In Which A Blue-Haired Stranger Saves A Queer Lady From A Life Of Religious Self-Loathing

by Bec Hawkings

I escaped Catholicism because of a boy with blue hair.

I was raised Catholic. Baptised as a baby, attended a Catholic primary school, and received a Confirmation name when I was eight. (Veronica, as it happens. In a class full of Marys and Elizabeths and Roses, I chose the name that no-one else wanted.) When I was eleven, and the time came for high school enrolments, I was one of the few in my grade who was given a choice. The first option was the all-girl’s Catholic college that would absorb most of the females of my primary school class. St. Joseph’s was at that time a concrete jungle, a maze of construction and starchy uniform dresses and promises of a new library. It was my parent’s preference – both had been educated in single-sex Catholic schools, and wanted the same type of education for their daughter. The second option was the academically selective public school at which I’d been offered a place, along with three others from my primary school class. (Four out of a class of sixty-four. It remains to this day my primary school’s highest acceptance group to the selective school system.) The public high school was a top twenty school, renowned for high HSC scores and a competitive academic environment. But – problematically – Gosford High was public, not Catholic.

To their credit (or perhaps, indication of their insanity), my parents left the decision up to me. Having been accepted at both schools, and being a somewhat pragmatic child, I waited until the orientation days to make up my mind. St. Joseph’s orientation day was a full-day immersion program, where we young Catholic women (or, as the principal referred to us in the introductory speeches, the “shining young ladies of faith for the next generation”) were split into homerooms and attended mock ‘classes.’ It was pleasant enough – many of the same faces from seven years of Catholic inter-school programs, and the promise of another six years of not having to try very hard to get by. The Gosford High orientation was a half-day program, filled primarily with speeches from the heads of each department and a tour around the school grounds. There were trees, and grass, and the uniform policy appeared to be lax, at best. The school band performed – and they actually produced sounds recognisable as music (!) – and the head of Languages (a woman who would later become one of my favourite ever teachers) talked about the four languages offered to students. The sample curriculum looked tough; unlike at St. Joseph’s, there were assigned English books that I hadn’t already read, and a music program that catered for those of us who’d already had music training.

But it wasn’t the curriculum, or the trees, or even the option to study Indonesian instead of French that made up my mind. As my parents and I were leaving the school grounds, I saw a fifteen or sixteen year old male student walk towards the office block. He had the slumped gait so typical of teenage boys, and his school pants were somewhere down around his knees. And he had blue hair. Bright blue, electric, neon hair.

And nobody cared. No-body stared, or questioned him, or seemed to think it was odd. And I knew that this non-Catholic school, with its blue-haired miscreants and expansive language program, was the place for me.

(Appropriately, my high school years were filled with multiple shades of red hair and purple hair and blonde hair, strange fashions, a habitual non-observance of the uniform policy, and a highly visible tattoo for the final six months of Year 12. And almost no-one gave a single flying fuck. It was bliss.)

Thanks to that blue-haired stranger, I chose the school that didn’t have compulsory religion classes, but instead taught me how to think for myself – or, more accurately, how to question everything and believe nothing and always, always keep learning. (It was also the high school that had café within walking distance. The impact that had on both my 9am Maths class attendance record in Year Ten and my current caffeine addiction is profound.) I don’t think I ever believed in a God, Catholic or otherwise. My mother, though horrified by my atheism, likes to tell the story of how I was that annoying little brat in Religion class who questioned how Noah could have built a boat that fit all the species of animal, and how the animals didn’t eat each other, or the humans, and what happened if one of the animals died on the way? I tried, I really did, and for a very long time, to believe in a higher power. I’m much happier without it.

Years after I left that Catholic primary school, I went back, this time as a Learning Support Assistant. (The things broke uni students do for money.) I sat through Religion classes, and staff meetings that started with a prayer, and lunchroom conversations that offended my feminist, atheist, queer-lady self. And I bit my tongue, and I nodded my head, and then I’d rant and rave to sympathetic former Catholics (or, as one dear friend terms herself, a “recovering Catholic.”) But I don’t hate these people, nor do I begrudge them their faith. They’re not evil, or malicious, and a surprising number of them are actually extremely progressive when it comes to issues like gay marriage and abortion. Even the ones who make John Howard look like a screaming lefty are kind and intelligent. Years ago, a formally Catholic friend and I were having an argument with another friend, who couldn’t understand how we could defend the Catholic Church, particularly as we were both gay. We weren’t defending the Church, we argued – Catholicism for us was two separate beings. On the one hand was the institution that was homophobic, misogynistic, and stuck in the pre-Enlightenment age; but on the other hand, there were the people that we knew and loved – our families, and friends, and the individuals who are just trying to live a life as best they know how. So I don’t hate Catholics – I just can’t stand the Church. To be fair, it can’t stand me either.

(A few years ago, I had minor surgery. Filling out the hospital form, I answered ‘atheist’ to the Religion of Patient question. My mother said she was more ashamed of me for that than when I came out as gay. She’s turned around a little, now, or she’s quieter about my atheism at least – she has her faith, and I have my lack thereof, and we have an unspoken agreement not to discuss matters of religion. This is the same women who wants one of those “May the foetus you save be gay” badges, and who is one of the most strident feminists I know. She confuses me as much as I confuse her, and we adore each other. Adulthood is a strange beast.)

Yesterday, Prime Minister Gillard announced a long-overdue Royal Commission into child sexual abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church. Today, Cardinal George Pell attended a press conference in which he was his usual blithering, useless, offensive self. My staunchly Catholic mother’s only response was “About. Time.” My response contained a few more four-letter words than hers did. I can’t bite my tongue anymore. It’s tiring, and it’s disrespectful to the people who have fought for so long to have their stories of horrific abuse heard. The Royal Commission is going to take a very long time, and I’m cynical as to the real-world implications it will have (particularly if the next election sees a man of religion become the leader of the country once more.) But perhaps it is enough to have the stories be told, however hard it is for us to hear them. Maybe breaking the silence – and the power of the institution that so viciously guards that silence – is a good enough start.

A few months ago, a police officer came to the primary school. He dug through the archives of attendance books, took some photographs of a particular record from the 1980s, and left. A priest who had once served in the school’s parish, you see, was now up on child sex allegations. There was tut-tutting, and head-shaking, but overall no-one batted an eyelid. It just isn’t surprising, any more.