Down to the river

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A couple days ago, Ira (now age 5) and I had a quiet afternoon in the house to ourselves. He loves music, and knows our ipod inside out. “I’m choosing a song for you Aba. I know you will love it.”

After much scrolling, the music starts up.

“As I go down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the robe and crown, good lord, show me the way. Oh, sinner let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down. Oh, sinner let’s go down, down to the river to pray.”

I do love that song, especially the rich harmonies of that particular arrangement. He and I sang along, and with just us alone in the house, we were really belting it out.

A little while later, he looks up from his legos and asks, “Aba, what is a sinner?” I’ve explained sex, conception via donor sperm, and my gender transition to my kids without missing a beat (and a whole host of other topics that make many parents cringe), but at this question I caught my breath.

“It’s a word some people use to mean choosing to do a wrong thing.” Maybe I should have stopped there, but I added, almost under my breath, “…it’s not a word I like very much.” The music kept playing. He went back to his game. I went back to cleaning the kitchen.

There are obvious differences between my son’s life and mine, but we are similar in so many ways. He’s sensitive and easily overwhelmed by too many people. He’s a wonderful friend and a fastidious rule follower, especially in any kind of institutional or group setting, always concerned he might do a wrong thing without realizing. He’s also always got a joke at the ready, and when he’s comfortable, he’s fantastically hillarious and deeply connected. Not everyone gets to see that side of him. He does not relax easily, and sometimes masks his tension with humor.

I know he is his own independent person, shaped every day by the world he lives in and all of the people who love and care for him, and I know there is so very much more to him than the handful of genes he got from me. But sometimes the reflection is so true, it is hard to remember that we are not one and the same.

In his passing question, I catch a glimpse of how he might have experienced the world I grew up in. In that moment, I see more clearly how I experienced it. I’m struck that he made it to age 5-and-a-half without knowing the meaning of the word “sinner.” I didn’t realize we were keeping this word from him.

I cannot remember a time when that word was not hanging over me, when I was not constantly aware that I was fundamentally flawed, not acutely aware of the very real possibility of eternal damnation. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t remember their childhood. I have vivid memories, both painful and happy, back well into early toddlerhood.

I know many people find meaning in religion like the evangelical Christianity with which I was raised. They find reassurance in messages of redemption, relief in acknowledging their fundamental and inborn flaws and for some, this form of belief provides forgiveness and motivation for improvement. But in this moment, I imagine my particular son in a world where there is a constant drumbeat message of “you are wrong, you have sinned, and if you don’t do this right, you will go to hell.” I see so clearly how this could break a child like him, one who is so sensitive, who wants so very much to do the right thing, one who seems to remember everything.

When I was his age, and long before, and long after, this message came from the pulpit every Sunday. It came from formal religious education and everyday conversations and religious teaching inside my home. Later it came from summer camp and from youth group. It was woven into every aspect of our lives. There are people who have experienced exactly this message in a much harsher form than I did, in the form of exorcisms, or overt physical abuse. Thankfully this was not true in my family. Instead, in my home, this harsh message also came alongside very real love and affection from my parents. But I was taught that at my core, I was worthless and wrong. This message was in place from the very beginning, from my earliest memories. I was also a child who was sexually aware from a very young age. I did not have words for who I was, but I knew that what I desired was wrong. It has taken a lifetime to undo these lessons. I still find tendrils left to unlearn.

I believe Leelah Alcorn’s parents loved her. I believe they are grieving at her death, and that their pain is made more acute by the public outcry. I also believe they did not know her, that they did not know how to love her, that they hurt her, and that their actions contributed to her death. Children hide who they are when they know they are not safe. I am so impressed that Leelah had the courage and strength to tell her parents who she was at such a young age, in an environment she knew to be hostile. I am heartbroken they did not hear her, that they would not see her. Her story has caught fire, largely because of the power and clarity of her writing, and because she claimed a public platform to speak for herself, but at an excruciatingly high cost. But Leelah was not alone. So many have gone before her, and without change, change inside every single family and every single community, many more will go after.

I know I am flawed as a parent. I live through the daily puzzles of trying to figure out what my kids need, and whether and how I can give it to them or help them find it. The daily work of parenting them pushes me to my limits, forces awareness of both weaknesses and strengths I never would have known without them. From this vantage point, I see more clearly and compassionately why my parents could not give me what I needed, but I also see the damage done more starkly. I’m certain there is something my children need that I am not giving them, that I do not understand or cannot see. I hope that when they know what that is, they will find a way to tell me, and I will find a way to listen. I hope that eventually they will understand I was doing my best with the tools I had, just like I know my parents were, even if I came through with bruises.

I cannot know if Leelah’s parents were doing their best with the tools they had. I know only the barest outline of one part of their lives, primarily through what Leelah shared in her writing. But I grew up steeped in a religious culture perhaps somewhat similar to theirs, so I’ll make an educated guess that the actions they took to cut Leelah off from the outside world, to “fix” her, were taken because they genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. To be clear, that doesn’t excuse their actions. Not in the slightest. Rather, it points to a bigger problem. More people need to be called to task than only Leelah’s parents. With perhaps a precious few exceptions, the evangelical christian religious culture deeply hurts queer kids. It teaches us we are flawed and unworthy of love from the very beginning. But it doesn’t just hurt queer kids. I have no knowledge of whether my own children are going to be queer, but I can see how messages of condemnation could easily crush them, particularly a child like our youngest. Rigid messages about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t sin, can drive deep wedges between parents and children, cut all of us off from each other and from the connections and love we most need. And when I say “messages of condemnation” I don’t just mean overt messages of hate. I also mean Christians who mask what they really think of gay, trans, lesbian, and bi people with “love” — anyone who talks about “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” perhaps appearing welcoming and affirming, while still classifying the very core of who someone is, who they are and who they love, as wrong. That message can do just as much harm as overt hatred, albeit in a slightly different form.

I am 37 years old. I’m a transgender man. I have two amazing kids, a wife of 10 years who I love deeply, and a rich community of friends and family. Getting here has not been easy. My parents did not have the tools to parent a queer kid in the way that I needed. But they also gave me other things that I did need to get where I am now, as a strong and healthy #reallivetransadult. They taught me lessons by example in perseverence and fighting fiercely for what you believe in, and even eventually, once they really understood what their now-grown child needed, they truly changed. By their actions they have changed the religious community around them for the better. I’m grateful we made it through. Leelah has reminded me, and all of us, that not everyone does. We all have a lot of work to do.

Trans Lifeline, 877-565-8860
If you are under 24, the Trevor Project Lifeline is available at 866-488-7386
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255

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