Like many others in the LGBTQ community, coming out was a painful and difficult experience. For someone like myself, who comes from an abusive family of origin as well as a strict religious community, this process was especially complicated.
After I came out to my mom at 18, she had me attend ‘Christian counseling’ – what I describe as conversion therapy lite. This took place with a counselor my mom had known for years who had bought into her narratives of what was going on. Essentially, I was told that I thought I was gay because of my strained relationship with my father and that I could live a ‘normal’ life if I just prayed enough and deferred to my mom. I didn’t want to go, to begin with, but I was afraid that if I didn’t that I would be disowned.
Though I stopped going after a few sessions, it was still enough to do quite a bit of psychological damage. ‘Christian counseling’ was not an experience that made me any less gay, but it certainly further eroded my faith in therapy, family, and religion. After having all three of those weaponized against me, attempting to undo that harm has been a years-long process. I still struggle with talking about my sexuality in therapy because of how much shame and stigma I felt after coming out.
This experience was superimposed on a lifetime of hearing ad infinitum about how sinful gay people are – how they erode the fabric of society, particularly the sacrament of marriage. I was a bit confused because my heterosexual parents had made a complete mess of their attempts at both marriage and parenting. Yet it was LGBTQ people who were scapegoated for problems that had long existed. Instead of focusing on becoming better parents or dealing with intergenerational trauma, my parents were told to double down on their controlling behaviors and pray harder, a response that only exacerbated their sense of helplessness, shame, and contempt for their children.
During my teenage years and young adulthood, the cracks in my faith began to show. As a young girl, my prayers that my parents stop fighting and that my dad would stop coming into my room to touch me at night seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Though I retreated into religion for many years, my devotion to scripture did nothing to either alleviate my social issues with peers or help me be seen by adults in my church.
After my dad was taken away by the cops one night when I was six, my mom was finally willing to leave him, and a messy, years-long divorce process ensued. Though my dad was physically abusive and a sexual predator, it was my mom who was shamed by many in our church community for the sin of breaking up our family. It was painfully clear that doctrine and faith were more important than human well-being, including the ‘family values’ I had heard so much about.
I also found myself increasingly unable to reconcile an all-powerful and just god with the limited opportunities allowed to girls and women. Shouldn’t he care about our abilities and what we have to offer? But it was clear that that was not the case. Women weren’t allowed in church leadership, and boys and girls had very different opportunities available to them.
When I came out, I was punished not for my behavior but who I was – I hadn’t so much as held hands with another girl at that time in my life – and I was finally forced to confront all those doubts about religion that had always nagged at me but had never been quite enough to change my mind. When I left home to go to university I thought that that was pretty much the end of it; that my mom was difficult and religion was not my cup of (gay) tea. That it was in the past and wouldn’t affect me anymore after that.
But the things that we try most desperately to avoid have a way of catching up to us. Shortly after I moved for grad school in 2018, a full decade after coming out, my girlfriend at the time and I went to visit a friend of mine from undergrad who lived in a nearby city. Saturday morning we went to brunch and then a market downtown.
As we were leaving, we came across a group of women at the end of the block. They were all wearing shirts saying ‘Free Mom Hugs’. I recognized them from some posts I had seen on social media. Knowing what they were about – giving hugs and emotional support to LGBTQ people who had been rejected by their families – I did my best to avoid eye contact with the woman closest to me on the sidewalk. I knew that if she looked at me, she would see right through me and I would absolutely lose it.
She did make eye contact and offered me a hug which I couldn’t refuse. I had a complete breakdown as she held me. Years of being rejected and ostracized for being gay, and countless years before that being treated with cruelty by my own mother came flooding back to me in the arms of a stranger. I surprised even myself at the depths of my pain that those old, unrecognized wounds still carried. When my deep sobbing had subsided enough for me to talk, she asked me if I was ok. I wasn’t sure.
Something that would take me a couple of years and lots of therapy to deduce was that the trauma of coming out enabled me to pin my discomfort with my abusive childhood on this somewhat more normalized experience in my community. Instead of addressing my issues with my family of origin or the incestuous religion, I was raised in, it allowed me to connect with other gay people.
I didn’t want to admit how dysfunctional my home was, and pointing to this other reason allowed me to delude myself for longer than I would have been able to otherwise. I don’t know any gay people my age who went through the coming out process unscathed. We often bond over these shared experiences. Even for those who have a good relationship with their families now, overwhelmingly that was not the case when they first spoke their truth.
Like many other LGBTQ folks, my experiences in religion have left a bad taste in my mouth. A lifetime of being told that you are sinful just for existing can really do that to you. Throw in my other traumatic and shaming experiences at the hands of my religious parents and community and it’s enough to create a deep bitterness in me at the very idea of any organized religion.
As I get older, my disdain and adamance that religion is overwhelmingly harmful to have softened into an understanding that many others’ experience with religion has been vastly different than mine. That for many, religion is a source of meaning and connection, and empathy. In a world that is too often lacking in those virtues, who I am to pass judgment on how anyone else finds purpose?
I will always carry some scars from my religious upbringing. I hope that gay and trans and bi and queer kids in the future don’t have to experience the same rejection and self-hatred that I did. Thankfully, the tide seems to be changing, in many religious circles as well as society overall. I still cry when I see welcoming churches marching in Pride parades, something I have witnessed increasingly over the past several years. LGBTQ youth are coming out at younger ages, meaning they don’t have to spend as much of their life living in shame and fear.
It has been what has felt like several lifetimes since I had faith in God or religion. I never felt loved or accepted in my family of origin. But I have taken what was previously dogmatic religious fervor and disconnection and transformed these things into faith and a sense of belonging and connection within my family of choice – our collective human family – and our infinite capacity to continue to change, learn, and grow for the better.
Cassie (they/them, she/hers) is an Aerospace Engineer, Planetary Scientist, and complex trauma survivor pursuing a PhD in Space & Planetary Sciences at the University of Arkansas. They started writing as a way to make sense of and find meaning in their own story, and write about lived experiences including childhood sexual abuse, narcissitic abuse, anxiety and depression, religious abuse, and being a queer and non-binary person. When they are not doing research or going to therapy, Cassie enjoys reading, cooking, traveling, and spending time with their dog Reggie.