After hearing that my alma mater had fired a member of its theology faculty for coming out as a trans man, I put out a call on Twitter for stories from men who grew up in a deeply religious culture and asked how it affected their sexual development and gender identity. Here are a few of their stories.
The religious culture I grew up in was different: predominantly Catholic, but not conventional. I was initially raised by my mother, who identified as a Catholic witch and installed some of her “fairy angelic magical” practices in me. She was not the most stable person, which led me to staying with my grandparents, who were more traditional. This was all within the same small, poor town in Scotland, where the church played a key role in the community. I remember going to Sunday school, where in one lesson we covered sin and Jesus’s role, looking at disease: a leper, and a homosexual, and Jesus cured them both.
This installed dread in me, as at this point I was beginning to realize my sexual orientation. This was around the age when I first started masturbating, and it often concerned thoughts of kissing another boy who went to Sunday school. I adopted a strange ritual approach to combating this, petitioning to God and the angels each night, that my penis would have turned into a vagina when I awoke, making me a heterosexual female rather than a gay male. Alas, my ritual had disappointing results.
The message I received loud and clear was that I had to have acceptance from Jesus, and in order for Jesus to accept me, my community had to. So I saw my sexuality as a public spectacle. When I came out I ached for acceptance, and for some reason I thought that calling myself bisexual was the best route. Maybe if Jesus wasn’t keen on my homosexuality he could at least relate to my straight side. I was wrong. However, my mother’s approach: “Being gay is up to you, it doesn’t affect me, unless you are a lesbian and hitting on me” strangely enough helped me to realise that sexuality could in fact be a private thing.
So, I was incredibly confused. This confusion led to rejection, of Jesus and the sexual and gender binaries — although this could have been a result of my strange ritual, who knows.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I found God on my own. I didn’t become born-again until I was 20, when I fell in love with the daughter of a pentecostal preacher.
But I always had a curious fascination with God. I prayed every night. When I didn’t get cast in a play in seventh grade, I decided I was an atheist. Of course, I was praying again by eighth grade.
So, when I converted, it wasn’t out of nowhere, though my friends and family certainly thought it was. I’d been going to Catholic services fairly regularly. Jane’s type of faith was a mystery to me; it wasn’t even really something we discussed early on in our dating.
Jane was two years older than me. We’d been friends a while, but fell for each other at a theater conference. We held hands on the bus ride home. Her friends told me she was off the market, but Jane ended up making all the moves. We’d make out on my bed and I’d play emo music. One night, she started to cry. She said she couldn’t keep doing that. She said, if we were going to keep dating, that I had to become a Christian. I said I already was a Christian, and she said, “Well, you have to become born again.”
I was in love, and I was pretty sure I believed in God. Or, at least, I really wanted to believe in God. So I said, sure. I got baptized though this campus group called His House, which was absurd and “hip” and, even then, sort of made me want to claw my eyes out. After this, I began attending her church. It was a small place in Shepherd, MI that served as a daycare during the week (we had to set up the toys and play stations after our Sunday night services), oscillating between 15 and 25 members.
It was a Holy Ghost church. Lots of hands in the air. I began playing guitar in the worship band, I was baptized by fire and began speaking in tongues. I stopped drinking. My friends all said I changed. I lost some of them. But I was in love.
I had told Jane that I was a virgin. A few months before I’d met her, I’d had sex for about thirty seconds with a girl who was really into the Talking Heads before I called it off, feeling like what I was doing was wrong. Wrong, perhaps, is the wrong word. It wasn’t a moral thing. I wasn’t waiting for marriage. I don’t know what I was waiting for. But I said that since I’d pulled out, I was still a virgin.
Jane and I kissed, a lot. After she cried, we’d slowed down considerably, but we still kissed. Once, a woman in our church said we were setting a bad example for her kids by holding hands so much. I tried to stop masturbating on my own time, partly out of my faith and partly out of my commitment to her. Lusting after another person is a form of adultery, after all. The longest I ever lasted was three weeks. I did my best to think of her as I did it, and mostly succeeded. But once, in a fit of anxiety and mild depression (I’m diagnosed), I looked at some porn. And that pretty much destroyed me. I stayed up all night, crying and praying to God, making commitments and promises and everything else you could do. I told Jane the next day, tears pouring down my face, and she smiled and forgave me.
