Saturday, November 17, 2018

When a Loss is a Gain (or Why I'm Relieved my Fundamentalist Family Disowned Me)



I started writing this post almost three years ago. At first it was about how my cousin had gone off the deep end of religious fundamentalism. The thing is, I couldn't figure out exactly why I was writing it. I wasn't sure I had a larger point beyond, "Hey look, isn't this weird?" Somehow, even though it was an important topic to me, I couldn't figure out how it said anything about the larger world.

My cousin used to be a partier. Addiction and recklessness run in our family so he seemed perfectly normal to me. At some point, he decided to make changes. He went into recovery. He tried to eat better. He moved way out of the city, beyond the suburbs to a small rural town. He moved away from his old haunts and his old influences. But he was still himself. He was still fun and engaging and loving. If anything, he was more fun because he didn't do the irrational things he used to do when he was drinking. He also started becoming more religious.

I'm not against religion. I've become more religious over the last decade as well. I was confirmed into the same faith as my wife. My children were baptized. I had a brief tenure helping teach Sunday School. I find a lot of wisdom in the sermons. They've helped me learn to forgive and how to come to terms with things that have happened in my life. I believe that religion, like youth sports, can be a really positive thing even though it's been warped and misused for a long time. We chose my cousin and his wife as God parents for my middle child, even though their brand of Christianity was a little more hard core than ours. We felt that might be a positive. They would present a different perspective, and maybe we'd learn something.

But as time went on, my cousin abdicated more and more of his personal agency to the church. He'd long been a liberal, and claimed he still was. He made this claim even as he voted against same sex marriage and refused to discuss the topic. He began to see any disagreement as an attack on his faith. I admit, I did challenge his views on scripture at times. It wasn't typical internet atheist vs. believer head butting. My sect is liberal and teaches acceptance, forgiveness and love. My cousin's mega church teaches the things that fall more to the right of that. Still, I saw my conversations with him as exchanges between believers with slightly different approaches. My cousin lost the ability to have a conversation about these things. He followed the teachings of his pastor without question. When I asked him why he'd become so unwilling to entertain another view he'd answer with "What makes you think you know more than the pastor?" or "It's not for me to question, I am simply supposed to follow." It was astounding to see this man who saw himself as a leader in his family and his community become so blindly dogmatic. After a while I unfollowed him on social media, still connected but muted and didn't discuss scripture with him at all.

The final straw came early in the 2016 election season. He quickly became a hard core Bernie Bro, the kind who called Hillary Clinton a cunt, claimed that her and Trump were exactly the same and vowed not to vote at all if Bernie wasn't the candidate. The strained relationship between our family and his ruptured completely. He got involved in a Clinton-Sanders political spat with my wife that ended with one of them blocking the other. The final straw was when he posted a junk science link by a disgraced psychiatrist "proving" that trans people are mentally ill. He posted the link with a triumphant and emphatic "I knew it! I told you so!" and something about supporting conversion therapy. In the comments, I posted links to the many professionals and research refuting these ideas. He again railed at me for questioning his faith.

"Primo, I'm not questioning your faith," I replied. "I stopped trying that a long time ago. I promise I won't question your faith. I am questioning your science. If you had posted that God said this, I would have kept scrolling. You posted this claiming that science had proven something you had long hoped was true. You brought this into my realm. So I am definitely going to present the research that counters this so called study."

That was it. He disconnected from me on all platforms and I haven't heard from him since. It was sad. It was frustrating. I love my cousin and I remember the man he used to be. I was also a little relieved that he wouldn't have a chance to influence his God child anymore. If that were the end, this post would probably still be languishing as a draft.


I didn't know a lot of trans people growing up. Being from Berkeley I was pretty solid on LGBQ issues by the time I graduated from high school, but trans people still seemed peculiar to me. At the end of college I had at least learned that my attitudes towards trans people, while not outright discriminatory, were not what they should be. So I decided to fake it 'til made it. I decided to publicly support trans people on whatever they wanted regardless of how I felt about it. In 2015 the trans bathroom issue made me uneasy, but I found myself debating one of my students and taking the pro-trans people side. By the time we got to 2017 I felt like I had finally come around in mind and spirit.

I was just in time.


In January I wrote about my six-year-old "coming out as liking blue." At the time, I acknowledged that it was an odd way of looking at the kid's announcement.
"I know, maybe that's an extreme way of describing it, and yes, it's supposed to be funny. I'm sorry, I hope it's not offensive, but the way she talked about it, that's how it seemed to be for her. At the ripe old age of almost-seven, she talked about how she had always liked blue, but for some reason when she got to day care she just let everyone tell her to like pink. 'So I just went along with it. I don't know why, I wanted to tell them I really liked blue, but I felt like I couldn't. Then I started telling everyone that I liked pink. I don't know why. But now I tell people about what I really I like, and I don't care what they think."
I didn't know at the time that my child was practicing. Maybe they didn't know it either. About a month after I wrote that, Lou told us that they were no longer "she," they were "they." It was a surprise. I went through a lot of thoughts and emotions. My newfound acceptance of trans people was challenged. It's easy to support other people, it's different when it's your child. It probably shouldn't be, but it was for me. I had to fight against myself. I had to go through a similar process as I'd gone through the previous few years, but I had to do it a lot faster. I hoped it was phase though I never admitted that to anyone other than my wife. I wondered if this was the result of society making being trans seem cool. I realize how this sounds.

The calculus was simple. I've known too many gay and lesbian people and read too many stories of traumatic LGBTQ childhoods to not see what I had to do. The story is almost always, "I've known who I was since I was three-years-old." followed by whatever trials came with being able to finally come out and live as the person they always knew they were. As a parent, I often look at what my kids do and ask, "What's the risk?" In this case I had ask what would be the risk in accepting what Lou was telling us, or denying it. If it was a phase, the risk was that they would feel pigeonholed into having to keep this up as their identity within the family, like being "the smart one" or "the funny one" or "the loser." (In my family I somehow ended up being both "the smart one" and "the loser," and I've lived up to both at different times.) If I denied it the risk was raising a severely damaged trans person who told their friends, "My dad never accepted me and it was really hard on me." That risk was too great, I'm already sure to traumatize my kids in some other way, avoiding the obvious missteps is an easy choice. It was clear that I had to swallow hard, look to my wife for support and try to live my values.


Since then, Lou has identified as gender fluid. I use "they" in writing because it's the most true pronoun over time. In real life, Lou has three post it notes that are changed out each morning. Each has he/him, she/her or they/them printed on the face and we use that so we know which pronouns to use that day. It's been surprisingly easy. The anxiety I had during the first few weeks has faded. It's helped that Lou's teacher and classmates have been supportive. It's helped that Lou isn't the first trans kid at their school, or at our church. The new reality of Lou's identity has even produced some typical toddler moments for Yo who spent months saying things like, "Daddy, Lou said they/them won't share with me!" Now it's become normal for us.


I still think about my cousin. I still miss who he was. Maybe I hadn't been thinking of him for a while because it wasn't until yesterday that the real impact of his disowning me became clear. There's no way he'd have accepted Lou for who they are. Maybe there's some small chance that knowing a trans person, loving a trans person would have brought him around, but this isn't a Hallmark move of the week. I think it's far more likely that he would have made bad jokes, or worse, direct refutations of Lou's identity. The split we had over trans rights would have come at some point no matter what. Instead of losing him over "politics" I would have lost him over respecting and loving a child he swore before God to nurture and protect, not knowing that the protection the child would need is from people like him.

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