The Person I Needed
This post contains triggers for sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide.
“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”
There are a lot of quotes that I take pretty seriously, but this is one of the ones that hits me the hardest. As a now grown-up person who works in a teen shelter, I find myself sometimes just being knocked down when I think of what a difference it might have made in my life if I had had someone like me, or any of my amazing coworkers to support me when I was in high school. What would it have meant to have been loved that much, with no strings? To have people who were able to love all of me without talking about my sinful nature? To have people who were willing to fight for my wellbeing? To have someone teach me what boundaries were, or that I had a right to say no?
There’s no way I’ll ever know the answers to this, obviously, which mostly means I go into fits of rage pretty frequently when I think of something that Baby B had to go through alone. (Baby B is what I call my younger self, what I started calling her when I was trying to think of some way to love her and not just be frustrated by her. It was more effective than it seems like it should have been.)
So folks, hi. I know we’re just meeting. This is our first interaction. It’s going to be kind-of heavy today as a warning, in case you couldn’t tell from that super chill introduction. I can’t guarantee that it won’t be every time, that’ll be a fun surprise to me as much as to you!
Right now what I can say is that I’ve been thinking a lot about queerness and I’ve been thinking about #churchtoo. And I thought of a story that I haven’t thought about in a long time, that makes me angry looking back. It’s not the worst thing that ever happened to me, but I think it mattered and I want to share it with you and see how it goes to walk through it together.
When I was about 16 or so I fell madly in love with my best friend, Amanda. I didn’t really know that was what had happened, because no one had ever told me that it could feel different to love girls than to love boys (definitely not that there might be more than two genders), or that just in general not all things felt the same.
In retrospect it seems hilariously (and stereotypically) obvious, as I wrote her passionate love poems, filled my poetry books with her pictures and drawings, writhed with jealousy over her boyfriends, and waxed poetic in various letters to her. For all I know it happened sooner, but I know it was when I was 17 that we made out for the first time. She was so beautiful, and she tasted like cherry chapstick (someday Katy Perry’s song would seem extremely nostalgic to me) and we made out several times in the next 6 months or so. Nothing ultimately came of it, but it was something I cherished a lot at the time, even though I knew I was supposed to feel badly about it.
During the time all of this happened one of the churches I was attending (there were several, which is what happens when you are homeschooled but super social and have very few friend outlets) was called The Gathering, which yes, sounds like a cult.
They met in an old Lutheran building made of brick with beautiful stained-glass windows, had members of a local rock band as their worship team, wrote most of their own music, and met on Sunday nights instead of in the morning. The majority of the congregation was college age, the leadership wasn’t much older. Tattoos and piercings were basically expected, worship was intense, and we took communion by candlelight every week, eating home-baked bread and wine.
They were a “sister church” to Mars Hill in Seattle (here’s an article about the rise and fall of that particular institution if you’re unfamiliar) and believed similar things. They were aggressively complementarian, big believers in “official church discipline,” had a group of elders in place instead of pastors (although I never saw that make much appreciable difference), and had very strict rules about where women could serve and as what.
I could (and may) spend a whole other blog entry someday discussing what it was about this particular structure that drew me. The reasons are deeply complicated and sometimes counter-intuitive. The important thing for this story however, is that The Gathering had a lot of young men in leadership. The vast majority of them were not over 35, and they all had a lot of deeply held beliefs that were pretty rooted in a mix of youthful fervor and patriarchal whimsy.
Aside from the team of elders, there was also a team of deacons. If I remember correctly, the deacons were all (or mostly) young, single guys who lived in a house together next to the church. One of them was named Dale. Dale was 10 years older than me and was extremely charming and charismatic. He had a really great laugh, huge and really noticeable. As someone who also has that kind-of laugh, I am a big fan of that.
Dale was really nice to me. He would sit and talk with me, listened to me, seemed concerned about me. It should be noted that I was quite a mess in high school. I was cutting myself on a pretty consistent basis, things with my parents had always been bad and basically just somehow escalated until they kicked me out at 18, my various boyfriends were frequently abusive in ways I literally didn’t even have tools to recognize. Things were not great. I exhibited all the most irritating of classic daddy issues and a need for attention that was so vast I tried not to think about it too much, afraid it might actually be endless.
In spite of all of this, Dale was kind to me, a mentor of sorts. He hung out with me after church, once or twice he took me out to ice cream or something before church, giving me much-needed space from my parents. This was allowed because he was a deacon, he was in a trusted position.
