I was traumatized by my time in church. The years of sitting in pews, Bible studies, and coffee shops with Christian leaders, listening to variation upon variation of how wrong homosexuality is, slowly eroded me. Words might not seem that powerful, but if they are a steady trickle, coursing over your young mind which is porous as fresh soil, they carve out whole canyons of self loathing.
Despite the love – and there was a lot of love in my family and church – despite how much they told me we all have struggles with sin and that my inherent value as a child of God was uncorrupted by my sexuality, that did not negate the deep damage of their words. To try to separate my sexuality from myself, to call it bad but the rest of myself good, was to vivisect myself. It is only a part of myself, but it is still part of me. To say that my sexuality was broken was to say that I am broken, period, and while I didn’t have the words to understand that and the Christians around me didn’t have the capacity to see it, I felt it deeply.
I’ve been recovering from this damage for years now, and I thought I would share a crucial part of that recovery: not taking the bait.
When I first came out of the closet, I was so sore, so battered by that slow, trickling invalidation that I couldn’t be around anyone who did not affirm gay marriage at all. I flew into a rage, went blind with hurt and fury. It would get into my psyche, it would work deeper and deeper, like razor blades under my fingernails. I had to take a good, long soaking in the gay community, and that’s exactly what I did.
But inevitably, I had to learn to communicate with the world again. I had to move through the work force, family, and friendship with the capacity to navigate disagreement.
The world is full of disagreement. There are going to be many people along my path who will have varying degrees of discomfort with my relationship and orientation. That’s simply a fact. And life is a short flicker – do I really want to spend it being triggered by people who see the world differently? As I went through recovery, the choice became clear to me: either I learn to not take the bait and dedicate my energy to that which I choose, or I spend my life hiding, cowering, and being overwhelmed by impossible feelings.
The first step here must not be neglected: the feelings of hurt, rage, and brokenness are real. Any LGBT person who has been hurt needs to take the time to heal. We will never feel safe around those who disagree with us if we do not first viciously protect boundaries, and create a context for healing.
For me, that involved spending lots of time in the gay community, distancing myself from the church, and finding mentors and therapists to help me work through my anguish. Now, after several years of this work, I can finally interact with those who are conservative, and not feel the trembling in my soul.
Whenever I encounter someone who disagrees with me and I’m tempted to take the bait and feel threatened by them, I ask myself a series of questions:
- Does this person want to hurt me or my partner in any way? If not, then why am I frightened?
- Can this person actively take away my right to live freely and fully? If not, I have no reason to be uncomfortable.
- Am I giving them too much authority over my life? am I relinquishing my power to them out of habit? They certainly have the power to judge me, exclude me from their inner circle, but I wield that exact same power of them, too.
- Am I trying to win their approval or control what they believe? Could that be why I feel like I’m going crazy around them?
- Why should I let any other person who can’t hurt me have such power over my life?
There have been seasons in my life when this list of questions was inappropriate: when I was a teenager in ex-gay therapy, for example. I was genuinely powerless, and I needed people to fight for me. Similarly, there are many people who truly don’t have power, and this list doesn’t apply to them. What they need are advocates to fight for them. However, as an adult who has found autonomy, I can ask myself these questions.
If it is impossible to answer these questions, it’s important to go back to step one: a safe healing place to work through the wounding of growing up gay in a straight world.
When I ask myself this series of questions, I find much of my anxiety retreats, and I am able to communicate with the person productively. I find that I am able to make clearer choices about friendships, and which ones I want to pursue. I am also, most importantly of all, able to relinquish control over other people and turn my energy to things i can control: my own principles, goals, and integrity.