Friday, June 15, 2012

Coming Out

 Earlier today, I read a blog entry by a woman who had been married to (and then divorced) a gay man. She shared about the heartache, and very real damage, the church's attitude towards gay people had caused her family. That blog entry hit a little too close to home for comfort. You see, I'm not gay, but the church had a lot of attitudes it forced on me which were pretty damaging. I look back on the time I was involved with the church, and I mostly remember pain and guilt. The church taught me how life had to be, and it taught me how wrong I would be if I stepped outside its strict rules. Unfortunately for me, the guy I was growing into didn't fit at all inside the square, and I spiralled downward a very long way while trying to reconcile the church's version of 'right' with who I was becoming. I was, in a very real sense, broken for a very long time.

For a start, the prudish attitudes of the church made it very hard to grow, emotionally. A big part of it was the 'traditional' approach to romantic relationships. You see, I'd fallen for the fairy-tale: you lead a chaste life, you meet 'the one', you develop a proper and appropriate relationship, and then you enter into marriage (which you then proceed to do 'appropriately'.) This made me *terrified* of dating. Literally terrified. Any given relationship was headed for one of two places: marriage, or failure. Even if you were OK, as a teenager, with planning to marry a girl, the road to marriage was a mine-field, littered with things you could do wrong. You could get too intimate before you got married, which led to disaster both explicit and unspecified.  Worse, you could get her pregnant (I learned about condoms, but as a Catholic, wasn't supposed to use them!) and that meant you had to get married, however destined for failure the relationship was. This all just seemed too hard - I couldn't see myself getting married before, at the earliest, my mid-twenties, so as a teenager, for the most part, I gave up on the idea altogether. This meant several things. I was desperate for female company: every other teenager I knew was busy trying out 'dating', while I was wallowing in my quandary of 'Christian morality'. It was worse than just making a late start to dating: I avoided girls, actively, because I knew what it would lead to. Do you know how healthy it is to actively avoid girls for most of your teenage years? I do. It's devastating. It was made worse (well, it was made easier, anyway,) by going to an all-boys school.

Do you know what teenage boys think of other teenage boys who avoid girls and never date? You probably do. I'm OK, these days, when people think I'm gay (it happens now and then). I don't even bother correcting them, sometimes. I don't care: it's not a slur, just a wrong assumption about me. As a teenager? A teenager who desperately wanted to explore his heterosexuality, but couldn't? It was awful. I know what it's like to be teased, shoved around, and hit for being gay, and I wasn't even gay! I had to quit the rowing team after one of the other rowers broke my nose. I never told anyone, but a couple of them (though not the one who'd punched me) cornered me later and said there was much worse to come if I stayed on the team - they didn't want faggots around. My big mistake, I think, had been refusing to look at a porn magazine when it was being passed around (that would come under 'sexual immorality' or something, and would be oh so very sinful). Don't get me wrong: like just about every other teenager on the planet, I looked at porn - only it had to be a secret. A guilty, dirty secret which caused me to hate myself.

You know, it was never the guilt that was worst. The guilt - about what I did, what (who) I wanted to do, my fantasies, my failures - was never nearly as bad as the hate. You know when they say 'love the sinner, hate the sin'? That's just a trite saying to pretend that the church doesn't teach you to hate actual *people*. My experience, not just from my own attitudes, but from the behaviour of countless Christians from lots of different churches, was that the church *does* teach you to hate. It teaches you to hate sin, and immorality, and all that sort of thing, and then it teaches you about all the different ways people are sinful; then it shuts its eyes, puts its hands over its ears, and pretends that you're not connecting A and B. Of course, the sins I knew the most about were my own, so I hated myself the most. I hated my sinful urges, and I hated that I could never stick to my resolution to ignore them, and I hated myself for pretending to be this good, Christian person when I was so awful. Sound like a healthy way to live your teenage years?

Perhaps I'm fortunate that I never took all of these problems, many of them sexual in nature, to a priest for help.

