When I was toddler, all blond ringlets and big brown eyes, I was eating dinner while sitting at my high chair in the kitchen when my dad told me to finish something – probably a vegetable. The story goes, instead of listening to him, I looked him dead in the eye, raised my fist – which was about 1.5 inches wide – and stuck out my jaw. I was ready to fight this giant man, apparently, because I didn’t want to be told what to do. My dad and mom tried to discipline me without showing me how much they were laughing. They like to say this was when they realized that their daughter, the middle child of five girls, was going to be a bit different. I like to think it was evidence of my tiny baby backbone starting to sprout steel.
Growing up in Montana, I had a great childhood, often taking advantage of being in the middle and getting lost in the shuffle to pursue my own introverted adventures. I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to stop being one; being an adult would mean having control and independence, being taken seriously. Being a child meant you hardly had a voice, and it didn’t take me long to realize that being a girl-child meant my voice counted even less.
Every Sunday, my parents would wrangle us into our brown 1986 Suburban and take us to church. My mom was raised Catholic in Canada, while my dad was raised a Southern Baptist in Arkansas; they agreed to raise us, the girls, Catholic. We were indoctrinated early on in the faith, with baptisms and first communion, Catholic school and confirmation. It was apparent to me early on that this wasn’t going to be a good fit. I was smart and opinionated and mouthy, which can be a cocktail for disaster for a girl facing down Catholicism.
I remember when it clicked for me: one Sunday, the priest was giving a homily about one of the readings that day, Ephesians 22-23: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.”
I was perhaps 9 or 10, and looked over at my mom, eyes huge, brow furrowed, and mouthed, What?
She gave me a look back: I know, it’s such a bummer.
It felt wrong to me, and quite upsetting, that I was being told to submit just because I was born with a vagina. I already had enough trouble with obedience.
From then on, I was a honed knife, ready to slice and cut into the inconsistencies in the biblical readings. My doubt gathered natural momentum. There were assurances that it was healthy and normal to question my faith, but it became clear that my analytical mind was not welcome among the Catholics we knew. Too many questions led to too many conversations ending with, “Well, that’s why we have faith,” as if having faith would explain everything.
I was and am a realist; I wasn’t going to take the Bible’s teachings or the church’s dogma blindly. While troublesome for the adults around me, this perspective was quite helpful when I realized I didn’t really care about kissing the boyfriends I had in high school and I didn’t want the white wedding dress; I wanted to be wearing a tux, standing across from the woman wearing the white dress.
Homosexuality was nothing but a lesson in the church. It was a sin, and you’re supposed to love the sinner. But I loved myself and didn’t think I was inherently evil. That tenacious toddler in me was shaking her fists.
By middle school, I wasn’t looking to the Catholic communion of saints for life inspiration anymore. They didn’t apply to me, other than the women who died being obstinate. I learned that in order to survive, I had to find my own patron saints for inspiration. I had to build my own mythology, one in which my wants and dreams and desires were important, not just a lesson in sin or a second-class concern.
There’s power in being your own hero, but I didn’t want to do it alone. I needed my own people, birds of my feather, in a time without the Internet to connect me to them. For me, the journey to finding my flock started with a bee charmer from Alabama.
Idgie Threadgoode: Patron Saint of Tomboys
As a kid, my parents rarely let us watch movies with swearing or sex, but for some reason, they always allowed “Fried Green Tomatoes.” I have my theories, one of them being that lesbians were so far off their radar they couldn’t even feel that subtextual relationship between Ruth and Idgie, but what I know for sure is that this movie brought Idgie to my life. Idgie, a tomboy who fishes and gambles instead of going to church, who drinks and carouses, who fights and kills for the woman she loves – I saw a strength in her I recognized in myself, and thinking about how she handled her troubles gave me comfort, because I felt so lonely with mine. Knowing I wasn’t alone and that someone else felt like I did gave me hope and courage, and I felt less afraid of the socialized understanding that I was somehow different or lesser.
Lucy Liu: Patron Saint of Kisses
I was in high school, in the basement, when this episode from Ally McBeal came on. Lucy Liu’s powerful, shameless lawyer character kisses Calista Flockhart’s entirely less appealing Ally McBeal. Re-watching it now, I can see it for what it is: a ploy for ratings. But at that point, it was the first time I remember seeing overt sexual tension between two female characters culminating in a physical way. These days, I understand the importance of seeing yourself reflected in the media, but back then, I just knew that moment felt good; I felt less alone. I still smile and mentally salute Lucy Liu whenever I see her on TV or in movies, and am continually pleased with her portrayal of powerful, smart characters.
Tegan and Sara: Patron Saints of Musical Escape
This is how I found out about Tegan and Sara, who are now a natural part of the Lesbian Starter Kit: It was 2001, and I realized I liked folk music. So, naturally, I typed “folk music” into a search engine, found a website aggregating artists, saw the names Tegan and Sara, and thought they sounded cool. At first, I couldn’t discern whether the relationship issues they were singing about had anything to do with having girlfriends, but their early music gave me a hunch. The more I listened, the more obvious it became, and I felt like I had won the lottery. I often wonder if the Ghosts of Lesbians Past were guiding my computer mouse that day, because that search changed my life.
