Earlier this week, the person formerly known as Bruce Jenner announced the results of the decision to transition to a woman. For now on, she want to be referred to as Caitlyn Jenner.
Given that my context is a Christian one, I expected the response to Caitllyn’s transition to be one of general disapproval. Still, I’m often taken aback by how cruel those of us who are called by the name of Christ are in the name of holiness. Rather than exhibiting the radical inclusivity of Christ’s table, we often sound more like the war and thunder God of the Hebrew Scriptures, demanding that all offending people be destroyed so that God’s “special” people can exist. Social media was ablaze with opinions about how Caitlyn was wrong for tinkering with God’s creation. People refused to use proper pronouns, staunchly declaring that they will still call her “Bruce.” Caitlyn’s actions were decried as demonic and worthy of damnation.
I’m not transgender, but I know how it feels to hear awful things said about you and your reality. Years ago, I was heavily active in a Christian group. We had many fun times. I labored with them, and shared the important life events that people in their early 20s tend to experience. It was during this time that I seriously began to question my sexuality. While I was surrounded by people who demonstrated their care for me, these same people routinely said disparaging things about gay people. The term “gay” was used to describe people who they thought were weak and stupid. Effeminate men were laughed at. There argument was that no one wanted to follow a Christ who would allow “soft brothers” to be at the forefront. “No homo” was a frequently uttered phrase. Being gay was a malady to be cast out, thrown away, bound and tossed into the pit of hell. Queerness of any sort was an aliment that rendered one useless for God’s plan and for any meaningful relationships. Being gay, or even perceived as such, gave the saints of the most high God the right to mock your life and make you into the butt of a joke. This right was often evoked as an obligation.
The pain I felt was immense. At that point, I didn’t have a clear answer about my sexuality. But I knew if I even brought it up to the people that I cared about, I would never be viewed the same. I would be marked. Regardless of what they might say when I told them, I already knew what they thought of me. Their humor told me everything I needed to know. The the language they used when the topics of soft brothers and homosexuality and the perverse leanings of the world confirmed my lesser status in their minds—and to myself.
I plunged into a dangerous depression for the better part of a year. Most days I felt numb to the world. Other days, the physic pain was so intense that I felt it physically. I turned to alcohol to deal with the pain. My performance in graduate school dropped. I stopped showering. And as time rolled on it became harder to convince myself to not end it all. The pain was too much and it was lasting too long. Perhaps whatever was on the other side of death would be a respite from the torment I experienced every day.
I was lucky. Being a graduate student placed me in close proximity to mental health professionals. I received help to get my life back on track, and new skills to affirm and love myself. However, everyone doesn’t have that chance. Everyone doesn’t have easy access to mental health professionals, and many people don’t live to tell the story.
Now, I take responsibility for my environment. That’s why I distanced myself from those folks and other places that dehumanize LGBTQ people. Anyone who has cannot accept me as I am has limited access to the intimate spaces of my life. And while there were other factors that caused me to experience such a low state, the final blow came from Christians. The people that were supposed to be a source of blessing ended up pronouncing a curse. And that curse almost worked its dark magic on me.
But again, I was lucky. Many LGBTQ people do not escape the curse that is placed on them by their pastors, deacons, and other members of the Christian community. Many are on drugs, homeless, and commit suicide, all because people discuss them in ways that are dehumanizing. Read the statistics about Black LGBTQ youth here. These are your brothers, sisters, friends, and family. It’s foolish to think that hateful speech wouldn’t impact people who are in close relational proximity to. Our careless words and lack of compassion are driving people to their graves.
Your jokes aren’t harmless. Your opinions aren’t just some benign thought thrown into the wind. We can hear you. We hear the remarks you make about us. We hear the “opinions” that are laced with hate and disgust. We read the tweets and the Facebook statuses filled with prayers and commitments to “biblical living” that function more like pronouncements of death to a group of people who you refuse to understand. We hear, we remember, and we hurt. For a people that believe life and death is in the power of the tongue, the spoken and written word is often used to pronounce death and destruction on those that do not fit into their small view of the world.
Even if you don’t understand or disagree, people lives aren’t jokes. The Caitlyn Jenners and Verdell Wrights of the world are within earshot of you. You may be laughing someone off of a cliff.