Burning Butch, by R/B Mertz (+ Bonus Author Interview!)
Topics: Religion, Queer Identity, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Abuse, Coming-Of-Age
Memoirs with Melissa shares bimonthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. I limit myself to two reviews each month so as not to overwhelm my readers with too much information. To see more of what I’ve read and what I’d like to read, browse my virtual memoir shelf on Goodreads.
Burning Butch chronicles R/B Mertz’s rise out of abuse at the hands of religion and their biological father and into the queer identity they embrace today. I met R/B Mertz at a writing conference, where they shared insights from their journey to publication and entertained my curiosities about their experiences with religion and queerness. Organized by show-tune-titled chapters, their book is a treasure trove of thought-provoking content for anyone who grew up immersed in religion or who is seeking insight into that world.
Mertz grew up sheltered from pop culture to an extreme degree. They were one of seven children living under one roof with their mom and Mertz’s step dad. Their warm but insulated Catholic household espoused homeschooling and shunned contraception. While they seemed happy enough, the excerpt Mertz read at their book launch drove home the deeper impact of the lifestyle. “Jesus just had to die for us on the cross, but our mothers' personalities died for us in laundry rooms, kitchens, delivery rooms, backyards, stairways, driveways, long after we kids had fallen asleep.”
From the beginning, Mertz’s bold, nonconforming spirit seemed inherent, which made the ways they were silenced and controlled that much more infuriating. As a reader, I bristled at the plethora of half acceptances: lovers who refused to follow through on obvious attractions, priests who forgave “sins” rather than stopped abuse, teachers and other influential adults who professed to accept their queerness while urging them not to act on it. By the time I reached Mertz’s queer rendering of the gospel story, I laughed out loud at the much-needed middle finger aimed at the establishment that kept them down.
It’s no wonder Mertz went on from their college years to question and defy larger, more powerful systems at work in our daily lives, not the least of which is the gender binary. When you find freedom from religious extremism, you can’t help but feel around for other invisible cages, sound the alarm, and break out.
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Find more from this author on their author website at rbmertz.com.
Bonus Author Interview: Meet R/B Mertz
What are your pronouns?
I used to say I don't care about pronouns, but now I've reached a level of self advocacy where I'm actually asking people to use they/them pronouns exclusively. Thank you for asking.
I like the thee/thou twist on your book jacket. What other words are you using to describe yourself lately?
I don't know if you know Leslie Feinberg who wrote Stone Butch Blues. It's zeir birthday, and I saw on Instagram that zey described themselves as anti-racist, white, working-class, secular, Jewish, revolutionary, communist. It’s this long list of words that are so specific and evocative. None of them are the ones you expect.
Anyway, I'm thinking much more about class, and I obviously think about gender a lot. I'm mid-transition. I'm nonbinary. But I'm also embracing the word trans a lot more. I've had top surgery, and I'm planning to go on hormones. But first I'm going to try to have a baby. In-transition is something I identify with a lot.
I'm also a white person. I just moved from the US to Canada, which in some ways is a more accepting and tolerant place. But it's still part of the colonization of the world by white people. Treatment of Indigenous People here has been just as bad as the US. So, how do I describe myself as someone who is here, but against the history of being here, and not sure what to do about it? How do I live honestly or authentically in that? I think anti-imperialist, white, settler or anti-imperialist, anti-racist, white, settler.
In-transition is something I identify with a lot.
If you could choose, where would you shelve Burning Butch in bookstores?
I was thinking about this, because I went back home to Maryland and was in the shopping center with the Barnes & Noble I grew up going to. I went in to see if they had my book, thinking they probably wouldn’t. And I asked if there was a memoir section. I didn't know where it would be because I never go to Barnes & Noble anymore. I go to little stores now in Canada. They told me it was in Autobiography, and it turned out to be in Biography, which reminds me of the A&E Biography with celebrities and presidents. My book doesn't seem like it should be in the same section as Franklin Roosevelt's autobiography.
So if you could create a label for the shelf your book is on, what would it be?
I could do queer, survival, autobiography…no. I’m gonna come back to you on this one. I think it would be in a section called Real Queer Books. Real Queer and also Real Books. True books.
When did you know you wanted to write a memoir, and what led you to actually start this particular one?
