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Feminism & Finding Yourself: A review of 'Juliet Takes a Breath'

by Aisha

Like many other writers, I have loved to read from a young age. For as long as I can remember I’d pick up books and read them cover to cover, finding joy in them whether they were picture books or chapter books. But although I loved reading, I could never see myself in the books I read. The closest I ever came early on to a story with complex black characters was The Secret Life of Bees, and that was a book about a white girl and her perspective on the black women she was around. Eventually, like Marley Dias, I grew tired of reading books about “white boys and their dogs.”

This is why Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath is so revolutionary. A story about a Puerto Rican lesbian from The Bronx? And she isn’t a background character or a  racist trope? Hearing about the story was a dream, and reading it was a dream come true. Finally, a queer girl of color on the forefront, with a loud and unapologetic voice. I can’t believe it’s taken so long.

Juliet Palante is 19 years old, asthmatic, and gay – and she’s embarking on the most important summer of her life across the country in Portland, Oregon (home of hippies and feminist bookstores). Living with and interning under her favorite feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane, means that she’s going to be learning about the power of her vulva and body positivity. An array of extremely entertaining characters surround her, and their radiant personalities jostle Juliet into figuring out who she should be, eventually shining a light on who she really is. Whether it’s her mother telling her that her sexuality is just a phase, or Harlowe encouraging Juliet to be the rags-to-riches feminist from the hood that she see her as, Juliet holds her own. And that’s what is so compelling about her.

I can honestly say that I have never read a book about a chubby brown gay girl who was confident in herself and her values. Not only is Juliet secure (well, as secure as a newly out 19 lesbian can be) but she’s also knows she doesn’t know everything. She can be clumsy and awkward with her words and with her actions. That’s where I found I related with her most. Gabby Rivera was amazing in conveying the uncertainty and immaturity of adolescence while still creating a memorable and loveable character. I relate to her feeling of betrayal when she finds out that the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story were played by white actors, her feeling of belongingness when she met black feminist Zaira, and her discovery that polyamory made sense to her. Juliet’s bewilderment in response to the super liberal ways of Portland – i.e. casual nudity and the collective white feminist worship of Harlowe Brisbane – was highly relatable and laugh-out-loud funny at times. Especially when those incidents were coupled with her frequent asthma attacks.

Many of the social justice aspects of the book resonate with me. Today in 2016, a lot of kids my age are involved in social justice and consider ourselves socially and racially aware – but Juliet’s story takes place in the early 2000s and, despite her interest in feminism, and despite her being gay, she isn’t entirely sure what her identity means to herself and others. When she first arrives at Harlowe’s, she is asked by someone she only just met, “So Juliet, how do you identify? What are your preferred gender pronouns?” Juliet is understandably dumbfounded. It reminded me of watching Orange Is the New Black for the first time. I thought of myself as a woke, sexually fluid feminist girl, but I realized I had a lot to learn when I saw the transgender character Sophia. Juliet’s discomfort and hesitation to not offend really spoke to me and made her more likeable – because no activist is perfect.

Perhaps most important is the originality of this book. There are a few twists and turns not only in the plot but also in the characters themselves – particularly in Juliet. She is not a perfect feminist – in fact, at one point she asks her cousin Ava, “Um, Ava, don’t all women have vaginas?” – proving that she still has lots to learn, and is willing to learn it all. In this way, Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming-of-age story like no other, one that speaks to not only queer brown girls, but to all young feminist girls.

In searching for books featuring characters like me, I grew tired of the same old story. I grew tired of not being able to find my type of feminism, my not-thin, sexuality-questioning, girl of color type of feminism. And I found it in Juliet. I found it when she realized that Harlowe, her feminist role model, might not have a feminism that was for her. I found it when she held her ground and told her mother that who she loved was not a phase. Most of all, I found it when Juliet stood up to Harlowe, realizing that she couldn’t allow her story to be defined by or taken away by anyone else.

Towards the end of the book, Juliet is asked, “Will you speak your truth, Juliet?” That question really encompasses the book and its importance. I saw myself in Juliet because she spoke her truth, and I felt empowered to do the same. That’s what this all comes down to. We need stories like Juliet’s because we need queer girls – specifically queer girls of color – to see themselves, and to see their stories told without apology. Juliet’s story not only spoke to my heart, but it also made me feel, as a writer and aspiring novelist, more ready and inspired to write my own stories and speak my truth to the world.

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Get your copy of Juliet Takes a Breath here. Support Aisha and our writers here on Patreon.

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In Bed: Brittani Nichols

Episode 3 of "Getting In Bed With Kristin" brings Brittani Nichols - actor, comedian, writer, and "esteemed lesbian" - to my guest bed! We answer a bunch of your questions (and some questions from Jenny Owen Youngs, who refused to be left out), a little bit of advice, and we find out that I am really, really horrible at telling jokes!

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I'm A Gay Christian

by Alyse Knorr

I never expected that coming out would bring me closer to my faith, but that’s exactly what happened.

Despite (or maybe because of) my very religious upbringing in the Deep South, I could never quite “click” with Christianity. I went to a massive megachurch on Sundays, then a tiny rural youth group on Wednesday nights (because a girl I had a crush on attended), and I felt like a fraud in both environments. I didn’t weep during The Passion of the Christ like the other kids, and my heart was never warmed by the full baptisms on the Jumbotron screen above the rock concert worship stage.

I felt disillusioned by all of the historical injustices Christianity had helped perpetrate, while at the same time, I was terrified of going to hell. Over and over I “recommitted” to Jesus, hoping to feel something. But all I felt were confusing “impure thoughts” that haunted me during morning worship, surrounded on all sides by thousands of reverent born-again Christians who I just knew would soon discover the fact that I wasn’t really one of them.

