Moving from my mother’s house to my father’s in the 6th grade felt like the opening scene of Boyz in the Hood, where main character Tré is sent to his father’s house so that he can be taught “how to be a man.” In my case, it was my older brother who apparently needed this, as he was already getting involved with drugs and getting kicked out of middle schools. I wonder now if my parents believed I could use a more masculine parental figure as well, as I was already being bullied for being too sensitive, too feminine.
We moved from one Bay Area suburb to another, and joining the 6th grade in the middle of the school year was a difficult, lonely experience. I made friends with my next door neighbor, who was my age and went to the same middle school I did. We shared interests — primarily watching professional wrestling and shooting hoops in his driveway – but he was also big into the youth group at his church. One day he invited me, and though I had no real religious experience other than going to church on certain holidays, I was hurting for friends and I took him up on the offer.
I was surprised to find a bunch of other kids my age who, contrary to what I expected, were into rock music, dirt bikes, and goofing off. Some of them were older, and talked about souping up their cars. Some of them were girls, and were cute, including the youth pastor’s daughter. I never really got along the other boys at school, and these kids didn’t seem to mind my femininity. Except for the beard, Jesus seemed pretty feminine, after all. So I joined. And everything changed.
I got involved heavy with the youth group. I started going to church up to three times a week — youth group one night a week, church on Sunday, and then some other volunteer experience, or Bible study, or just a social outing with the other kids or with the youth pastor, who actually seemed pretty cool. I started going on the church’s mission trips to Mexico every summer, where we fixed roofs, painted buildings, and performed silent plays — silent in order to eliminate the language barrier — to kids at an orphanage (I played Jesus). Other summer plans included Christian summer camp every year. After my second or third visit to camp, I had my “come to Jesus” moment.
Imagine a dark indoor amphitheatre, carpeted, full of teenagers. A band — not quite a “rock” band, but with an electric guitar at least, and members with cool late 90s haircuts and tattoos — started playing “This is the Air I Breathe,” a song I’d heard dozens of times and knew how to play on the guitar myself. “This is the air I breathe/ Your holy presence living in me,” it goes, a pretty standard Christian worship ballad. And then comes the chorus, and the drums suddenly ramp up in intensity, and the string section takes center stage, and one hundred children sing the next lines in unison: “And I’m desperate for you/ And I’m lost without you.”
I was surely desperate for something, and I was definitely lost. As the chorus hit a crescendo, I fell to my knees and started to weep, believing that I’d found it — God! Religion! This is what had been missing from my life for so long. This was why I was already so miserable, at 13 years old. In youth group they’d talked about how there was a Jesus-shaped hole in all of our hearts, waiting to be filled by God’s perfect love. I prayed my heart out, devoted my life to that feeling of belonging, and purpose, and connection. On my knees, I asked God to forgive me for whatever it was I’d done wrong, and to fill that hole in my heart. To heal me, to fix me, to help me feel whole. Finally.
As a multiracial child in a suburban town with no black people besides my father, I’d always felt like an outsider. As a feminine boy who was made fun of and bullied from kindergarten onward for being a crybaby and a “momma’s boy,” I’d always felt ostracized. Here was a community where race apparently didn’t matter, because we were all humans, made in the image of God. Where a pacifist, sensitive, caring Jesus was the primary male role model. I finally felt at home. I was promised complete acceptance and understanding, and all I had to give was… well, everything. So that’s what I gave. My religion became the focal point of my life; I re-organized everything around it.
Kneeling in prayer became a daily practice — when I woke up, before meals, at church and youth group, before bed. I became a leader in youth group, and started attending and eventually leading meetings of my high school’s Christian club. I made it known among my peers that I was now a “Jesus freak.” One of my proudest moments as a teen was when, a few years later at a high school party that I was somehow invited to, an acquaintance offered me some beer — and then immediately rescinded the offer. “Oh yeah, you’re not into that kind of stuff,” he remarked. My religion had become my identity.
The first major test of my newfound faith was presented to me in the form of a girl I met my senior year of high school. I’d dated a couple girls from church or Christian camp by that point, but chastity was incredibly important to me; I broke up with the first girl I ever kissed because I felt like the relationship got too physical too fast.
But this was different. She and I started getting physical, almost immediately, though both of us professed to want to wait until marriage for sex. Every time we fooled around, I would try to slow her roll, and every night I would pray for release from sexual temptation. The shame and guilt I felt at not conforming to my God’s wishes for my sexual life tore me apart. I prayed harder and harder, but it never seemed to work. What was wrong with me? Was I not as devoted to God as I claimed to be? Premarital sex was for sinners. I wasn’t a sinner, was I?