After service folks would go down to the coffee shop downstairs (“fellowship” is just better when it is hip and with twinkle lights, am I right?) and one night I was sitting on a couch, talking to him. I told him, I think because I was trying to confess what was going on (although I can’t be certain of my reasoning anymore), that I had made out with Amanda (who he also knew). Dale immediately threw up his hands, shook his head, and said something to the effect of, “Don’t tell me things like that, I’m a guy, after all, I’m only human.”
I feel it is important to take this moment to pause and remind everyone.
I was 17 years old.
He was 27 years old.
I knew immediately what he was saying, of course. He was saying that I was tempting him. He was saying that he was picturing myself and my best friend making out, that I could not talk about this thing because it could “lead him into sin.”
I felt tremendous shame, far more than I had ever felt about the relationship itself. While there had never been a point in my memory where it was not made clear to me that homosexual behavior was a sin, and it had been years since I was not painfully aware that my very existence could be a trap for men, it had never occurred to me until this moment that this thing that had seemed to be just about me and my friend (and probably God, I guess) could be one more trap, that it was one more thing just waiting to draw my brothers in Christ into temptation and sin. I apologized immediately. I didn’t bring it up to him again.
Not long after, Dale left the church. I’m not actually sure how long it was. My memories can be hazy at best. But at some point he left the church, was moved out of the deacon house. I knew he was living in Bellingham, that he said he no longer believed in God. The elders made comments that they had made him a deacon too soon, that they had misjudged. I didn’t know what to think. Except for that one incident, he had always been kind to me, had seemed to care about me. He seemed like one more adult who had just vanished.
Based on my journals, I seem to have been around 20 when I was next talking to him. I’ve tried to find the exact date but can only find one about a month after I turned 20, where it’s clear I’ve already been talking to him, at least occasionally, for a while now. I know there was some kind of break in there, until I was 18 and living on my own but memory is slippery as to specifics.
What I do remember clearly, and wrote about often, is that he entered a phase where he was drunk basically every time he talked to me. Very early in this phase, he told me that he used to fantasize about Amanda and I kissing, as teenagers, that he still did sometimes. He wanted to know about other girls that I found attractive, wanted to know what I would do to them.
Every time I talked to him, I felt sick and disgusting but I didn’t stop. I had few friends and was in one of the deepest depressions of my life. At almost 20, I had taken 50 ibuprofins one night, not as a suicide attempt but as something else I couldn’t explain. There had been no hospital visit but it was the sickest I had ever been and I was ashamed and confused and cutting regularly. I was actively dealing with trauma memories of abuse from my childhood, and I was doing it mostly alone.
Dale knew these things, I had told him about the overdose and the cutting, he was definitely aware of how isolated and vulnerable I was feeling. In spite of everything, he was someone to talk to, and the things that made me feel bad also felt like a kind of self-punishment. I still thought of him as an authority figure, a “real” adult, even though I was technically an adult myself. He asked me repeatedly if I was “sure this was okay” but I knew I couldn’t tell him, knew he wasn’t really asking for me. I let him ask me about fantasies, and asked him about his own in return, knowing it was what he wanted, and not sure what else to do.
I invited him to go see a movie. I had one friend who was worried about this, who asked me to call her if anything happened. She was the only one though, my other friends pointed out how opinionated I was, how easy it was for me to voice my thoughts. If I was uncomfortable, I should obviously just tell him. I had no idea why I couldn’t do that.
When I told my mother he was coming down she asked dubiously, “isn’t he a little old?” But she remembered him from church, and I sensed in her at the same time a relief that I was dating. Maybe I would get married, maybe I would have children.
I told her it wasn’t a date, but was left wondering, having no idea what to make of it. I remember that I sat next to him in the theater being aware he could grab my hand, put his arm around me. I have no idea how I feel about this, except… unmoored. I felt like something was expected of me that I didn’t have. That suddenly I was expected to make different kinds of decisions with adult men, decisions I felt completely incapable of making. We went to Red Robin for dinner, he was a perfect gentleman, we had a good time. Nothing happened, and I was left wondering if I was crazy.
The online conversations kept happening though. One night he asked me to come up and see him, or did I ask to go up? The latter is just as likely. I was desperately lonely and, even though I knew it wasn’t safe (and wrote in my journal that I “hoped he didn’t try anything”), I did.