I've been saying 'teenage years' a lot, because that's where this all got cemented in place, but it started earlier than that, and it lasted until later. I have memories of struggling with this sort of thing going back to my early primary school years, certainly long before I was thinking about sex. Grade two, when I was seven years old, was the start of it all, I think. I still remember my best friend in grade one: Ingrid. We played together often, and there was never a sense that anything was wrong with that. In grade two, I tried to be friends with a girl again, and the teasing started. That's OK: it's normal to be teased a bit. The problem was it all started to resonate with what I was learning in church and Sunday-school - and suddenly, I started on my downward spiral.

At the other end of being a teenager, when I started at university, I had the misfortune to develop a crush on a good Christian girl who'd fallen in with the evangelical crowd. This was the first girl outside my family I'd spent any real time with since grade one, and my feelings were all over the place. I didn't know how to deal with what was going on. Neither did she, I suspect, and she panicked and got out, leaving me even more convinced that, much as I liked girls, relationships were just not worth the effort. To make up for that, I got even more involved in Christianity. I left the Catholic church, bounced through a few different denominations (and even more churches,) and found myself a member of a rabidly anti-gay church associated with Crossfire Ministries. I became a youth leader, and ran bible studies both at church and at uni. I started doing public outreach, forcing Christianity on strangers in a misguided attempt to assuage my guilt. I had a lot of sin to deal with, and I hated myself, and I couldn't make a relationship work, and all I had left was the church. It's a pretty good business model: break people down when they're young, make sure they enter their twenties a total emotional wreck, and tell them that their only hope for happiness and salvation lies in becoming ever more devoted to the church. The worse they get, the more they give.

It's probably no surprise that my first long-term relationship was a disaster. Despite having one or two very attractive, interesting, self-confident young ladies making eyes at me, I started dating a Christian girl I didn't see a whole lot in. I think she was as broken as I was, and I think I thought that if I couldn't help myself, I could at least help her. Of course, we both just dragged each other down. Things were not helped by her parents, who were strict Christians and busy doing what the church had taught them to: making their children as miserable as they were. They'd lived a lifetime of it, and they couldn't see what was wrong with it all. I think, of all the regrets I have, the worst are the couple of really great girls who flirted with me back then whom I never dated. I know now what relationships should be: enjoyable, positive experiences which teach you about life, and people, and yourself. They don't need to end in either marriage or failure; they can just end when they're over, and you have a new store of experiences and lessons, and hopefully a bunch of great memories, and maybe a little pain - which is a small price to pay, and will heal soon enough.

I have my wonderful wife to thank for helping me get free of Christianity. She was patient and loving. She tolerated my beliefs, but had little time for my guilt. She confronted any Christian attitude which wanted to drag her (or me) down, questioned it, and discarded it. She taught me that sex wasn't this big, messy, guilt-ridden thing which you had to spend hours regretting and repenting over. She taught me to take hold of my life and live it the way I wanted, and to hell with artificial, antiquated morality. She introduced me, one day, to the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do as thou wilt." Archaic terms, but it gave me a whole new perspective on morality, and a whole new 'North' for my moral compass. I didn't become a Wiccan, but I suddenly realised that I didn't need a God, a bible, a church, to tell me what was right: perhaps, I thought, I could work it out myself. I even had a bible verse to back me up - something which was quite ironically important to me at the time. I don't recall it now, but it was something about the godly wisdom you could find in your own heart.

Since then, my own personal philosophy had been a very important thing to me. I don't rely on anyone else, any more, to tell me what is right and what is wrong. It's sometimes hard: it would be nice to have short-cuts. I try to listen to what others have to say. Christianity sometimes has valuable advice, though less often than some other philosophies. Strangely enough, I've found those eight words of the Wiccan Rede to be much more insightful, much more useful, than all of the collected works of Christianity I've read. That one sentence, both what it says and what it leaves out, has more to teach about right and wrong than the 31,000-or-so verses in the bible. It's not because it's somehow distilled more wisdom down into less; simply that it gets so much less wrong, and leaves the individual with so much more personal responsibility. I feel like it's saying to Christianity: "You know what? You got that love-thy-neighbour thing mostly right - but the rest is a disaster." And that's exactly right.

