Today I got called “Something.” I’m quite certain the person didn’t mean anything by it. She seemed polite and friendly and was just flustered when she first started to call me “sir” and then second-guessed herself and that’s just the word that came out. I don’t feel angry at her at all or blame her for the slip. But I have to say, it still doesn’t feel good.
In many ways, I’m very fortunate as a transgender person to be in the situation I am, surrounded by a generally supportive and understanding culture and group of peers. While academia certainly still has its flaws, it’s a relative oasis of safety for someone like me. I honestly have little right to complain.
But even so, just existing brings with it a certain level of isolation and othering that I never seem to be able to escape. It is present with me in times and places when I don’t expect it or welcome it and I’m constantly mentally bracing myself or adjusting my behavior to compensate.
I try to pitch my voice down whenever I meet someone new in hopes that they will pick up the correct pronouns without my having to correct them. If they use the wrong ones, I have to decide where to insert “by the way, I’m a guy” into the conversation. I have those awkward moments when I introduce myself as Evan and I get “Eva?” with a confused look. At every doctor’s office visit I practice the “hi, I’m transgender” talk. Every time I reconnect with an old friend or colleague and I have to come out again. Sometimes when that friend or colleague responds offensively or just doesn’t reply and I’m left wondering. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I walk into a public restroom and someone gives me a double-take glance. I consider lying about my age to people who don’t know my trans status because a 27-year-old who looks like a 16-year-old is a dead giveaway and I don’t know how they’ll respond. I want to be open and unashamed of being who I am, but I don’t want to just be The Transgender Person. I feel pressure to be a stellar role-model because, for many people, I’m the only transgender person they have ever met and I feel like I am their representative of all trans people. This leaves me terrified when my productivity suffers due to trans-related family or health situations that I’m reflecting badly on the whole community and I’m harming the chances of future trans people getting into academia. And sometimes I remember that my very existence is cause for discomfort and confusion even in innocuous situations, like when I walk into an office and get called “something” and I suddenly feel more like a novelty or an aberration than a human being.
I’m not trying to throw a pity-party and I’m not angry at the world. I adapt quite well to most of these challenges and I generally consider others blameless in the awkward or exhausting situations that I sometimes deal with. But it does wear me out. Sometimes one little word reminds me of how overwhelming this can all be. I’m not unhappy, really, and I’m definitely not angry. I’m just a little tired of it right now and I want someone to understand why.
So I was a Christian. That much has been established. What next?
Well, as any good Bible-believer will tell you, Christians sometimes go through trials and tribulations. Sometimes Christians go through a period where they are are seduced by The World, and they allow their faith to stagnate. I was no different. While I was in college, my fire started to fade. I went through several ups and downs, where I would try to re-ignite that spark, but then would lose interest or feel disillusioned with god and the church. I just wasn’t sure how certain I could be about god. I stopped reading my bible, I stopped praying. I made only a few half-hearted efforts to go back to church. Apathy towards god had crept up in my life. It was all very Laodicean.
But like any good Christian, I had a turning point. I had a conversion story, praise Jesus. What was that turning point?
I realized I was gay.
Yep, coming out as gay turned me into a hardcore Christian again. It wasn’t immediate. At first I was scared. Holy hell was I scared. I stewed quietly in my guilt, wondering what in the world I had done to damn me to this fate. I knew, of course, all gays go to hell… at least those that act on it. I determined that I would not let my love for another woman compel me to act against god. I tried to bottle it up, deny it, and hope it would fade away, even as my heart broke over the love I would never be able to have. During this phase, I wasn’t reaching out to god. I was hiding from him. I was terrified, confused, betrayed, bewildered, and ashamed. God was the last person I wanted to show up. I was hoping that I had mostly escaped his notice.
But eventually, I was encouraged by the woman I loved as well as my family to study, reach out to god, and seek out answers on the matter. I started reading, studying, praying, fasting, research, confessing, soul-searching, crying, counseling, and speaking to elders. Much to my surprise, I discovered a depth to my religious experience that was totally new to me. I felt god speaking to me again, I felt his overwhelming love. I felt him embracing me wholeheartedly and welcoming me back to his flock. Amazing things started to happen. Without going into the long and gory details, my revival story has all the hallmarks of a perfect Christian “return to god” narrative: visions from god, supernatural signs, prophecies from various godly men and women, even a miracle that saved my life at the darkest moment. I returned to my faith with joy and passion. But there was one little unfortunate problem.