A few months into the relationship, we were at her apartment when her parents and sister weren’t home, and she pressured me into sex. I said no, and pushed her away halfheartedly. Instead, she sat on top of me. The sex was unprotected, because having condoms meant you were planning to do it. “I guess you’re not a virgin anymore,” she said afterward. She went to the bathroom to clean up and I lay on the floor, face down, praying for forgiveness — for my own rape — because I hadn’t resisted enough. I didn’t hear or feel any response, whether castigation or forgiveness.
A common Christian metaphor is that each of us is a beautiful flower, but each premarital sexual experience rips out a petal until all that’s left is an empty stem (seriously). And who wants to offer their future spouse an empty stem? I felt condemned.
God was supposed to love me unconditionally, even if I was having sex before marriage. But in that moment of silence, where my shame, I realized, was self-generated — because I felt nothing, no lightning bolt of smiting or immediate punishment — I realized that I’d also never felt any kind of love from this God to whom I’d dedicated my life. I was left with only the shame. I also realized that it was possible I didn’t feel anything for this God I professed to love. I had always understood that in Christianity, the love that we have for God, the love that He as Jesus apparently showed by sacrificing himself for us, was the model we were supposed to follow. God’s love for us was supposedly unconditional. But it felt unrequited.
I’ve always had trouble with the concept of unconditional love. Is it possible? Is it even desirable? Are we really meant to bow down to our beloved, commit our lives to them no matter the circumstances, love them whether we’re really getting anything in return?
God never seemed to answer any of my prayers. He didn’t keep my parents together, he didn’t save my brother or mother from the ravages of drug addiction, he didn’t keep me from being sexually assaulted, didn’t keep me from the debilitating depression that led to suicidal ideation multiple times. He didn’t deliver me from my queerness and transness, no matter how hard I prayed (if God exists, at least for that lack of response I’m grateful).
I know now that this wasn’t part of the deal — the whole idea of God is that he does what he wants and has mysterious plans for us — but I still wondered if the relationship was healthy. I tried, so hard, and always seemed to fail. Apparently it was OK, since everyone failed. But as a former high school teacher, if everyone fails the test, there’s something wrong with the test. Or the teacher.
I felt like I gave and gave, and never received anything in return except shame and indifference. I prayed and received no answers. I went to church and felt nothing, prayed harder, went to church more frequently, enrolled in Christian college, even, and still didn’t feel like our relationship was anything but one-sided. I wondered if God’s love did exist, but I didn’t deserve it because of the mistakes I’d made, or because I wasn’t trying hard enough. Or because of the feelings that started to develop within me as I met queer people for the first time in college — and that I, once again, didn’t repudiate firmly enough. His love was supposed to be unconditional, but I felt like I hadn’t kept up my side of the bargain somehow.
The whole point of unconditional love is that you can’t earn it, that it’s given freely; we are afforded unlimited grace and are accepted as we are. At the same time, my church — like many — was obsessed with controlling youth behavior. We weren’t to smoke, do drugs, drink, have sex, curse, associate with non-Christians, even listen to non-Christian music. In a van on a youth group trip to a Christian music festival, I wanted to put in a CD of one of my favorite Christian emo bands at the time, Further Seems Forever. But it wasn’t acceptable to my youth pastor because it wasn’t “explicitly” Christian. I had already thrown away all of my secular CDs, but even the ostensibly Christian bands weren’t allowed if they didn’t say Jesus’ name in the lyrics.
If there were dozens of ways that one had to conform to the moral and social expectations of God’s will, then was his love really unconditional? It felt like no matter how hard I tried, I was far from being as good a Christian as I could be, far from earning the love that was supposed to be given no matter what.
At Christian college, I was introduced to Shane Claiborne and the “red-letter Christian” movement, and was reinvigorated. I re-organized my life around religion, again, this time as a Christian activist. Jesus, according to the New Monasticism movement Claiborne spearheaded, was much more interested in the work we were doing to fight social inequality than what music we were listening to. Jesus was a Middle Eastern, anti-war, socialist Jew after all, who hung out with sex workers and gave everything he had to the poor. I dedicated myself to activism: founding anti-sweatshop movements, making documentaries about sexism in film, organizing students at my and other colleges to collect and distribute food to poor folks in LA, and advocating for the gay and lesbian club to get official college sponsorship and funding.
But I finally left Christianity my senior year of college. As I continued meeting queer people in college, and loving them, I couldn’t square my beliefs with their humanity — and saw more and more of myself in them. What if I was gay? How would my Christian friends react? I read an article about a Jewish teacher who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his students during a school shooting. I showed the article to a Christian friend, and asked her whether she thought he was going to Hell, since he was Jewish. She vacillated for a moment before muttering “yes” under her breath. I never saw religion the same afterward.
