I recently read the suicide note of Leelah Alcorn and keep thinking about how far we haven’t come since I was a teen. This is my story. It comes with a trigger warning. Don’t read it if you knew me before I was 18 – none of us need that.
Every year on Palm Sunday, the Catholic churches of my youth would do a small bit of drama, where they would semi-act out the scene where Pontius Pilot condemned Jesus to death. The priest played Jesus. Other readers played the other speaking parts. And the congregation played out the braying mob who called for Jesus’s blood. ‘Crucify him!’ we called out in unison. Or rather, chanted in a dull monotone. Repeating the same scene we did every year for the 18 years I was compelled to attend Catholic mass.
My parents were devout Catholics, and so was I by default for my childhood. Before I could read, they took me to a picket at a women’s health clinic, where I carried anti-abortion signs filled with the mysterious symbols of English writing. I went to Catholic school. I played trumpet at mass. I volunteered at my parish, putting together the paper inserts of church bulletins. Church was a place I could go and get some peace away from my family for a bit.
I don’t know if we had more or less dysfunction than other aspirational, middle class families. The popular thing to do in those days was take your misbehaving kids to therapy, so my mother took us. I went to three different shrinks until I was a teenager and I never trusted any of them. They were not there for me. They were there for my parents. Anything I said to them would be repeated on.
For my brother, they wanted to know why he didn’t like school. For me, they wanted to know why I was not conforming to gender roles.
I’ve repeated this story many times to shrinks since, to the point I don’t trust my own memory of it any more. They also weren’t looking to help me, but were working as gatekeepers. They ask about the parts where I didn’t fit in, but they don’t ask about the part that hurt. Here is the part that hurt: I didn’t know what I was – I only knew what I wasn’t. And what I wasn’t was normal. I told my parents at 14 that I liked girls. They were the first people I told. This was a huge mistake. My mother told other parents. Their kids told everyone at school. I was bullied – sometimes by my friends. (They got teased for spending time with me and shielded me from that, mostly, but also became frustrated with it. I had no official support at school, but neither did they. Why would a 14 year old know what to do when getting flack from all sides for even hanging around with somebody who seems so queer?)
It was Catholic school. Everyone was in the closet. The LGBT staff were afraid they would be fired if they came out. The only teacher who addressed LGBT issues at all was the religion teacher. He had us read about Sodom and Gemorrah, because he thought it was funny. When we didn’t understand the story, he claimed that it was God killing all the ‘faries’.
And thus my safe-haven of church evaporated. I’d read Ratzinger’s letter to American bishops about the pastoral care of homosexual persons. I was ‘intrinsically disordered’. I was unwelcome at church, bullied at school and bullied at home.
My mom hadn’t just outed me as school. Family dynamics had shifted considerably. I was no longer the perplexingly non-conformist child. I was the black sheep. My brother, finally freed from that role, relished his newly raised status. He and my mom would trade queerphobic quips and hate speech at the dining table. I felt unolved and unlovable. If I should somehow attract someone on the basis of unnatural lust, they were not welcome. I could never bring a partner home. There was no place for me in the world.
I pondered suicide. If God hated me, he would send me to hell, which would not be an improvement. Or else, he might not exist, in which case there was hope for a life without him. I knew that happy LGBT people existed and if I could make it, I could join them. I pondered running away from home, but decided to hold out until I turned 18.
My parents did love me; they were just really shit at communicating that. My mother’s friends told her to pack me away to conversion therapy. To throw me out of the house and leave me homeless. In the end, the advice she did follow – to bully me straight – was the kindest advice she received. She thought Jesus wanted her to make my life hell, so she did. But not enough to kill me or make me homeless or make my plunge into the minimum wage, insecure life of an emancipated minor.
I turned 18 and I went to university. I’d picked my uni based very largely on how LGBT- friendly it was. I went from being an outcast to being popular. I got into a relationship. But I didn’t know what it felt like for people close to me to be nice to me. The relationship was awful. And I used my social capital to bully other people.
When I was at university was when I first heard that transgender men existed. I was immediately interested. My my girlfriend, who I spent 9 years with overall, forbade transition. She was a lesbian, she said, so if I transitioned, she would leave. I was used to threats, conditional love and non-acceptance, so I agreed. As we bullied away most of my friends, who did I have aside from her?
My life became less and less tenable. And finally we broke up. She’d had enough, I’d had enough. It took a few years of questioning and of me desperately trying to force myself into boxes that didn’t work, before I finally did transition.
This isn’t an ‘it gets better narrative.’ My mother died and I inherited money. I used it to transition and then move to another continent. My life is ok now. It’s really good in fact, but this is not only because I stuck it out. It’s because I have privilege. I can’t make promises to trans kids that things will definitely get better for them. I desperately wish I could. I can say: the future you think you see is not the future you will have if you stick around for it. You will be surprised if you stick around. I really want you to stick around.
When I first moved away from home, at 18, my parents told me not to come back. But it was half-hearted – the kind of rows people have to make separations easier, but with the particular viciousness of our established dynamic. They paid my student feeds. They called me after a week to ask when I was going to visit. They met my girlfriend and came to see her as part of the family. All their threats vanished. Their disapproval slowly melted away. They forgave me. I forgave them. I stayed at my mother’s bedside when she had cancer. There was love there. Some clergy told them not to push me away and in the end, they went with the kinder version of their God. Their love gradually triumphed over their queerphobia.
Not every religious person has access to loving clergy. There are many in pastoral care who will happily sacrifice other people’s families to feed hatred. There are many who will turn their backs on their own families. They can’t face the truth of it, so they call their abuse ‘love’. It’s what Jesus wants.
And so, they stand in a mob, dully shouting ‘crucify him’, at their own children, just like we did at mass every Palm Sunday.
We like to think, when reading history, that we would have provided haven on the Underground Railroad, or joined the Resistance in Nazi-Occupied France or marched with MLK or somehow been on the side of the angels. When we read about privileged allies who helped Others at great personal risk, unless we’re part of the Other, we imagine ourselves as one of the allies. Of course we would have known that something so evil was wrong. But on Palm Sunday, the liturgy forces us to acknowledge the lie of this. ‘Crucify him!’ we say of the ultimate victim – the one we have defined as someone who never did wrong. The news might say ‘he was no angel’ about most innocent victims of state violence, but Jesus was better than an angel. Christians read every year about how the chief priests persuaded the crowds to say Jesus was guilty.
When clergy say Jesus demands violence, cruelty, abuse, neglect, ‘conversion therapy’, homlessness and death for LGBT people, they order parents not to love their children. They say Jesus does not love. They say Jesus is a monster who deserves no loyalty or respect. The world would be better off without such a hateful God. We’d all be better off if they would just crucify him.
Whose side are they on?