Not Religious Anymore but Guilty About Her Sexuality August 5, 2008

Not Religious Anymore but Guilty About Her Sexuality

From a reader raised as a liberal Catholic comes this lengthy, but heartbreaking, email. It’s been slightly edited from its original version.

If you have experienced anything like this or know someone who has, please leave a comment and help her out!

I recently came out of the closet as bisexual (yes, I’m sure)… Religion was the main reason [I repressed this for 14 years] (liberal as it was, you did NOT want to be gay/bi/trans at my high school), and now that that’s fallen away, so has my main reason for lying to myself about who I am. While it feels great and liberating, I’ve also found myself feeling horribly, horribly guilty.

I’m pretty much agnostic with some occasional deistic leanings now, but I guess more religious stuff stuck deep down than I realized — because I go back and forth from being “out and proud” to feeling horrible — like I’m dirt and “disordered” and there’s something wrong with me — and like I’m going to hell even though I don’t even believe in it anymore (at least not consciously!) I’ve even felt like an abomination and considered maybe I should try to go to some reparative therapy, but I know it’s all bs, having a psych background especially. And I don’t feel I should have to — this is who I am and why is it considered so wrong by the community I grew up in??? I’m not hurting anyone. The irony is I have a double standard — I don’t have these feelings towards other GLBT people — just myself.

I’ve found a lot of warmth and acceptance in the GLBT community, but as you can imagine religion and its struggles is not a favorite topic with many of them (not that I blame them). I’ve joined the rainbow coalition at a UU church my friend introduced me to, and I’m hoping they can help. I just need some people/person to talk to that have struggled with the same issues…

In many of the GLBT/bi groups I’ve joined, people have either made peace with religion or gave up on it long ago — they tell me this is a process everyone goes through and it will pass. I think so too, but it’s really torturous. Many of my close friends are supportive (and secular!), but they don’t get why I can’t just “let it go” — it’s b/c religion did mean something to me for so long, and it was mostly a positive experience in other ways growing up — and some of it did get very deep — so even though rationally I know things, emotionally is another matter. I can’t tell my religious friends — not yet.

My parents found out — both that I’m not religious and that I’m bi. With the religion thing they oscillate between reminding me I should pray and trying to take me to church, and with the bi thing they think it’s “just a phase” and that I’ll marry some nice “normal” guy and forget about it (I guess I’m not “normal??), and as long as I don’t “act” on it it’s not a sin. I’m completely dependent on them financially (although that may change if I get disability, but even then it’s probably not enough to move out) since I’ve been chronically ill and unable to work since I was 25 and had to move back in with them, and I do need their help. I have been able to stand my ground and not go to church much, though sometimes I go just to make them happy. I think for them the bi thing is actually worse than the non-religion-most conservative catholics are quite GLBT phobic. I had a recent evaluation and there is just no way I can work now — I’m still too sick.

I know they love me and they’ve been great when it comes to my illness, but it’s really frustrating not being able to be who I am around them, and I’m basically leading a double life — I’m out to my closest friends and some new people I’ve met and my new friends in the GLBT community, so they help me out… I go out to GLBT events in DC and at the UU church… I hate having to lie about where I’m going, but I have no choice. My family wouldn’t throw me out, but they would try to cut me off from the GLBT community, whose support I really need right now. I’ve found some hotlines I can call, too. I go between happy, defiant, angry, guilty, shameful, and depressed. I’m not trying to be dramatic but I’ve even felt a bit suicidal at times, though I would never act on it. My guilt and then anger at having to lie about who I am feels like it’s tearing me apart and destroying me sometimes…

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  • Jen

    I can empathize. My journey to atheism did not erase all the weird sexual messages that I received growing up (ie: Sex is dirty- save it for someone you love! Condoms are useless! Teen sex= babies and suicide!) I still feel guilt. Personally, I realize that it will probably take time (more time) to erase these messages- so I like to focus on helping provide alternative messages for others.

    As for the rest, I have no good advice- but good luck.

