I disown you right back. No seriously, I do.
“It’s the position I wish I had taken during all those years of semi-disowning when I would send boxes and boxes of Christmas baking and presents home every year even though I wasn’t allowed in the house,” says TL Cowan of her video I Disown You Right Back, with Mrs Trixie Cane. “Instead of hating myself and trying to prove to my family that I was a good person, I wish that I had just walked away. It would have been so difficult because I had such young siblings and I would have just walked out on them, too, but I wish that I hadn’t felt somehow that I deserved their hatred masked as religious ‘love.’”
Cowan’s video was a huge hit during Dirty Plötz, the cabaret I curated for the Rhubarb Festival this year. People have been approaching me in droves the past several days, asking who she is and where they can see it. “This needs to go viral,” said local music maker Sarena Sairan when we were standing outside Buddies after the show. It didn’t take much persuading to get Cowan to put it, and its downloadable postcard series, online for all of you, to coincide with the pope’s resignation Feb 28.
“I’m not saying that we can actually disown our families,” says Cowan, who plays the titular character Mrs Trixie Cane, a sexy bitch with all the ostensible morality of a Midwestern preacher’s wife but with a twist: she is an ally. “But I Disown You Right Back is meant to ask folks to think about what would happen if we did. What if there were actual consequences to being an asshole to your gay, feminist or trans kid?”
Mrs Cane features a series of personalized greeting cards to send to families that have disowned their queer children. “Dear Mom and Dad,” one reads, “I love you, but you will die alone.” The series also includes a card that deprives homophobic family members of compatible organ donation and the benefit of having radical queers featured in their wedding albums as proof that they are cool.
“If you want to be Christian and do not want to be a weaselly back stabber to your gay friends and family, “ Cowan says, “there are many good options: you don’t have to stay with the Catholics or other homo-hating churches. I know the tradition is comforting, but come on! The pope is a terrible human being. Every time you give money to the Catholic Church you give money to a gay-hater and to relocation costs for pedophiles.”
I Disown You Right Back is part of Cowan’s Forgiving Medjugorje cycle. The title references a location in Bosnia and Herzegovina where five people have been seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary since the early 1980s. “The place is a massive pilgrimage site, like Lourdes or Fatima,” Cowan says. “When I was a kid, my parents took up with following the rules laid out by the Virgin: fasting on Fridays, praying the rosary and asking for the conversion of then-communist Russia to the Virgin.”
Cowan says the fasting really fucked her up. “On Fridays for many years when I was growing up, we went to school with a couple of pieces of bread and a thermos of water. I already had tons of shame about what I saw as my parents’ chosen poverty and embarrassing fertility — they chose for my mother to stay home and raise an ever-expanding family rather than go out to work — and this Friday fasting thing made me terribly, terribly sad.”
I Disown You Right Back is also the first video in a collaborative series that Cowan hopes to start in the next month or so called Queer Coping.
“I have noticed that there are so many online support groups for religious families to ‘cope’ with the difficult knowledge that they have a queer or a trans person in their midst,” she says. “But there seem to be no support groups explicitly about supporting queer and trans people in ‘coping’ with their religious family members.”
There are support groups for people who want to be queer or trans within a religion and who want to merge their queerness or transness with their faith. “But there aren’t any for those of us who no longer practise our family’s religion,” Cowan says. “As part of Coping, I want to ask people from all religious experiences and backgrounds to make short videos explaining how they have coped with or continue to cope with their homo- and trans- and even women- or feminist-hating religious relatives. And then I want to compile the videos into a feature-length montage. I suspect that many of us have had different coping strategies throughout our lives. And so, perhaps people will want to make a few installations.”
Cowan concedes that some people might find I Disown You Right Back a bit harsh. But, she says, “That’s the whole point. When our families treat us so terribly because of our queerness or transness or whatever, it is, for most of us, devastating and has long-lasting effects. This video is meant to take those effects really seriously and to turn the tables. When we are disowned, when our families continue to support organizations that say terrible things about homos, trans people and women, it feels like our families are condoning these statements. So I Disown You Right Back is like a queer attack ad, or a comedy video manifestation of ‘Bash Back!’”
Cowan has also launched the Tumblr idisownyourightback.tumblr.com, where people can download the postcards.