THE MIXER | EDITORIALS
A question I ask myself every night for two years. Having stopped believing in a God as a teenager, why was I still burdened with this existential question of spirituality?
After being sexually assaulted at seventeen, I sought answers about my identity, as I tried to understand what it means to be queer living with both religious and sexual trauma. Becoming a self-anointed “Martyr,” I found my identity through drag, art, and my own interpretation of piety. By sharing my story, I hope to help others who have experienced similar traumas find both solace and courage to begin speaking out.
Making of a Martyr
Religious trauma is ingrained in many a queer person’s experience. Being raised Catholic myself, I knew the guilt and shame of a queer identity within the church firsthand. I was taught the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah, punished for seeing two men being affectionate, and forced to perform corrective masculine behavior. From forcing the “swish” in my walk to disappear, or being allowed to play with G.I. Joe over Barbie, most of these punishments were subtle. The one odd example that sticks out was when I grew out my nails a bit too long. At the ripe old age of nine, my dad accused me of being a gay coke dealer due to my slightly longer pinky nail. He would then restrain me while he clipped them. What short nails teach about masculinity, I will never know.
As I matured, I began to question the validity of these teachings, seeing the contradictions of a loving God but a punished existence. I somehow managed to cut ties as a pre-teen when I began to accept my identity as a reality.
However, the shame of my queerness hung over me like a shadow, never allowing me to fully have the coming out experience with friends and family. This shame came to a head in my senior year of high school, as I decided to test the waters of sexual attraction and download Grindr. What started as a game of impulse and curiosity ended with ineffable damage. On November 23rd, 2012, at 12:51 pm, I was sexually assaulted in my first queer sexual experience.
I try to avoid specifics about what happened that afternoon for the sake of my own mental health. After being diagnosed with PTSD, I realized the weight of bringing up details can have on me and others who have experienced sexual assault.
Despite being a dumb horny seventeen year old, I never had any intention of meeting up with anyone on Grindr. However, one guy kept messaging me persistently for days trying to convince me to meet up with him. It was the final proposition of a threesome that eventually got me to agree against my better judgment. I thought it was the ideal way to lose my virginity and score some “cool points” with my friends. I couldn’t drive at the time, so I lied to my mom about seeing a movie with some friends and was picked up in front of my neighborhood to avoid suspicion.
(012_023) Envy, Martyrdom 2019
Risking my safety by entering a stranger’s car should have been the first warning. I was completely uneasy the second I entered his car. This stranger, a mid-thirties Naval officer, just kept feeling me up and making sexually charged comments. I was too socially awkward to say anything or stand up for myself, and began to shrink inwards. We drove for about 5 miles, reaching the home of a college-aged twink. I had briefly chatted with this twink on Grindr, so I knew that this was his parent’s home. Having to sneak around his folks, we found his bedroom and started taking our clothes off.
From here it’s a bit of a blur, the shock of being sexual with strangers mixed with my Catholic guilt paralyzed me. Physically I was there, but mentally I had shut down, going through the motions and following orders. The last thing I can remember was foreplay ending and being pinned onto the bed. I desperately asked for a condom, and both parties laughed at the thought.
I’ve repressed those next few minutes. Eventually, the Naval officer got dressed and left in a hurry. Being stranded, the twink reluctantly offered me a ride home. While less unsettling than the first, this car ride was just as uncomfortable. The twink had told me that the Naval officer was married with a newborn, and that he had been cheating with the twink for months.
(014_023) St. Anthony of Padua Patron Saint of Lost Souls, Martyrdom 2019
I wish I had known that detail earlier, as I know I could have avoided the whole situation. Besides the physical assault, not having this information beforehand robbed me of consent, as I agreed to the threesome under false pretenses. Looking back, the whole encounter was filled with secrets and lies, which led me to get in a dangerous situation with no support.
I was in denial about the assault for over a year. My Catholic upbringing led me to believe that all homosexual encounters would be predatory and traumatic. I tried to bottle up my confusion and shock of the whole ordeal and shove it in the back of my mind with the rest of my queerness.
While very clearly traumatized, I would boast to friends how I finally lost my virginity before anyone else. I realize now this was my first time trying to rewrite my memory, to turn my shame into false confidence. I used my perception of the events to cope with the trauma, acting more and more recklessly, sleeping around with anyone who even looked my way.