While I was a Christian, I contemplated suicide more times than I can count. Constantly at my side was the thought that it might be easier to give it all up. It was too hard, and it didn't make sense to me, and it felt all wrong. My faith made me miserable, and the more I learned about myself, the worse it got. I put up this facade of good-ness: I think a lot of people fell for it. Certainly, I was respected at my church. People looked up to me. The problem was, I wasn't fooling myself. Day in, day out, I faced this awful juxtaposition between what people seemed to think of me, and what I really knew about myself - I didn't just get to hate myself and feel like a failure, but I had to be a fraud as well. I had to set a good example for others. I have four younger siblings, and being a youth leader at church and a bible-study leader at uni, I had to set a good example for people I barely even knew as well. Self-hate, misery, guilt, pressure. I really don't know how I made it through. Every time I see a Christian handing out flyers in the city, I wonder what drives them, and how they're coping. Are they on the brink of suicide? Is their devotion just a mask for the same horror the church visited on me? Perhaps they got lucky: perhaps Christian morality is perfectly aligned with their inner character, and they're purely joyous at the person they're being stamped into. I doubt anyone fits so neatly. I suspect every Christian handing out flyers is, deep down, miserable, guilty, and displaced. I believe that every pastor, minister, and priest feels, deep down, that something is very wrong, and that they've missed out, in a very major way, on everything that life could have been. If you get right down to it, I don't believe anyone buys into it. Sadly, the church has grown into this huge thing which is much bigger than its parts. It's burned into our social structures, it's written into our laws, and its all done in such a conniving fashion that the very misery it causes is redirected into ever deeper fervour, ensuring that there will always be an army of faithful keen to innocently defend a church which has failed them so badly.

Does that all sound melodramatic? The church robbed me of my youth. It fed me lies, and manipulated me, at an age I just wasn't capable of defending myself. I cannot reconcile the teachings of the church with a healthy society. As a youth leader, I wasn't just leading bible studies and prayer sessions: young people, mostly aged between about 14 and 18, came to me for advice, and private prayer, and help. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, supposed to say, because I'd grown up in the church. I'd struggled with some of the issues myself, and when I hadn't, I'd heard sermons, or been to workshops or retreats, that gave me the answers. And my heart ached when I told them the proper Christian responses, because deep down, I knew better. I knew what I was telling these kids wouldn't make them happier, or better, or more Godly - it would just make them miserable. There were a few teenagers who I got to know well who were doing pretty badly - and as much as I longed to reach out to them personally, to tell them that I understood, and I'd felt their pain and faced their problems and that all their prayers and bible-readings and morality wouldn't help them one whit - I wasn't ready to admit that even to myself, and I certainly hadn't found any better answers yet.

So, with all that misery, pressure, and guilt, how exactly did I make it through? Well, I'm happy to say, I wasn't really such a miserable person. I had plenty of things to throw myself into: tennis, and martial arts, and life-saving; swimming, and music; reading, writing, computers, study. I learned a lot, and grew a lot. Christianity was a cancer in my life, but it was only a part of my life; though that cancer grew, and for a period in my twenties, dominated everything about me, I still had a lot more to my life. I had family. I had friends. Especially when I started to extricate myself from the church, my friends were hugely important to me: both my dearest friend and lover, who I have since married; and all of my other friends, particularly those who I studied Latin with. They helped to show me how to be a healthy human being apart from the church; they helped to shape my attitudes, and gave me a social network to replace what I was leaving. The few years after I left the church were some of the best of my life: I remember countless afternoons enjoying a chat over coffee; nights out drinking (sans guilt!); those years were filled with an overwhelming sense of fun and freedom. To this day, I carry that freedom close to my heart: one of my dearest possessions, one of the greatest gifts my life has ever given to me, is not having to hate myself.

