I first started begging for death at 14 years old. Oddly, the same thing that led me down the path to pleading for death was the very thing that saved my life – religion. I knew what was considered a “sin” by the church (which in my family amounted to anything other than being miserable): no shorts for men, no haircuts for women, no playing cards, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no sex until marriage, no jewelry other than a wedding ring, no cussing, no taking of one’s own life (or the lives of others) and don’t forget to say your prayers. It seemed there were so many things I wasn’t allowed to do without being damned for all eternity. But there was one thing no one told me – homosexuality is a sin. This oversight was likely due to the fact that sex was never mentioned in church or otherwise.
I knew though, from society, that being a queer or a sissy was bad. That fact was echoed every time my older brother’s friends decided they wanted to play a game of “Smear the Queer,” which translated into, “Beat the hell out of Jay.” It’s important to note that I was not taught religion at a church so much as I was taught religion from my family. On visits to my evangelical family, church was always on the agenda. I did embrace the Bible (KJV), Jesus, God and even angels. I had convinced myself that I had a set of guardians (the angelic ones) watching out for me and no matter what happened, no harm would come of me. I prayed several times a day, faithfully studied Bible text and occasionally put a televangelist on the TV to listen to the gospel [music that is].
That’s how it happened. I was flipping channels and stopped on a televangelist. The music was the first thing to catch my attention, then the preacher began to speak, “Man shall not lie with man as he does a woman, the Bible says it, folks.” His words were followed by a splash screen reading: LEV. 18:22. I ran to my bedroom and grabbed my blue bound Bible with my name in silver letters embossed on the cover, a gift from my aunt. It took seconds for me to find Lev. 18:22 and read the text:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
I didn’t bother reading 18:21 or 18:23. I stood there in shock. I had been trained that preachers don’t lie, that the Bible was the inerrant word of God and every detail of it should be followed letter by letter.
I spent the next several days tormenting myself over that quote. Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet and asking someone about it would be like telling them that I’m a queer. It was better not to speak of these things and pray away the sin.
But it wasn’t working. I found my thoughts drifting to a day when I would find my knight in shining armor waiting to take me away and live happily ever after, then switching to darker thoughts and debates about to kill myself with pills or by slicing my wrists. As days turned into months, the thoughts grew more frequent. Between daydreaming about my future lover and wondering which method of death would be the simplest, there was no room for other adolescent tasks. I became increasingly withdrawn until finally, I was near anti-social. I decided at that point that I had to make a firm decision and stick to it. My options were: (1) live a life of sin; or (2) kill myself. But suicide, as mentioned above, was a sin. Regardless of which option I chose, I was doomed to an eternity of hell.
Eventually, I was able to rationalize my doom. If I chose to kill myself, my eternity in hell would start immediately; however, if I choose to live a life of sin, I could buy myself some time on earth and have a little fun in the process. You would think at this point that morality would become moot. If I was going to hell, I might as well lie, cheat, steal and even kill. But that’s not the way it happened. In spite of being banished from heaven, I’ve yet to commit any of the major no-no’s.
As I questioned religion, God, Jesus, the Bible and all that I’d been taught, I began educating myself on other religions, other cultures and other beliefs. I had come out of the closet and was no longer afraid to ask questions. I asked questions like, “What does your religion say about homosexuals?” I sought out a religion that agreed with my idea of morality, life and harmony – one where cutting your hair, wearing make up or playing cards was perfectly sinless and considered micromanaging.
Finding a religion that matched my beliefs turned out to be impossible. While the Wiccan principle of “harm none” was perfect, I found the sacred elements and invocations exhausting and a bit to “Dungeons and Dragons” for my taste. I really liked bacon at this stage in my life, so becoming Jewish wasn’t an option. I’d been taught that being Catholic was the worst sin possible and I was too upset with Siddhartha Gautama’s abandonment of his pregnant wife to even consider being a Buddhist! Hinduism was far to exotic to be considered and becoming Muslim seemed like way too much prayer time.
Eventually, my quest for the perfect religion ended when I realized that I was simply regurgitating information being provided to me by leaders of varying faiths, rather than actually believing in any of it. In fact, I never did believe in any of it – I was just taught it, like being taught to speak.
Religion is a lot like language in that respect. Depending on who teaches you or where you are, you could speak English, Hebrew, Greek, Spanish or any multitude of differing languages and dialects. I could have a “southern” accent or a mid-western one – it just depends upon how I was taught. How is that different from being taught religion? It’s not. Religion is as created as language and only has the power and meaning assigned to it from teacher to pupil. I do not believe that religion is untrue or false any more so than I believe language is untrue or false. Some accents appeal to us, some do not. Some religions are appealing, some are not. The good news is that with enough therapy you can change an accent – or your religion. One thing that I can’t change is my love for the man I’m lucky enough to have in my life who, unlike religion, has never meant me harm.
Many years have now past since that scared and suicidal queer kid was dismissed from my life. I’ve since realized that although religion may have saved my life, it first tried to kill me. I can’t imagine forgiving someone who stabbed me multiple times then sewed up the wounds, so why would I forgive religion for the damage it did to me? Each time I hear the right wing call out that they are protecting “our children,” I think of myself as a child and what might have been had I only been able to choose between pills and slit wrists. I will no longer allow your God to be my burden.