There's a very unlikeable character in the book who is my step-cousin, and ironically his mother, my aunt, is the one who suggested that I write a book. It was right after I had come out to her as gay, and that's the first time I really thought about it.
I started in earnest after I finished grad school for poetry, which was a very alienating time for me. You could write revolutionary amazing things in poetry, but there wasn't a huge audience. I still love poetry and poets, but I wanted to write something that more people would understand. What frustrated me about poetry is people would assume everything is a metaphor. They’d turn the page and not seem to contend with the subject matter in the same way as they do in prose.
When I tried to write about my experience in poetry, I felt like I couldn't make people get it. They didn't understand where I was coming from. People really did not know that there were real, passionate, conservative, openly anti-abortion groups, like what we're seeing now in the Supreme Court. People wonder who these people are and where they came from. And I’m saying, "Hey, it's over here!" It's not all Westboro Baptist, which is really obvious and in the news a lot. The same values are being whipped out in a much less sexy way. It slips right under the radar all the way to the Supreme Court.
Can you explain what that less obvious, dangerous version of conservatism looked like in your childhood?
All the dads had normal jobs and were normal men in society. They were doing things not too different than they might have grown up thinking they might do. Moms were often extremely exhausted and had so many children that they looked a little older than they actually were. They didn’t work and would have like eight children and pray at the abortion clinic, which is not at all what the other 30-something women were doing. It made the women more cut off than the men, even more cut off than a lot of those specific practices were already making them.
It slips right under the radar all the way to the Supreme Court.
I often think about blending into normal society as someone who does not feel or has rarely been seen as normal. It's odd to me to consider this, but we looked normal to a lot of people. Nobody would point us out as religious extremists. They would just think we had a lot of kids. But actually, the ideas we were being marinated in were extreme, even if our clothes weren’t. And that’s the stuff that has overturned Roe v. Wade. The people I grew up with I'm sure were celebrating and patting themselves on the back.
Did memoir give you a better avenue to explain directly?
Yeah. If I wrote a novel, it would seem over the top, or I’d have to exaggerate things to make the story more recognizable in the vein of Westboro Baptist. I had to be a witness in a sense. And I wanted to understand it better for myself. Living the experience was like treading water. I wasn't able to reflect much as it was happening. When I wrote the memoir, I was older. I was in a safer space where I had support and wasn't actively suicidal. I wanted to know what was really going on? Did I make it up? Was I exaggerating these things in my mind? I really took care to write honestly for myself. I still don't understand some of the things that happened.
What is a truth you uncovered while writing your memoir? In other words, what do you know now that you didn’t know before you started writing your story?
A big one for me is my mom. I recommend everyone write a book with their mother as a character. I started writing mine when I was 26, and I was thinking, “My mom made all these decisions that ruined my life!” That was a comfortable space for me for several years. But I realized in writing the book, my mom did not create homophobia. In fact, she did not emphasize that to me at all.
She was attracted to Catholicism for her own reasons. And actually, there weren't any other places where there wasn't homophobia. There were pockets of the radical left, the entertainment industry and art world, where especially if you’re a white gay man who is cis gendered, there's a comfortable space for you. But it took me a long time.
Quite frankly, I'm still looking for places where butches and trans men are really seen as complicated people who can be sexy, who can be interesting and funny and complex to a general audience. It's not like if my mom had just turned left she would have found this whole culture where all her kids were cool. My mom is this person in her own story, in her own context, who was a young woman when I was born, and who was in an abusive relationship with a terrible man. She got me out of that. It really made me appreciate what she did for me.
Quite frankly, I'm still looking for places where butches and trans men are really seen as complicated people who can be sexy, who can be interesting and funny and complex to a general audience.
How long did it take you to write Burning Butch?
From starting to publishing, 10 years. After about six years, I had a draft I was sending around and getting feedback on through rejections. But the book changed a lot between then and when it got accepted for publication.
It's hard to just easily write anything that anybody would want to read. With a year of funded writing, I probably could have finished it quite a bit earlier. But I might not have been able to really sit with it for more of my adult life. There's a lot to be said for reflection, and that was invaluable.
At the writing conference where I met you last spring, you mentioned you had signed with an agent and got a “revise and resubmit” from Penguin. Can you tell us about that?