Lucky enough to survive this relatively unscathed, I finally dropped this narrative after having an argument with a former fling, in which I realized they were following in my footsteps. Expressing my concern led us to raise our voices at each other, accusing each other of acting out of character. In a moment of pure frustration to justify my actions, I blurted out,
“I was raped.”
It was the first time I admitted it to myself, but I was robbed of this moment of clarity. My former fling had heard what I said but did not believe me. Their anger blinded them from my confession, and they mockingly called me a “martyr.”
While stunned, this was not the first time I had been labeled with this title. As a child, I would use Catholic guilt to my advantage to get out chores. My mom would lovingly call me her “little martyr.” This association first came to mind when I heard it this time, thinking my fling had used the term incorrectly.
I left immediately after this confrontation, running to the sides of friends to decompress the event. While I tried to process these new emotions and reflect on this clarity, these friends started calling me “Martyr” as a term of endearment. This comfort gave me a fondness for the title, and by adopting it, I felt I had reclaimed a term that was meant to silence me.
(007_023) Famine, Martyrdom 2019
Drag the Martyr
In the first semester of pursuing my undergraduate degree, it was a formative interaction with my Gender Theory class, where I decided to navigate my gender expression through drag performance.
I had some idea of drag, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, but this was the first time it felt accessible. Far removed from my hometown, I felt comfortable addressing my personal biases and fears towards queerness.
Drag was the plunge that opened the door to acceptance, and I had already decided on my name. Using “Martyr,” I decided to add the affectation, or mispronunciation, of “tyr” to “tear,” to make it more my own and to be “crying for your sins.” While referencing my mocking title, I also used the term to reference the religious trauma that still loomed over me. Performing originally started as a personal therapy. It unbottled the pent-up shame and anger from my upbringing. Upon realizing this can be alienating for an audience, I have tried to shift focus to a collective trauma to carve out an environment where my audience can recognize their own sadness. We can share that moment together.
Since that realization, I have adopted Catholic imagery and tropes to form a digestible aesthetic and reference to my past trauma. In doing so, I created different characters under the “Martyr” name, curating stories and ideas surrounding them. This formulation originally came from the inherently repetitious nature of Catholic iconography, where symbols were repeated to show their association with a specific biblical character. One such example is the now-queer icon of St. Sebastian being pierced by arrows as a reference to his martyrdom.
In my attempts to mimic this referential nature, I would repeat outfits, makeup, looks, and allude to previous performances. Close friends picked up on it, even calling it the MCU (Martyr Cinematic Universe), but there was still a disconnect with the audience.
(020_023) St. Sebastian Patron Saint of the Holy Christian Death, Martyrdom 2019
Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with how these characters would interact, where they would live out in a fleeting moment on stage. As the expanding complex narrative story took shape within my head, I took up photography to document my performance art and my work’s overall ephemeral nature.
Capturing these moments now in a physical medium allowed me to create characters that could not physically exist on stage while also fleshing out unique scenarios for each of them. In doing so, I hope to reach a wider audience and unpack years of trauma.
For the past two years, I have dedicated the month of November to work on a personal project that combats both the dread around the holidays and works out emotions surrounding my sexual assault.
This year’s series, Genesis, serves as a prequel series to my first photography project Martyrdom. Shot daily in November 2019, I created twenty-three images counting down to my sexual assault anniversary.
Martyrdom served as a first attempt at capturing these ephemeral figures, with each image showing a unique character. From depictions of saints and demons to a physical manifestation of my deadly sins, the overall goal was to expand my storytelling process. For Genesis, I wanted to focus on my original three figures, the (un)holy trinity: The High Priestess, Whore of Babylon, and Martyr. These characters interest me the most as they represent the most about myself, both good and bad. Creating the scenarios of their backstory helped me unpack the trauma I knew I was holding on to.
Birth, The High Priestess,
Leviticus 21.9, The Whore of Babylon,
Who Art in Heaven, The Martyr,
The High Priestess
Dressed in all white with a red contour, the High Priestess is the closest representation to my Catholic upbringing, in the form of a feminine Pope-like ruler. She has had the biggest evolution as a character, starting as a ghostly specter in a performance about memory.
