Life

“In the Convent, I Am Not Going to Feel Any Sexuality”

Melita Figueroa on being a nun, navigating butch/femme roles, and finding her “true equal.”

Photo illustration of Melita Figueroa
Melita Figueroa, age 77
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by James Coleman on Unsplash and Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash and courtesy of Melita Figueroa.

As the LGBTQ community reflects on the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots this Pride season, Outward wanted to chat with a group of queer elders about their experiences and ask what advice they have for the generations following in their footsteps. Hence, this special, weeklong LGBTQ edition of our regular series Interview With an Old Person.

Christina Cauterucci: How old you are you?

Melita Figueroa: I’m 77, I’ll be 78 on July 27.

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

I was born in Berkeley, California, and I’m currently living in Larkspur, California. I’ve been here over 40 years. My partner and I live together here—we’ve been together 38 years.

Oh wow! How did you meet?

We met through our parents who are best friends. We have a nine-year age difference, so when we met, Peg was very young and I was a young adult. I actually entered the convent around just after we met.

Did you know you were gay at that time?

I’d known something since I was about 10 years old. I just knew I felt strongly toward girls—but we were children then, so I didn’t really realize what that all meant until I was out at the convent.

OK, tell me about this convent. How did you decide to become a nun?

Because of the work the nuns were doing where I went to high school. They were just really kind, and they did missionary work and teaching, and I just thought it was very cool.

How old were you when you went into the convent?

I was 18, and I stayed eight years.

Why did you leave?

I realized that I felt stifled in terms of who I was. And this has nothing to do with being a lesbian, just in terms of expressing myself, because it was very old-school at the time.

And how did you come to the realization that you were a lesbian?

That didn’t come until I was in Chicago—at the University of Chicago getting my master’s—and I knew no one. So I figured I could experiment, so to speak. And I dated guys first and then allowed myself to date women. Well, I didn’t really date women: I just went to some of the bars in Chicago.

Were there a lot of bars for lesbians at the time?

I only knew of one. But when I came back to California, I discovered there were several. I was in Los Angeles, the mecca in those days for great bars and dancing and music and gay bars for both men and women.

What was the bar scene like at that time?

It was extremely fun. The crowds I was in weren’t doing drugs or anything like that. They would just have cocktails, drink beer, whatever. And there was dancing, a lot of dancing, and people would pick people up. It was wonderful, because you could be who you were, even though you weren’t out. At least, I wasn’t out yet. I wasn’t out at work, I wasn’t out to my parents or to my family.

Was it hard keeping those worlds separate, your gay life and your work and family life?

No. Not at all. I was totally able to enjoy myself, almost living two lives, so to speak.

Did you know anyone in L.A. who was out and gay?

No. Nobody was out, at least to me. Everything was very hush-hush in those days.

How did you make the decision to come out to people?

I didn’t really. It just occurred—after having people as friends for a while, then they’d say, “Oh yes, I knew you were gay, or that you like women.” They didn’t speak about it unless I did. I lived kind of a closeted life for many, many years, which was fine with me because it was quite taboo.

Did you ever come out to your family?

We never talked about it. It’s interesting though—my partner’s parents, she never talked to them about it even though her mother called me her second daughter. And they knew, but we didn’t talk about it, even when we were living together and doing holidays with the family. I still don’t talk about it that much. When I refer to Peg, I do say “my partner,” but I don’t even say “my wife,” even though we’re married.

Oh, interesting—I recently got married, to a woman, and am still trying to decide whether I feel comfortable with the word wife. I’m curious to know why you don’t use that word.

I’m not comfortable with wife because, I mean, “wife and husband”—it doesn’t compute to me. We’re truly partners, even though we’ve been married officially for nine years.

An archival photo of Melita Figueroa in a habit.
Photo courtesy of Melita Figueroa

When did you first become aware of the gay rights movement as a political entity?

You know the thing in the Castro? Or, I don’t know if it was the Castro or New York, where the bars—there was just a movie about it.

Stonewall?

Stonewall, was that San Francisco?

That was New York.

Right. I was aware of that, but I didn’t really feel as though I was part of it. And what I relate to most now is how kids, teenagers, and young adults are having such problems being accepted not just for being gay or lesbian, but also for being transgender.

Do you still practice Catholicism?

Well, yes and no. I feel I’ve always been a spiritual person. My roots are in Catholicism. And so I occasionally go to church, usually when there’s something happening, like a celebration. And I feel totally accepted. Because I was a nun, I know how much bullshit there is in the church, and that the rules are man-made, not God-made. The rules are man-made to accommodate the goals of the men who run the church. I believe in the Bible, even though that’s man-made too. The basics of it are good.

Did you feel any conflict when you were first coming to terms with your own lesbian identity? Having been not just Catholic, but also a nun.

Tremendous conflict. That’s probably one of the reasons I went into the convent. In other words, I knew it wasn’t, in quotes, “normal,” and that was frowned upon by Catholicism and most of society. And so I thought—well, I mean, this is totally stupid, but I said, “There, in the convent, I am not going to feel any sexuality.”

Being surrounded by women … ?

Right! I was so wrong. So I was there very naïvely for a couple of years, and then I started having feelings toward others. I curbed it, though.

What was the first item of clothing that you can remember putting on when you really wanted to go out and be seen as a lesbian?

That didn’t occur to me. In other words, I didn’t go butch or femme. I didn’t even know what that meant until I was in Chicago and went to a bar there, and somebody asked me, “Are you butch or femme?” I also remember this women’s bar in Indiana, very close to Chicago, and the women there were very into roles—into being very feminine or kind of a butch dyke. For me, it’s more like something to watch than participate in because my partner and I see each other as true equals.

How did you and Peg reunite after knowing each other in her youth?

It was at a family reunion. I knew she was a little interested in women because she’d told me once, but it was, like, taboo at the time, because she was much younger. So I never acted on that, nor was I interested. But this time, we were at her parents’ house, kind of flirting. And guess what? That next week we were together, and we’ve been together ever since.

That’s incredible. What has been your favorite age to be gay, so far?

Maybe now that we’re older—my 50s and 60s, up to the present—because we now truly accept ourselves. And our parents are all deceased, so we don’t have that as an issue anymore, even though I know they all accepted us.

Do you have gay and lesbian friends today?

Oh, yes. All of our best friends are gay women, and we tend to do something every week. They live in our same county. We go to dinner, movies, sometimes we go to concerts. We went to Europe on a cruise up the Seine with one couple.

And what do you get out of that community with other gay women?

Just the honesty. Being able to be yourself completely and to know they know you, and I know them. Some of us are getting older, so we’re kind of looking out for each other. That’s a good thing, too.

Do you feel that you’ve experienced restrictions on your life because of your sexuality?

I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to. I don’t let restrictions stop me—neither Catholic laws, nor the rules of society now. It took me a long time to feel that way.

What has love, romantic love, meant to you in your life?

I would say it’s a sacred place of loyalty and trust and exchange with someone that you really care about.

What sort of advice would you give to today’s young LGBTQ people?

Have the courage to be yourself, and if you find yourself crushed in any way, go to other gay people who can help you. Don’t hesitate to ask for help because help is there, everybody’s been through something.

I don’t want to speak for you, but just based on what you’ve said, this public interview feels like a stronger statement of your identity than maybe you’re used to. So I really appreciate it.

Not just than I’m used to—than I’ve ever done.

What made you feel comfortable in this moment, putting yourself out there on the internet?

The main thing to me is that young people get that they’re being thought about and their issues are held closely by the whole community. That they’re not alone. That’s my biggest thing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.