Each of those spiritual Jesus-moments affirmed to me that god accepted my love for another woman.
That was not the answer that my family or my church had expected me to find. While they had first joyfully encouraged me to seek god’s will, they now began to clutch for power over me to get me to see the “correct” answer. God could not be telling me that it was okay to be gay. How did they know? Well, God had told them that it wasn’t okay. So there.
Christians in my life, especially my parents and sister, began escalating the number of hoops that they expected me to jump through in order to “seek god’s will”. “You can’t make up your mind,” they said, “until you try reading this book, doing this fast, going to this church, speaking to this pastor, praying this much, and enduring these trials.” Desiring to thoroughly test my belief, I conceded to these tests. Each time I would return with the same answer. “God accepts me.”
“Well, of course god accepts you,” they complained. “You just somehow missed the part where he said accepts the not-gay version of you. Try again!”
What followed was a righteous game of supernatural dick-measuring: whose God Experience was the biggest? They started sharing their own Jesus Moments with me. These included demons possessing bedrooms, spirits of oppression, dreams and visions, prophecies, signs from god, and feelings of hatred given to them by the Holy Spirit. All of these things were supposedly clear messages that I was wrong. I conceded that this might seem to be the case, but that it didn’t explain why all the messages I was getting were the complete opposite. How was I supposed to know which one to trust? “Just trust in our authority,” they said. But I then committed the gravest sin a Fundamentalist Christian can commit.
I said no.
I said “if God can give us both visions and miracles and messages from on high, then he can damn well make his answer known to me. I have thrown all of my trust on him… every bit of it and everything that I have to offer. I know he will come through for me.”
And so, I was banished from my family home.
I want to talk about the idea of “conviction” in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Particularly I want to talk about how it is used by some Christians both as a gas-lighting technique and as a method of manipulation. However, I have not really had time or the ability to put my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. So instead, I think I will just tell a couple of stories. These stories occurred while I lived as a woman, so I am using those pronouns and terms since they are relevant to the stories.
Note: for those unaware of this particular Christianese phrase, I am referring to the following definition: a feeling of guilt or shame that God inflicts on a person that comes with the recognition of having committed a sin.
When I was outed as gay to my family, I was living overseas and working on my Masters degree in Astrophysics. Needless to say, I was already under a lot of stress, even before dealing with my family keeping me up til ungodly hours on the phone arguing, laying enormous guilt trips on me for hurting the family, or sending me books and articles and pamphlets about how I am deceiving myself into thinking that I can be gay and Christian and about how lesbian relationships are all just co-dependent and unhealthy and guilting me into reading them. (And yeah, according to these sources, gay male relationships are all about lust and sex and lesbian relationships are about emotional codependency. I can’t even start to unpack that sexist and homophobic load of shit).
Anyway. I was quite religious at the time. Having this crisis regarding my family’s rejection of my sexuality had actually driven me deeper into my faith rather than away from it; I suppose I was looking for some stability and comfort which I found in god. I would often go to church to find some solace. One Sunday morning, my parents called me and we had a bad argument that ended in them telling me “we don’t even know you anymore.” I was really upset when I left the conversation so that I could take the train down to church. During the worship service I tried to hold things together but I was so overwhelmed I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. One of the women in the pews noticed me and very kindly asked if I was okay and if I needed to speak to someone. I had a friendly relationship with the current pastor, so I said that I would like to speak to him, thinking that maybe I would admit that I was gay to him and tell him what was happening. I was hoping that, even if he disagreed, he would be loving and supportive in the difficult time I was having and maybe would pray for my family and I. However (as is common in churches) women are apparently only supposed to seek counsel from women, so I was directed instead to the pastor’s wife, whom I had barely met before. This left me feeling a bit scared and vulnerable, but I followed her to a back room where she sat me down and got me a glass of water and tried to make me comfortable. Finally she sat down across from me and waited for my tears to subside.
