’t try as hard in Vegas.

What is your idea of a queer heaven?

A: A queer heaven to me is this queer heaven for everyone. No, limitations on, well other than if you’re a bad person, but not if you’re queer. It’s my standard idea of heaven, if you believe, and you are a good person while you’re on earth, then you’re in heaven, and it’s great. No one is judging you, just living your heavenly life, afterlife.

No one is judging you, just living your heavenly life, afterlife.

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