A pack of wild horses couldn’t drag me back to visit and engage with the family that I’ve managed to finally leave behind, but there are certain memories cling to me with a death grip.
One of those examples comes courtesy of my youngest half brother.
I can’t remember what we were watching that night when I was visiting my Mother several years ago but it was probably something glorifying war or a show about a band of duck hunting assholes. It doesn’t really make much of a difference, it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it? These guys pretty much always gravitate to the entertainment and entertainers that justify their own deep-seated hatred and prejudice. I get it, we’re drawn to that which makes us comfortable.
The thing that came out of his mouth though, shook and chilled me to the core. Smiling, but without a bit of joy in his eyes, he said: “I can’t wait to be a marine like Dad so I can shoot Muslims and get paid for it.”
Here was my youngest brother, only 16 and already so indoctrinated by his father that he was eager to become a paid murderer.
I wasn’t surprised, only casually replying with: “Well, it’s a good thing that you’re not going to meet the physical fitness requirements then, isn’t it?”, but I was appalled none the less.
When my brother was in the 4th grade, my mother (with her 7th-grade education level) decided to home school due to her inability to stop evolution from being taught in the Missouri public school system. This meant that he was home all day with his openly racist, hateful, abusive and disabled ex-marine father who would regularly regale us with tales of his glory days in Vietnam. Looking back, the only time I remember seeing any genuine joy in stepdad’s eyes was after he had beaten me or while he was reminiscing about shooting the Viet Cong, boasting about the way the Vietnamese women would “throw themselves” at his platoon.
So anyway, here’s this 4th-grade student with a mother who’s focus was never on her children, left to be groomed by a manipulative psychopathic father. I saw his white nationalism and radicalism coming years before he fully embraced it and sometimes I wish that I would have tried to intervene. I’d escaped my family with my life, barely, and I was most definitely not ready or able to dive back in to help others out.
We haven’t spoken to or seen one another since that day, but once in a while, I scroll through his social media out of curiosity and the things that I see there are truly terrifying. On the surface, he seems angry, but that on its own isn’t worrisome.
What’s worrisome is that he feels slighted. His newsfeeds are covered with images depicting brown people through gun scopes, images of military-grade weapons, assault rifles and plenty of blame for everyone that doesn’t look like him.
He’s determined that his life is awful because of the refugees at the border. He is convinced that a woman wearing a burka must be part of a terrorist organization despite never having met or spoken to a Muslim person.
My youngest brother is a radicalized, white supremacist, gun hoarding homegrown terrorist.
Every day I wonder when not if, I’ll read about his terrorist attack and subsequent nonviolent arrest.
My short hair and red lips are more than simple physical attributes, they are acts of defiance against the programming that I received as the survivor of a backwoods apostolic cult.
We were taught many horrible things, but growing up male in that culture gave me the most amazing opportunity to gain a unique perspective.
We had some pretty strict rules concerning our women.
Women couldn’t wear pants, only skirts, maybe culottes if they were designed well enough that no one else could really tell that they were pants.
Women that wore pants were going to burn in hell for all eternity.
Women couldn’t wear makeup except for clear lipgloss because, again, no one could really tell that you were wearing it.
Women that wore makeup were “whores and sluts, praise the good lord, baby Jesus” dedicated to nothing more than deceiving and enticing our young men into a life of sin, making them ineligible to marry their cousins who were pure, because being fondled by daddy didn’t count.
Women couldn’t cut their hair, because “their hair was their glory” and thus had to be pulled super tight against their heads and hidden in a small bun at the crown of their head.
We all scorned the women who displeased God but trimming their split ends.
“Men that wanted to be women” were the worst.
Nothing was more depraved than the sex lives that we invented for them without ever having met or spoken to a transgender person.
We would obsess about those sex lives. I remember how our pastor would scream about it until his face was purple and he was soaked in sweat.
Later, I would wonder if that was the same way he looked while cheating on his wife with my married stepsister while her two kids were at school.
So today I present myself as an act of defiance to all of those who insist that I am not enough, that I can’t call myself a Christian.
I am going to continue my transition from male to female.
I am going to wear pants, not culottes, because culottes are gross.
I am going to cut my hair.
I am going to wear as much makeup as I want to, or none at all depending my my mood and the number of times I’ve hit the snooze button that day.
And you know what?
God is going to love me anyway, because God so loved me that they sent their only begotten son so that I would not perish, but have everlasting life.
Let your life be an act of rebellion.
It’s the quickest way to freedom.
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
In a way, growing up as a young transgender girl in a church that will never see me as anything other than male put me in a very interesting position.
Being born male, I was often in situations to observe and I was a sponge. Looking back, it would be easy to be ashamed that I didn’t speak up, that I didn’t do something and I’d be lying if I claimed to be completely shame free. Even as the broken and abused child that I was, I knew that I should have said something.
When the room is full of good old boys, the filters come off. When the old boys that are good begin to drift out, the skeletons come out. I knew everything.
I knew that the pastors’ brother wouldn’t let his daughter wear any skirts that covered her knee, even though our sect required women to wear ankle length skirts at all times, even at home.
I knew that one of the patriarchs of our church had a certain fondness for his grandkids. This was more of a horribly kept secret than a revelation, but of course we all acted devastated and shocked when he was finally caught. We all pretended that we hadn’t known, I mean the guy could croon The Old Rugged Cross like no one else. He’d bring you to tears every time, he was such a good Christian man.
I knew that when my cousin married my other cousin, they had to rush the wedding because she was afraid that the baby bump would begin to show. That gal still calls me by my dead name, the last I heard. Who knows, maybe she’s evolved. I don’t care enough to find out. Incest is not best.
I know that my stepfather attempted to molest all three of my cousins, that two of them told my mother who called them liars and sluts, and that my stepfather found that hilarious. I knew that he also raped my aunt with cerebral palsy while she was staying with us, which earned my family a 5 year disownment from the clan. It’s ok though. Pat eventually shut up about the rape and everything was hunky dory.
I knew that a recently divorced daughter of a church matron was sleeping with my stepbrother and providing him with drugs and porn. I hated her for it, but mostly because I’d been groomed to think of him as mine by this time. There’s no wrath like the wrath of a scorned lover.
I knew that the very same church matron had a thing for our pastor and that the good old boys took great humor in knowing that her husband knew about it but didn’t dare say anything. She also wanted my stepbrother, but her daughter and I were there first. She never did land the pastor. He had a thing for my married stepsister.
Growing up male in the apostolic church provided me with a front row seat to study rape culture. It taught me what to expect, should I somehow survive to see adulthood. Growing up male in the apostolic church taught me how to survive the worst kinds of human depravity, and because of that, I am one hell of a survivor.
As a transgender woman, I am eternally grateful for having been born male.