I've gone through a lot in the past few years, since leaving the church. I've struggled to learn things about myself which I should have sorted out as a teenager. I'm fortunate to have a wonderful, compassionate wife who has listened to everything with patience and understanding, accepted me for who I am, and challenged me when she thought I was being dishonest with myself. She's stretched herself to accommodate a different man to the one she fell in love with; someone much more self-aware, with beliefs and attitudes he'd suppressed for years bubbling to the surface. I've struggled with my identity, in more ways than one, and gone through difficult phases. She's shown me love and compassion and understanding I could never have found in the church - love and compassion and understanding I saw actively, spitefully denied to people - and through it all, we've only grown to love each other more.

Ultimately, I now know who I am. I know that I was never an awful person. There was never anything wrong with me; at least, not anything that couldn't be cured by ditching the church and taking the time I needed to heal. The good opinion people had of me was at least somewhat deserved. I never needed to feel suicidal; despite everything, I was a confident, smart, well-adjusted young man, successful by plenty of measures. I was a young man who could have dated interesting girls, and loved and lost, and despite all my regrets, I've become a less-young man who is everything I can be. I have some healing left to do, and some experiences left to make up for (some of them are delightfully wicked, and would cause the minister at my old church to have kittens!), and I've reconciled my past, my present, and my future with my self.

There you have it. It's been wonderful to get it out. This is my final step: admitting to it all. Telling the world that, not only do I believe Christianity is a lie, but that it's a blight - a force for evil and suffering. I was a normal, healthy kid, who grew into a normal, healthy teenager, who's become a normal, healthy adult - but all of that happened in spite of the church. The only thing I have ever had from the church is pain, misery, and guilt. It made me think I was awful. It nearly drove me to suicide, over and over. The church is the most hateful, harmful thing I've ever encountered. When I see people mistreating others in an organised fashion, the church seems, so often, to be there. Executing gay people in Uganda? Christianity. Lobbying (successfully) to have civil union ceremonies removed for "mimicking marriage"? Christianity. Picketing clinics and telling teenage girls who've just made a horribly tough decision not to keep a child that they're murderers? Christians. Marching on military funerals and yelling hateful insults at friends and family who've just lost a loved one? Christians. Telling teenagers how they've ruined their own and their partner's lives for having sex without being married? Christians. Telling non-Christians, both atheists and the devout of other faiths, that they will burn in a fiery hell for eternity for their unforgiveable crime of not acknowledging the 'right' God? Christians. Telling gay people that their most precious relationships are evil? Christians. Gay people came up a few times in that list because they're the currently-fashionable group for Christians to hate on.

Now, I know some Christians do good things. I do good things; I did good things as a Christian. The reality is, people like to feel good about themselves, and helping others makes you feel good. There is much about the church that is wonderful. My wife and I had a Catholic wedding, and it was inspiring and beautiful. I believe that goodness is the people in Christianity coming to the fore: because you know what? In every culture, in every religion, there is art, and beauty, and love; and I believe it's because of one crucial thing all religions and cultures have in common: people. People take Christianity, and they manage to adorn it with lots of good bits. None of it, however, none of the dressing up done by people, can make up for the evil, the harm, the wrong, that is Christianity. I firmly believe that Christianity is a doctrine which was made up to help to control the people. It was put together over hundreds of years, and refined over thousands, to control, to suppress, and to exploit. All of that aside, I think there is potential for Christianity: I know plenty of 'good' Christians. If the bigotry and intolerance could be excised, all of it, and the pointless, harmful rules; the attitudes that pressure people to be one way, and not another; the need to control, and to mould people into an image which is just so; if all of that could be removed, and the goodness that I know is in the people in the church allowed to take charge, Christianity could become a force for good. But realistically, that won't happen.

My only honest hope is that Christianity will fade into irrelevance. People will see all that is wrong with it, and abandon it. Every teenager sucked into Christianity, every young adult, every older convert, is a little more misery in the world, and the less that happens, the better. I believe, very deeply, in the goodness of humanity. We have our bad eggs, to be sure, but the great lie that Christianity, that all religion, tells is that we would be worse off without it. The good people would be bad, the bad people would be worse. It's not true: the bad people are bad in spite of the best efforts of religion. The good people are good, in spite of the harm religion does. At least, if we ditched Christianity, we might all be a little, or a lot, happier.