A few of my longtime friends have told me that they want to see more of the real writing that I do. The stuff that is about my life, my feelings, my struggles. Like this one about my physical disabilities and battle with pain. Sure, being funny is good, but how about being real? What can I say?
I’ve been in a period of intense business and stress. Literally, the most stressed I think I have ever been. But it’s stress for good reasons, so I am super aware of not complaining. I will tell you though, it is really hard to think about being introspective and real when I am trying to get through the day without passing out from stress and anxiety. Plus, I thought y’all liked my funny. My serious pieces don’t tend to be very popular. Did you read the piece about Israel?
Anyway, tonight, as I sit here in my hotel room far from home, I am feeling a little introspective. What can I say? What to talk about? Hmm… The embarrassing bra fitting? My first kiss with a boy? With a girl? How awkward I was in high school? My family? What I wanted to be when I grew up? My experience in a cult? Coming out? My first love? Becoming an attorney? Learning to dress? Finding my butchness? What’s that? Oh, yes, I did say cult. Would you like to hear about that? It is probably several different pieces because it will be too long. Why don’t we start with the story itself? And, I will leave the impact and my recent life lessons for later.
When I was a junior in high school, I was struggling with lots of stuff. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I always wanted to be part of a big family, but as an only child of a mom with three sisters all of whom live far away, that just wasn’t my daily reality. I think, as I look back, though, that my struggle to fit in was no different than anyone else’s. But I didn’t know that. And then, along came a friend that I really liked. We were in theater and chorus together. I loved spending time with her and her family. And she and her family were part of a cult.
I didn’t know it was a cult, of course. I just knew it was a great group of people who were really energetic and made me feel like I belonged there. I was not raised with a religion and so it turns out there was a lack of information or experience that the group filled. Plus, remember my friend? I had no idea at the time, and of course never did anything about it, but I had a raging crush on her.
So, into the cult I dove, head first. There is some painful family stuff here, but I will leave that aside. Suffice it to say that my family was distraught and we all acted in ways that hurt a lot. I moved out before my high school graduation and into a condo with women from the cult. I regret this so much. I hate the choices I made then. But that’s part of the insidiousness of it, you see. Separate you from your family and your non-cult friends. When you are only around people from the cult the crazy stuff the cult preaches and requires don’t seem so odd – without the balance of a family member or friend looking at you and asking, “They told you what?” These women were all wonderful. If I am attacking anything, it is the cult, the organization, not my friend, her parents, or the women I lived with.
So, first, I lost my family (for a while). Then I lost all of my other friends. They didn’t shun me or anything. I just disappeared and in the disappearing, I lost them. I still regret deeply disappearing for our junior and senior years. I am thankful that my closest friends have welcomed me back into the fold, many years later. It angers me to think of the fun and adventures that I missed for those two years of high school.
Then, the control started. If you really love God, you need to come to all cult events. There was something every night, or almost every night. Remember the power in separating you? Well, I went to stuff every night. And, then there was the encouragement to break all earthly ties – everything that grounds you to your old sinful life and self. That means memories, yearbooks, and childhood mementos. A rummage sale of all your old stuff is a great way to support the cult! And, so you guessed it, I sold, donated, or threw away almost everything from my old “sinful” past. I won’t even begin to describe the regret and pain that I feel at this. I have no middle school or high school yearbooks. No class photos. No love letters from boys or girls. No medals from my swim competitions. Nothing. And that feels awful.
If you are keeping track, I lost my family, my friends, control of my schedule, my freedom, and all of my earthly possessions. Literally. All of this was supposed to make me a good Christian. All of this meant that I loved God more. And do you know what else was supposed to make me a good Christian? Confession.
My first experience with the cult confessions was when a friend drove me home. She told me that she struggled with “homosexuality.” She said that she had impure thoughts about other women. I remember distinctly this conversation. We were sitting in her old beat up Honda. Outside my house, parked by the curb, she shared this. It was like I had been struck by lightning. I said, “I think I struggle with that, too.” Then I got out of the tiny Honda and went inside. I am a sinner. I am going to hell because I struggle with “homosexuality.” Even though I had never slept with a woman. Never acted on this – indeed, messed around more with boys than girls at that point. Except for a girl in 4th grade. We kissed, pretending I was “the boy.” But, that doesn’t count, right? I will leave my actual coming out for later, but the “homosexual thoughts” were crucial to the abuse in the cult.
There was lots of confession. All the time. And, not just the things that I did that broke the rules. But also, the thoughts that I had of things that if I did them would break the rules. Yes. The thoughts. Forget free will. Forget the idea that we can control our actions, but maybe not always our thoughts. It is a sin to think of things that are sins. This means that if you thought about stealing a bag of chips, but didn’t do it, you had committed a sin as much as if you had actually stolen the bag of chips. Why not go ahead and steal the damn chips, then? Thinking about cheating on your wife, but thought better of it and left the situation? Too bad. In the eyes of God, you have sinned by cheating on your wife. I imagine that almost every wife we ask would agree that actually kissing or sleeping with someone is a WHOLE LOT different than thinking about it.