He was sober when I left but drunk by the time I arrived. He handed me a drink, which I barely touched, although he kept encouraging me to “not make him drink alone.” He wanted to give me a back massage, covered my back in oil of some kind. His hands were all over me. He grabbed at my breasts once or twice, I pushed him off. He did take that as a no, and seemed cheerful enough about it, sent me to sleep in his bed while he took the couch. He passed out and I cut the shit out of my arm, spent the night trying not to get blood on his sheets.
The next day, after I went home, I sent him an email. I tried to explain that I valued his friendship but I didn’t want to have sex with him. The email he sent back was fairly short and terse, saying that of course he didn’t want to have sex with me. I felt hurt and incredibly confused. Had I misinterpreted everything somehow? Why did I feel so bad?
I didn’t see him much after that, although I have journal entries where we hung out occasionally. I didn’t cut contact or anything, it just faded out. I looked him up for this blog entry to verify his age and found that, among other things, he lists his occupation these days as an “activist and organizer” which is a whole other set of feelings I won’t even deal with right now.
As I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about my queerness lately. I’ve been thinking about how I spent most of my exvangelical existence shrugging off a connection between the two. I wasn’t bullied, no one kicked me out (or they absolutely did, but for reasons unrelated to that), I “passed” as straight most of the time. I was rarely even shamed the way a lot of people I knew were.
I had this idea in my mind that I sort-of dodged the bullet. Like somehow I just slid through all the toxicity around this and it didn’t stick that much. But I’m beginning to realize that it was always a part of me, and that it was a part of me that got exploited at unexpected moments. There was always a possibility that someone might turn on me for it, there was always the awareness that I had this unfixable part of myself. It meant that I was constantly fighting to fit into the prescribed box that I was literally born unable to fit into.
In that initial moment with Dale, and all the devastating ones after, my queerness was just one more broken thing to be used. Purity culture practically insisted on it. That first experience I had with a girl was ultimately more sweet than not, but it also wasn’t allowed to be.
Instead it was okay for an almost 30-year-old man to look at my 17-year-old body and fantasize about our experiences together. And while that is not specific to a church culture, the fact that that 27-year-old man was a mentor figure to me, who could shame me for bringing up that part of myself, who could blame me for leading him into lustful thoughts is a lot more so.
I was still a part of The Gathering when he was drunkenly sharing his fantasies with me online, but there was no one for me to talk to. I knew that I would just be seen as complicit, that I would be asked to confess and repent. I knew enough to believe I was in the wrong, and not nearly enough to understand why I couldn’t stop what was happening.
My queerness was not the only piece of that, but it was a substantial piece of that. The fact that all of this started with a man fantasizing about me with a woman, the fact that I had fantasies of other women to tell him (or could at least make them up), all of this made what was happening much more impossible for me to put a stop to.
We talk a lot in my work about how LGBTQ youth are at-risk, how their identities can be exploited. I could have been (and very likely may have been) still blamed if I had asked for help with a similar situation that was based entirely on heterosexual proclivities. But I already felt like this was based on a part of myself I wasn’t really supposed to talk about, a part of myself based in sin and shame and brokenness.
By continuing to talk to him, I was feeding those parts of myself, proving God wasn’t in me. No one needed to make that explicit, I knew there was no one in my life who would be on my side (at least not an “adult”).
My extremely long-winded point in all of this is that sometimes (often) the narrative is complicated. Sometimes I don’t see my own story in it and I wonder if it counts, if I get to keep my queer card because maybe I didn’t undergo the right kind of suffering (the idea that queerness should be linked to suffering is a whole other can of worms, obviously), but when I look back it’s clear that things were happening.
It’s just that so much else was also going on and in a Maslov’s Hierarchy sort-of sense, my sexuality was not very near the top. There absolutely were things that were damaging but I was also suicidally depressed and lonely and trying to figure out how on earth I was supposed to be an adult with not a lot of support. And it turns out that while all of that was happening, I was totally queer the whole time, I just didn’t really have the space to figure that out.
These days I get to work with incredible kids who frequently know more at 16 about their gender and sexuality than I know about mine at 33. But there are some things that I still see. They need all of the love and affection that I did, and sometimes they make the same dangerous compromises to get it.
Most of us are not intuitively given a gift of understanding who we can trust, or the costs of trusting the wrong person – those are things we learn, one way or another. People will give up a lot to feel heard and loved, even though we shouldn’t have to.
The value of people in your life, who will love you and hear you without asking for those parts of you that you should never have to give, cannot be overestimated. I’ll never be able to know what it would have meant to have that when I was young, but I have it now, and I get to do it for other people, and it makes a difference. It doesn’t solve the past, but it makes it feel meaningful, which is sometimes the best any of us can do.