What Hateful Sermons Taught Me About Love

He does not see the irony in his question when he asks why I would choose to be around people who do not know how to love me.

Fam 21 when I first start trying to fit my sexuality into a shape. I use bisexual because I do not have the words to say what I am and I do not think straight is correct. I begin attending the NYC Bi Women’s Group and experience a freedom that I never had before.

When did you learn to trace the contours of your own shape? What would it cost to see love in your own face?

For the first time, I am surrounded by a large group of women who chat about sex, gender, masturbation, and porn in casual conversation. I know bisexual is not the right word for me, but I think I’m in the right place. I quickly become best friends with another Black woman who is just as happy as me to be surrounded by like-minded women. We are almost the same age, and though she is more experienced than me, we seem to be going through the same revelation of being attracted to masculine-of-center people at almost the same time. When I develop a crush on one of my co-workers, I feel a sense of opening up. The part of me that I don’t understand is widening. I feel strange, warm, and detached at times, as though I am finally turning into myself.

Athena* doesn’t have many relatives in New York, so I invite her to come to Christmas with my dad’s side of the family. We show up donning rainbow jewelry and I am surprised by how uneventful the day has been; I am standing in the entryway between my aunt’s breakfast nook and the kitchen where my cousin is washing dishes. She speaks to me over the sound of the water swishing, “Athena’s* really nice.” Confused, I agree with her pensively, “Yeah . . . ” She continues to scrub the dishes as I start to measure the distance between the contour of my body and the space between us. “Is she your girlfriend? I saw your bracelets.”

The part of me that I don’t understand is widening.

In a moment, my body becomes stiff and I feel like some older version of myself that hasn’t been integrated yet. She thinks I am a lesbian, I say to myself. This revelation causes a very visceral response through the length of my skin. I cannot find the whole of myself, but my lips start to make letters into words. I laugh nervously as I realize Athena* is very much a girl and the idea of being with her makes me feel very weird. “Oh no, she’s my best friend!” I spit out. I realize my cousin probably doesn’t believe me, but it is the truth.

I leave wondering if I have just come out to her and if so, as what?

What love makes bodies take flight and flesh freeze? What love makes fingers tight and words flee?

When the same cousin decides she wants to become a reverend, the short exchange we had over the bracelets becomes the catalyst for a sermon on Easter at my aunt’s house. It is presented as an “interesting, trendy” topic that doesn’t necessarily apply to anybody at the table. But she is talking about whether gay people are right or wrong and if they are going to heaven or hell. The consensus is the latter and that you can love the “sinner,” but not the “sin.” I do not know if this is her idea alone, but I suspect this performance is for my benefit.

This will happen several more times over the course of several more years around several more tables. Eventually, I find myself in a chair surrounded by a body that was once me. The shape that used to be a body is sitting around a blob that was once shaped like a table. I fall into a glass encasement and watch them from my cocoon. I am not sure if they forgot I am real or if they simply think it is okay to make people feel like they are not in the room. I think they think that being gay is some kind of removable attachment or a state of confusion that can change if given the right tools. If I were still a girl, I could say words that clarify this, but I am just a cold shape. I am stuck on the outside of a body that cannot move and cannot melt.

I find myself in a chair surrounded by a body that was once me.

My shape eventually turns into fluid and I dissolve into years. I am a blanket of self-inquiry and identity soup. I do not know why things have not worked out with guys or why I am not really attracted to girls. It seems there is more to it, but I do not yet have the insight to pull from the places inside me that don’t move. By the time my younger cousin is turning 21, we are close in age and spirit. She invites me to her 21st birthday and I show her a picture of my partner from my phone.

I do not use the word boyfriend because I do not yet know that is the right word. I do not know if he knows yet either. He is still making a space for his gender, and I am still trying to understand why gay and straight do not feel like polar opposites to me but more like individual planets I do not belong on. She looks briefly at the screen, unsurprised, and says, “she’s cute!” I ask if she already knew about me and she says that everybody knows “that I am gay.”

I feel as though both he and I are being erased, but he is not yet using “he” pronouns and I still do not have the words to trace my own shape, so I do not correct her. It is not until he starts to physically transition that I begin to question whether queer is even the right word, since I tend to feel queer in experience but prefer men in practice — not because they are cis or trans but because they are men. I begin to understand that feeling queer is something internal about me and not in opposition to my attraction to men.

