On June 5, 1981 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This was 4 days before my 9th birthday. Over the next 18 months, other cases were discovered in cities throughout the country. This disease was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRIDS). By August of 1982 it had been renamed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By May of 1986, the virus that causes AIDS had been isolated and was named HIV. I was almost 14.
Spending the first years of the AIDS epidemic in a fundamentalist Christian setting strongly colored my initial impressions and understanding of this disease. So many in the Christian community saw this as a gay disease that was God’s wrath for living a homosexual “lifestyle.” It was almost inevitable that my own beliefs would mirror those of the community around me. I am ashamed to say that for many years I felt little remorse or sympathy for the thousands of people, primarily gay men, who died horrific deaths from AIDS. So many of us stood by and did nothing to help, believing that those who died deserved their fate. Many prominent Christian leaders would justify their inaction by blaming the victims, quoting Romans 1:27 “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV 1984 edition)
These years were also the beginning of my own understanding and exploration of sex and sexuality. I discovered I was gay during the same years gay men were dying in record numbers. AIDS was in the news a lot then, and those around me used it to demonize gay men and their “perverted lifestyles,” saying that those who were afflicted were under God’s wrath. AIDS became just one more punishment I had to try to avoid, just one more reason I had to find any way I could to stop being gay. While trying to run away from my own sexuality, I also turned my back on thousands of people who, I was convinced, deserved their own deaths. It wasn’t until years later, when I left Christianity, that I realized just how terribly wrong I had been.
I can never make up for my early beliefs about AIDS and those who contracted the disease. I can never apologize to those who died while I believed their deaths were somehow just. I was part of the problem that allowed thousands to die needlessly. My community stood by in approval merely because those who were dying were part of a marginalized minority. A minority I now belong to.
I’ve grown a lot since AIDS was first discovered. I have broken free of the early programming that the disease is somehow God’s wrath. However, I am still ignorant of the full personal impact of what it means to live with HIV or have loved ones who have been lost to AIDS. This epidemic has had an incalculable effect on the gay community and on gay culture, but my only part in this history is one of which I am deeply ashamed.
We will never be able to fully deal with the AIDS epidemic until we end the stigmatization of those who are touched by the disease. Standing now as a member of the community that has born the brunt of the devastation from HIV/AIDS, I can work towards cultivating greater empathy and understanding, not only in myself but in the world around me.
Some may ask why I ever stayed with my husband for so long. I asked myself that many times. The biggest reason was because I could not overcome my fundamentalist Christian faith and my belief that adultery was the only permissible cause for divorce. The only way I could give myself permission to leave him was to redefine adultery to include more than just sexual infidelity. I had to allow myself to believe that he was unfaithful to his marriage vows in how he was treating me. Looking back on it all now I lament that I held on so long to a belief system that caused me to feel trapped in an abusive relationship. But it was the only belief system I had ever known. I didn’t know anything else, so when I left D, not only did I feel betrayed by him, I felt betrayed by myself and everything I ever thought I believed about the world and about God.
For many years afterward, I struggled trying to keep a faith that had held me captive in a situation I would have gladly died to escape. But when I began to pull out the threads of incongruity that had imprisoned me, my entire world view started to fall apart. The incongruity of the fundamentalists belief that an abused woman should stay submissive to her husband, especially if he calls himself a Christian, was the first thread. The incongruity that I had an attraction to women that I could not control, but somehow God was going to judge me for, and send me to hell because of it was the second thread. These two started a chain reaction that eventually caused me to question everything. Each thread caused a heart wrenching tear to the fabric of my world view. Each thread creating a wound that left a little scar as it healed. Eventually, by the time I finally cleared away all of the things I no longer believed anymore, I didn’t seem to have anything left.
In addition to trying to sort out my spirituality, I also had the difficult task of trying to find myself. When I first left D, the friend I stayed with was shocked at just how much of my own identity and preferences had been subsumed by him. Whenever asked about my preference for anything, my first instinct was to respond with what I knew to be D’s preferences. It took considerable effort to figure out what I liked and what I wanted. I had been cut off from myself for so long that sometimes I just didn’t know.
In a very real sense, the failure of my marriage and subsequent dismantling of my fundamentalist Christian world view were the first step in my process of finding and becoming myself. As I began to shed the old belief systems it was time to find what I did believe about myself and the universe.
I was left very disillusioned when my Christian world view was left in shambles by my lived reality. I wasn’t ready to give up all spirituality, though. I had always felt close to nature. Out amongst the trees was one of the few places I could ever really find peace, so it seemed logical to gravitate towards nature religions. I had befriended a woman from work who was pagan. I began asking her questions about her beliefs and paganism in general. She considered herself to be Wiccan and we discussed various forms of paganism. I was first drawn to Druidism due to its emphasis on tree lore. I eventually settled into a more Wiccan belief structure. Not really ready to become too involved in a new religion, I maintained a solitary study and practice and did not actively seek out group rituals.
