Watching the endless posts about the students of Covington Catholic as they took over social media this week, I couldn’t help but admit to myself that I was seeing a mirror of the ghost of a person that I once was.
It’s never an easy thing, revisiting the culture that I survived as a child, but this week proved it necessary to examine my own journey in an attempt to empathize with these kids. After all, my faith commands that I love others as myself and that includes those that exhibit the most heinous behavior. Please make no mistake, I won’t attempt to justify their actions but I hope that together we can examine the culture that created these angry young men.
Growing up in Southeast Missouri, not far from the Arkansas state line in the 80’s, I was pretty isolated from any true representation of the amazing diversity of the United States. We had plenty of guns, incest, abuse and rape, not to mention the drug trade, deforestation and puppy mills that kept our communities afloat. We were also taught that our particular apostolic sect was God’s chosen people.
We were taught that no men could ever be as righteous as we were. We believed that only the forty or fifty people that worshiped under the roof of our fellowship hall were eligible for heaven, and even then that only the twenty or thirty among us that had spoken in tongues and danced around like possessed folks were going to avoid an eternity of torment in a literal lake of fire. That was a fun Sunday School lesson, especially considering that I never did speak in tongues during my years in the cult.
We were taught that LGBTQ people were the lowest forms of life, that AIDS was a very suiting punishment for their sins against God. Queer folks had no chance at redemption. As a transgender child, you can imagine the hope and motivation this filled me with.
My family moved a lot, never so far away that we were separated from our religious sect but far enough that we switched school districts quite often. Prior to my junior year, only two of my schools had the very slightest hints of cultural diversity. In the second grade, I saw a black child for the first time. She seemed sweet enough, and no one really talked about her, but no one talked to her either. I’m pretty sure she was adopted by some well meaning Caucasian Christian couple, because I didn’t see a black adult for many years later. We moved again a couple of years later, not because of her, but because my fourth grade teacher invited us to write our dream job on the blackboard. Fourth grade me wrote “showgirl”, a dream that actually came true for twenty years. I often wonder how many other kids in that class grew up to be what they wrote that day. That, combined with my ever growing crush on the red headed boy in my class was enough for my family to isolate me even more remotely in the woods.
In the fourth grade, we moved to Gatewood, Mo. You’ve never heard of it, I bet. We had a post office that doubled as a convenience store and hangout for the areas unemployed. (There was a lot of those.) We had a volunteer fire department. We had more churches than people, it seemed. Those churches were sending people to hell though, because they didn’t attend our worship services. Also, they allowed their women to wear pants, cut their hair, say no to their husbands and have jobs.
We also had one Mexican student in our school out of the seventy or so kids that filled the six classrooms that educated grades kindergarten through eighth grade before busing us off to one of the two high schools that served the entire county. I never thought much about it until later years, because as I’ve mentioned, cultural diversity was never one of our strong suits. We did enjoy the fact that he was quick and agile, which got us pretty far in basketball tournaments. He was also willing to make our principals kid seem like the star of the basketball team even though he could play circles around all of us. As an adult, I often think back to the field trips we would take to the area greenhouse where his family worked growing the food and plants that stocked our local grocers. I’m pretty sure that most of the kids in our class have grown into adults that advocate for his deportment all these years later. But at least he helped our school win some games.
When I was fourteen, I met a black man for the first time. You see, a black church had been torched recently and our leaders had decided that the Christian thing to do would be to show them how true Christians worship.
We took our commitment to save heathens quite seriously. That night, the pastor of their church greeted me with a very warm smile and extended his hand. I looked at it in horror. I shook it anyway, but I immediately checked to see if any color had transferred. My community had always been that white. I still remember the way that he smiled through his pain and said “That’s alright, I understand.”
It took me quite a few years to decide that I was ready to confront the ugliness that had been pumped into me since childhood, and I’m still a work in progress. After twenty three years away from my cult, I still find myself battling prejudice against those that my community hated. There’s still a certain level of self hatred due to years of being referred to as “sissy”, “faggot”, “abomination” and countless others. I can still hear my mother telling me as a seven year old that Jesus was going to take her and leave me behind.
I’ve made life a living hell for a lot of people. I’ve managed and directed shows for club owners that wouldn’t allow black entertainers to use the dressing rooms. I’ve worked for and promoted companies that actively support the oppression of my community as well as the oppression and gentrification of countless others. I have used racial slurs and treated my fellow human as less than me because I allowed myself to believe the things that I’d been taught and I wasn’t ready to confront my own demons, and for all of that, I am sorry.
So through my pain, I smile and say to those Covington boys what was once said to me by someone that unintentionally taught me one of my life’s greatest lesson.
“That’s alright, I understand.”
I have no doubt that these children are victims, despite their despicable behavior.
They are victims of their parents, who failed to teach and prepare them for a world outside of their bubble.
They are victims of their religious leaders, who failed to teach them that we should treat everyone as we would like to be treated and to love one another as Jesus loved us.
They are victims of their school administrators and teachers, who failed to notice this behavior and intervene on their behalf in an effort to help them grow into loving and compassionate human beings.
They are victims of their fathers, who never taught them that yelling “It’s not rape if you enjoy it” at groups of strange women is not acceptable, but instead taught them that a woman’s body belongs to her husband.
They are victims of their community, who fostered and created this environment in which their minds and hearts were not encouraged to expand.
So, yes, these boys are victims, but they’re not blameless.
I dare them to break this cycle that they were born into. It’s hard work, but it can be done.
I’m living proof