I was still sobbing and was a bit scared about coming out to a total stranger, but I slowly calmed myself enough to begin trying to speak. “First, there’s something you should know about me. I’m gay, and I’m dating a woman,” I said. I then began to tell her that things were going very badly with my family, but she was not looking at me anymore. She was flipping through her bible. She opened it to Romans 1, and then tilted it a little so I could see it while she watched me intently, clearly gauging my reaction. I started to get shaky and nervous again, trying to ignore it, trying not to look at those pages that she obviously wanted me to see. I kept talking but I felt I wasn’t really being heard. And indeed, as soon as I paused, she interjected and began to tell me that I was living in sin and that god was disgusted with my lifestyle. She asked me if I’d read Romans 1. I said yes, but that I didn’t interpret it the way that she clearly did, that I hadn’t come here to talk about whether or not homosexuality was a sin, and that I didn’t believe it was wrong to be gay.
“Yes you do,” she said.
“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” I stammered, rather flabbergasted.
“Yes you do. You know it’s wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be crying. You’re crying because God has convicted you and you know you are guilty.”
Never mind the stress and anxiety I was under. Never mind that my family was pressuring me. Never mind that people I loved and trusted were attacking a deeply important part of me. Never mind that my family had just told me that they didn’t know me anymore. No, I was apparently crying because I had been convicted. And, you know, I half believed it, because when you’re that mind-fucked by your family and your church and everyone around you, it’s hard to have any sort of perspective besides “well, everyone is saying it so maybe they’re right.” You lose your ability to judge your own feelings and values. It’s disorienting.
I felt like the breath had just been sucked out of me and I mostly just sat there for the rest of the next hour while she read me Romans 1, she talked to me about how I was disappointing god, my relationship was disgusting, I needed to stop running from the truth, etc. I put up a few weak arguments here and there, but I hadn’t come here to argue about sin. I just wanted advice and comfort and safety. I was in pain and I was crying, and she had chosen to use that expression of my pain as a weapon against me by deciding that my tears were “conviction.”
A very similar experience occurred a few months later at my sister’s church, which she had pressured me into going to in an attempt to convince me to break up with my girlfriend. By this point, my parents had threatened to ban me from coming back to their house if I dared to go visit my girlfriend, and I was in a lot of turmoil about what I should do. My desperation and fear left me vulnerable, so my sister talked me into speaking to an elder that she trusted and having that person pray for me. I feared a repeat of the previous time, but I agreed.
I tried to explain to this woman that I was dealing with a difficult family situation and that I could use some prayer or guidance. I avoided admitting the full circumstance at first, but when she kept asking (and in retrospect, she may already have been informed by my sister) I admitted that I was gay. As soon as she heard that word, she stopped listening and started telling me to pray for god to “release me from this sinful relationship that had a hold on my life.” I told her that I wasn’t going to pray for that because that’s not what I felt was needed. This seemed to bewilder her and she continued to insist that I needed to pray for god to cleanse me of sin. At the time, I started to think that maybe she was just very dense or maybe hard of hearing, because nothing I said really seemed to register. Every time I told her “I’m okay with being gay; this isn’t about that,” she just looked really confused, stammered a bit, and then went back to encouraging me to renounce my sin. I think now that she was not being intentionally dense, but she was doggedly convinced that I knew that I was wrong. She was just waiting for me to drop the pretense and admit it. Why else would I be asking for prayer? Why else would I be in a church? I must have been convicted by god.
It couldn’t possibly be that I was dealing with a traumatic family situation. It couldn’t possibly be that I was about to be kicked out of the house. It couldn’t possibly be that I had been strong-armed and manipulated into coming. It couldn’t possibly be intense pressure and guilt from other people that drove me here. Nope, I was convicted and I just needed to admit it. And so she continued to badger me to pray for the strength to “give everything over to God.” Eventually, I half-heartedly did so because I was tired. At least in this situation, I was less emotionally vulnerable, so I mostly felt frustration and disappointment. I guess that’s what you get when you keep believing people who tell you that a “spiritual authority” will know how to fix your problem and you can’t possibly know how to handle it yourself or be trusted to find your own support.
You know what? Neither of these experiences changed my mind about my sexuality. They didn’t teach me that being gay is a sin. They didn’t show me the light. They didn’t convict me. What they did do was capitalize on my suffering to try to manipulate me into changing. What they did do is drive the knife deeper and teach me that church is not a safe place to be. I have never unlearned that lesson and maybe I never will. I am no longer a Christian (for fairly unrelated reasons, actually) but even if I did choose to explore spirituality again, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable in a church. Maybe with some more time and distance that will change. For now, my conviction is that I would rather be anywhere than sit in a pew and anything is safer than being vulnerable in a church.