Stern in her demeanor, but physically frail, nowadays I see her as a corrupted moral authority. I took her name from the tarot card of the same name, only to realize later that it stood for secrets and the subconscious mind. This connection furthered my understanding of the religious trauma I had experienced, as I see this character as the most terrifying. For me, white has been more of a sinister color, as its perceived “purity” seems abnormal and unearthly.
When it came to live performances, I would always stand out from the dark shadows of clubs and stages with this bleak white makeup. For this series, I wanted to figure out how such a character would become so blindingly white. In her scenes, I tried to depict what I essentially call her “rebirth”, from starting as a dying husk to the eventual spiritual possession.
Contractions, The High Priestess, Martyrdom 2020
The Whore of Babylon
The Book of Revelations tells us of the inevitable apocalypse that will befall mankind. In one such forewarning, we learn of “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth” as she sits upon a beast of seven heads.
This figure, commonly known as “The Whore of Babylon” represents the Church’s insular infighting, depicted in the form of a feminine “harlot.” To me, the representation of women in the Bible was always degrading, with this passage being no exception: the ultimate evil and downfall of the Church appears as a sexual being.
When I was going through my reckless phase of sexual maturity, I would use the term “whore” against myself in the same way. I was shaming myself for my sexuality while actively still participating in it. When I eventually reclaimed “martyr,” I felt the same treatment was due to my own derogatory title.
Dressed in all black and with a mask in the shape of a bat, my version of the Whore differs from the Biblical description. I wanted her to be an almost stereotypical form of a demon or gothic character, to serve as a foil to the High Priestess. I do not see her as an evil character, rather a tragic one, with her lack of sight to display her lack of faith.
For this series, I wanted to show her downfall from the Church. Echoing my own experience, she finds herself drawn into temptation and then humiliated for it.
Our Father, Martyrdom 2020
The Martyr’s physical depiction is the least seen in the series: only shown aiding the High Priestess in her ailing health, and later as a stand-alone portrait. I purposely chose to underrepresent her, as I see her as more of an idea than the other two. The term “Martyr” can be applied to either of the other figures, as it is a title rather than a name. Like the series before it, Genesis is a collection of black and white photography with the color red isolated. While it is my favorite color, I find it most representative of “martyrs” in general. More than any other trait, red ties the characters together, whether it depicts blood, passion, or life.
Splintering my lived experience into these separate characters has helped me cope with what has happened. While I realize I am rewriting my own narrative, I do so to produce creativity and, hopefully, invite the same collective mourning I created through my performances.
trauma is my muse
My story is all too familiar. Working in nightlife, I have had too many instances of fellow performers, friends, and complete strangers coming up to me to share something similar that happened to them.
I always try to thank them for being open with me, as I realize the strength it takes to put those feelings into words. I try not to say “survivor” or “brave” when talking about sexual assault, as I believe these terms perpetuate the narrative that sexual assault is not uncommon. Speaking out and defending those who have dealt with assault should not be given noteworthy attention, as this continues the sensationalizing of victimhood. I ask for you who normalize dealing with this trauma not to call me a survivor – but to listen to those who speak out.
So where was God when I was sexually assaulted? At this point in my life, I don’t care. I put that anger beside me. I split my emotions from both my religious and sexual trauma to reflect and move on. In some ways, this trauma is my muse, but she no longer has the emotional weight over me.
I’ve reclaimed my martyrdom, and she is purely mine.
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Hallowed Be Thy Name
Who Art In Heaven
(002_023) Whore of Babylon
(003_023) High Priestess
(014_023) St. Anthony of Padua Patron Saint of Lost Souls
(015_023) St. Jude the Apostle Patron Saint of Lost Causes
(016_023) St. Agricola of Avignon Patron Saint of Plague
(017_023) St. Bibiana of Rome Patron Saint of Mental Illness
(018_023) St. Mary Magdalene Patron Saint of Sexual Temptation
(019_023) St. Agatha of Sicily Patron Saint of the Assaulted
(020_023) St. Sebastian Patron Saint of the Holy Christian Death
(021_023) St. Lucia of Syracuse Patron Saint of Martyrs
(022_023) St. Stephen The First Martyr