It also just didn’t feel necessary anymore; I was able to do the activism I wanted to do without feeling like God’s approval or help was needed. I was a good person — I was kind and generous; I dedicated my life to helping others. Was a loving, generous God going to send me, a demonstrably good person, to hell because I stopped going to church? If so, was that God really unconditionally loving? Had I ever actually felt the love I was supposed to feel? Or had I only felt shame and indifference? I distinctly remember kneeling in my bedroom to pray one last time, and wondering: why am I doing this? To whom am I really bowing down? Am I really loved? Am I really loving? Is love even possible?
In all those years of wrestling with faith and trying to please the God I’d devoted myself to, I’d never felt what it was like to be loved in return. With the Christian God as my model, I’d never learned what it was like to have a healthy, reciprocal relationship. All I’d ever done was devote myself to someone who it seemed couldn’t, or wouldn’t, ever love me in return.
I broke up with my Christian college girlfriend, moved to Seattle, and tried dating boys. I eventually moved to Oakland, came out as non-binary, then transitioned. I thought that maybe my gender stuff was what had actually been missing, that I hadn’t been my true self, that I couldn’t love others because I didn’t know or love myself well enough. It wasn’t.
That was almost a decade ago, and I haven’t dated anyone seriously since. All of my relationships have been somewhat casual, and I find myself repeating the same pattern I learned from religion: caring deeply for folks who don’t seem to reciprocate. I believe that religion stunted my emotional growth in a way from which I still haven’t recovered. I have never been “in love,” and I’m 30 years old. I’m terrified of any relationship I enter ending up like the one I had with my absent God; that I’ll continue to give love but not have it returned it in a way that I can actually feel.
I was conditioned to mistake devotion, adoration, and/or allegiance for love. I spent so long trying to figure out how to love an absent “Lord” that I don’t know how to give or receive love with the actual people around me. I still yearn for the unconditional love I was promised as a child, even though I no longer believe in the God whose example was the catalyst for that yearning.
I looked to God, to Jesus, for examples for how to actually exist as a romantic being, and received vague platitudes about unconditional love that never translated into anything practically meaningful. I think Christianity’s insistence that Jesus is simultaneously human and God does young people, especially, a disservice. Jesus is perfect — unconditionally loving, ever-suffering, righteously angry when it matters, compassionate to everyone, even those who don’t deserve it. And we are expected to model ourselves after him.
My years of emulating this figure, of being devoted to an inattentive lover, taught me to expect one, to see love as something one gives, forever, unconditionally, without any regard for one’s own life or needs. Years later, I’m still unraveling how to love and be loved differently — how to be genuinely present for the people in my life who love me, and how to love myself enough to demand a lover who is present, who reciprocates, who is there for me like my God never was.
Christianity can be an amazing, affirming, validating community for many people, but for me it was a bad religion – in bending to my knees for an absent lover, I unconsciously expected love to be both unconditional and unrequited.
In recent months I’ve finally started to break down the walls I built over years of trying desperately to win the approval of an invisible God. I have resolved to never again bend to my knees for someone who doesn’t deserve it, who can never love me, who isn’t going to reciprocate.
I’m becoming much more intentional about all of my relationships, not just romantic ones. I’ve broken up with lovers who’ve refused to treat me in the ways I feel I deserve. I’ve ended friendships with or distanced myself from people who can’t communicate with me directly, don’t respect my time or my needs, or who don’t share my values. I’ve taken Maya Angelou’s lesson, adapted by Oprah, to heart: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them — the first time.” This doesn’t mean that I’m finished giving second chances, necessarily, but I’m finished expecting people to be different than who they are and who they want to be. I desire, and deserve, a present, caring, committed lover — and I will no longer devote myself to someone who clearly doesn’t desire to be that person in my life.
The other day, I was doing my makeup in a mirror in my bedroom. My cat was on the ground, meowing for attention. Instead of petting and thus pacifying him, I ignored him. To get closer to me, he jumped up onto some furniture, knocking over a glass candle and smashing it. He ran out of the room, and I yelled at him for a moment — before realizing that I was being unfair. A cat is a cat, and is going to cat. Why should I expect him to be anything other than what he is?
This lesson has been easier to apply to pets than to lovers, however. I don’t have experience being discerning in my romantic endeavors. This is especially difficult as a transgender lesbian — my dating pool is so small, and all the messages I get from society are that I should be grateful for whatever attention I can get.
But I spent half of my life devoted to someone who wasn’t even really there. Whether or not I ever find a deserving lover, being alone is better than settling for an absent one. And I look forward to discovering not only what it feels like to have an active, present lover, but also to be one.
lyrics throughout from Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion”