Content warning: mentions of attempted suicide
Puberty hit me early. I say that because I felt struck down by the sheer terror of what was happening to my body at nine years old. I was a high achiever at school, creatively and musically, with lots of friends. The fact I started learning the drums and loved watching and playing football was labelled as ‘quirky’. When all the girls were fussing about getting dirty in an obstacle course, I was the first to crawl through the mud.
Without understanding why, I would bind my chest, hoping it would stop my breasts from growing. I didn’t want them. Or hips. Or curves. I wanted to identify on my own terms and not what was predetermined.
At first it made me angry. I didn’t want my body to change. Then there was fear. I started to realise what ‘being a woman’ would really mean for me. The expectations for how I should look and act, what I should and shouldn’t enjoy. There was no word in my vocabulary for how I felt. I just knew I didn’t want to be a girl. But I didn’t want to be a boy either. I just wished that I could be me. With no strings attached. But this didn’t align with what I had been told every Sunday at church, where my body was seen as a gift from God and wishing for anything else went against God’s will.
As a child and young teenager, the church I attended was, and still is, part of the Evangelical Alliance. It’s made up of organisations, churches, and individuals, that want to spread the word of Jesus and the Gospel. They were known for their pro-life stance and belief in traditional values and the nuclear family. For me, it was a toxic environment that you could only thrive in if you conformed to their world view. Or more simply put, conformed to the teachings of the Old and New Testament, and took the Gospel as truth.
“It felt like eternal damnation awaited me unless I suppressed everything I felt was right and true about my identity.”
It was a church led by ideas of community and family. There was no ‘one’ leader, so each Sunday morning, a myriad of speakers would take turns in leading prayer, sharing new insights they’d gleaned from a passage in the Bible, or speaking about the mission work they’d embarked upon in the community and even abroad.
So, when a speaker would stand up and proclaim, “there are only men and women because that’s what’s written in the Bible,” followed by “identifying in any other way than the gender you were at birth, is a plot by the Devil,” it left me with a feeling of dread. I was going to hell. Eternal damnation awaited me unless I suppressed everything I felt was right and true about my identity.
This was happening at a time in my life when I was beginning to find my voice. I had my own opinions and was beginning to really question the world around me. I was questioning my own religious beliefs too. It was a confusing time where my identity conflicted with what I was being told by the adults in my life. The ones who were supposed to have all the answers.
“The church believed they were helping me, guiding me through my childhood and saving me from an adult life full of sin. What they didn’t realise was their Gospel was destroying my self-esteem and self-worth”
Their indoctrination wasn’t subtle. It was packaged as a place full of love and acceptance but once I started to pull back the layers, there was constant pressure and competition to be the ‘better’ Christian. It led to more and more extreme and conservative beliefs being shared. A one-upmanship that drove people to show what lengths they would go to, or statements that would show just how strong their faith was.
And fear. There was always the permeating fear of the ‘others.’ People who had not found Jesus yet. Fear was central to everything, and it’s what made you stay. I would sit in church and wonder, if they knew how I felt about my identity, would they be afraid of me too?
I remember this intense feeling that I didn’t conform to their ideals around femininity. I was labelled a ‘tomboy’ but told that I’d quickly grow out of this phase. The reality for me was nights spent in bed shaking with fear and self-loathing. I was wrong. Abnormal. My thoughts were unnatural and an affront to God. I was this evil thing that didn’t deserve love or respect. The church believed they were helping me, guiding me through my childhood and saving me from an adult life full of sin. What they didn’t realise was their Gospel was destroying my self-esteem and self-worth. I was broken before I’d really begun to live.
“If they knew how I felt about my identity, would they be afraid of me too?”
My response was to shut down. I kept my feelings bottled up, because it felt easier to pretend I was this happy child that I projected. My moods became erratic. I was irritable, withdrawn and often tearful. I remember the numbness more than anything. I felt detached from the world, like there was a veil hanging over my life. I couldn’t feel, and I didn’t care.
I left the church when I was thirteen. Both me and my older brother were pulling away from what we’d been taught at church. We’d ask what the youth pastors would label ‘awkward’ questions – about homosexuality, abortion, left-wing politics – that they didn’t want to answer or acknowledge. Our parents sat us down one evening to talk it through. My parents could see I wasn’t happy and left the choice to me. Although I profoundly disagreed with them continuing to attend the church, I was relieved that they respected my decision. A few years later, they left, too, opting to follow their faith elsewhere.
Leaving the church didn’t stop its impact on my life though. My depression grew over the next year and became increasingly severe. One morning when I was fourteen, I made a decision – I’d had enough. I couldn’t cope with days of numbness punctuated by intense despair that felt as if it permeated my body and soul. I locked myself in the bathroom and attempted to take my own life.
I missed six months of school and during that time I attended therapy. What I’d been taught about my identity was so ingrained that I never mentioned my feelings about it to my therapist. Although there were other factors that led to this first experience of severe depression, I truly believe the church and its teachings played a part.
“I felt detached from the world, like there was a veil hanging over my life.”
I now proudly identify as non-binary, but those years growing up in an Evangelical church stunted my exploration of how I identified. To say I was terrified of my own thoughts is an understatement. I didn’t realise until my mid-twenties what was holding me back from accepting who I was, that it was my internalised fear that I’d been unable to shake.
It’s taken years to admit that I’m non-binary and even longer to believe it doesn’t make me evil. I haven’t identified as a Christian since I was a young teenager, and I remember having this moment of realisation – why am I holding on to their judgements and narrow mindedness? Why am I allowing the beliefs of a religion I don’t believe in holding me hostage? I knew I had to let go of this internalised fear to move forward and that came with articulating my feelings to others.
“All this internal pressure was finally released into this crescendo of emotion.”
After a quite a few drinks, I told my long-term partner how I identified. I sobbed uncontrollably as I said the words – I’m non-binary. All this internal pressure was finally released into this crescendo of emotion.
Now I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded people. I don’t feel alone, and my partner is completely unfazed by how I identify. He has always said he loves the person I am, it’s never been about gender. Leaving the church, I was amazed at how quickly I learned to value open-mindedness over doctrine, debate over judgement, and love and acceptance over fear of the unknown.
Katie Conibear (she/they) is a writer and mental health advocate. Their first book, ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, about bipolar disorder, is out now. @KatieConibear
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