Where do bodies go when faces drown? Does your fire have to be the only sound? What arms stretch like hurt held and hearts bled? What temperature keeps quiet mouths fed?

The layers of my relationship begin to tangle up like knotted hair. The closer I move to him, the further he pushes me back. Afterwards, he is confused about my withdrawal. He goes from lashing out over words to putting my facial expressions under a microscope. Everything I do has a meaning. Everything I say means something else. I start to wonder if it’s me. When he is not igniting, I try to talk to him about talking to him. I am delicate with my words. I say it’s difficult because he is very sensitive. He responds, “you are very sensitive.”

I say I feel like everything I say offends him. He says he feels like everything he says offends me. My mouth opens up and eats itself. There is no use for words. He cannot absorb my words. In fact, he hates using words. That is why he tries to decode my body language so much. That is his primary mode of communication. But we must be able to have a verbal conversation. I try again many times in many ways until I fall away and drain into myself. He sends violent, passive-aggressive text messages that turn my heightened state into a solid fight or flight. He is much more articulate via text than in person. He cannot yell through the phone so he must make sentences with his rage. I begin to feel covered in him like a pile. Even when he is not yelling at my face, I feel surrounded by him. I am trapped under him.

Inside the weight of years passing I find the larger pieces of myself. I grow up and into myself. I am still stiff but my body stretches wider. It takes three years for me to finally understand why my relationship is pulling so hard at my seams and almost three more years to say it in words. He cannot tolerate the full range of his emotions so he gets frustrated and explodes onto me. This is all too familiar, but there is something between us that I want to understand so I hesitate to end it for good. My relationship goes back and forth as often as I go back and forth about whether or not existing in my family is healthy for me.

At one point, I consider bringing him with me to a holiday get-together, but before I have a chance to get the words out, he shames me for wanting to go at all. He does not see the irony in his question when he asks why I would choose to be around people who do not know how to love me. I do not point it out.

When I reach to locate myself in the skin around me, I find that I am still an odd shape. Something far more strange than a round peg looking for a square hole. I wonder if I will ever fit right with anyone. I wonder if my early experiences of intimacy have caused me to conflate strength with harm and if this will always be threaded through my relationships with men — be they cis or trans. I wonder if I will spend my life having relationships with men or masculine people who are unable to match my emotional and cognitive empathy, all the while blaming me for the decline of our relationship.

I wonder how many times I will feel like both the parent and the child. I wonder if I will always be in charge of taking care of people who project their emotional culture onto me and then blame me for falling apart.

I wonder how long my strength will be conceptualized as weakness because I drain tears as a result of holding their anger year after year. I wonder how many women stay in relationships too long because being in charge of someone or something implies you know better, so by default, their partners must know less and therefore be given a pass to behave emotionally like a child. I wonder how many women believe abuse is just a facet of masculinity.

He does not see the irony in his question when he asks why I would choose to be around people who do not know how to love me.

Spill me out like liquid. Paint me into your image. Just promise me a finish line. Promise me a scrimmage.

It has been several years since I believed in a hell or even contemplated the idea that there is a punishment waiting for people who live life as their full selves. When I finally listen to Kim Burrell’s vitriolic sermon on homosexuality, I have the same thought I always have when people use their energy to spew hate — I wonder what she’s afraid of. I wonder what it is about her that she’s trying to distract people from.

Most of her words flow over me, but the one that settled is perverted. I think she is hoping people like me will feel hurt by this, but when I hear that word, that is when I feel the most queer in ways that don’t translate easily into language. That is when I locate the part of me that feels queer in a way that I’ve felt since I was a little girl. Queer as in different, as in other, as in outside — queer as in even if I were straight there would still be something queer about me at my core.

I feel the most queer in ways that don’t translate easily into language.

That is the part of me I cannot get away from — the part that sticks to me. That is the part of me I am most turned on by. That is the part that is most true.

When I read Janelle Monae’s Instagram quote, something moves inside me. She speaks about using the Bible as a whip and that is what drains me out. That is what leaves me bleeding. When I started to disconnect from my family it was not because they’d conceptualized me as a lesbian or because some of them share a belief that who I naturally am will be punished at the end of my life.

