Sit Straight, Look Manly: How I Overcame My Father’s Masculine Facade
"Uncross your legs, you look like a sissy."
I glanced at my father, whose glare rotted my stomach like the worn, water-damaged floorboards upstairs, in the ancient church's bell tower.
"I don't care," I wanted to say, but that type of disrespect was a death sentence, and would've secured me an expedited ticket to see Jesus. So I slowly and silently complied, uncrossing my legs and making my posture rigid in my best imitation of manly, straightening my back to get him off it.
My father, silenced but not satisfied by my begrudging obedience, turned away from me and rolled his eyes, then picked at his chapped lips as the congregation milled and chattered around us, settling into their seats pre-service.
Truth was, I didn't care if I looked like a sissy. The wooden pews were uncomfortable and the upcoming church service would be lengthy and insulated with out-of-context Biblical talking points that always seemed to align more with the pastor's mood than anything God actually wanted.
These life-sucking sermons stressed me out; sitting like a sissy (legs crossed, fingers steepled on my knees, back arched, bottom perched like I was ready to get up and run) was comfort food for my spirit.
Mom was out of town at a spiritual women's retreat that Sunday. Weeks earlier, after she'd gotten permission from my father and announced to the family that she'd be going, cold dread drifted through me in waves. You see, I knew that Dad would take advantage of her absence and would set aside a few hours for our "secret special time," as he called it. A time, by the way, that wasn't special to me, and instead puzzled and terrified me.
"I knew that Dad would take advantage of her absence and would set aside a few hours for our "secret special time," as he called it. A time, by the way, that wasn't special to me, and instead puzzled and terrified me."
True to character, he did. Our "secret special time" had happened the night before church that Sunday. As I sat with a stiff spine on the rock-hard pew, I still felt guilty and disgusted with myself for not possessing the power to stop my father. Still felt the humiliating heft of his fingers on my skin from the night before, despite my scalding shower that morning, my best attempts to rinse him off.
Still felt that even though it was the last thing I wanted, that I was somehow to blame for my forced encounters with him - it was my punishment for being born different.
"This is something special only a father and son can share," he'd tell me. "But it's also our secret, so if you tell anyone, you'll get taken to a prison full of little boys who can't keep their mouths shut." Whenever he said this, questions bubbled behind my lips. Questions I dared not ask him, for fear that our secret special times would increase in their frequency, horror.
The biggest question I clamored to ask my father was this : During our secret special times, wasn't the way he touched me and the things he made me do to him to make him "feel good"...wasn't that stuff considered sissy-like, since women were only supposed to do that stuff with men anyway?
My young brain couldn't comprehend that my father's actions behind closed doors had nothing to do with being a sissy or being a man.
As an adult, I would ascribe words like "sick" and "evil" to his sexual abuse. As an adult, I would realize that my lack of masculinity and my embrace of the feminine was the embodiment of his closeted fears, which was why he persistently scorned me, even as he privately reaped the pleasures of my elementary-aged body.
But I wasn't an adult yet.
Halfway through the church service that morning, my back started to ache, my spine sore from my penguin-straight posture. I was tired of sitting like a statue, and beyond that, tired of trying to police my own behavior at the expense of who I was.
I tried to push past a flurry of rebellious thoughts, knowing my resulting punishment would be hell. But as my back cracked in protest to my macho medieval pose, something stubborn inside me clicked; I simply could not sit straight any longer. Not today.
So I slowly but assuredly crossed my legs again, laced fingers together on my left kneecap, and arched my back off the pew, giving my limbs and spirit sweet relief.
I felt before I saw my father's eyes laser-focused on my khaki-covered legs in their girly pose. I halfway turned my head to face him, taking his emotional temperature. His blue eyes were simultaneously dead and simmering with anger. "Sit straight." His weathered lips sternly mouthed the words, their edges caked with dried blood.
But instead of buttoning back up into the "straight jacket" he so often forced me into, I turned my head away, pursed my own lips in prideful defiance, and kept my legs crossed, even as fear snaked its way through my veins. In my periphery, I noticed his arm slithering behind me, then felt mounting pressure on my lower back as he pinched hard enough to make a mark.
"instead of buttoning back up into the "straight jacket" he so often forced me into, I turned my head away, pursed my own lips in prideful defiance, and kept my legs crossed, even as fear snaked its way through my veins."
I winced and subtly squirmed from his touch, scooting far enough away so that he could no longer reach me, knowing the curious eyes of the congregation were my savior and he would only covertly hurt me in front of them, so he could save face.
He continued to glare me down, and if looks could kill, I'd have a plot in the church's cemetery with my name on it and a single digit age of death. But I literally clung to my crossed leg, it was the lighthouse in the storm of my life, and gave me a sense of hope I couldn't verbalize.
What happened next shot ice shards into my blood : my father cleared his throat. The casual observer might construe it as a simple re-arranging of phlegm, but I knew it as subtle distillation of his anger. In an attempt to ignore him, I instead tuned in to what Pastor Doddson was preaching about, but it was doom and gloom :
"...and God will wreak ultimate revenge on those who sin against Him - liars, thieves, murderers...and those who lust after strange flesh."
He said "strange flesh" with such disdain that saliva sprayed from his mouth, as if the words tasted bitter to his tongue. I didn't know what the phrase meant, but I felt the burn of his judgment as he cast a brief yet pointed glare at me.
I never understood how God could custom-order humans like handmade Christmas ornaments, then change His mind once He'd unboxed so many of us.