    I recently came out of the closet as bisexual (yes, I’m sure)

    I laughed at this, and here’s why. Nothing drives me crazier than seeing people question women and their sexuality. I see it all the time, even from gay men. What the hell? I think it is rooted in the patriarchal society we live in, that we can’t even trust women to know who they want to fuck. Dumb women, they only do it for attention. Whatever.

  • With all respect to your correspondent, her problems don’t sound like they are susceptible to much help aside from a sympathetic audience. First of all, the bulk of the tension with her parents seems to come from her sexuality rather than her (ir)religiosity. Secondly, she proclaims that she is an agnostic or a deist, which is fine, but that’s not really atheism. Finally, there is a subtext here of an internal struggle between her desire for independence and whatever disability is preventing her from supporting herself and living life as she pleases. That seems to be the root of the problem. Until she is able to move out, she’ll be stuck in this uncomfortable situation. That means she’ll have to go through the motions of going to church every once in a while even though she doesn’t really believe, and she’ll have to be discreet when she dates a woman. When you are financially dependent upon others for your own survival, you can’t afford to offend them too much.

    Reading between the lines, it seems that her parents have done what they can already to be accepting of your correspondent’s life choices — they haven’t disowned her, thrown her out of the house, sent her to “gay deprogramming camp,” tried to perform an exorcism to get rid of the “agnostic demon” inside her, or even stopped loving her. They seem to realize that faith and sexuality are not matters of individual choice. But these are still religious people and they adhere to the teachings of their religion. Seems to me that they have tried to bridge the gap between their love for their daughter and the dictates of their religion as best they can. It would be great if her parents would change and give up their religion themselves, but that’s a decision personal to them. Your correspondent needs to understand that in all likelihood, her folks are not going to change, ever. They are who they are. Just as they have done what they can to accept her, she needs to reciprocate — that means returning their love and acceptance, and soft-pedaling (I did not say relinquishing) those parts of her identity that can cause tension.

  • Sarah

    Try listening to Dan Savage’s Podcast. He’s got liberal sex/relationship advice and doesn’t go for religious hang ups. I know listening to his point of view has made me more comfortable with my views and the lifestyles of others. Plus, it is greatly entertaining!

  • I guess more religious stuff stuck deep down than I realized

    A strong purgative will help clear that up but remember to drinking plenty of water.

    On a serious note:

    I go back and forth from being “out and proud” to feeling horrible — like I’m dirt and “disordered” and there’s something wrong with me

    I would suggest some sort of counselling. Not because you are disordered or dirt but because it might help you to get your feelings straight and running consistently rather than being confusing. Not a religious counsellor from your church or anyone else with an agenda that isn’t just about helping you.

    It sounds as if you parents are being as supportive as they can. Maybe counselling with them would help you too?

  • MathMike

    I can remember those same guilt feelings as I started expressing my growing atheism more openly. You might find some motivation from Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go Of God”. It took me back to the same time in my growth that you are experiencing now.

  • justin jm

    Adding to what hoverFrog said, meeting with a psychologist would be a good idea. You could bring your parents along and have a group meeting to discuss these issues.

  • Thankfully for this reader, there was a UU church an a GLBT group near.

    If the internal conflict runs deep, tough, maybe as Frog says it would be better with some counseling or psychotherapy. It hurts nobody and probably at a Psych school (psychology or psychiatry) they have small clinics that are cheaper than a private therapist, if money is an issue.

  • Jonathan

    This is just…wow. I don’t even know how to respond. To the woman who wrote the email, my heart goes out to you deeply. I am saddened that you were left with seemingly no other option than to have a post on this blog, looking for counsel. I do hope that you will find someone in real life who will get down into the muck of life with you and sift through this unsettling situation you find yourself in.

    To hoverFrog, I say this: please look at your own life and make sure that you have absolutely no “agenda” before counseling someone else to not go to a specific type of people who might have an “agenda.”

  • MathMike

    I hope the reader lives in an area where she might find a counselor who is either an atheist, or who can put aside their beliefs. Many rely on their beliefs as part of their work. Not professional, but all to often true.

  • My heart goes out to you. I wish I had more in the way of practical advice; but mostly all I can offer is my compassion. Don’t let anyone trivialize what you’re going through.

