4/09/2011 | Share this article:By Alice ~
After being fairly devout for the first 24 years of my life, I became an atheist while I was walking through a parking lot. Nothing unusual was going on around me at the time; I just was thinking things over and decided to turn my back on God. Although I thought I knew the reasons for my decision, the stuff going on underneath the surface was a lot more important; that's the way it usually is with major events in my life. I'll try to explain things as clearly as I can.
My mom is Episcopalian, and my father was raised Catholic; although my father is more religious than my mom, my younger sister and I were raised Episcopalian. There are many people who say they believe in God but really only pay lip service to religion or pervert it to their own desires. My father is neither; he truly believes in the Word, and that belief has been a great source of both happiness and conflict in his life. Although my father is generally a very mild-mannered man, he passed along a passive-aggressively authoritarian faith to me: God loves you so you should want to do what God wants.
Like many children, the picture I formed about what God wanted me to do was strongly influenced by what I thought my father wanted me to do. Although he never said so explicitly, I got the strong impression that my dad expected me to marry a nice girl and start a family. The problem with that is I'm transgender.
My parents had gay friends in college, and my godmother came out as a lesbian when I was a toddler. They never said a word about this until after I came out, and they eventually admitted that it was because they thought I might be gay; like many parents, they hoped it wouldn't happen if they silently disapproved of it. That silence spoke volumes considering that they seemed conservative on other social issues like premarital cohabitation. Considering that their support for my sister coming out as bisexual was lukewarm at best, it was a shock to hear my father say, "there's nothing wrong with being gay," when I came out as transgender. They actually weren't okay with the idea of having a gay son, and the knowledge of this kept their transgender daughter in the closet for years.
Again, I'm getting ahead of myself. I came out to my parents at 26, but I wasn't even out to myself when I became an atheist. Still, you need to know that I was a closeted trans woman to understand what had brought me to that parking lot. I didn't ever consciously think of myself as a girl, but deep down I knew I was "different" and was scared of finding out exactly what that difference was. In adolescence, this lead to me becoming more and more withdrawn from my body and my emotions. I became a robot and just did what my parents and others expected me to do. Although I was a model student and son on the outside, things just kept getting worse and worse inside me. That buildup of pain was a big part of why I became an atheist.
Not all transgender people are asexual before transition, but I sure was. As a relatively good-looking 22-year-old, I'd never had sex, kissed someone, gone on a date, or even tried masturbating; I actually somehow thought that this was "normal" and most everyone else was just faking interest because it was expected. I started to pull my head out of the sand the year I graduated college, and that kicked off a few pretty messed-up years of trying to figure out what the heck I was. This was hard because my real emotions had been buried so long that it took a while to get back in touch with them. I'd also developed some internalized transphobia; being transgender was at the bottom of my list of possibilities under "please God anything but that." In this period, I went home for Thanksgiving and told my parents I never wanted to talk to them again. I had an inkling my issues were sex/gender related, and dumping my parents was kind of a way to preempt them dumping me. We weren't talking when I had my fateful walk in a parking lot.
Even after rejecting my parents, I still went to an Episcopal church every weekend. I'd been a Sunday school teacher during college, and I joined the choir after moving to a new state and a new church. Although both churches were on college campuses, I was one of only 3 or 4 people my age who regularly attended services. Both churches were very pro-gay, but I never heard the word "transgender" except on the end of LGBT. Maybe it wouldn't have made much of a difference either way; although I flirted with the anti-gay Leviticus crap in college, church was mostly a refuge from my struggles rather than a place I expected a priest to give me the answers I was looking for.
So if I liked going to church, why give it up? Well I'm finally ready to talk about what was actually going through my mind in that parking lot. This is going to sound weird, but I spent so much time alone back then that I'd develop elaborate fantasies and run them over and over in my mind. One of them was the fantasy that I'd go to Afghanistan and catch Osama bin Laden. I imagined myself at a press conference accepting the world's congratulations, and it occurred to me that I didn't want to thank God for helping me. If I captured bin Laden, I didn't want to owe God anything at all. I took a step outside the fantasy and asked myself if I wanted God in my real life, and the answer was "no." That was the end of it.
Okay, so at the time I really didn't understand what was going on, but I think I've got the pieces pretty well sorted out now. The bin Laden fantasy was about doing something so amazingly good and heroic that I wouldn't owe anyone anything -including God; the single act would justify my existence, and then I could do anything I liked with my life. This was a potent fantasy because I'd spent my entire life suppressing my own desires and doing what my parents and God wanted me to do. Despite my best efforts to be a good person, I was in a downward spiral of self-hatred that I didn't know how to escape. Part of me knew that to survive I'd need to jettison anything that was holding me back from saving myself. Although I liked church, God was a constant source of shame, self-hatred, and repression that needed to go.
I transitioned four years ago, and since then I've occasionally thought about going back to the Episcopal Church. The thing that stops me is that a truth once seen cannot be unseen. All the years I spent praying to God trying to do what was right were actually mostly about me grappling with my father's expectation for me to be a straight guy. Religion made it harder for me to get at the real issue, and it encouraged and reinforced me cutting off the rest of the world and being asexual. Religion definitely caused me a lot of pain, and it probably added a few years to the time I spent in the closet. Although it can still be seductive, I don't think I'll ever go back.
Incidentally, my parents came around on the transgender thing, but my father still tries to get me to become a Christian again. It's possible that if he'd always been okay with me being transgender then I'd still believe in God. That might seem like a non-sequitor, but most people join a religion because they're indoctrinated by their parents; it makes sense that a conflict with your parents could be at the root of a conflict with the God they gave you.
Well that's about it. I still face some struggles, but every year since I transitioned has been better than the one that came before. I decided to write this after my dad forced another conversation about religion, and composing it has helped organize my thoughts. Thanks for reading!
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