How long it takes to come out

Something that I have a lot of internalized shame about is how long it took me to figure out that I was trans and act on that. Looking back at my childhood, all the signs were there, though they certainly weren’t obvious at the time. And a lot of that is because I didn’t know that trans people existed. I assumed I must be the only one who felt like this and that there was nothing that could be done about it, outside of a miracle.

But the more I learn about psychology, sociology, trauma, and all that other brain and social determinant stuff, the more I realize that there were plenty of good reasons that I didn’t come out until I did. My brain was protecting me, keeping me safe until I was in a place where I could be myself without as much risk of harm. Or at least it was trying. Sometimes you just reach a breaking point and you can’t avoid it anymore no matter what your situation.

After my very conservative childhood¬†where I was isolated from knowing any out queer or trans people, I went straight into a conservative college. I started to meet gay men and even some queer women, but I didn’t know anyone who was trans. The first out trans woman I met had a more binary path than me and I still had a hard time imaging following that path. I did start to think about expanding gender a bit around that time as I began identifying as gender non-conforming. But I still thought that meant that I was a feminine man.

I feel like I was on the verge of finally figuring out my gender and sexuality when I got sucked into a relationship with my then best friend. It was one of those unhealthy relationships from the start where she demanded all my attention and frequently alienated me from my friends. Partly because of my own lingering baggage from the form of Christianity I was still coming out of and partly because I needed a way to pay for school when my parents tried to control me, we got married after only 11 months of dating. But as soon as we got engaged and she no longer felt the need to woo me, things went downhill fast.

From my wedding night on, my life became about compromising who I was to make her happy. I no longer had any energy to figure out my gender and sexuality because I was fighting just to keep my head above water and try to figure out what was wrong with me and my marriage. I spent 6 more years like that, struggling with crippling anxiety and depression as the abuse continued and my mental health was shamed. She loved taking advantage of my feminine traits when they suited her, like manipulating me into doing most of the cooking and cleaning and emotional labor. But she had a vested interest in keeping me from going past the point she wanted.

During that time my brain didn’t allow me to think about my identity. I hid the most vulnerable parts of myself away deep inside a shell to protect them from the violence in my relationship. I spent most of what little free time I had avoiding any deep reflection. I had finally escaped religious abuse only to find myself in a much more intense form of emotional abuse.

But eventually I reached a breaking point in my relationship. We went to couples therapy for 5 years and finally after 4 years of making no progress on how to make an asexual person and an allosexual person compatible sexually our therapist suggested opening up our marriage and exploring polyamory. My ex had no interest in dating but she begrudgingly allowed me to date because she knew at that point it was the only way to keep me. It was a terrible place to be dating from but it did allow me to finally get farther out in the real world outside of her influence and eventually meet queer and trans people.

It was the first trans person I dated who really helped me think about how I might be more than just gender non-conforming and how to expand how I viewed genderqueer identity. And once I started to unravel that ball of yarn I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t safe yet but that catalyst was all I needed to start myself on the journey to where I am now. Having that person (who is still a dear friend of mine) give me permission to think about the thing I had been avoiding for all my life allowed me to start to think outside the trauma I’d been experiencing.

My ex didn’t like that however. When I came out to her as genderqueer and bi she immediately told me not to tell anyone else because she “didn’t want to have to answer awkward questions.” That was the beginning of the end for our relationship. I had finally taken a huge step forward in becoming myself and all she could think about was herself. She was also deeply biphobic because she was convinced this was me becoming only attracted to men (which doesn’t make sense when I’d wanted sex with her for 7 years).

Shortly after that though I started dating the queer woman who is now my spouse. And she showed me what it felt like to be truly loved FOR who I am, not despite it. She has been the most gender affirming person I have ever met and at each step of my transition she has made it clear that she loves me no matter what direction I go. She doesn’t have a specific outcome in mind for me except that of becoming my most authentic self.

I pretty quickly realized I need to leave my ex so I moved out 4 years ago this month and came out publicly shortly thereafter. I have now filled my life with other wonderful people, cis and trans, queer and straight, who affirm me like that as well. If you had told me only 5 years ago that I would be here now, I would have either laughed or cried. It felt so impossible to imagine ever being on a pathway to happiness at that moment.

So when I see people come out, especially later in life, I feel so much love for them. They have finally broken the chains of their trauma and societal expectations and set themselves free. I don’t hold any judgement for how long it took them because I know that often times that was for their own safety or lack of resources. They had the courage to not let their past define their future. Which is a lesson I think everyone could learn from.