    As a bisexual myself, I think in many ways coming out as bi can be harder than coming out as gay or lesbian. It’s easier for families and friends to call it a phase, not take it seriously, and/or hold out hope that you’ll wind up in an opposite- sex relationship. And if you do end up dating a guy at some point, the straight world may act as if the phase is over… and the gay world may act as if you’re backsliding. Bisexuality is often not taken seriously as a sexual identity.

    So when you do reading and look for support in the GLBT community, be sure to look for books and support organizations specifically about bisexuality.

    I also agree that, if at all possible, getting out of your parents’ house would probably be a good idea.

    And I second what others have said about therapy. Not reparative therapy, Loki forbid, but the regular kind. And I think Hoverfrog has a perfectly valid point: while I doubt this would be true at the UU, a lot of church- based counseling prioritizes faith and staying in the church over the counselee’s happiness and well- being. You want a therapist whose only agenda is you being happy and mentally healthy. (BTW, in many cities, free or low- cost counseling is available.)

  • Jonathan said:

    please look at your own life and make sure that you have absolutely no “agenda” before counseling someone else to not go to a specific type of people who might have an “agenda.”

    I’m well aware of my own biases which is one reason why I suggest reducing them in a therapist. When you want help you want someone to help you, not their own cause. A church based counsellor has an automatic bias towards the church that may or may not be in the best interests of the person being helped. Someone independent would be better positioned to make that assessment.

  • Sounds like depression to me. It’s very different for everyone in terms of environmental causes and confounding factors (such as sexuality and lack of family support), but when those things culminate in depressed, self-loathing, guilty thoughts, it’s all the same disease. BUT – it’s treatable.

    Get thee to a counselor, or at the very least start doing some heavy research. I recommend learning about cognitive-behavioral therapy, which worked great for me. I highly recommend the book “Feeling Good” by Dr. David D. Burns. Unfortunately I don’t recall any of the examples in the book specifically dealing with sexuality, but it should still be useful in learning about depression and its causes and solutions.

    I suspect CBT would work well for anyone accustomed to evidence-based thinking, since it’s essentially a method of self-skepticism – you scrutinize your thoughts and evaluate their rationality.

  • I’m going to offer some words that seem tired and useless, but have helped me more times than anything anyone has ever said to me: you can do it. You just have to stick it out; the human capacity for survival is amazing. Your mind and body know what they want and what they need. Just follow your gut, and don’t let other people discourage you. Just do what you have to do, for however long you need to do it, and something might just come to you.

    Also, as for practical advice: as far as the guilt is concerned, that will pass if you keep working on it. Surround yourself with rationality, and people who are rational. Learn how to dismantle the anti-GLBT propaganda being spouted by the religious, from a logical standpoint. It’ll get easier to move past those feelings once you really understand that they aren’t anything to feel ashamed or guilty about—not just in your body, but in your heart and mind as well. It’s just a matter of proving it to yourself, I guess.

  • AnonyMouse

    Jeeze… I have enough problems convincing myself that I’m bisexual without everyone else bovvering me about it.

    It’s not that I don’t have the requisite bisexual tendencies, but I’ve got something in common with our young lady here – by the virtue of my childhood upbringing, I’m still convinced on some level that there is no such thing as a real bisexual or that being bisexual will automatically make me an indiscriminate sex maniac. Consequentially, I go from “yeah, I’m bi” to “but am I really?” to “WHY AM I BI???!” It was particularly bad at first, because for me, being straight was the last vestige of religious dignity I had. (“Okay, I’m an apostate and an atheist and I support civil rights and lie to my parents about my online activities, but I’m still straight!”) And since I prefer men over women, and am not easily turned on, I find it much too easy to discount the few women who really do it for me and say “well, okay, sure, I’m just a little odd”.

    I wouldn’t even dream of telling my parents. To them, being bisexual is the only thing worse than being lesbian (despite the fact that I can still have relationships with men?); my mother says that they’re “indiscriminate” and my dad says that bisexuals act only on lust. It’s lies and misinformation all the way.

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