Imagine you’ve been taking shallow, rapid breaths your whole life, assuming it was the normal way to breathe. Then, one day, someone shows you breathing can be deep and expansive — and fully inflating your lungs for the first time might hurt, but that flood of oxygen to your brain and muscles brings you to life like never before. Reading Toni Morrison was, for me, like breathing deeply for the first time, her words and emotion flooding my brain, filling my heart. I read Beloved in high school and became a fixture at the library, borrowing all of her books I could find. The wisdom and sheer power in her storytelling astounds me still; it’s like being swept up in a strong tide, one that won’t let me go until long after I finish the book.
If you’ve ever read any of Atwood’s books, you know the feeling: you finish the book, sit back, and suddenly think, “Holy shit, that could actually happen.” It wasn’t until I started reading her novels that I really understood how careless humans are with our futures, and how the drive to dominate nature with science for monetary gain will likely ruin us all. Her worlds are always stark and terrifying, and her writing is heavenly. It’s a dangerous combination for those who have active imaginations. I like to think I’m more skeptical of human ambition thanks to her writing, and I am always inspired by her ability to weave a gripping, deep, fascinating, gorgeous tale. (Also, I can’t meet anyone with a last name starting with “Of-” without assuming they are owned as breeding stock, but that’s maybe going a tad overboard.)
Temple Grandin: Patron Saint of New Thinking
Part of living in Montana is understanding livestock, and part of understanding livestock is reading Temple Grandin’s work. I was probably still a teenager when I first came across her writing, and it blew my mind that her ideas about humane treatment of animals – even the ones raised only to die for our menus – weren’t part of the system from the beginning. As an adult with autism, Grandin is famous for applying her hard-earned knowledge about what it feels like to be scared of her surroundings, how it feels to be feared and dismissed, and applying it to animals. Her writing and ideas were groundbreaking, and she is a great reminder to me that I shouldn’t take anything for granted, that I should question the status quo, and that kindness, while difficult at times, can be monumental.
I didn’t pick up on this Swedish dream until after college, but the combination of great dance beats and ridiculously embarrassing emotional lyrics was irresistible. As a person who resents having feelings, especially the kind that make me squirm, listening to Robyn sing about standing in a corner and watching her ex kiss another woman is liberating. Here is a woman who really doesn’t give a fuck about expressing her emotions, even the ones that would make a mere mortal blush or cringe, the ones I would try to bury so deep no one could see them. She makes them art, and she makes them powerful. And she makes them fun, especially when I’m alone in the car and singing on the long Montana highways, a loud devotional to the courageous.
Ruby Rose: Patron Saint of Sobriety
A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t very good at drinking anymore. I could throw them back, but it wasn’t fun. It got destructive, and I wanted out, but I didn’t want to lose the friends or access to the drinking culture with which I felt so comfortable. But one day on Twitter, Ruby Rose, this gorgeous, tattooed Australian DJ and actor, noted she was celebrating a year sober, and it was then that I realized hey, even cool people don’t drink. It’s been nearly two years since I gave up the sauce, and I’m always thankful that I saw that tweet. Ruby is probably used to being famous for being a hot lesbian, but I saw inspiration in another place, as someone trying to keep the best parts of herself while ditching the destruction. For me, now, cool is less about being able to hold my liquor and more about getting to know and trust myself — and when I’m bummed about missing out on the party scene, I just grab a seltzer, think “Ruby does it, you can too,” and hit the dance floor.
Malinda Lo: Patron Saint of New Representation
This is a relatively new addition to my inspirational roundtable. A couple years ago, my partner handed me a purple, hardcover book titled Huntress. I was familiar with Malinda’s work from the website AfterEllen, but hadn’t yet read any of her novels. What struck me immediately was that the main character’s attraction to other women just was. No teeth were gnashed, nor were there ominous feelings of impending doom in the vein of ‘Freshly Out Girl Must Die.’ It was a young adult book, but it felt revelatory to me, a decidedly not-young adult. I was even compelled to write Malinda a fangirl email about how great it was, and she was kind enough to reply. Had I read this book as a teen or preteen, my world would have been much less lonely — something I think about now as I ponder writing my own books. Malinda Lo’s writing is important because she creates characters who challenge the idea that the default is white and heterosexual, and she’s also active in the effort to get more racial and sexual orientation representation in YA literature.
Sue Priddy: Patron Saint of Adventure and Evolution
I didn’t mesh with her religion, but my mom is an amazing woman. She emigrated from Canada fresh out of nursing school in Toronto, following a hospital HR scout to Little Rock, Arkansas, because she liked the scout’s accent. She left behind her people and her culture, but kept her connections to home and family. After my parents met and fell for one another, they married and moved to Montana, where neither had family or friends. The people they met at church became our extended family, and I truly love and treasure these people for all their kindness and hilarity when I was growing up. My mom stayed home with us while my dad worked, and together they built a life for us. It got messy when I came out, and my built-in backup saints were vital, but eventually my mom changed because she loves me. Now I’m engaged to the woman of my dreams, and earlier this month my mother made the trip with me to Portland to get my beautiful wedding suit.
Molly Priddy is a writer and editor living in Montana. You can follow her on Twitter at @mollypriddy, where you'll find plenty of photos of her dogs.