The Dress Doesn’t Make the Priest

By

I am going to tell you my favorite story of how a flower acquired its name. It’s the story of the ranunculus.

Ranunculus in Latin translates to “little frog.” According to the legend there was once a very handsome Asian prince named Ranunculus. He had a lovely voice and sang in the presence of nymphs. His only curse was his shyness. He was surrounded by gorgeous nymphs and he eventually fell in love with one but he couldn’t convey his feelings for her. He died of the frustration and anxiety of being tragically shy. When he died he was transformed into the delicate Persian buttercup we know today. It was in this form that he was finally able to convey his feelings. Finally touched by his beloved nymph as he was plucked from the ground, his papery thin petals stroked and relished.

***

This story resonated with me most because of the duality of the Asian prince. His altered state of flower served him in ways his human experience betrayed him. Yet he had all these gifts. He was the prince. He was handsome. He had a beautiful singing voice.

I have what many people growing up referred to as “good hair”—the kind that grows long and wavy, doesn’t require heat or chemicals to reach below my shoulders. I don’t know how the “good” phrase started but it did. Subconsciously when someone says good hair I always picture something else. I picture hair that allows lovemaking fingers to slowly rake through it from scalp to ends. I picture foreplay, hair as the gateway.

Before I take you down this dark alley of a fantasy I want to be clear I know it’s all bullshit. All lies. I know hair is not the gateway to good sex or any sex. It is also not possible to rake fingers through my hair. In fact, it was a long running joke in my family—all the things I can successfully hide in my hair. I would carry around pencils and cigarettes in my ‘fro and sit next to the class slacker waiting for the question, “Hey you gotta extra pencil?” and then pull it out like magic.

***

There are lots of different ways to be biracial and like the prince, I appeared one way but really am a different way. I’m most often confused for being Puerto Rican and because of this people present themselves to me as they would a Puerto Rican. While I am so light-skinned I’m often confused with something else, my brother was not. He used to take me aside and whisper in my ears to ‘be aware,’ to watch how people treated him. He joked like Eddie Murphy. He teased people and went “Boo!” when he walked past them to make fun of the fact that they were afraid. Lots of people were and sometimes maybe it was because he was black. I think it was mostly because he spent a lot of time beating people up. Bad. Beyond recognition.

***

Another way I describe this phenomena is L’abito non fa il prete or The dress doesn’t make the priest. They were the only words I knew—the only words in Italian besides ‘cat’ and a lousy dirty scoundrel, schifoso, (someone who is disgusting). Many years since—I have found this phrase useful. I can say the dress doesn’t make the priest in so many situations and each time it is equally satisfying.

***

I entered foster care in junior high. My foster dad, who is white in complexion, was born in South Africa so he would jokingly and possibly more accurately identify as African-American. When his son was eight, he asked, “Is anyone in our family African?”  My foster dad responded, “Yes, me.”

My brother leaned back on one foot. His eyes wandered from his father to me and he said, “No but I mean….”

I figured I would help him. “You mean black?”

Relieved, he smiled and said, “Yeah.”

I responded, “Me.”

No longer self-conscious he said, “No, like really black.”

***

In addition to being biracial I’m gay. I’m also a woman, a worker, a commie. I’m many things. One tribe doesn’t negate the other. This concept has been referred to by Zadie Smith as ‘middling.’ In her essay Speaking in Tongues she states:

How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety-disguised as a genteel concern-for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices-whatever will become of them? Something’s got to give-one voice must be sacrificed for the other.  What is double must be made singular.

I like to think of myself as belonging to the tribe of the powerless. I was born powerless. I grew up with my nose smacked right up against power, right to where I could see and smell and taste it but remained powerless. Powerlessness is hot, filled with sweat, passion, sex, suffering you can taste, vulnerability, fear, risk, wanting. I work social justice jobs that leave me living paycheck to paycheck and I write stories about people who have stories that need to be told but face a thousand barriers to telling them. In fact, I didn’t start thinking of race, identity and sexual orientation in conflict until November 2008.

