(Content Note: child abuse, religious abuse)
“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” —Richard Lovelace
It is 1993 and I am 19 years old, working at a business that makes sense in today’s systems but was innovative at the time: delivering VHS movies and snacks for subscribers. The business has a fleet of Yamaha bikes and overeager drivers to make it happen. I am not on a bike. I help one of the locations fulfilling orders. Rows and rows of movies, ready to be put in bags and driven away. I remember a particular anxiety dream of not having enough copies of The Fugitive, when we received 200 a day before.
One of the benefits of the job was we could take any movie we wanted to watch at home. I took advantage of that all the time. Before the internet, it could be a crapshoot. I remember taking both La Femme Nikita and Point of No Return the same night, only to find out the latter was a remake of the former. I still watched both.
At first sight, the box art for Orlando (1992) seems very straightforward: the portrait of a man in British regalia. I can’t remember the VHS’s description. Sally Potter was mentioned but I didn’t know who she was then. Auteur cinema was not something I gravitated during those years. I was merely a kid watching new movies, some fun, some odd, some unique.
By the end, my heart felt raw.
There was something that felt fable-like to me from the start. The costumes. The bucolic and privileged life Orlando has; akin to both the empty piece of paper and the doubt of using it. Queen Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp, bestows on the young Orlando property as well as a command. “But on one condition. Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”
Orlando’s life goes on, breaking the fourth wall, the voice of the poet who needs to tell us more about who this person is at the time. He gets into an arranged marriage, but the heart wants what it wants. When a Russian delegation visits during a brutal winter, the young poet falls head over ice skates for Sasha, the daughter of a delegate. She is in many ways an ideal for Orlando: someone who shares his passions and seems to have her heart into these. Alas, the young lover sees her leave, forever. This leads to the first one of many slumbers, where his body rests between eras, sleeping away, still young. From meeting his lyrical inspiration and discovering the reality to meeting his heroes, to serving the crown in far lands, Orlando changes in how the world is perceived. A lesson and a long drowse.
Then, the phrase.
“Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.” —Orlando
This sequence, this awakening, was something unlike anything else I had seen. Orlando rises up from the bed, still bearing the clothes from the night before. A wig is left behind for the morning ritual refreshing the face with water. Dust motes fly around the screen, disturbed by the protagonist’s actions, like snowflakes dancing around, witnessing a miracle. Orlando perceives something is different, now facing to the distance. Beauty like this was meant for a large screen but still felt terrifyingly beautiful on my old TV. Orlando then says those words, directly to the audience. This character had changed, and my brain was processing it. I didn’t question it. It was Orlando’s life.
I want to point out the version of the film available in México didn’t have the scene with Orlando looking at her body. It took me a few years to get the uncensored DVD and notice what was edited out due to Mexican prudishness. I think my heart broke a bit due to what I missed the first time around.
Even without Tilda Swinton’s naked body, what I saw was disruption. I felt connected to Orlando. A new seed of doubt was fertilized in my heart. I didn’t know at the time if Tilda was a man or a woman. A piece of my heart had fallen for Orlando. An invisible chisel was put into my hands. From the start of the movie. I had a crush on a man. It wasn’t my first one.
Catholic nuns were a big part of my life while growing up in México. I saw them as the ambassadors of God’s love, teaching us catechism and preparing us for the sacraments of confirmation and the first communion. I’d seen their positive depictions in the media, mainly La Novicia Voladora (The Flying Nun), and was expecting their comforting care.
Part of Catholic catechism is training children on how to behave according to the Bible. Before my first communion, we had to practice how to confess our sins. We had a private conversation with one of the nuns, sharing the sins they told us we had. I shared how I envied the attention my younger sibling commanded from my mother, my desire to steal comics I couldn’t afford, how I wasn’t dedicating my life to my parents as I was supposed to be.
“Do you like anyone?” the nun asked. I didn’t know what she meant. “Like, to kiss,” she tried to explain. There was another boy at the class. We were friends. I liked him. I said his name.
Red pain burned my cheek. The nun swung at me and started berating me. She told me how, if I didn’t change, my family would suffer as I would go to hell. I started to cry but another slap shut me down. She was very clear about how I was sinning. She made it clear also whenever she reached me with the belt and laughed. God’s plan, amirite?
I have gynecomastia. Other kids made fun of my breasts and how I looked. I felt abnormal. I also have wide hips, which besides framing my noticeable butt, made me feel self-conscious. I wasn’t aggressive like the other boys in school. I enjoyed reading and imagining things I found different or clever. I enjoyed bonding with my mother over telenovelas while we both knitted. I often wondered if I was a woman and something got mixed in the uterus. Body dysmorphia wasn’t in my vocabulary back then, but it is very clear to me now.
Orlando, by itself, is a story about changes: in time, in attire, in perspectives. It is also a story about how the character adapts to the new realities faced after every slumber. Orlando follows the command given: Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old. She is vibrant in every life embodied. The corpus may look frozen in time but she experiences tastes, sounds, touches, ideas, dreams. Orlando is forever young in her heart, where it matters the most for the character.
I’ve never craved Orlando’s immortality, but I felt a tinge of jealousy at one moment reared its nasty head. It was after I saw an uncensored version of the movie. How the character sees herself for the first time, in her body, gorgeously framed by that mirror. A full-frontal statement of acceptance of who she now is. I wished I knew who I truly was in my gender. But the same piece of art can evoke different reactions by the same person across time. Like Orlando’s sleeps, every view has given me a new life, a new understanding, a more developed personal purpose. I accepted my bisexuality, I saw myself as a non-binary being, and reclaimed my creative voice.
Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando: A Biography in 1928, inspired by a longtime romance with Vita Sackville-West, a member of her writing group. The novel told the story of how a person escaped the concept of birth gender and had a happy ending. Orlando experienced romance in different ways, fully falling, and entirely whole, with a heart that seeks others, even while broken, still giving and thriving. When a world seems heartbreaking, Woolf’s optimistic vision is there to comfort us.
Orlando opened the doors to question who I was. The movie created a new concept, one that would grow. That windowless gender room that I was told I belonged to by the nuns, my parents, and society, was chiseled away, one small queer thought at a time, leaving behind a heart full of hammering energy. As a stealthy queer genre novel, Orlando gave me a new language, a new technology, one that I continue developing, at every step while I try to accept who I am, demolishing the walls of Catholic dogma.
The existence of queer narratives helps us feel, besides seen, understood. Orlando gave me the initial tools to see beyond what I was taught. Every new story or narrative that helps us question our nature, expand our concept of being. Creativity can open new doors, create new concepts. It is a technology. Whenever we add to our languages a new concept, it resonates with others, letting us feel identified with the new lingo. Our stories open new paths for others to traverse, if they feel welcomed by the worlds we construct. These new concepts can help us better grasp a reality we have not yet confronted. It gives us the language and understanding to better express ourselves and build better futures, demolishing the invisible windowless rooms we never knew had trapped us.