When Religion Goes Wrong

2015-01-07-virgin.jpgI have a very early memory of attending the midnight Easter mass at the Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco. My sister and I had been forced to take naps that afternoon, with pink sponge curlers in our hair, in preparation for the late-night service. When we woke we put on our good dresses and patiently waited while our mother took the curlers out of our hair and brushed through our brown curls, allowing her to pull the top layer back into a ribbon tied in a perfect bow. It was so important to look just right, because we had to look respectable to go to church, like pretty little girls. No pants, no jeans, no sneakers, no messy hair, no scowls, just dresses and smiles and curtsying before the icons, genuflecting and kissing the feet of saints.

During the service, after chanting and incense, the whole church went completely dark to represent the tomb where Christ's body lay. In the darkness you could hear the respiring of the faithful, and the shushing by mothers trying to still the squirming bodies of little children trying their best not to fidget in the dark. We each held a special white candle ringed with a red cup, a tulip with a rod thrust through it. In the front of the church, at the altar, one candle was lit. At midnight, with the announcement of Christ's resurrection, that one candle would light the next person's candle, and so on, until each neighboring churchgoer had helped light the next, and finally all the candles would be lit. Then the church, with its classic Eastern Orthodox icons and beautiful stained glass, was illuminated by the joined flames of our candles.

The symbolism of sharing illumination with your neighbors is lovely, unless it becomes dangerous. Such was the case with the parents and conservative church community of Leelah Alcorn, a teenage transgender girl who was denied the love and support she needed and finally took her own life as a form of protest. Leelah's parents prioritized their religious ideology over their daughter's well-being. They refused to acknowledge her gender identity, isolated her from the world for months on end, verbally berated her, and subjected her to Christian counseling meant to undermine who she knew herself to be. When Leelah told them she was transgender and was meant to live as a woman, their response was that "God doesn't make mistakes."

If a person truly believes that we were created by God and that God doesn't make mistakes, then it would follow that each person was born perfect, and that God gave them a body and soul to His liking. If they believed that God doesn't make mistakes, how could Leelah's parents have asserted that their child was anything other than perfect?

I was raised in a conservative religious context and believe that religion can be comforting and enlightening and, through structure and ritual and consistency, bring order to a world that feels chaotic. However, that only works when all people feel welcomed. It works when the basic principle is love and finding community through kindness and acceptance. In cases when acceptance is not offered, religion can scar a person's soul. How many times was Leelah's soul scarred in the name of religion?

The memory I have of midnight Easter mass has imprinted itself onto me: the mystical rituals, the chanting, the smell of the incense, the Greek words floating through the ether. As a child I found it magical and enduring. When I came out as a lesbian at the age of 16, I had to hide my true self from my family and church community. My parents would say that "lesbians are worse than prostitutes," and I knew that I could be excommunicated from the church. So I withdrew from them, and I accepted that the church would never truly embrace me.

Many years later, when I gave birth to my first child, my mother asked when I was going to baptize the baby. In my heart I wanted to, but I didn't know if I could find a Greek Orthodox priest willing to baptize the child of a queer couple, and I was scared to even ask. I was scared to be rejected. Finally I went on my local Greek Orthodox Church website and asked through an email contact form if they would be willing to baptize our child. The priest invited us to come speak with him. My partner and I arrived, nervous and hopeful that the meeting would go well. The priest was a kind and gentle man with an embracing spirit, and he was eager to baptize our son. We were the first LGBT couple to request a baptism at his church. With a warm smile he told us the church believed you should "love the sinner and hate the sin."

With mixed emotions we proceeded with the baptism. I was grateful for his willingness to perform the baptism, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't hurt when he framed my then-12-year relationship as a sin. The ritual was beautiful, and we felt treated with respect, but when we received the baptismal certificate, we found that the only parent listed was me; the second parent was listed as "unknown." I put the certificate away. I don't think I'll ever show it to my son. I'm ashamed that his other parent was erased.

Whenever I enter a Greek Orthodox church, I enter both as that little girl enraptured by the beauty of the rituals and as the lesbian who will always feel like an outsider. Whether I am there to attend an Easter mass or the Greek Festival, I always have the same experience. I stand in the pew and drink in the majesty of the pounded copper ceiling, the blue glass, the hand-painted icons; I experience the thrill of standing side-by-side with my fellow Greeks in community; and then I cry with a yearning to fully belong.

I am a full-grown woman with a family and a house and friends and stability. But when I stand in church and know that I am not fully accepted, it is still painful. Now amplify that pain by infinity. Imagine being a young person still under the purview of your parents' authority and being told that everything you are is wrong. Imagine them invoking the name of God to tell you that you are wrong. It's crushing. And in the case of Leelah Alcorn, she had to find a way to crush the pain. And now we are left with the agony of knowing that a perfect child died in the name of God. God didn't want Leelah to die. Religion went wrong when Leelah's parents wielded God as a weapon against their own child.

Need help? In the U.S., visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Please share Transgender Law Center's resource guide for talking about trans suicide.