***

November 4, 2008, I was dispatched to do GOTV in the red parts of California, portions of Orange County, a small chunk of dirt called Chino, California—places that primarily housed churches and In-N-Out. There were two groups out that day. The purple group, (Service Employees Internation Union members and employees swarming the streets for president-elect Obama), and Mormon families. Every door I knocked on, every voter I canvassed, a small family of Mormons trailed behind me. Every lawn had a sign—a happy family silhouette holding hands saying ‘Yes on 8.’ I looked at the ladies in their long skirts and high collars and thought, Damn they know how to organize. They were selling wholesome family that day and there were takers, lots and lots of takers.

Every one of those signs I saw felt like violence to me. It hurt like hell. A little boy dancing on a lawn, teeth missing, smacking his hips, yelled out, “Yes on 8. Yes on 8.” It felt like someone pulled back the skin and showed me the worst of people.

***

I made a conscious choice that morning that if I could knock on doors for one reason it would be for that boy. At the time I lived in West Hollywood, California. Equality California had some phone banking headquarters there. They wanted us to only call English-speaking households. Even if you spoke Spanish you weren’t supposed to reach out to monolingual Spanish speaking households. Their lists were bright white and I decided right then that these people did not know how to organize. In an instant I was presented with all the conflicting feelings of being a biracial queer American.

***

There was the occasional bright spot; a skateboarder with long hair hollered out, “No on Prop H8.” I laughed and say yea yea yea. It was one vote for my team.

At the end of that very long day of shaking yard gates and eating cold pizza and running up and down streets and hanging shit on doors and scanning lists of names and crossing things out in red and checking things off with pencils, the first African American for president was announced. You would think I’d be prepared. I wasn’t. At all. I thought of my brother who was dead, who never lived to see the first African American president of the United States. I thought about how this thing might have been so big and powerful maybe it could have been the one thing he could believe in. His whole life he taught me about this big machine that was being built to teach people to fear black men. Maybe this was stronger than the final needle that hit the right spot wrong.

I dropped my head right there in my boss’s SUV and cried and let the tears flow and she kept on asking, “What is it? Are you happy? Aren’t you happy?”

I was surrendering. I knew it was gonna be like this for a little while. Like every major speech given after that—the Inauguration speech, all the coming out on stages with his handsome upstanding adored family, moved me straight to tears every time. Maybe if he saw this I thought… I still think.

***

For a good long while I was one sentimental person. Vulnerable and open. I was letting myself get inducted into democracy. I was baptized all over again. I was saying okay Mr. President. I give up. Represent me. A strange excitement took hold of me.

In the Prop. 8 rallies that followed, every sound was louder, every fist held higher, every glittered body shinier. I finally gave in to the ecstasy of joining. I was a joiner. I was a part of a sign-holding sea. It was one big sexy moment for me. Then high above the heads I saw a sign that read, “We voted for a Black president and This is what we get.”  L’abito non fa il prete.

I was pitiful all over again. I was alone all over again. Somehow the wires got crossed. People thought they were two different things, being queer and being black. They thought maybe these two things canceled each other out.

***

This concept of no longer middling but, instead, choosing is not a new one. Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons to lower the pitch of her voice. Martin Sheen was born Ramon Estevez. Kirk Douglas’s given name is Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

This isn’t so much about choosing to hide one’s identity but perhaps at a later stage in life, being an adult, and suddenly feeling this need to choose. I went to a highly segregated high school, the lunch area separated. The kids named each area by continent. It was no wonder I ditched my tray and rather than hang out in Africa or Europe or Asia I went to find the smokers.

***

And then there were my friends who married in that perfect window of time when it was legal but afterward, after Prop. 8, there was all this trouble with their health insurance.

And some of my friends had babies and some of them adopted and I love that because I was adopted so in lots of ways I feel like I don’t have a family except for the family I create in friends. But there was this whole couple of years that felt like grasping for straws because the honest to god truth is a lot of queer people were asserting that the high turnout of people of color voting was responsible for Prop. 8 passing, that the Obama surge voters were homophobes. And then I also had people ask me, “Well why do you have to call it that? Like what’s the big deal? Why can’t you just call it domestic partnership? Like what’s the power in the word?”

And I want to say everything’s the power in the word.


When Melissa Chadburn is not teaching at UCSD, she can usually be found protesting somewhere. She has written for Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, McSweeney’s, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and a dozen other places. Her essay, "The Throwaways," was noted in 2013’s Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Follow her on twitter @melissachadburn. She loves your whole outfit right now. More from this author →