I bought books on “sexual addiction,” books that demonized masturbation. I met with a male friend early in the morning, one I considered virtuous, and discussed my “addiction.” I read them, underlined them. They did nothing. Jane and I would joke about all the sex we’d have once we got married. I used to masturbate to the idea of it. The years passed.
For the first two years, we barely did anything beyond kissing and caressing each other. She’d never even touched me below the waist. We almost split for a while and I’d say for about two months, we barely touched each other. I remember things changed around our two-year anniversary. It was Labor Day and we were staying with my parents. They were out of town, so we slept in my bed together (we did this occasionally). I saw her in her underwear and was reminded of how beautiful she was. We lay there in the dark, both awake. Finally, I said, “do you want to mess around?” And she basically tackled me. Even then, we didn’t have sex.
Our last year together, she moved to take an internship. We grew apart. I’d go stay with her occasionally. Things weren’t the same. I saw her without a bra for the first time. She touched me down there for the first time. We had oral sex for the first time. She was self-conscious. I didn’t know what to tell her. We lay there in silence. I think that was one of the last times we saw each other before she broke up with me.
The night she broke up with me, I immediately went home, tears in my eyes, and masturbated to pornography for the first time in months. I lost it, overwhelmed with guilt. I was still a Christian, but it seemed harder all of a sudden. Just because I was single didn’t make it okay. I was up all night, apologizing, poring over my Bible, looking for comfort. It was pretty much the worst night of my life.
I lost my virginity “for real” about two months later. I went to grad school in another state, where I didn’t know anybody and could start over. I started seeing a girl named Rachel. She was horrible to me. She was a Wiccan who converted to Christianity even though I never asked her to. We went to church. She told me she loved me. It took lots of coaxing for me to have sex with her, not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt I was giving up something I’d always meant for Jane.
But it was so much easier to sin without her in my life. Because, if I want to break down lots of therapy and years of reflection, Christ was never really my God, she was. I lost faith near the end of that school year. I was just grasping at straws by that point, anyway. I’m not a Christian anymore, by the way. Not an atheist, either.
This wouldn’t have been so difficult if Rachel and I hadn’t been so toxic to each other. I spent years resenting Jane, resenting Rachel, resenting Christ. I was supposed to have sex with Jane. Instead, I had sex with Rachel. So I resented Christianity for not letting me have sex with the one person I ever loved. So sex sucked. I always felt guilty. And that didn’t stop for a long time. The aftermath of sex was always sort of miserable for me as I went through grad school, and even beyond.
So now I write lots of plays about the intersection of sex and evangelicalism. What always got me deep down was the idea of purity, not as it honored God, but as it bound two people together, the way it could help eclipse your regrets, even your heartbreaks. The idea of being a “born-again virgin,” as silly as it is, is something a lot of my writing still centers on.
I grew up in Missouri, where my father was a Southern Baptist pastor. When I was twelve, I went to a summer camp where they split up the girls and boys. I remember being told that girls would try to seduce me, that I would have to be strong in order to resist these hypothetical temptresses. I remember the speaker outlining a situation in which a girl would be kissing me while sitting in my lap, and she would lean in and whisper next to my ear, her voice throaty and straining, “I want you.” This was to encourage us to avoid any situations that might provoke temptation, but I’m confident it had the opposite effect.
I also remember my father and I listening to some pastoral tape in the car regarding sex, the break-down of which was that both masturbation and premarital sex was a sin, but in the instance that you had to choose (at gunpoint, or perhaps to save a life), then choose masturbation. I think masturbation generated less sin or something. I had already started masturbating when I listened to that, and despite my best efforts couldn’t manage to give it up for more than a week, and so from then until I was about twenty years old masturbation felt pleasurable, but sandwiched between bouts of guilt.
My youth pastor in high school was removed from his position because he got a woman pregnant. My father used this as a teachable moment, but condoms weren’t mentioned once.
I got my hands on my very first condom on a Boy Scout trip to Florida. Our trip to Key West hilariously coincided with Key West Pride Week, and while there one of the other boys found one of those coin-operated bathroom machines, and we all shelled out for one. I saved it until I got home, and, since I knew I wasn’t going to get any use out of it, I just put it on to see what it felt like – turned out it just felt illicit, and I made sure to bury it deep into the trash so my parents wouldn’t see it.
