Young Adult Novel Tells Story of Sexuality, Gender Identity, Abuse, and Faith

After experiencing a traumatizing assault, bi-gender, queer, and agnostic teenager Aleks/Alexis cuts off all ties to their community and moves in with their devoutly Catholic extended family. That’s the beginning of the new young adult novel Somebody Told Me by Mia Siegert. After initially assuming nobody at St. Martha’s Catholic Church will understand or accept them, Aleks/Alexis is surprised to find the Church is more diverse than they realized, finding a few fellow LGBTQ people and allies, as they team up to uncover long term sexual abuse in the parish.

In the author’s note, Siegert writes:

“I wanted to write a book about the ongoing problems in the Catholic Church without attacking Catholics for their faith. I didn’t want to tarnish something that’s sacred for many people. At the same time, as a child safety advocate, I knew I needed to write something.”

The novel is an ambitious story that discusses sexuality, gender identity, trauma, friendship, faith, self-acceptance, and clerical sexual abuse. Sometimes hindered by the writing style and uneven pacing, it’s never the less very refreshing to see a novel, especially for young people, that so authentically approaches these complicated topics. And for that, I’m glad this novel was published.

Somebody Told Me is supposedly the first Young Adult (YA) novel with a bi-gender protagonist whot explains the identity as kind of non-binary; instead of feeling like they are neither male nor female, they are both, but go back and forth.That means that some days, the protagonist identifies as Aleks, and uses he/him pronouns, and other days, they identify as Alexis and use she/her pronouns. Aleks/Alexis explains how they’ve been hurt called “fake trans” or by those only wanting to accept them as a man or woman. The novel does a good job of explaining the struggles of someone who identifies with one of the lesser understood identities of the LGBTQ spectrum.

As such, Aleks/Alexis decides to solely present as a woman once they move in with their uncle, who is a Catholic priest. Though they feel stifled, even sick from losing half their identity, they see it as a safer course to take, assuming most Catholics wouldn’t accept a bi-gender person. However, Aleks/Alexis soon finds a few people they can confide in. There’s Sister Bernadette, a young, somewhat enigmatic nun who is strong in her faith but doesn’t bat an eye when the protagonist opens up to her about their gender identity.

Sister Bernadette is close friends with Deacon Jameson, or Joey, a young, closeted gay seminarian. Then there’s Dima, an 18-year-old, extremely devout high school student aching to enter the priesthood as soon as he’s able. Dima is in love with Joey, and later in the novel, goes to gay conversion therapy as he struggles to deal with his sexuality. Aleks/Alexis however, doesn’t find so much camaraderie with their uncle Bryan, who constantly preaches transphobic homilies directed at the protagonist. Equally uncomfortable to be around isMonsignor Kline, who’s syrupy sweet condescension and too-friendly demeanor rubs Aleks/Alexis the wrong way.

The main action of the novel comes when Aleks/Alexis realizes they’re able to overhear confessions through the grate in their bedroom. Aleks/Alexis begins secretly helping those confessing with their issues (unemployment, debt, domestic disturbances) until one confession shakes them: they hear an anonymous priest confessing to sexually abusing an altar server, a minor. Equally disturbing, their uncle forgives the unknown priest. Though Aleks/Alexis tries at first to investigate, they discover it’s they who have bias. Through the huge misunderstanding that gay clergy equals sexual abuser, Aleks/Alexis almost accuses a perfectly innocent person of the crime. It isn’t until Aleks/Alexis learns more from Bernadette and Joey that the three are able to bring justice.

One thing I wish I had seen in this novel is the perspective of LGBTQ Catholics themselves. I couldn’t help but think t how much more powerful the story could have been from the perspective of a bi-gender or LGBTQ Catholic person, instead of an from the perspective of an agnostic person who spends way too much time on doubting the Catholic LGBTQ characters. LGBTQ Catholics are not always closeted, or trying to suppress their sexuality, or long-suffering to understand their identity. While many must struggle to find their place in their faith, , and many decide to leave the Church (though not God) as some characters do in the novel, many Catholics find peace in how God made them and find community in the Church.

Now that would be a radical first: a novel about a happy, well-adjusted LGBTQ Catholic person, uprooting the institution of sexual abuse in the Church.

Melissa Feito, New Ways Ministry, July 20, 2020

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