My short hair and red lips are more than simple physical attributes, they are acts of defiance against the programming that I received as the survivor of a backwoods apostolic cult.
We were taught many horrible things, but growing up male in that culture gave me the most amazing opportunity to gain a unique perspective.
We had some pretty strict rules concerning our women.
Women couldn’t wear pants, only skirts, maybe culottes if they were designed well enough that no one else could really tell that they were pants.
Women that wore pants were going to burn in hell for all eternity.
Women couldn’t wear makeup except for clear lipgloss because, again, no one could really tell that you were wearing it.
Women that wore makeup were “whores and sluts, praise the good lord, baby Jesus” dedicated to nothing more than deceiving and enticing our young men into a life of sin, making them ineligible to marry their cousins who were pure, because being fondled by daddy didn’t count.
Women couldn’t cut their hair, because “their hair was their glory” and thus had to be pulled super tight against their heads and hidden in a small bun at the crown of their head.
We all scorned the women who displeased God but trimming their split ends.
“Men that wanted to be women” were the worst.
Nothing was more depraved than the sex lives that we invented for them without ever having met or spoken to a transgender person.
We would obsess about those sex lives. I remember how our pastor would scream about it until his face was purple and he was soaked in sweat.
Later, I would wonder if that was the same way he looked while cheating on his wife with my married stepsister while her two kids were at school.
So today I present myself as an act of defiance to all of those who insist that I am not enough, that I can’t call myself a Christian.
I am going to continue my transition from male to female.
I am going to wear pants, not culottes, because culottes are gross.
I am going to cut my hair.
I am going to wear as much makeup as I want to, or none at all depending my my mood and the number of times I’ve hit the snooze button that day.
And you know what?
God is going to love me anyway, because God so loved me that they sent their only begotten son so that I would not perish, but have everlasting life.
Let your life be an act of rebellion.
It’s the quickest way to freedom.
Watching the endless posts about the students of Covington Catholic as they took over social media this week, I couldn’t help but admit to myself that I was seeing a mirror of the ghost of a person that I once was.
It’s never an easy thing, revisiting the culture that I survived as a child, but this week proved it necessary to examine my own journey in an attempt to empathize with these kids. After all, my faith commands that I love others as myself and that includes those that exhibit the most heinous behavior. Please make no mistake, I won’t attempt to justify their actions but I hope that together we can examine the culture that created these angry young men.
Growing up in Southeast Missouri, not far from the Arkansas state line in the 80’s, I was pretty isolated from any true representation of the amazing diversity of the United States. We had plenty of guns, incest, abuse and rape, not to mention the drug trade, deforestation and puppy mills that kept our communities afloat. We were also taught that our particular apostolic sect was God’s chosen people.
We were taught that no men could ever be as righteous as we were. We believed that only the forty or fifty people that worshiped under the roof of our fellowship hall were eligible for heaven, and even then that only the twenty or thirty among us that had spoken in tongues and danced around like possessed folks were going to avoid an eternity of torment in a literal lake of fire. That was a fun Sunday School lesson, especially considering that I never did speak in tongues during my years in the cult.
We were taught that LGBTQ people were the lowest forms of life, that AIDS was a very suiting punishment for their sins against God. Queer folks had no chance at redemption. As a transgender child, you can imagine the hope and motivation this filled me with.
My family moved a lot, never so far away that we were separated from our religious sect but far enough that we switched school districts quite often. Prior to my junior year, only two of my schools had the very slightest hints of cultural diversity. In the second grade, I saw a black child for the first time. She seemed sweet enough, and no one really talked about her, but no one talked to her either. I’m pretty sure she was adopted by some well meaning Caucasian Christian couple, because I didn’t see a black adult for many years later. We moved again a couple of years later, not because of her, but because my fourth grade teacher invited us to write our dream job on the blackboard. Fourth grade me wrote “showgirl”, a dream that actually came true for twenty years. I often wonder how many other kids in that class grew up to be what they wrote that day. That, combined with my ever growing crush on the red headed boy in my class was enough for my family to isolate me even more remotely in the woods.
