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My sister and I have been through a lot together. We grew up in a hardcore evangelical church with an abusive dad and a mom that enabled him. My sister and I have leaned on each other through leaving the church, starting therapy, cutting off our parents, her getting divorced, and me coming out.
Our parents did the scapegoat-and-golden-child thing. She’s a classic type-A person: ED nurse, highly controlled, makes decisions quickly, and never changes her mind. I’m the family fuckup: I’ve had lifelong mental health issues; I’m a wishy-washy artist; I have a non-traditional career. I’m also very queer, and that’s a problem.
My sister didn’t fully leave the church. She left the church we grew up in, but she’s still an evangelical Christian, and she still carries a lot of beliefs that are harmful to me. She’s always “supported” me, and yet she believes being gay is a sin. It’s mostly OK — she doesn’t go out of her way to make negative comments, she’s even gone on double dates with me. Classic “love the sinner, hate the sin” situation. But it hurts. It feels like her love is conditional. It feels like she’s secretly judging me, even if she isn’t saying horrible things to my face. It feels like she’s waiting for me to realize the error of my ways. It feels like any pain I go through is “proof” that my lifestyle is wrong, being queer is the source of all my problems, or etc etc etc.
It’s been like this for years. Every so often we fought about it, and then it’d end with, “Whatever, I’m tired of fighting, I love you”, and we just wouldn’t talk about it anymore. I love her. We know each other better than anyone else on earth, she’s the only family I’ve got, and I want her in my life. I’ve been willing to put this aside and accept the love she’s willing to give me. But it’s all come to a head now that my health insurance finally approved my top surgery.
Being gay was one thing, being trans is another. She “supports” trans people, but she is completely against this. First, she just had a lot of medical concerns; now, she’s trying to convince me that I’m not mentally stable enough to make a life-changing surgical decision. I disagree, my therapist disagrees, the countless doctors who’ve approved my paperwork disagree. But because of the scapegoat-and-golden-child thing, I’m the fuckup, she doesn’t trust my choices, and I’ll never convince her.
It all comes back to religion. My sister says I’m being judgmental of HER for not accepting her non-acceptance of me. She’s incredibly hurt by how much I dislike the church (and doesn’t seem to care how badly the church has hurt me). She’s comfortable being in my life, talking about my dating life, possibly helping me out post-surgery, and disapproving of me the whole time. She thinks it’s crazy that I’m hurt by that.
Am I crazy for “not accepting her non-acceptance”? Is that a fair ask from her? I don’t know where to go from here. How do I keep someone in my life when our great loves are so opposed? Is it worth building up an extensive list of things (critical, beloved things — queerness for me, the church for her) we can’t talk about, to keep the peace between us?
The general consensus from my therapist and friends is to give up and look for support elsewhere, but god, trying to fill the void of this relationship is unimaginable. Although I’m trying to make more connections, I don’t have a ton of close relationships. She’s been my anchor for many years. How do I love this person in a way that doesn’t hurt me anymore? Is it even worth trying?
Thanks, Straddlers. Love you guys.
I’ve thought about your question so many times since you asked it, and every time I come back to feeling a really deep grief and pain for you. I’m sorry. I really am so, so sorry.
Our backgrounds and experiences are very different, but your bond with your sister resonates really strongly with me. I, too, grew up in an extremely conservative family, and my sisters and I have leaned on each other our whole lives: first, to escape the grasp of that family and its religious institutions and second, to make our way into the world, trying to make sense of who we are and what we want after a childhood of repression. There’s a depth of connection we share that most people simply can’t understand. These relationships are intrinsic parts of who we all are, and I get the feeling (based on what you shared) that this is true for you and your sister as well.
And so, to read that your sister has taken a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach to you is heartbreaking beyond words to me. I really am so, so sorry.
It’s so painful and so complicated. At the end of the day, the best advice I can give you comes down to two things. First and foremost, take all the time you need — years, most likely — to name and hold and feel and process the grief of this situation, regardless of what you decide for your relationship with her. And second, know that any decision you make around this is not permanent. You are allowed to make a decision today and change it tomorrow or in a month or a year or a decade.
