It was 5am and I didn’t feel like arguing at the moment, so when my father asked me to change my shoes before we left for the airport, I didn’t question his request, I just did it. After a cup of coffee and 50 minutes at the airport, I finally decided to ask him what his problem with the sneakers I had been wearing earlier was. I didn’t care that my questioning his behavior made him raise his voice loud enough for everyone waiting to check their bags on the flight to Guatemala City to hear. He went on and on about the sneakers, but he didn’t say what it was that actually bothered him about them until I asked him if this had anything to do with his blatant homophobia.
“They look like the shoes my lesbian sister wears,” he said.
“Do you know how hard it was for my mother to accept that?” he asked me.
“Do you know how hard it was for her?” I replied.
I don’t know either.
I didn’t wear the sneakers again for the two weeks I was in Guatemala City with my family. There are certain adjustments I make each time I go home to Guatemala after a semester at Brown, losing the sneakers was just another. When I find myself back in the chauvinistic and homophobic society I grew up in, I have to bite my tongue and pick my battles. That day at the airport I didn’t lecture my dad on how homosexuality is not a choice. All I did was assure him I was heterosexual.
There are certain expectations that the generations before me have regarding the sexuality of young women. Being heterosexual is one, chastity is another. Culturally, Guatemala is extremely conservative, its population is 60% Roman Catholic. Going to church on Sundays is a permanent fixture in the Guatemalan elite’s social calendar. Baptisms, first communions and confirmations also make their appearances at least twice per season. Guatemalan high society and the Catholic Church are inextricably linked, and so are their beliefs: homosexuality and pre- marital sex are sins.
When I went home after my first semester at Brown, one of my friends pulled me aside: she wanted to know if I was still a virgin because she wasn’t. You don’t just ask someone about their virginity where I come from, in fact you don’t even ask your best friend about it. But because I had spent the past 4 months in the US, my friend assumed her confession was safe with me. I’ve heard at least a dozen more confessions of the sort since then.
My mother’s been advising me to stop sleeping around if I ever want to get married ever since she found my birth control pills last spring. My friend Paulina’s mom stopped talking to her altogether when she found a pack of Plan B in her bathroom trash can. I’ve heard mothers warn their daughters not to hang out with certain girls because they might be lesbians. I’ve heard stories of girls kicked out of their homes by their mothers for coming out.
The women of my generation are told not only by their mothers but by a 300 year old Catholic patriarchy that their actions are morally wrong. That they are sick if they love another woman, and that they are whores if they love a man. The women of my generation have been taught to hate each other and themselves.
Over winter break, my friend told me that someone had asked her if she was a lesbian because she spent so much time with a classmate who was openly gay. I wasn’t surprised at the stupidity and viciousness of the girl’s comment. What surprised me was my friend’s boldness when she told that girl to fuck off. The women of my generation are taught to be ruthless to each other, yet when a friend tells me how she defended her friend who society has turned its back on I feel certain that these women are challenging the cultural beliefs that have been ingrained in Guatemala for centuries.
I don’t fight my parents over their blatant homophobia. Maybe I should, but I just don’t think it would make a difference. What makes a difference is when I hold my friend’s hand as she tells me how scared she was after she lost her virginity to a boy who refused to wear a condom. What makes a difference is when my friend hangs out with her openly gay friend, despite her mother’s threats. What makes a difference is when the women of my generation stand by each other when no one else does.
The Guatemalan value system celebrates chastity and heterosexuality, while the bravery and loyalty I’ve seen over the years goes unnoticed or is regarded as insubordination. No matter how small the gesture, standing up for whats right when religion has ingrained a hateful sense of morality in you is not a small gesture at all.
Image courtesy of Marianne Abbott