Even though I couldn’t connect with Christianity, I still felt fascinated by the essential mysteries of creation, human consciousness, and the afterlife. I would have checked the “spiritual, not religious” box throughout most of college and graduate school. I equated “religion” with dogma and hate, and “spirituality” with freedom and open-mindedness. Still, I longed for the ritual, symbolism, and community of church. I wanted the daily practice of religion. I understand the world through words, and I wanted a text to refer to again and again for its beauty and metaphor.

After I came out, things started falling into place. I talked to a friend’s mother, who was a pastor, about alternate names for God. Instead of using the patriarchal term “Father,” I could use Holy Parent, Protector, Guardian, or Timeless One. I started reading the Bible and actually enjoying it. It helped to read the text with its historical context in mind, and through a heavily metaphorical lens. Truth is not necessarily fact, and vice versa.

I talked to my partner about her experiences growing up Presbyterian— the quietness of her religion, its emphasis on service and community. She asked if I wanted to go to church with her, and I was skeptical, to say the least. So we went to a Metropolitan Community Church (a Protestant denomination with an LGBTQ outreach emphasis) and my whole world changed. Families of all types sat in the pews. Inclusive language filled the hymnbooks. Loving gay couples lined up to take communion together and then pray with one of the ministers, arms locked around each other in a tight circle. For the first time, I took communion. The whole experience moved me to tears.

Soon after, I started attending a Bible study at MCC and learned more about what it meant to be a gay Christian. These men and women viewed Jesus as a protector, a champion of the weak, the Other, the outcast. They admired the Bible’s female heroes, and emphasized that there is more love and kindness in the Bible than hatred or dogma.

Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them I go to church, like being Christian and being gay are not compatible. I understand the misconception. But coming out is the reason I began re-exploring Christianity. Coming out helped me finally accept and love my real self. There were no more secrets or shame, no more lying or fear. I finally felt like I knew myself, and that meant I could open up to even more love and connectedness, this time through the framework of religion.

I’m still learning what Christianity means to me, and trying to determine how to live at peace with its troubled history. For me, it is deeply satisfying to reclaim the religion used to oppress and terrify me as a younger person. And the good news is that things are changing very, very quickly, with more and more churches of all kinds welcoming gay members, marrying gay couples, and ordaining gay clergy.

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This story was excerpted from This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids (Chronicle, 2014). Learn more about our writers, and help support their work, here on Patreon!

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Hey, my name is Virginia and I'm 14. I'm not sure of my sexuality, but I know I'm not straight, which I'm very open with at school and with all my friends. However, I'm not out to my parents. I sort of decided I wouldn't tell them until I was 100% sure, but I feel like they should know since so many of my peers do. I know you're not supposed to come out until you're ready, but can I be out to my school and not my family?

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Kristin Says:

Hellooooo Virginia!

The short answer here is: you can absolutely be out to your friends at school before being out to your family, and there is nothing wrong with making that choice if it is what feels best to you right now.

However, there is a little more to this dilemma, which I am going to take in two parts. First, let’s talk about waiting until you are “100% sure.” I get it, I reallllllyyy get it, but I don’t know that there is a guarantee that you will ever get to 100% on the SURE-ABOUT-IT meter, you know? Some of us do get there, but not all of us, and as someone who hasn’t ever felt SURE about one word lasting for my lifetime, I can tell you it is okay to never make it to 100%! I’ve been talking about this a bunch lately, but I think it bears repeating – our desires and identities and sexualities can change over time, and that doesn’t make any identity on our life’s continuum any less valid than any other identity! Meaning, if you come out to your parents today as ‘not straight,’ that is enough of a descriptor, and you don’t have to stay inside of those particular words forever.

Your parents likely don’t expect that you will only talk to them at the ‘end points’ of your life journeys. For starters, most of these journeys don’t have clean ‘end points,’ and I’d imagine most parents would want to be a part of the experience, the questions, and the beautiful parts that come in the in-betweens. If you think that your parents will be accepting of your sexuality overall, then telling them you don’t know exactly who you are yet, but that you know you aren’t straight, is a damn fine way to come out!

Second, I want to talk about the conflict you might be feeling in keeping something about yourself from your parents. This kind of decision is a really hard one to make, because you are negotiating between wanting to feel ready, and also wanting to feel like you can be open about who you are with people that you probably interact with a lot, and who also probably mean a whole bunch to you. It really is a tough call to make, which is why it is so personal to each person’s experience, and why it is so important to check in with yourself often about how you’re feeling.

The way I view it, you are weighing the feelings against each other to see which is the best decision for your heart and your wellbeing at the moment. If the weight of keeping something from your parents starts to be the bigger, more cumbersome feeling, then I think it is good to consider coming out (even if, as we talked about up there, you aren’t 100% certain of your identity just yet). Now, of course, if you are afraid that your parents will be very upset, or take extreme measures, this becomes a very different conversation (and one that involves having a clear plan in place before taking action), but your message doesn’t seem to suggest that this is part of your fear, Virginia. It seems, rather, that this is about timing what is right for you, what’s right for them, and when you should shift to a place of conversation with your family.

If you can, journal about it, or even just spend a few minutes before you fall asleep each night checking in on how you’re feeling. Make a system, even! Maybe you keep a notebook by your bed and you rank your “I want to tell my parents” feelings next to your “I’m not ready” feelings using a numbered scale or by putting a tally in the column that feels stronger to you. Then, over time, you’ll be able to see if those feelings change or if, perhaps, you really are more ready than you’d initially thought.

The bottom line is that there is no “wrong” answer here. This is your process, first and foremost. Your parents will have a process, too, but for now you have to do what makes you feel most comfortable, most safe, and most balanced.

<3

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