Religious Abuse

I’ve tried to write this post many,many times and I never manage it because there are parts of my past I still find too desperately painful to write about. But right now I’m seeing both atheists blaming Christianity (or more often “religion”) as a whole for the tragic and avoidable death of Leelah Alcorn and Christians insisting Leelah and others like her could be saved if they only found a different (but still Christian) church or community to be part of, that they ones they are in aren’t “real” Christians and real Christians will love and accept trans youth for who they are… And I need to say something.

I need to say something because I and other trans people, from children to old people and every age in between, have been subjected to religiously motivated abuse from people who “disagree” with our lived realities as trans people. I need to say something because responding to that abuse is NOT as simple as “find another Church” or “stop believing in God”. BOTH of those reactions – and others – can be good decisions for a particular person experiencing religiously-motivated abuse but neither is as easy or as likely to help as those suggesting them as a general solution appear to think.

To those suggesting to hurt and vulnerable people that they just stop going to church or find a different church or stop believing in God, I want you to know:

With very, very few exceptions, anyone who recognises that they are being harmed in the name of a religion is *already aware* that there are multiple branches of their religion. With even fewer exceptions, they are likely already aware that atheism/ agnosticism exists.

Telling someone to just leave an abusive community – whether or not you suggest an alternative community to leave to – is pretty much *exactly* like telling someone to leave an abusive relationship or family. The person in the abusive situation likely knows better than you what harmful consequences would occur if they tried to leave and what they would need to have in place in order to leave – if you’re not offering practical and *unconditional* support to leave saying “There are other options” is close to useless.

Going to reiterate that on UNCONDITIONAL support. If you only plan on being there for someone *after* they take the leap out of an abusive religious community and not while they are still in it and trying to figure out what to do, your support is not really support. Same goes if you only intend to support someone if they make the choice *you* think is best – that’s not support, it’s paternalism. If you want to help people in these kinds of situations, you have to show that you care about them no matter what and you trust them to try their best to do what’s best for them.

Religion often isn’t “just” a belief system – it can be a huge part of a person’s life and identity. It can be their main or only community and family. Leaving one particular Church could potentially mean never seeing almost all your friends and family again – it’s not up to you to decide whether or not that risk is “worth it” for someone else.

You can’t look at a person and see how strongly they feel about their religion or what it means to them or what parts are and aren’t important to them. Telling a Catholic that Unitarians exist and welcome LGBT people is not helpful if the Trinity is spiritually meaningful to that Catholic. Telling an agnostic Jew to give up Jewish rituals that are important to her because her family refuses to accept her gender wouldn’t be helpful either.

Don’t argue scripture with people uninvited. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Don’t argue about scriptural interpretation or different ways of looking at certain passages or practices without explicit consent to do so. More likely than not, they are getting plenty enough of this within their community / family. Make sure they know that YOU will respect their boundaries and won’t try to force them into discussion.

To those who find themselves experiencing a conflict between who they are and what their religious community teaches, I want you to know:

 

First, you’re not alone. Lots of people all over the world, of many different faiths (and occasionally atheists brought up within the moral codes of a religion) are in the same position as you. It’s difficult and there are tough choices to be made but whatever you choose, someone else is doing the same – and maybe with the help of the internet you can find them.

Second: it’s okay if you don’t want to call what’s happening to you “abuse” – and it’s okay if you do want to. Trying to rationalise what’s happening to you by telling yourself that people are just trying to help you or that they don’t know that what they’re doing / saying is harmful is okay too. If it helps you survive, think and feel anything about the people hurting you – they can’t control what you think or feel even if they want to.

The position you are in – seemingly forced to make a choice between your*self* and your religion – is an extremely difficult and complex situation to be in. It’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s NOT your fault this is happening to you. Anything you can do to keep your self safe and alive is an okay response to this situation.

Staying closeted or going back into the closet can hurt you but as a short to medium term response it can be a good choice.
Being out only with or around particular people and not in general or in specific places can be a good choice.
Keeping your own beliefs in your head and performing the religious practices of the community you are in until you can safely get out can be a good choice.
Losing your belief in God or changing religion can be very scary – it can also be the right thing for you to do.
Finding a way to stay in your religion and still be open about who you are is also likely an option. It might be the best option for you. It also might not.
Leaving and then going back is okay. Leaving and never going back is okay. Drifting in and out of belief in God is okay.
Griefing over losing a religion or belief in God is okay. Not feeling grief at all is okay.
Staying and trying to change things is okay. Burning bridges is also okay.
Wishing you could go back is okay. Being glad to never go back is okay.
There is NO one right way to deal with this.

You are going to need friends. Friends within *and* outside of your religion. Look for groups for people of your religion who are trans / LGBT, look for groups for people who *used to* belong to your religion but left. Make friends that have nothing to do with your religion. Make friends outside of your community so you know that if you do decide to leave, you won’t lose all your friends.

Find someone to talk to about your feelings. Get an outsider viewpoint if you can. Find someone sympathetic who won’t push their own solutions on you – a helpline for people in distress might be a good place to start.

If you are a child / teen, remember that you soon won’t be and you’ll be able to choose your own place to live, study, worship and your own therapists and support when you’re an adult. If your parents or school *aren’t* religious / are supportive of trans and LGB people, they might be able to help you find a supportive adult to listen to you now.

Talk scripture if you want to, don’t if you don’t. I can happily discuss why Judaism is a good religion for me but I still feel terrified and ashamed if people try to discuss Christian responses to trans and LGB issues with me because of stuff that happened to me when I thought I was Christian. You don’t owe ANYONE an explanation of why you do or don’t attend certain services or do or don’t believe certain things.

And finally:
Whatever you feel about and however you experience your gender and/or sexuality is real. Nothing and nobody can take it from you. I and thousands like me will believe you instantly and completely if you say “I am trans” or “I am a woman” or “I have no gender”. No one else can tell you how you feel about yourself, only you know and only you can say. Nobody can make you become someone you aren’t – not even you. Whether it will be easy or difficult for you to find a way to live as your self, there are thousands of us who want to help and support you to do it – whatever you think and feel about God or religion and whether you want to stay in a particular faith or not.

You deserve to be happy and to live your life authentically. Yes, you.

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