Believe me; I realize how insane this is now. I can’t believe that I would ever tolerate this. I was 17, though. And, I hadn’t come out yet. I felt awkward and weird. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. When someone told me it was because I needed God… I believed them. The confession was epic. Like marathon sessions of sharing with cult members what horrible things I was thinking. After the revelatory night in the Honda, the subject of my confessions was always those “homosexual thoughts.” As my struggle increased – because I had figured out I was a lesbian – cult leaders were called in to help me. When I continued to struggle, cult elders were called in. And to each of them I had to confess. Every single sinful thought, desire and wish. They must have gotten off on the things I shared. I wonder if they confessed that.
I spent hours upon hours in prayer. Literally on my knees or prostrate on the ground. Begging God to change me. Begging God to allow me to shine in his light as I was meant to – as a good Christian woman without being tarnished by the unclean thoughts of other women in my head. I used to go to the ocean and pray on the sand. I fasted and prayed, thinking that the fast (being told that the fast) would allow God to work better. One particular evening, when I had been fasting for days and was weak from hunger, I sat in the car with one of my roommates pouring out my heart and confessing my struggles. I cried for over an hour as I shared. As we walked inside, I tripped on the cement stairway leading to our condo and cracked my head against the edge of a step. I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub while blood dripped from my eyebrow onto the floor of the tub. It was a sign from God that I was doing the right thing, they said. I didn’t go to the hospital. Several days later, when it hadn’t closed up right Student Health told me I needed stitches but it was too late. I still have the scar.
I would have given anything at that point to be straight. To not struggle with “homosexual thoughts.” As sad as that is, I know I almost did give up everything to try and be straight. My family. My friends. My freedom. My possessions. Myself. All gone. In the name of the cult. And still I struggled.
When even the elders couldn’t help guide me back to God’s path, I was sent to a cult psychologist. It was his job to cure me. When the regular old pray-the-gay-away didn’t work, the cult turned to therapy. But the most damaging kind – the kind draped in authority and science. There is no way that I can explain the years of suffering that this man caused me. The violation of my emotions and psyche by this doctor. In retrospect, it is shocking that he was allowed to practice. Conversion therapy only hurts the people who are subjected to it. Sure, I was technically a “willing” participant. But only because I thought I was going to hell because I was gay. Only because every single person in my life believed that I was going to hell; I had no outside friends or my family to turn to. That is a pretty high barrier to overcome. As a college freshman, I was nearly suicidal because I had let God down.
And then, I fell in love with a woman. Thank God.
Falling in love meant sheer torture. Conflict. Denial. Desperation. You name it. But it also meant that I questioned vociferously the elders of the cult. It meant that I started to really read the bible and find other stories, passages, and whole sections that they neglected to focus on. Like Ruth and Naomi. David and Jonathan. Jesus and Paul. I dove deeper. There are lots of sins in the bible. Why is homosexuality the worst one? Why should I feel worse than a murderer (all before taking any gay action, by the way)?
Well, I actually am a lesbian, and there was no amount of praying or cruel therapy that was going to change that. Falling in love meant that I had some strength to fight what they were all telling me. We ran away together. And, then we came back. Sigh. And then I ran away alone. And then I came back. The self-hatred that they had instilled in me was really deep and perverse. I had to be dis-fellowshipped 2 or maybe 3 times. Each time, I was re-baptized in a dramatic ceremony filled with tears and pain under the guise of washing away the pain. Like an abusive relationship. It was very hard to leave. Excruciating. I still have a near panic attack when anyone from the cult comes up or is mentioned. Even tonight when I Googled the therapist to see if he was still in practice. My chest started to seize up. And to what end?
Almost 30 years later, I am a proud lesbian. Trying to change the world with humor and honesty. I am a wife and a mother. I tell anyone who will listen to be themselves. I question every authority mercilessly (sometimes silently, but still I question). And, this is the first time in all that time that I have been able to write about the pain I suffered in the name of God. This is the first time that I can write the truth. My truth. Even here I feel the control, the pull to protect the cult. Notice no names, no organization listed. I can’t help it.
What else has been the consequence? I am an atheist. A certain one. Not an agnostic. Why? Because I cannot believe in a God that would allow such mistreatment. Such abuse. I cannot abide those stories that are misogynistic and racist at their core, and even worse in the way they are applied and carried out. And being real, because if there was a God, that God would have granted my desperate pleas to be straight. And if God didn’t answer those prayers, then there either is no God, or being gay is simply not a sin – not something that needs to be fixed.
People who know me today simply cannot believe that I would ever follow someone blindly. But you are so strong! So quick to question authority! Yes, but I wasn’t always that way. Maybe by being real, I can help someone else to avoid the pain I suffered. It is Butch to be real. Be Butch.