CN: Religious Abuse, Queer-Antagonist Slurs, Violence, Sexual Assault, Self-Destructive Behavior, Disordered Eating, Suicide
Long before I knew I was queer I only knew I was “different”. But not the praise-worthy kind of different. This was the kind of different that had adults muttering and whispering behind raised eyebrows. I learned euphemisms like “creative”, “artistic”, “chatty” and “expressive” were not compliments in rural Arkansas, they were warning signs. Warning signs of what, exactly? I had no clue, but I knew from their expressions and hushed tones it was serious. Before I knew what I was, before I knew there were others like me, one word I used most often to think of myself was Freak.
Like all children I did my best to learn and follow The rules, but found myself constantly breaking them. It might have been wearing a dress. It might have been using the girls bathroom. It might have been carrying a doll. It might have been kissing a boy. It might have been the way I walked. But in every day, in every way, the world told me I was wrong and I needed to change or else.
Or Else was usually violence at the hands of men. I might be thrown against the wall or smashed into lockers or choked until I saw stars or just be mercilessly beaten, depending on the day and who was attacking me. But the worst pain came from caring people who suggested a change in my behavior might save me.
This was the teacher who said I was “very artistic” before pointedly asking if I had any “strong male influences” at home. This was the school counselor who suggested I wouldn’t be bullied if I just played ball with the boys instead of reading during recess. This was the father who told me if I didn’t want to be called a faggot I should stop acting like one. This was the pastor who told me Jesus loves everyone, but he knows if you’re really making an effort to hate your sins or just pretending so you can sin again.
The first time a boy called me faggot I had no idea what it meant, but the hatred on his face told me the label fit. Nobody ever called me an Abomination directly, but when grown men at my church made that face of disgust as they spoke, I knew I was one of them. Nobody ever explained to me what a Sodomite was, but when I saw the joy on people’s faces when the story of god destroying them was told, I knew my own destruction would be welcomed just as joyously. When the preacher gleefully described the way sexual heathens would burn forever in a lake of fire, I tried not to imagine what it would feel like when I got there. When men on the radio talked about disgusting perverts who were taking America away from Real Americans, I knew I was someone he wanted “permanently removed” for the safety of children. Even though I was a child.
Before I learned to speak out, before I learned self-love, and before I learned pride, I learned silence, shame, and self-hatred.
When I grew small breasts and facial hair by the age of 11, I believed it was a warning from god to get my shit together. When I was raped less than a year later, the Vengeful God was no longer an abstract concept for me. I made every effort I possibly could to “hate my sins” so I could get “get right with god”, lest something even worse happened.
This was when my mental illness really started to manifest itself in religious ways. I wasn’t hating myself, I was hating my sins!
I threw away my hidden stash of clothes and makeup, one of my only private comforts after a difficult day. I started “fasting” (which moved on to binging and purging instead) to try to make my breasts go away. I locked myself in my room nearly everyday to pray with all my heart to be fixed. I read the Bible from cover to cover. Twice. I went to my church probably three times a week or more and genuine tears of begging forgiveness would stream down my face when we sang hymns. To most observers, I was a perfect and dedicated Christian.
But no matter how hard I tried, I was also “backsliding”, as my church put it. And what was worse, my “sins” had taken on a much darker tone.
Now instead of just putting on a dress and reading a book in my bedroom to relax, I would put on a dress and shove phallic objects inside me, masturbating to the disgusting things my rapists said to me, then it expanded to all the disgusting things men said about me. My sexual fantasies all involved being violated in increasingly destructive ways because that’s what “little sluts” like me deserved.
“If you’re gonna act like a girl, I’m gonna fuck you like one. What do you think of that, you fucking slut?”
“Who gives a fuck? Tits are tits and she’s still pink on the inside. Right, boys?”
“Anyone ever tell you your lips look real pretty wrapped around my dick?”
My rationalization was if I was going to “stoop” to engaging in sin again, then I better remember the consequences for it while doing so. It’s the kind of bizarre mixture of self-disgust and eroticism that really only happens when you’re a bewildered and battered middle school girl. I turned my pain and humiliation into some of the best first orgasms I ever had.
Eventually I got this so twisted that I believed I was genuinely “asking for it” because I was a disgusting pervert who tricked men into being gay. And because it was obvious I could never stop sinning, I lived in a constant state of self-hatred. I had accepted the fact that I was doomed for Hell a long time ago, but the thought of leading others along with me became too much to handle.
So I decided, in what I believed was a perfectly logical and rational decision, to remove myself from Earth before I took anyone else to Hell. I thought maybe if I did that, god might at least understand my level of commitment and forgive my inability to resist temptation.
So I picked out a cliff on my favorite hiking trail and planned to hurl my body off of it. I figured it was a guaranteed death and would look like an accident and hopefully spare my family any additional pain and confusion. I genuinely believed this was the best possible thing I could do for the world. I couldn’t “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” because I was The Sin.
But obviously, I didn’t follow through on that plan. Instead, for perhaps the first time in months since I started down this trail of self-destruction, I tried to think of the Good I did with my life.
I remembered my siblings who looked up to me and loved me.
I remembered making friends with all the kids no one else would.
I remembered taking beatings for others to try to protect them.
I remembered how many people said I had a good sense of humor.
I remembered how smart everyone always said I was.
And I thought, “I’m not a bad person.”
That’s it. That was my big divine intervention or moment of clarity or whatever you want to call it. I started ever-so-slightly letting go of some self-hatred and added at least a smidgen of self-love.
Within a year, I concluded a loving and benevolent god was incompatible with eternal punishment for finite crimes. With Hell gone, more and more of my religion faded away with it until I became the godless heathen I am today.
I also still struggle with mental illness, but I no longer believe engaging in self-destructive behaviors is good for my soul.
I still love Jesus, or at least my favorite stories about him. I even believe religion can be a great place for community building, traditions and rituals, and lots of other things that I think are useful for the human condition. I cling to the words a rabbi gave me when I was still questioning religion in high school, “Heaven and Hell both exist on earth, but it’s up to us to decide which we deserve.”
But I will never forget how easily mental illness flew under the radar in my church. This is NOT to say that being religious is a mental illness. Too many atheists make that claim and it’s ableist and hurtful and wrong. However, I am saying the observable behavior of some forms of mental illness and the observable practices of some forms of religion can be difficult to distinguish from one another, especially for the mentally ill person practicing that religion.
I don’t want to destroy religion, but I do want to destroy the idea that a pastor is more helpful for your mental anguish than a licensed therapist. I do want to destroy the idea that hating yourself is an act of contrition and not something you should seek treatment for. And most of all, I want to destroy the entire concept of Sins.
Sins are behaviors that supposedly harm god, but I’m far more concerned with the real and observable harm being inflicted on real people. Sometimes by others and sometimes by themselves.
Murder? Doesn’t matter if it’s a “sin” or not, you are harming another person.
Being queer? The only way this can possibly hurt other people is if they make your queerness about them instead of you. And that’s there own baggage to deal with. It might be a “sin”, but it ain’t hurting anyone.
So to any queer Christians out there, I’d like to leave you with some Bible verses. I know, it’s a weird move for an atheist witch lesbian. But I love you and want you to be happy, whether you’re religious or not. But please seek non-religious treatment for mental health at the first sign you might need it. That’s all I ask.
Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Matthew 19:12 – For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.
1 Samuel 16:7 – The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
And of course, let’s not forget that ever-so-crucial whosoever in John 3:16, right?
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