It was because I do not and will not fit the total image they have carved out for me. It is not about being queer — what manifested as homophobia was just a placeholder. White supremacy dictates that Black people fit into images and these ideas seep into bloodlines and psyches and skin until the standards for being an acceptable Black person are too high for anybody to reach.

That is the whip.

So when my aunt says she will pray for me, I wonder if she is praying for some demons she thinks I have because it is easier to say that your own behavior is out of your hands than to say, “you hurt in part because I hurt you.” Just like it’s easier to categorize people as right or wrong and in or out. It is easier to alienate somebody out of a family or a church or a community than to say “maybe there is some way in which we are similar and I’m uncomfortable with that” or “maybe you are different in a way that scares me and I want to get away from that.”

I don’t believe on a soul level that anybody actually thinks they are better or more lovable because of their gendered embodiment, their desire, or who they date, love, or fuck. I don’t believe any smart person actually believes that alienating entire groups of people or an individual person is a Godly act.

I don’t believe any smart person actually believes that alienating entire groups of people is a Godly act.

I think that subcultures of religion give people a mask to bury their unmet childhood needs under. I think that what manifests as homophobia and transphobia is a way to distract people from themselves. It helps them get away from their own hurt and it gives them a way to quiet that voice we all have that says we aren’t good enough. Every time we enforce an inherent hierarchy of worth, that voice gets softer — if only for a moment. People will yell that being gay, queer, or trans is just wrong. But just like when a child cries because they want an ice cream cone, the tantrum is not about what they think it is. It is not about ice cream, just like it is not about queerness. They just want to know that they’re lovable, and this is a way to try to prove it.

When people are yelling anything, they are yelling at themselves. They are trying to convince themselves. The person receiving it is just a placeholder, just like singling out my queerness was simply a way to put the focus on me. It was a way to temporarily shift the hurt.

The family dynamic that pushed me out for being different is threaded through the bloodline. It is the litany of abuse and the lineage of alcoholism and addiction. It is my father pushing weight-loss articles on me or sending me a job opening, knowing I cannot work. It is my brother yelling at me after I’d failed my math requirement again due to being Dyscalculic. It is being lectured for having a different opinion, experience, or emotional response. It is valuing arguments over vulnerability and indirect communication over intimacy. It is constant reminders that you do not meet the standard. It is all the same placeholder. It is all the same whip. I could’ve stayed and listened to the sermons for many more years as they would always say I was welcome there.

But you do not invite people in by pushing them out.

You deserve to be kissed all over and loved open. You are truth spoken and liquid spilled. You love like spells broken and childhood healed.

When you are pushed out of people and things that you were taught to believe will accept you in total, it seeps into the rest of your life. You will find it in partners, friendships, and identity communities. You will find yourself in the same dynamics over and over again. You will try to love difficult people as a way to prove you know how to love people. You will find their hands red and bleeding and you will wipe them just so they can keep being who they are, while you split into parts and struggle to exist as a whole shape.

Out of many pieces, I finally emerge as the biggest part; I have the longest length and the truest part. I know now that I cannot hold the pain of a whole family. I know they may have to eventually look at themselves now that I’m not around. I know it will hurt. I know that hurt is the same whip. That’s why they projected it onto me for so long.

They will bleed you dry. They will use you as their opening. If you’re not careful, they will work through the pain of lifetimes and ancestors and past lives through you. You will barely be able to stand up when they’re through. You will think back to your child self and finally understand why you never could run fast, even when you were tiny. You will learn that love is not about whips and if you believe in a God, you will come to realize that your belief comes from love and all that comes from love will come back to you in the shape of love.

Let the queerest part be the loveliest part.

You will come to trace your full self in the mirror and know that you are the shape of love, and the act of love will always get mirrored back to you if you continue to love people who show up as much as you. You will learn that carrying other people’s pain does not do them any favors because it just delays their progress. You will learn that sometimes the only way for somebody to hear you is to stop talking. And you will learn that it is not your job to bring people up to where you are. They have their own path and so do you.

Let the queerest part be the loveliest part if that is the truth of you. And let it be known that real love only knows how to love all of you.

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