“We can forgive almost anything from you, Kathy—divorce, drug use, etc.—but if you ever tell us you are gay, we will disown you.”
These were words my Baptist preacher father told me as an adult as he suspected something about me that I could not yet tell. What he told me about gay people as a child came through the pulpit of our church where he preached of the forgiveness of God for everything from murder to adultery, but not for the “sin of homosexuality.” That was, according to my father and so many like him, so egregious that it was the only sin to be deemed an abomination.
I took these homophobic teachings to heart and, upon experiencing my first kiss with a girl as a pre-teen, I promptly ran to the makeshift alter at our summer revival tent to pray my heart out asking for forgiveness and begging for a change of heart. I didn’t tell anyone my secret at that time and hid it for decades while I experienced more damaging messages and experiences about my identity. I experienced failed marriages, bouts of depression, self-hatred, and even a suicide attempt.
I started to overcome this trauma by finally living my truth in my 30s and beginning the road to self-acceptance. I eventually denounced that faith and found other faith communities that promoted LGBTQ acceptance and love. At this point in my life, I am what is considered a “none,” a growing group of individuals who do not identify with any religion. This, too, has been a part of my healing.
Last week I read about a conservative Christian school just outside of Madison that is proudly advertising their conversion therapy practices. Conversion therapy is the dangerous practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity using damaging psychological or spiritual interventions. Through these violence-promoting beliefs, countless LGBTQ youth in schools like this one will experience the same rejection I have known. Many of them won’t make it out of their youth alive. Suicide rates for LGBTQ teens continue to grow right alongside community and hate violence directed toward us.
As an LGBTQ anti-violence advocate, I work with survivors of violence of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and hate violence. Working with other advocates across the country we are having a hard time keeping up with the rise in violence and homicides. According to the report “A Crisis of Hate,” released in January 2018 by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 52 anti-LGBTQ homicides were reported to anti-violence agencies across the country last year, more doubling from the year before. Sadly, we know the actual number is higher due to some anti-LGBTQ hate violence homicides not being reported to agencies.
In addition to the work of responding to these acts of violence, LGBTQ advocates like myself are also figuring out ways to prevent it. The national rhetoric of hate continues to make our homes, workplaces, places of worship, and neighborhoods unsafe for LGBTQ individuals. Sadly, we see that rhetoric being deeply internalized by some LGBTQ individuals as well. Some of the anti-LGBTQ homicides we are responding to have been committed by someone within the LGBTQ community who is so filled with self-hatred that they have lashed out at other LGBTQ individuals. And, suicides of LGBTQ individuals often come after a life of not being accepted or being part of a religious community focused on conversation.
Reclaiming our strength
At Diverse & Resilient we see a future in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in Wisconsin thrive, living healthy, satisfying lives in safe, supportive communities. Partnering with End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, we are launching our “Colors in Bloom” campaign to promote self-love and acceptance. We are developing plans to spread this messaging through music, advertisements, and an outdoor media campaign.
Religious intolerance and damaging messages for the LGBTQ community need to be challenged. Activists and lawmakers have tried to challenge this by passing laws to ban harmful therapy practices, but those laws will never impact things that happen within churches. Therefore, we must find ways to heal our community within our LGBTQ circles.
Here are a few tips for recovering from harmful anti-LGBTQ messaging:
1. Recognize the internalized homophobia and transphobia within yourself.
2. Practice daily affirmations of love and acceptance. This may feel difficult or uncomfortable to do but you can start doing this by recognizing the damaging messages you tell yourself and starting to replace them with affirming messages.
3. If you want to remain connected to a religion, find an LGBTQ-affirming church or fellowship. For Christian churches, you can visit gaychurch.org or believeoutloud.com for other denominations in Wisconsin.
4. Seek therapy from an LGBTQ-affirming therapist. Sometimes we need the extra help of a therapist or counselor to overcome a lifetime of negative messages. Be sure to research your therapist and find one that advertises openly about LGBTQ acceptance.
5. Eliminate sources of external homophobia where you can. For some that means distancing from family members. You don’t have to stay stuck with your family of origin if they don’t accept you. If you start to remove yourself from family, replace them with loving and affirming family of choice.
6. Set healthy boundaries with those who remain in your life. This can come through a conversation you have with them or with a shift in how you internally approach them. If these people remain in your lives, consider hiding their newsfeeds from your social media interactions. Limit conversations to short ones.
7. Consider volunteering with an LGBTQ organization close to you. If there isn’t one, consider taking the time each summer to volunteer at the closest Pridefest. This will help you find others with similar experiences.
8. Reach out for help. If you are experiencing violence or are at risk of experiencing violence within your home or community, call or text Diverse & Resilient’s Room to Be Safe program line at 414-856-LGBT. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the Trevor hotline at 866-488-7386 or text them at 202-304-1200 or the Trans Lifeline if you are in crisis at 877-565-8860.
We can heal ourselves from a lifetime of damaging messages. It takes dedication and focus to start to repair the pain, but it is worth it. This is your reminder that… you are beautiful, loved, and worthy. Just as you are.