Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Clare's Story - Christianity, Sexuality, Transgender Life, and The Struggle to Self-Acceptance

There's a new issue of "Franciscan" out.  Normally I wouldn't be commenting on that.  But this issue was edited by a Franciscan brother I know.  The article that begins on the front cover is by Professor Helen Berry, one of the preachers at my church.  And inside there is "Clare's Story".

I wrote it six months ago and I have to say that such a lot has happened in the last six months that some of my perspectives on my own story have changed.  When I say at the end that "surprises keep coming," well they really do and they seem to happen with increasing regularity at the moment.  My faith is very different to how it was six months ago and at this point it could go in almost any direction - although I don't think it will ever move back to faith in the literalistic truth of the religious stories.

Also, six months on I do not identify as a lesbian.  I've been able, thanks to a lot of thought and discussions with friends, to be able to accept that I am asexual.  And when you're ace, words such as heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and so on kind of lose their meaning in your life.  Yep, asexual.  This is me, coming out, yet again!

So this is Clare's Story.  I think it was edited a little to fit into the journal - I sent them something about 50% longer than the submission guidelines requested.

My name is Clare. I am transgender and lesbian, truths I only accepted in 2013, a process including great highs, difficulties, triumphs and an examination of every part of my life.

At an early age I knew I was different and didn't fit into the life I was meant to be living. It wasn't long before I'd worked out that I wasn't just different, but what was thought of as bad – in my gender and also in my neuro-diversity. From early childhood I knew shame about my identity and attempted to suppress everything I believed to be shameful, to create a persona to imprison the one already there and live as the kind of person I thought would be acceptable.

I managed to suppress myself so far that I didn't even know that I am female. Clues arose sometimes and because I felt so guilty I hastily squashed them. I would try make up, cross dress and have all kinds of dreams, desires, interests and fantasies but I'd learned such things were evil so I came to intensely hate myself. Inevitably this contributed to decades of mental health problems.

My upbringing was outwardly normal and balanced, a stable home with two parents and a brother. But that balance could not compensate for what was going on inside or for the way I was consistently told that certain things were wrong; the times I was told “Don't be stupid, that's for girls.” Life as a teenager became inner torture. Life cannot be good when every day there is an enormous shadow blocking out the sun. I turned from being a child who didn't smile much into an inwardly bound person with constant low lying depression and major depressive episodes.

Then I discovered Christianity. Or at least one version of it. I converted through an evangelical, Pentecostal, born-again experience. I hadn't expected that but it gave me much that I'd never had before: solidity, meaning, hope. But it wasn't all good. I didn't convert based on the conviction that God loved me. I couldn't really deal with that concept. I converted largely because that brand of evangelicalism was pretty much the only religion that agreed with what I already believed – that I was evil, some kind of monster, an aberration. My new faith taught me that I was right, that I was so evil that I deserved to burn painfully for eternity. But it gave comfort because it turned out everyone else deserved that too – but there was hope for all of us.

That form of Christianity wrecked any self-esteem I had left. When somewhere deep down you know you're transgender, queer, it's hard to be part of a faith that teaches how evil that is. Many can tell stories of how churches – not Jesus – have hurt them greatly. My first church had many ministry tapes from a so-called gay cure ministry. As a young, enthusiastic convert I swallowed the message and didn't dare to question it – because that would have been to question “God's word”, to despise God, to despise that one hope. I became thoroughly Biblically (as we saw it) homophobic and transphobic, hating myself even more. I don't condemn myself for my homophobia because with the inputs I had I couldn't have believed anything else. But I deeply, deeply regret things I've thought and said.

Coming to terms with accepting myself as female and lesbian took a long time and a series of near miracles. I almost don't know how I got from there to here. When I came out I had good and bad experiences in churches. The people in my local church were supportive, though I was told it would be “inappropriate” for me to continue to preach or lead anything. That hurt, but it worked out well, causing me to walk away from that life and find a wide open space to learn more about myself and about my faith.

I'd been attending another church too and got called in for a “talk” with the pastor. He called me an abomination (based on Deuteronomy 22:5) and said that he couldn't conceive that I was any kind of Christian at all unless I repented of my gender. He said lots of other things that were highly unpleasant. But by that time I was secure in myself and certain that I was not condemned for being who I am and his words did nothing to destroy me. In a way I'm glad to have experienced that because it gives at least some insight into what other people have gone through and continue to suffer in many churches. But I do worry and weep for LGBT+ people who are raised in places like that and endure sheer hell.

Overall I've been very fortunate in faith. My wife sent me to get support from Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church. So in June 2013 I went to a service, one of the many scared people who come through the door. It's one of the best things I've ever done. MCC is now home and the people there are cherished family. It's been very difficult at times and through everything MCC has been a rock of support. No matter how low I've been, no matter how much I struggled with faith and dealt with the pain I'd lived in because of my faith, the people there have stood by me and held me.

I spent a year preparing to leave MCC and to walk away from Christianity forever. But in October 2014 that changed. I surprised myself and formally became a member of the church, publicly renewing my baptismal vows a week before, something that for me was a necessary step.

I needed this renewal for two reasons. Firstly, I was baptised under another name, another gender, and was a very different person then. My present is a changed life from my past. I'd love to be re-baptised as Clare but of course that's not a theological option because baptism is a one time event. I couldn't be baptised again but I needed to publicly express that, as Clare, those vows I made as “him” still stood, more firmly than they ever did in the past.

The second reason was even more important to me than the first. Over the previous eighteen months my Christian faith died a slow and painful death. Church services were torture for me. The church put up with my many words, my complaints, my deep pain through that process. I cannot thank them enough for supporting me through the death of my faith and through everything I said, and felt, and did.

My faith deserved to die. It really did. Good riddance to it! Not because of any doctrines or dogmas that were or weren't attached to it. But because the root of my faith was self-hatred, self-denial, self-rejection – arising from a firm belief that I was no good. Much of that came from received beliefs about my gender and consequently my near-constant urges to self-destruct. My faith helped to destroy me, helped me to eradicate myself, for twenty-three years. It was immensely important to me but it crushed me.

Eventually I was able to leave that faith behind, and rest secure in a faith that excluded any personal God. The plan was to leave MCC and never look back. That was the only future I could see. But throughout the whole journey I still believed in MCC, her vision, her people, and the place of healing that the church is. And, solely because of certain of the people, I stayed.

Many people noticed a not so subtle change in me since the start of October 2014. At church one evening everything suddenly clicked. I could sing the songs, pray the prayers and knew it was OK to receive communion again for the first time in a long while. And I was extremely surprised that night to find myself on my knees, hands in the air, lost in worship and thankfulness to the God I didn't believe in. The “God of Surprises” entered again and renewed my world, my heart.

Faith returned. It's a new faith. Brand new. It's a far healthier faith, one that accepts the love of God, and one that can honestly say with the Psalmist;

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

As I renewed my baptismal vows it was my freedom to be Clare, to be authentic, that I celebrated. But more than that I celebrated my return to faith. A purer faith. A very different faith than that I had before. Based on self-love rather than self-condemnation, on authenticity rather than self-squashing, on freedom, on love, on grace, on hope, on acceptance, on inclusivity, on joy, on light and life and on so much more.

The story continues. Surprises keep coming and my faith is going in unexpected directions. I am wildly unorthodox, have a spirituality that embraces all kinds of things that I would have condemned in years gone by. And yet I now seriously call myself more of a Christian than I ever have been. A Christianity of love, light, and life not constrained by dogma and doctrines. A Christianity of freedom and joy rather than my previous false Christianity of law and self punishment. In short: Hallelujah! For I am set free.

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