How to Love Myself

…and other stories.

Easter weekend 2012 turned out to be a time of self-examination for me. I realized how much I miss having a faith community to belong to, and a family to share Easter dinner with.

I turned my back on Christianity a long time ago – at age 9 to be exact. I still continued attending church – it was expected of me – and I frequented Sunday school until about age 16, which is when most youngsters were groomed to step forward to get confirmed into the Church. At that point, though, I was thoroughly disillusioned. There was little comfort to be had in the cold pews that seated up to three thousand souls at a time – all of them white. Welcome to South Africa in the 1990s. Welcome to the Dutch Reformed Church. I left the church and never looked back.

For a time, my father was a deacon in our church; he was a man of deep faith. I really wanted to believe too, and we would have long discussions in which I asked him how he could believe in a God that allowed horrible things to happen in life, like death and sickness and ugliness. If God is all-powerful then He has the power to create perfection? My father would try to argue with me for a time, but then the conversation would dwindle. We realized that the chasm between us simply wasn’t going to be bridged through dialogue. One of the last books I ever mailed him was Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, in which Harpur argues that the Bible was never meant to be interpreted literally but is steeped in pagan traditions. In reply my father sent me Lee Strobel’s book A Case for Christ. This book argues for a factual reading of the Bible. And so things stood until the day my father died in 2005.

My loss of faith during my teens coincided with my deepening struggles around my own gender expression and sexuality. I did not feel comfortable discussing these feelings with anyone I knew, and felt ill at ease at home, in the church and at school. I avoided extracurricular activities and feared interacting with the world at large. I was celibate all throughout my teenage years and didn’t discuss my gender issues with anyone until I reached my mid-twenties. It was hard but by that point I was suicidal; I had nothing left to lose.

Like many of his generation, my father believed that homosexuality was a sin and that HIV and Aids was God’s way of cleansing the human species of those who turn away from Him. As for transsexuals, he felt they suffered from delusions and that delusions should be treated with medication not surgery. I like to think that my father would have come around if he’d lived, that he would have put aside his archaic thinking, but I can’t know for sure.  I do know that he said he loved me, even after I informed him that I was a transgender male and had begun hormone treatment to transition to living as a man. My father did not hide his pain at my decision, and our relationship certainly worsened after that. But I don’t question that he loved me. It still hurts, though, to think of what he must have thought of me.

I have had my struggles with mental illness, primarily clinical depression, but my being a transgender male was not, in my opinion, a sickness. And more recent science seems to back me up.  But back then, what really made me sick was the judgments all around me, the blame, dismissals and sheer mean-spiritedness I was confronted with, especially from my mother. For the sake of my own healing I ultimately severed ties with her. I haven’t spoken with her since 2006 and likely will not see her again. She would say that it is my loss. And in a way she would be right. I have indeed lost something by not having a family to form community with. But I do not miss her damnation and her lack of compassion.

Luckily, familial rejection did not mean rejection from my friends, and over the years since, I have built a community of chosen family. They have witnessed my transformation and my coming into my own. Their support continues to nourish me. And recently I have even given myself permission to imagine what it might be like for me to have children of my own. Will I be a better parent than my parents were? Will I be able to love my child unconditionally, no matter what?

As for my faith-life, I am finally moving towards making peace with God. I believe He exists in the spaces between us. Whether I will ever belong to a faith community again remains to be seen, but if I do, I commit to doing no harm, and to loving those who are different from me. Because if we can’t do that, what hope is there of achieving peace in this world?

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