Sex & Faith
March 4, 2020

Growing Up Catholic and Relearning What Pleasure Means For Me

As I embrace all genders residing within me, I finally feel at home inside of my body.
Written by
Leo Aquino
Published on
March 4, 2020
Updated on
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Growing up as a quiet, feminine, nature-loving bookworm in the Philippines was both magical and troubling. Fond memories of lush provinces and bustling cityscapes are juxtaposed with frustratingly rigid Catholic gender roles. My parents proudly provided a metropolitan lifestyle for me, their little girl, but I craved the fresh air and sweet mango trees lining our ancestral land in Pangasinan, a northern province with farmlands only a short ride from the seaside. Away from smoggy Quezon City, my fantasies consisted of provincial communities where gender roles ceased to exist.

I found joy in family gatherings, where I devoured stories about our powerful matriarchs. These elders traversed vast blue oceans, expertly navigating places like Italy, Israel and the Virgin Islands to send their modest earnings back to their families. One great-grandmother used her intellect and resourcefulness to feed and educate her children on a budget of one peso per day. Another great-grandmother proudly showcased the clothing created by her students at her sewing school. These women relished in their feminine power, heeding words from the Bible as guidelines rather than strict rules.

Like my ancestors, I was hypnotized by the poetic preachings of the Bible, but I knew from the egregious behavior of men in my family that these stories were empty. 

At 8 years old, my father taught me how to tell lies. My mother, pregnant with my second baby sister, traveled to New York to give birth to an American citizen. While she was away, my father had a mistress stay in our home. For the first few weeks, he orchestrated the mistress’s comings and goings — I assumed she was a hostage. “No one in their right mind would sleep in my mother’s bed, with her two young daughters sleeping right next door,” thought Little Beatriz. My father eventually fired our nanny and forced his mistress to take care of me and my one-year-old sister. When my mother called from the States, my father hovered over the telephone, sometimes yanking the spiral cord from the wall when I threatened to tell her his secrets. The lying and secrets brutally transformed me. I felt like my soul had floated up into the corner of every room, watching each character in a play divert from the script. 

Up until that point, books and language had been sacred spaces for me. I had devoutly carried a keychain Bible and a magnifying glass with me everywhere so that I could brush up on my parables anytime I wanted. When the adults around me deviated from Biblical truth, words became less enchanting.

So I turned to earthly, sensory pleasures to ground me in what felt good: rubbing my clit.

Pleasure became a routine escape from these troubling experiences that made absolutely no sense under a Catholic framework. All I wanted to do was dive into that warm feeling and create a new, safe place to live. Because I shared a room with my siblings, I had to wait in the dark for my chance to release all these confusing emotions. In the semi-privacy of my top bunk, I’d prop my legs open, pulling up a blue striped Tweety Bird pillow to cover myself. Each action happened in absolute slow motion, so as not to wake anyone. After an eternity of preparation, I’d rub one out with silent precision, pull my panties up, and fall asleep with Tweety Bird in between my legs. Riddled with shame for being in touch with pleasure, I repressed any need to express emotions.

At 13, amidst the already difficult process of puberty, I moved to the United States with my immediate family. Gone were weekend trips to the province and abundant family gatherings. While grieving my mother tongue and culture, I grew more and more uncomfortable in the trappings of a “female” body.

My family joined a Filipino-American Catholic community (tbh, lightweight cult vibes) where my father became a prominent public speaker. Desperately seeking both of my parents’ approval, I followed in my father’s footsteps and began speaking in the community myself. I understood how to pull the heartstrings of adults missing our motherland and relate to teenagers seeking context about the conservative rules their parents enforced in the Land of the Free. As I rose in my role as a community leader, lying became second nature to me. I was another empty male figure who preached empty stories of the Bible, following a blueprint that allowed others to perceive me as a “Good Immigrant.” But every word that came out of my mouth threw me farther and farther from my own body. 

Meanwhile, at home, I continued my masturbation ritual — this time sans Tweety Bird pillow — with the help of a computer in the basement stacked with my father’s pornography libraries. My masturbation routine was the only thing that brought me back from the chaos living underneath my skin. As a child, my emotional vocabulary couldn’t wrap itself around what I was going through mentally, physically and spiritually at that young age. 

Besides carrying the weight of my family’s intergenerational trauma, I was desperately trying to make sense of my gender dysphoria. 

I finally broke free of Catholicism’s spell in college after I read illuminating genderqueer theory that made me question the God I believed in. Ancestor work helped me understand how colonialism, immigration and machismo breeds narcissistic men who don’t understand vulnerability and intimacy. The spirits of my family’s matriarchs brought me closer to the curious, observant and romantic Little Beatriz I once was. Rather than punishing myself for my queerness, which I now realized I’d been doing since childhood, I embraced myself as the beautiful human who’d survived incredible and traumatic experiences.

Last year, at 27, I finally came out as queer. I reconnected to literature and radical theory, and these new words opened the floodgates for joy, pleasure and emotional release. Compulsive masturbation subconsciously planted the seeds for hypersexuality. “Coming out” implies one swift opening of a closet door followed by rainbows and sunshine pouring out, but it’s also a process of excavating and examining trauma. My childhood experiences conditioned me to believe that femininity was a trap, yet here I was, putting a stifling hyper-feminine mask on a newly freed queer body. I wholeheartedly surrender to the liquidity and multiplicity of gender.

After months of meditation, soul-searching and community care, one hyphenated word brings a lifetime of peace and understanding: Non-Binary. The idea that gender is as fictitious as the Bible freed me. Slowly but surely, books and stories felt full of promise all over again.

My senses feel alive. The blues and greens of my motherland are etched inside of my skin, searching desperately for the trees and oceans of my new adopted home in the U.S. On a northbound drive from Southern California, tears flood my eyes as the sun sets on the Pacific Coast to my left while I hug the Los Padres forest to my right.

As I embrace all genders residing within me, I finally feel at home inside of my body.

In all of its diverse manifestations, seeking pleasure has now become a conscious mindset for me instead of an escape. Once again, I’m a quiet, nature-loving, non-binary femme bookworm, and I see the world through new eyes.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Combining their unique perspectives of casual dating, LGBTQ+ relationships and migrant stories, Leo is The Gay Brown Carrie Bradshaw that the world needs.

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