I majored in religion in college, which, when combined with the non-American literature I’d encountered in high school and through my own reading, did a marvelous job of widening my perspective. By the end of my sophomore year I had come to think that the Bible had a totally human source, that religion was a social construct, and was eager my own religious values. That summer I worked as a children and youth pastor at a church halfway across the country, on the East Coast. I started dating somebody out there, and although we were afforded almost no private space, I did manage to have my first sexual experience in the youth office late one night. Though the location was a bit awkward (the same couch on which I had counseled high school kids), it went well enough, except that the prospect of intercourse made me extremely conflicted. I definitely wanted it, but the “old thought” lodged in deep, and I was surprised to find that I still loathed my own desire for sex – much to her dismay, I turned her down at every opportunity until I went home. We broke up about a month after.
During my last year of under-grad, I realized that calling myself an atheist was more intellectually honest than being a Christian whose God was a function of physics. To celebrate, I moved out to Boston, and got a Master’s degree focusing on atheist-theist dialogue, postmodern thought, and erotic poetry. During the summer between my first and second years of grad school, I drove out to that same ex-girlfriend’s house and we finally slept together. It was a weird trip. She got married about a year later.
I’m still mostly straight (John Barrowman was the Incident that made me “incidentally homosexual” on Kinsey’s scale), but the way I treat sex is unrecognizable from the way I did when I grew up. I’ve not really fallen in love since I became sexually active, so my sex life has consisted entirely of friends-with-benefits situations. But I still do, occasionally, have feelings of guilt – it appeared multiple times while writing this, in fact. There is a part of me that is still very ashamed of my sexuality, and I haven’t yet figured out how to exorcise it.
Except for Head Start, I attended Catholic schools my whole life. I was “Catholic” as much as I am vaguely “ethnic” – you could apply those labels but they don’t have any real meaning to me. Being a child of divorce and a half-Arab guy growing up in a lower-middle class Irish neighborhood, I was conditioned early on to try to fit in and please everyone. I learned how to mumble out the grace before meals prayer in some slipshod Gaelic and had a Kidz Bop understanding of the Catechism. Aside from the time in third grade I fell asleep during mandatory monthly Mass, I never really stuck out in matters involving faith.
I went to an all-boys high school, where most of us didn’t have the patience to go deeper into the Bible than “give unto Caesar.” Faith and the role of the spiritual self gave way to loud farts and macho posturing. “Faggot” was a term of endearment. One particularly ebullient chemistry teacher threatened to stick his cock in our ears if we didn’t quiet down and learn the mole formula. This got big laughs.
My senior year of high school was the first time I was presented with anything having to do with sexuality and faith. Our teacher, Mrs. O’Reilly (not her real name), was a holy roller of the highest order and was determined to put the fear of God in us about everything from abortion to the perils of young men and rape culture. One class focused on the idea that “women can say anything; you need to be careful,” as if leering young jezebels drunk on power and Mike’s Hard Lemonade were looking to get you into bed and then ruin your life if they felt like it. We were taught that our bodies were beautiful, precious things that needed to be kept pure, even if by 9th period those very same bodies were routinely producing hideous, vile odors.
Almost every day after school I had sex with my girlfriend, who went to the all-girls school down the street. I would ride the bus to her place with a head full of guilt and belly full of anxiety at the prospect of sullying my beautiful gift. This blessedly went away as soon as I slipped a condom on and would come back with a vengeance during each pregnancy scare.
By the time I got to college, I had tuned out Mrs. O’Reilly’s sex shaming but was presented with a whole new kind of embarrassment: the single-sex dorms at my Catholic university. Parietal rules meant that girls weren’t allowed in your room after midnight on the weekdays and 2 AM on the weekends. You could be expelled if a particularly enterprising RA heard noises, busted into your room, and caught you having sex on your shitty loft bed. It was a dirty, secret kind of fun, but still dirty and secret. I made it a point to have everywhere on campus as an affront to every stupid fucking rule they had in place. This culminated in an ill-conceived plot to have sex with my then-girlfriend in the on campus basilica, a venture that ended with the two of us scurrying out of the chapel with our pants around our ankles thanks to a particularly creaky pew.
In short, the story of my sexual awakening was first apathy to, and then a battle against, a faith that I was surrounded by but never really embraced. I never really learned to value my body because I was too busy being told how awful I would be if I got hot and sweaty with pretty white girls. I’ll let my therapist sort out why I’ve never had a functional relationship with a woman, but it probably has something to do with that unique rush of Catholic guilt and unholy rebellion I feel every time I see a brunette with fair skin and big eyes.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.