Religious but not Spiritual

As open as I am about most things, one of the most challenging things for me to admit both to myself and to those close to me is that I am really struggling with how I engage with religion and spirituality lately. This isn’t necessarily a post about gender but I think it is important to show how everything in your life can be interrelated and this is (or was?) a significant part of my life so I want to take a moment to talk about it honestly here.

In the past I was skeptical of people who said they were spiritual but not religious because that seemed like an artificial divide to me. But more and more I am coming to see how that distinction is meaningful and how I have been essentially practicing the reverse for the past decade. I’ve been religious but not spiritual.

I honestly don’t know what I believe. I guess that makes me an agnostic. I don’t think you can ever rule out or disprove a god or deity or metaphysical property because by their very nature they are outside of science and tangibly observable facts. But the way I’ve been justifying my continued involvement in Christianity and the Episcopal Church is because humanity has been searching for the divine and building religious structures as ways of doing that communally since before the dawn of agriculture and civilization as we know it. And I figured that if so much of human history has been devoted to that, it is pretty foolish of me to think I am outside of that pursuit. I use Christianity as my lens mainly because that is my culture and the context in which I grew up and I don’t want to appropriate someone else’s religion and culture, especially when I am not ready to lean into it as a whole but approach any religion as a skeptic.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian community. And built into that culture is a lot of spiritual abuse, patriarchy, and denial of the real world in many forms such as rejection of scientific discoveries, gender variance, and sexualities. I am sad to say that their techniques worked on me and for a long time I was a good Fundamentalist bible-thumper who had successfully pushed my questions and doubts to my subconscious and at least ostensibly bought into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker. So part of the reason I stayed in the church is because I thought it was important to heal from that past by reclaiming “good” Christianity or at least fully understanding how it didn’t need to be practiced that way. If I had just run away I don’t think I would be the same person I am today.

But my doubts have never gone away and the harder I try to lean into the discomfort, the more resistant I grow. It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in miracles, divine intervention, the heaven/hell divide, or “the power of prayer” to do anything other than change (or more often confirm) how the person praying thinks. Does the afterlife exist? Maybe. But I don’t know how it has any relevance to my life if I don’t believe in a god who would send people to hell and wouldn’t want to spend eternity with one who does.

And my doubt isn’t exclusive to Christianity either. In queer community there is an abundant amount of “woo” in the form of astrology, tarot cards, reiki, meditation, pagan rituals, witchcraft, etc. And while I’m slowly learning to just accept that other people find meaning in it I don’t think I could ever dive into that with an open mind myself.

For years I’ve been going through the motions of going to church partly for the reasons above about reclaiming and retraining myself, partly because I want to change the church and make it a more welcoming place for people who want it, and partly because I think intergenerational community focused on doing social justice work together is valuable. But recently I’ve realized that the only thing that keeps me coming back is the people. I am lucky enough to have spent the last few years in a very affirming and supportive small community where I have made many friends. And because of that I’m tied into various commitments like childcare, hospitality, and policy changes.

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in my anxiety every time I try to engage in anything related to church. It started out slowly with more and more resistance to attending on days I didn’t have commitments, but lately I have started having near anxiety attacks just sitting through services and last week when I tried to go, I couldn’t even get up the courage to walk through the doors. Part of it is that I feel like an impostor but there is definitely something deeper going on. And I suspect the reason it is really surfacing now is because the estrogen is really shaking out any emotions I haven’t dealt with yet.

I spoke to my very wise, queer femme priest who said this about what might be going on: “I think Christianity (all Christianity, not just bad Christianity) is wired into you entangled with the kinds of ways you were taught to shove yourself down and hate yourself. I think this is true biologically, even, that the neural pathways that are marked “Jesus” are also marked with the awful things you were told about how to be and how to behave, and that any encounter with Christianity, whether in line with your values and politics or not, sends an alert down that pathway. That’s a lot. It may or may not be reclaimable. But to repeat a pattern of forcing (the way you forced yourself to conform, and forced yourself within your marriage) with Christianity will likely only do you harm.”

I think she’s really onto something there. Christianity may not be something I can reclaim, at least not right now, and I need to listen to the wisdom of my body instead of fighting it. Christianity was integrally tied to painful and abusive parts of my past both through my upbringing and with my ex wife who wanted to be a priest and felt threatened anytime I had doubts. So as much as it hurts me to say, I need to step back from church for the time being. I need to find the things in life that give me hope and meaning and right now that isn’t religion or spirituality. But hopefully I can learn to open myself up to what is next.