I was thrilled. I revised and resubmitted, and that was the first few weeks of Coronavirus. They wrote back the next day and said they weren’t accepting manuscripts at this time. And then my agent dropped me a couple weeks later. I know now that’s how business goes, and I’ve never been a fan of business. It can’t be surprising that I’m not good at business.
I'm really proud that I got to publish with an independent press. I'm an idealist, anti-capitalist, radical. But I wanted the book to be in lots of people's hands. I wanted a platform to get it out more, so I did try for all the big presses, the big agents. But I'm so glad that I got to publish with a press that didn't leave me with huge ethical qualms. That would have been really hard for me. I got to follow the tradition of all my heroes who all failed at that kind of thing, and who all published with smaller, independent presses or recorded with independent record companies. That's my people.
The hard thing is the reason we don't get up to bat in traditional publishing a lot of the time is because our books are for trans men and dykes, and there's not enough of them for us to publish our books. And the really upsetting thing is there's not enough of them because people don't let us come out. We kill ourselves. We stay in closets forever. It hurts. They don't want to publish our books because there's not enough people like us that will buy them, and there's not enough people like us that will buy them because people are scared to be like us.
Now that the book is out in the world, has an unimagined reader of your memoir emerged outside of who you thought your target audience was?
I've been surprised by how many people like me are reading it. I didn't write it for people like me, because I didn't think I had to explain myself to myself. I wasn't thinking about why we read what we read. Often we read things that are about people like us. But when I was writing, I was really imagining my mom, her friends, and the people I grew up with–people who are actually NOT going to read my book. I was so focused on explaining my otherness to everybody, because I felt like this world does not get us.
When I see queer representation in culture, I often think that's not me. And when I hear people talk about us, I think that's not how we are and that's not where we come from. People think queer people came from other queer people. People think we didn't come from crazy religious, conservative places, and that if they keep their places conservative enough, they won't produce any of us. Which is why all those people are trying to ban queer books and talking about queerness, because they think what makes you queer is hearing about being queer. But no, man. We came right out of there.
People think we didn't come from crazy religious, conservative places, and that if they keep their places conservative enough, they won't produce any of us….But no, man. We came right out of there.
Now all these cool queer people are writing and telling me they like my book. It's so wonderful to get notes from people who are my community, who say, "Wow, this is just like how I grew up." I don't know what to say other than, “Oh, man, you want a hug?”
How can readers best support your current creative life?
Buy the book. Check the book out at the library. Invite me on your show. Tell your friends about it. We’re going to have an audio book soon. Also, I’m fundraising for a student of mine who is being actively harassed by a racist police officer. So, go to my Instagram and check out the GoFundMe for that. I want my student not to end up in jail, they’re a young parent, and a really amazing person. Supporting that would support me.
Before we wrap up, what is your favorite memoir?
My favorite memoir is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It's the most popular reading assignment I've ever taught in freshman writing across the board. All schools, all kinds of students, everybody loves Frederick Douglass, which is very strange because he's a stodgy religious fellow from the 1800s. But he's a badass.
He wrote this book about what it was like to be enslaved, how he got out, and how he learned to read. He taught himself to read from looking at letters on ships and tricking white kids into teaching him letters. His book is so moving. In the first few pages, he describes how his mom has to travel through the night, miles and miles to see him because she's been sold to a different plantation. To me, it’s about the brutality of that situation, and also what human beings are capable of doing when they love each other. People were risking being killed to see each other for an hour. His book is one of the few we have that's really an account of what slavery was like from someone who lived it. Nobody recorded him talking. He wrote this book. It's a memoir. And it tells the truth. There's no book like it.
My favorite memoir is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It's the most popular reading assignment I've ever taught in freshman writing across the board.
It was illegal for him to learn to read when he learned to read. People said he must not have written the book. As a memoir, it's such a great example of how people need to have it explained to them. It's disappointing that you can't just hear slavery exists and be against it. For some reason, actually having someone spell it out and explain it really did change people. They changed when they heard about slavery from him—not when they heard about slavery from other white people who said it was bad. When they heard from people who had experienced it, we had a war. He was one of the people with John Brown who was really individually responsible for how that all played out and the tension that led to the Civil War. He's an author of that tension. His book really changed the world.
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