Whether you choose to keep her in your life or not, accepting that despite everything you have been through together, the fact that she so vehemently rejects who you are as a person is a profound loss of the kind I think most people simply cannot understand. In some ways, I think, it’s easy for people outside of these situations to say things like, “She doesn’t really love you, she’s hurting you so much, so why are you keeping her in your life?” And those things are all true, but, at least based on what I’ve observed in my own experience, there are so many ways in which she has shown you real love and support in the context of a family and community that is so bereft of it. That’s a hard thing to let go of. You share a history and a bond that truly is irreplaceable.
That said, it also sounds like your sister has internalized and adopted some of the manipulative behaviors and conditional approaches to love that you were both raised in. When I read how your sister views you as “judgmental” for not being ok with her rejecting you in the fullness of who you are, including your queer and trans identities — I don’t know, there’s something in there that feels related to gaslighting to me. She’s hurting you deeply and at the same time turning the situation around on you as being the one who “can’t accept.” What you described feels reminiscent of the toxic dynamic in abusive relationships where the abuser blames the person they are abusing for being abused. Pointing this out to her is probably not going to be helpful, but I just want to affirm to you that you really are not at all crazy or judgmental for not accepting her non-acceptance of you.
This might not be a useful answer to you, but at the end of the day, I think only you can really decide what is best for you in terms of a continued relationship with her, and your answer to that may change over time. You may find that you need to take space from your relationship so you can reassess the conditions of her love and whether or how you want that to be part of your life. You may find that you can no longer make allowances in your life for her bigotry. You may also find that you simply can’t let her go, which in many ways is the much harder road to take. In the case of my own relationship with my parents, I can’t say I’ve really figured this out, but in the 12 years since I became independent, I only recently really realized what it meant to really accept their love as conditional and have no expectations of them at all. And I only arrived at this point after years of really facing the extent of their own manipulations, self-serving neglect, and abuse and being able to name those things as such. I imagine that if you choose to keep your sister in your life, you’ll need to come to terms with something similar for yourself and your relationship with her, as well.
I do think, though, that continuing the work you’re doing to expand your network will be really invaluable to you, regardless of whether you keep your sister as part of your life or not. Part of what makes your connection so strong is the shared bond over what you’ve been through together. And while no one outside of her can really know the specific dynamics of your family history, there are many people who share comparable experiences.
In a recent A+ Advicebox, Meg shared a number of helpful reading resources that I want to pass along: an essay by Christina Tesoro on healing from purity culture and two booklists on purity culture and evangelism. You may find these works incredibly resonant, but I also would encourage you to seek out community from them: perhaps consider following some of these writers on social media to see if there are events, forums, or other community-centered activities that they host or promote that could help you meet others who share your experiences. It will likely take time, but this slow process might help you find others that you can connect with so that you’re not relying so closely on just your sister as your connection to and means of processing your past. It’ll also, hopefully, help you feel less alone in your experiences.
Additionally, I asked a friend about resources for folks getting top surgery, and he highly recommended the Top Surgery Support Facebook Group. My friend found this community invaluable for not only navigating the process but also having additional support, connections, and affirmations every step of the way. Joining a group like this, if you’re not already part of one, might fill some of the gaps of genuine, loving support and affirmation of your surgery that you know you won’t get from your sister, even if she provides the physical support of picking you up and helping you out after the procedure.
Ultimately, whether you keep your sister in your life or you seek out support elsewhere as your therapist and friends are encouraging you to do, I think you’ll have to do the deeply painful work of accepting that there will always be a void in your life around her. It’s a deep connection, which makes her betrayal of you and the loss you’re feeling around the relationship more acute and feel even more insurmountable. But as with all things, given time and space and through forging new connections, new relationships, I really believe that the gap will feel less all-encompassing.
Wishing you all the best with your top surgery! This is an exciting moment in your life, and I hope that in spite of everything going on with your sister, you’re able to find real joy in this act of self-affirmation.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.