During this time I was becoming more comfortable in my gay identity. I never really took on the lesbian label although that is what most women who love women call themselves. For me it always felt too feminine. Too close to calling myself a woman, something I semi-consciously tried to avoid. When I first came out I still had the long hair I wore throughout my teen years and my marriage. The fundamentalist Christian view was that it was shameful for a woman to have short hair. As I became more comfortable with being gay, I drifted more and more to the butch end of the spectrum. My hair got shorter and shorter until finally I just got men’s haircuts at a local barber shop. I had hoped that becoming butch would help me feel more comfortable in my body, but actually it had the opposite effect. The closer I looked to male, the more I longed to be a man. My mother was still having a very difficult time adjusting to me coming out as gay so it never entered my mind that being a man could be an option. Since I couldn’t be a man, I would have to try to find a way to be comfortable being a woman.
Continue to Trying to be a woman
There were many factors involved in my decision to get married, but the primary internal motivation was to escape a life of lust and fornication that would condemn me to hell. I was 18 years old. My parents had separated the prior year and their divorce was finalized 6 months before my 18th birthday. Being a Christian literalist back then, I didn’t believe in divorce for any reason other than adultery, so I was convinced that my mother was wrong in leaving my father.
My husband “D,” as I will call him here, seemed like a good Christian man when I met him. I found out later that he was a far right wing Christian extremist. He was also an alcoholic. He was married at the time we met, but he told me these stories of how his wife was abusive to him and how she cheated on him when he sent her away to her parents house. He was in the process of getting his divorce when we got engaged. Once we were engaged he began trying to isolate me from other friends and family. That was my first clue that I was making a mistake, but I felt it was too late to back out of the wedding. He had convinced me that the engagement was binding, that this was God’s will and thus neither of us could separate what God had joined.
D believed he was a prophet sent by God to chastize churches that had strayed from God’s word. If D heard something in a sermon that he perceived as heresy, he would feel compelled to rebuke the pastor immediately after the service. As a result, we were often kicked out of churches. D seemed to thrive on the confrontations and believed that he was a martyr every time we were kicked out. His typical reaction to his “martyrdom” was a hardening of his convictions and a desire for violent opposition. Over the years he became more and more confrontational with everyone, including me. He saw violence as an acceptable and often necessary answer to what he perceived as spiritual warfare. He believed God spoke to him directly and anyone who disagreed with him was under the influence of Satan.
D was never the one to start a physical fight, but he would do everything he could to get the other person to throw the first punch and give him a reason to unleash his aggression. He was always eager for violence but afraid he could not control it. While we were living in WA we owned a gun. A Sig Sauer P229. We both had concealed carry permits, but he made me carry the gun because he was afraid he would lose his temper and kill someone. Yet I was under strict orders that if he ever found himself losing a fight, I was to shoot to kill. I assured him I would, although I don’t think I could have actually killed anyone. Eventually we ended up selling the gun when we were strapped for money.
D also held very strong convictions about social issues. The two that would rile him up the most were abortion and homosexuality. He told me a few times that if he had not been married to me, he would be one of the people out bombing abortion clinics and killing abortion doctors. He believed that those who did so were doing the work of God. He was also extremely homophobic and often talked about executing gays. Sometimes he would act out how he would execute them by putting them on their knees, giving them the option to accept Jesus or die, and then pulling the trigger to kill them. This kind of talk was a regular occurence, along with continuous accusations that I had homosexual tendencies. I would always deny it, but deep down I knew it was true. No matter what I tried, I just could not stop being attracted to women.
Over the years, D’s alcoholism got progressively worse. His drinks of choice were champagne and wine. By the end of our marriage, he was drinking two to three bottles a night. He could not go a day without having at least one bottle. His drinking often made him more prone to wild mood swings, from manic happiness to terrible rage. Towards the end of the relationship, he took to pulling his pocket knife on me as a joke. He would pull it out, point it at my face and say things like “If you ever…” and then laugh. He got angry when I would tell him to stop. When he wasn’t using his pocket knife, he mocked punching or kicking me in the head. Sometimes full force punches or kicks would come within inches of me. I would feel the air move against my face. Again he got angry when I would tell him to stop. He said the point of the joke was that he would never actually hurt me so I was being a bitch to ruin his fun.