In the fourth grade, we moved to Gatewood, Mo. You’ve never heard of it, I bet. We had a post office that doubled as a convenience store and hangout for the areas unemployed. (There was a lot of those.) We had a volunteer fire department. We had more churches than people, it seemed. Those churches were sending people to hell though, because they didn’t attend our worship services. Also, they allowed their women to wear pants, cut their hair, say no to their husbands and have jobs.
We also had one Mexican student in our school out of the seventy or so kids that filled the six classrooms that educated grades kindergarten through eighth grade before busing us off to one of the two high schools that served the entire county. I never thought much about it until later years, because as I’ve mentioned, cultural diversity was never one of our strong suits. We did enjoy the fact that he was quick and agile, which got us pretty far in basketball tournaments. He was also willing to make our principals kid seem like the star of the basketball team even though he could play circles around all of us. As an adult, I often think back to the field trips we would take to the area greenhouse where his family worked growing the food and plants that stocked our local grocers. I’m pretty sure that most of the kids in our class have grown into adults that advocate for his deportment all these years later. But at least he helped our school win some games.
When I was fourteen, I met a black man for the first time. You see, a black church had been torched recently and our leaders had decided that the Christian thing to do would be to show them how true Christians worship.
We took our commitment to save heathens quite seriously. That night, the pastor of their church greeted me with a very warm smile and extended his hand. I looked at it in horror. I shook it anyway, but I immediately checked to see if any color had transferred. My community had always been that white. I still remember the way that he smiled through his pain and said “That’s alright, I understand.”
It took me quite a few years to decide that I was ready to confront the ugliness that had been pumped into me since childhood, and I’m still a work in progress. After twenty three years away from my cult, I still find myself battling prejudice against those that my community hated. There’s still a certain level of self hatred due to years of being referred to as “sissy”, “faggot”, “abomination” and countless others. I can still hear my mother telling me as a seven year old that Jesus was going to take her and leave me behind.
I’ve made life a living hell for a lot of people. I’ve managed and directed shows for club owners that wouldn’t allow black entertainers to use the dressing rooms. I’ve worked for and promoted companies that actively support the oppression of my community as well as the oppression and gentrification of countless others. I have used racial slurs and treated my fellow human as less than me because I allowed myself to believe the things that I’d been taught and I wasn’t ready to confront my own demons, and for all of that, I am sorry.
So through my pain, I smile and say to those Covington boys what was once said to me by someone that unintentionally taught me one of my life’s greatest lesson.
“That’s alright, I understand.”
I have no doubt that these children are victims, despite their despicable behavior.
They are victims of their parents, who failed to teach and prepare them for a world outside of their bubble.
They are victims of their religious leaders, who failed to teach them that we should treat everyone as we would like to be treated and to love one another as Jesus loved us.
They are victims of their school administrators and teachers, who failed to notice this behavior and intervene on their behalf in an effort to help them grow into loving and compassionate human beings.
They are victims of their fathers, who never taught them that yelling “It’s not rape if you enjoy it” at groups of strange women is not acceptable, but instead taught them that a woman’s body belongs to her husband.
They are victims of their community, who fostered and created this environment in which their minds and hearts were not encouraged to expand.
So, yes, these boys are victims, but they’re not blameless.
I dare them to break this cycle that they were born into. It’s hard work, but it can be done.
I’m living proof
Growing up in an isolated apostolic sect, you get a front row seat to some pretty bizarre and fascinating scenes. There was always lots of dancing as the pastor’s wife pounded away on the old piano and his daughter danced around with the tambourine, lots of pulling people to the front to have the pastor hit them upside the head whether they wanted it or not and lots of falling down. So much falling down. Maybe that’s why I still to this day can’t see someone fall without laughing, the more flailing the better. I was born into a society of people who cheered one another on as they flailed and screamed and rolled around on the floor in their ankle length skirts and perfect cinnamon bun hair.