Caught in the crosshairs of my dad's and Pastor Doddson's damning stares, my cheeks grew as hot as the sunlight streaming through the church's stained glass windows. Despite the relative safety afforded by the congregation's watching eyes, I still didn't feel safe. I had to escape.
After mentally weighing the scourge of my potential punishment against the temporary pleasure the escape itself would provide, I silently stood up and started walking down the aisle. I'd made up my mind.
The closer I got to the church's foyer, the harder I felt my father's eyes drill into my spine. Despite his searing stare, the military-straight gait I so often tried to emulate faded away; I allowed my hips to sway into the satisfyingly sissy-like switch from side to side that felt so natural and real to me, ignoring the congregation's tight-lipped looks and intentionally loud whispers that got passed my way like tainted Communion juice.
As I stepped outside into summer sunlight, I felt a peace wash through me that I never experienced inside the church's walls. I slid down the railing flanking the church's front steps, and stained my polo and khakis on its rusted metal, yet felt as whimsical and fabulous as a Disney character about to burst into song.
I knew that my father would predictably excuse himself to the church basement a few minutes later and discover I wasn't in the bathroom, and he would be livid. I also knew that I would likely incur a sharp cuff to the jaw after service, his actions concealed by the shaded windows of our minivan.
And that was child's play compared to the grounding I would get. After all, I'd committed a sin trifecta : sissiness, disobedience, and early exit of a church service.
But I stifled these thoughts, and instead strutted along the graveyard's border, feeling invigorated and alive as I scooped up dead dandelions. Savoring this moment, even if it was as fleeting as the dandelion seeds flitting off like fairies into the wind.
Through the years that followed, it was micro-rebellions like these, occasional overflows of my femininity in the form of a crossed leg or catwalking out of a church service, that helped me keep sight of who I was in the midst of a puzzling childhood whose foundation grated at the very grains of my soul.
"It was micro-rebellions like these, occasional overflows of my femininity in the form of a crossed leg or catwalking out of a church service, that helped me keep sight of who I was in the midst of a puzzling childhood whose foundation grated at the very grains of my soul."
In my mid-20s, I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco with my now ex-boyfriend Bryan, news my mother digested with all the grace and poise of a pack of Mentos mints plopped into a full Pepsi bottle. My father had long passed away from brain cancer, and I'd never gotten the opportunity to ask him the burning questions that haunted my youth.
I'd moved along. Hadn't I?
Despite my best attempts to stifle my trauma, echoes from my childhood reverberated into my present, and when a gay couple we knew invited Bryan and me to their wedding, in a church of all places, I felt the familiar shred of dread gnaw its sharp teeth like a cheese grater against my stomach.
My brain scrambled for an excuse : a visit to a dying distant second cousin, a moral obligation to drive down to SeaWorld San Diego and picket their continued mistreatment of marine life, an appointment to renew my medical marijuana recommendation card.
"Don't let him continue to design your life," Bryan said silently, and left me alone at the kitchen counter with that thought. As he walked away, I cursed his uncanny ability to read my mind, then glanced at the invitation and realized I'd bent it in half. I hated to admit how right Bryan was, and realized, with equal hope and chagrin, that this was my chance at closure.
Wedding day arrived, and as we parked in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco and approached the address on foot in our pressed and starched wedding best, my stomach freefell, on a fast track out my ass.
However, I knew the church would be different from what I was used to when a rainbow flag mounted above its front door flapped a welcoming hello from blocks away.
EVERYTHING was different. From the officiant, who was not only female, but also transgender. To the drag queens doubling as flower girls. To the flamboyant flower arrangements peppered with gay pride colors and miniature flags. To the beautiful bearded men celebrating their nuptials...to each other.
It was all stark contrast to the black and white Biblically manipulated hallmarks of my childhood. And I loved every bit of it.
The chairs were plush and comfortable, and as the couple said their vows, I crossed my legs, anchored my hands to my knees, and arched my back to my heart's content, luxuriating in my effeminate posture.
When I felt pressure on my lower back, I flinched, flashing back to my father's sharp pinch that Sunday morning almost twenty years prior. But I gradually relaxed as I realized it was Bryan's hand. His massage on the small of my back was one of assurance, as if to say, "You're safe now."
And when my cheeks flushed, I didn't blush from shame, embarrassment, or pain, but rather, elation. For my friends, and for myself.
I knew in my heart that there was no way God, wherever He (She?) was, could disapprove of the love in that church. Nor get bogged down by minutiae like a crossed leg, the officiant's gender, the genitalia of everyone wearing a dress in the room, or that two male wedding toppers would stand atop the cake. God had given everyone in this room a gift; it would be a shame for us to waste them.
As a child, my femininity was my silent yet screaming voice, that spoke for me when I could not speak for myself. As an adult, I saw it for the gift it was : both a beautiful and incidental extension of me, something I could now flex freely without repercussion.
"You may now kiss the groom," announced the officiant. The grooms' facial hair tangled together in a beardy kiss, and the crowd erupted into applause and exclamations of "Yassssssssss!"
I clapped so hard my hands hurt. My throat clotted up and my eyes clouded with tears; to this day, I still can't tell you why.
"Thank you Dad," I whispered, knowing that if it weren't for his abuse and failed attempts to strip me of my voice, I wouldn't have ended up being so proud of who I'd become.
No, let me correct that : who I'd always been.
A drag queen in a Jessica Rabbit red wig and shimmering emerald-colored gown that highlighted her hourglass figure took the stage and began to belt "Express Yourself." I smiled at the song choice, knowing that in my own uniquely beautiful ways, I'd always done just that.
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