An online friend of mine convinced me to go talk to a local women’s shelter about what was going on at home. They told me that based on the escalation pattern I described, D would eventually lose control and the jokes would become real. But it would only happen once. That is all it would take for him to kill me. I did not want to believe them, but I started making preparations to leave. The shelter warned me not to give D any kind of advanced notice because that could be the tipping point to push him over the edge. There would be less to stop him if he felt he was losing me anyway. So on a Tuesday morning in the middle of May, I packed up what little I could take, got on an airplane (graciously paid for by my boss at the time), and fled the state.
In all, I had spent almost 8 years married to D, from the age of 18 to just before my 26th birthday. Because of my Christian belief system, it was difficult for me to leave him even after everything he had done. He had never committed adultery so I did not feel like I had a valid reason for divorce. It wasn’t until I started seriously contemplating suicide that I ever told anyone what was going on at home. And then it took my online friend 7 months to convince me that I was being abused. Even after I was convinced, I still did not feel like I could leave because the husband was the head of the house and it was the wife’s duty to obey her husband. It was fear for my life, by his hand or my own, that finally pushed me to leave him.
The abuse I had endured and the failure of my marriage was devastating to both my religious beliefs and my sense of self. I no longer knew who I was, what I believed, or what I wanted from life. My divorce was finalized a year and a half after I separated. With the divorce behind me, as I looked forward to the future, I finally decided it was time to stop denying my attraction to women. I came out to myself as gay, started dating women, and turned away from relationships with men completely. When my first relationship with a woman failed after a year, I realized I still had a lot of issues left over from my childhood and marriage. I eventually got myself into therapy to start dealing with everything that had happened.
Continue on to Starting the journey back to myself
My life has taken a long and winding road to get me to where I am today. I was born in a small town as the second of two children and the only daughter. Growing up it seemed like my family was like most typical families in the Midwest of the US, although maybe not as affluent. Looking back on it now, I doubt I could say we were even middle class. Although I don’t remember any times when I ever had to go without something I needed, there were rarely any luxuries.
I was raised in a very conservative Evangelical Christian home and got into the Pentecostal movement as a teenager. God and religion became a very powerful influence throughout my childhood and well into my early adult years. My mother was the more religious of my parents and was very involved in our local church. Because of this my brother and I ended up being quite involved from a young age, whether we wanted to or not. As I grew older, adults in the church would often refer to the Bible as “life’s manual” and say that one could find all of the answers to life in the Bible. I had no reason to doubt what they said so when I had questions about things, instead of asking my parents or other adults, I would consult my Bible. I spent many hours working my way through various topics in the concordance trying to work out answers to life’s issues. Because I was still a child, I didn’t always understand the nuances of metaphor and allegory (much less have any understanding at all about cultural significance), so unless something was blatantly obvious that it shouldn’t be taken literally, such as when Jesus stated he was speaking a parable, I took a very literal interpretation of what I read and, like a good little Christian, I never questioned its truth.
Most of my Biblical studies started when I was still a preteen. I had started to noticed that I had an attraction to girls and a very strong desire to be a boy. I was pretty certain that God wouldn’t look too kindly on either of these things. In an attempt to understand my desires, I looked up everything I could find about sex and sexuality using the concordance of my Bible. It was in this way that I learned about things like adultery, fornication, and homosexuality. Taking a literal interpretation of what I read made me very ashamed of my feelings. I was terrified that others might find out and decide that I was wicked and depraved for being attracted to girls or wanting to be a boy. Because the Bible never spoke directly to the issue of transsexualism, I focused my attention and energy on trying to want to be a girl and rid myself of the deadly sin of homosexuality… with some fairly disastrous results.
When I hit puberty things got exceedingly difficult. I struggled with what seemed to be an insatiable sex drive while still trying to be the good chaste Christian girl. My early Biblical studies had caused me to conflate lust and fornication with any acts on sexual desire outside of marriage, including mental fantasies and masturbation, so it often felt as if I was living in a constant state of deadly sin. I believed that in order to be a good Christian I had to overcome all physical desires. The only acceptable desire was the desire to be a servant of God. I can’t recall the number of times I begged God to take away all sexual drive when it seemed impossible for me to control myself. When it became obvious that God wasn’t going to rid me of my desire, I started to plead for Him to kill me so my soul could be saved from my sinful flesh. Life became a constant struggle to suppress all desire, with terrible consequences to my self esteem each time I would inevitably fail. Even when I could control the impulses for short periods of time, eventually the desire would come out in my dreams and betray me. There was no escape.
I was desperate for a way to end what I percieved as a sinful life that seemed impossible to control, but the only acceptable setting for sexual desire was in a marriage. I felt I had little choice but to get married.
Continue on to The Abusive Marriage