As a side note, it was at church that I first noticed the plight of the rhythmically challenged middle-aged white man.
Some nights when we’d arrive to church there was a different energy the air. People got super excited when we had a visitor because it was pretty rare. This may be hard to believe, but people were hardly pounding down the doors eager to be told that they were bound for eternal damnation. That sometimes doesn’t sit so well with folks that just wanted to show up, sing some hymns, learn a little about Jesus and go home to tuck the kids into bed. I never understood why, we were just trying to help, and no kid was ever scarred by hearing in great detail what happens to flesh when it burns, right?
Anyway, those nights were extra special. On those nights we’d learn all about demon possession again. You could almost feel the electricity in the air as Brother Danny would scream for an hour and a half about Jesus casting demons into pigs, all the while breaking every two minutes to wipe the torrential sweat from his face and the dripping spit from the microphone.
As he’d begin to close, Sister Kathy, his wife, would begin to pound as softly on the piano as she could manage. She tried her best though, and we all enjoyed it. He’d begin the standard pleas to come to the altar, to repent your sins. You know, it’d been an entire 6 hours since we’d done so at Sunday school.
I was never sure how it happened, but somehow that night’s guest always ended up being dragged forward, completely of his own free will. The prayer would start innocently enough. He’d be anointed with oil, Brother Danny would ask the church to pray and BAM! Our guest was splayed out on the floor, held in place by four of the church’s strongest men, one on each arm and leg. Now here’s the fun part. We’d get to sing and pray and cheer our friends on as they beat the young man with bibles until he was literally vomiting and seizing and threatening to kill us all. He didn’t mean it though, that was the demon talking.
Eventually he’d stop fighting and repent and we’d all cheer and celebrate and dance and fall down again.
By this point he’d have vomited out all of the demon, so he’d rest for a bit before a bunch of the guys would help him out to one of their trucks. I always thought it was super nice of those guys to make sure he got some safe after such a stressful ordeal, but I never understood why it took so many guys to escort him home or why they were so excited to do it.
None of those guys ever visited a second time, though. Pretty ungrateful, if you ask me.
Far too often in life, we see people drift away from the church and we simply don’t hear from them again, but rarely as churches do we gather to discuss where they’ve gone. . It’s an ongoing problem, one that seems to be growing. You see, I’m one of those people, and I’m finding more and more refugees out here on the battlefield where we’ve been sent to die.
Several times last year, I attempted to find a home church. Time after time, in varying manners of harshness, the answer was no. Sometimes I was told that I shouldn’t visit at all, once I was told that the church would never be ready for someone like me, and once I was told that even though I was welcome to attend, I simply couldn’t consider myself one of them by joining. Separate, but encouraged to support the church anyway. (Why would God have me support a church that refuses to support my family?)
So here we are. I float between churches hoping that one day, a church family will stick and I can take a break from trying to find a refuge in Christ where my friends and family would be welcome without judgement.
Here’s where things start to get a bit sticky. I’ve left your churches, and stepped right into water over my head. I’m out here floundering, gasping for air, begging for a lifeline like so many others beside me, a lifeline that you refuse to throw. Our screams are deafening. We’ve lost so many. Some have passed of natural causes, never having felt the loving embrace of God again. Some have taken their own lives. I can’t blame them, I’ve considered it myself at times. Watching people die the spiritual death that we witness out here is one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to cope with in my life, and I’ve seen much.
We see you though. We see you watching us silently from your fortresses, synagogues and sanctuaries. We watch as you worship and then embrace one another warmly, encouraging each other to embrace Gods grace, the same grace that was supposed to save me from this death. You love telling one another that you’re good Christian people, even if you are slightly broken.
We watch you as you ignore our pleas. We don’t blame you. Those chairs look comfy. We wish we had one. Let us know when you’re ready for us to come back in. Until then, we’ll be out here doing our best to rescue as many of your rejects as possible.