For about the first decade of my childhood I lived blissfully ignorant of nearly all religious practices. My mother took me to an Mormon church but was never very dogmatic herself and raised me to believe that all religions were equally valid, just different ways of expressing the same ideas. I had a vague notion that God and Jesus were good, but not much more. While children are often pressured into baptism my mother was adamant that it was a decision I should make if and when I was informed and old enough to make it. I'm incredibly grateful of my mother for so many reasons, her attitude toward religion being only one of them.
My parents got divorced when I was 9. My dad received custody and religion suddenly became a much stricter part of my life. We moved from Little Rock to a small town named Searcy and attended my grandmother's Baptist church while we were staying with her. We later moved to my step-mom's Church of Christ when my dad remarried. In the small town I was singled out and bullied for my "feminine"
mannerisms, which had gone unnoticed at my old school in Little
Rock. As a result I suffered physical, mental and ultimately sexual
abuse from a group of bullies who seemed dedicated to making my life a
living hell for the next 5 years. My dad was also becoming more and more unstable due to his schizophrenia, so even family life was enormously stressful. Downtown Church of Christ was liberal enough in many ways and actually became a source of tranquility in a very tumultuous life. I won't deny that the love for my mom and little sister along with my religious dedication are the only things that got me through some serious depression and suicidal temptation. But the church also gave me a major cause of my anxiety: Hell.
My church believed in a literal Hell, complete with eternal torture and burning and suffering for not accepting Jesus Christ. I lived in constant fear that the Rapture or Death could happen at any minute and I would not be worthy of salvation. I constantly worried I wasn't good enough and was constantly asking God for forgiveness. I was just as worried that my loved ones would go to Hell, in particular my "lapsed Catholic" (Atheist) grandparents and my mother. I wasn't sure if their baptisms would be enough to save them or if they had to be devout churchgoers. I spent many sleepless nights trying to think of how to "witness" to them, but never worked up the nerve and thus punished myself even more.
The reason I was so concerned about Hell was because at this same time I was going through puberty and that really kicked the whole "I'm not so sure I'm a boy" thing into high gear. It's so hard to describe what it's like to start puberty as a transsexual. Imagine that you've finally settled on the fact that you are stuck being a boy, despite not feeling like one, because there's nothing to be done about it. So you deal with it and try to move on with the rest of your life. Then a freight train of hormones (estrogen and testosterone, just to make it more confusing) slams into your body and you're so frightened and aroused you feel like you're losing your mind. While I was attracted to men and women, I was unable to achieve any sexual satisfaction unless I dressed as or imagined myself to be a girl. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. Not many girls have sexual fantasies about being men, but at the time I thought I was the sickest pervert out there and yet felt unable to control myself. Throw in some sexual assault and it's not difficult to explain why every time I masturbated felt like I'd personally pissed in God's face. When I developed facial hair and breasts at the same time I was convinced it was God's punishment for wanting to be a girl. I was so ashamed of my body I developed bulimia, gained a lot of weight as a result (yes, that happens) and wore baggy clothes to try to hide my breasts in public. Once again, I'd like to thank my mom for always raising us in a sex-positive way and ultimately freeing me from the shame and disgust I learned from Christianity. She's also a bulimia survivor and was my main inspiration for stopping as well.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, everything changed. I was accepted to a month-long scholarship arts camp. At 13 I was the youngest of about a hundred high schoolers at Arkansas Tech to study Visual Arts, Dance, Music, or Theatre. I was the only other "boy" in the Theatre department and suddenly found myself surrounded by other queer students. Because it was on a college campus and was largely run like a college, complete with dorm rooms and student union meals it was like going to college. I experienced new freedoms and stopped going to the church after the second week. In my final weekend I had many firsts: I smoked weed, I french kissed a boy, and I shared my secret with another person, all with Jonathan, a 17-year-old gay boy who knew I was queer and took me to the roof of our dorms to talk with me about it. While he was disappointed I wasn't gay, he taught me two very important things. 1: A just and benevolent God would never create a hell. 2: You can't choose whether you're queer or not. Your only choice is whether you hide it or embrace it. Sadly, I decided to hide for another 10 years.
After ultimately dismissing Hell, the grasp religion had on me began to fade. I started questioning things I had never been brave enough to before but still didn't want to lose my faith. So I bargained with God that I would read the bible from cover to cover. That only made my faith even weaker. As a last ditch effort I bargained to get baptized, hoping that Jesus would reveal himself to me as I had been told so many times before. But once my head was dunked in the water I didn't feel enlightened, only embarrassed at wearing nothing but a wet, thin white robe in front of hundreds of people. At that exact moment I completely lost faith in all Abrahamic Religions.
I considered myself an agnostic for a long time, but tried every other "woo-woo" religion out there. I practiced tarot cards, runes, and palmistry. I tried Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Paganism. Eventually I was just a "spiritual atheist" and believed gods were only manifestations of ourselves that we used in order to channel different parts of our psyche. Yeah, it was weird. On one eventful night I decided to practice in some shaman meditation. In other words, I took a lot of psychedelic 'shrooms and thought about Odin while I tripped balls. I joke about it, but it was a very intense vision in which Odin and Tlazolteotl (Aztec Goddess of Filth) argued about who was going to watch over me know while using female pronouns and words like "boygirl child". I realized after my journey that I had to come out. I still tried to delay it by coming out as a gay boy instead. I figured that would be an adequate alternative. It wasn't. I didn't even last a year.
It was a roommate's wedding and honeymoon that finally pushed me out of the closet. I now refer to my few months as a gay boy as my "ma'am/sir phase" because it was not uncommon for strangers to say "Excuse me ma'am...sir...ma'am." My appearance was very androgynous and my curvy body wasn't helping matters. As I, the bride and bridesmaids got manicures before the wedding my manicurist and I had the following conversation,
"You a bridesmaid?"
"No, I'm one of the groomsmen."
"You a boy?"
She laughs, "You not a boy!"
On the wedding I inexplicably burst into tears from putting on a tuxedo. I had a crushing realization that I wanted to wear a dress on my wedding day, but not as a joke or a drag queen. I just wanted to be a bride. I wanted to be a woman. Somehow I held it together through the ceremony and reception and waited until bedtime before crying years worth of oppression.
I spent my roommates' week long honeymoon living as a girl whenever I wasn't at work. I would simply change into my secret clothes when I got home and do the same things I always did. I watched movies, played video games, read books and cooked dinner. When the week was closing to an end I began to panic about living as a boy again, so I resolved to come out of the closet a week after they returned, out of respect for their wedding. I pushed that week back further and further until my 22nd birthday, when I couldn't keep lying anymore. I came out to my 4 closest friends at the time and come out on facebook after that. It wasn't long until I came out at work, went "full-time" and have never looked back since.
It was religion that held me back from self-acceptance and happiness and atheism that set me free. Had I not become an atheist would I have been able to come out? Maybe, but it could have taken much longer and I'm not sure I would be nearly as confident and outspoken as I am now. Once you throw off the oppression of religion it's much easier to kick other nonsense to the curb. But I'd also like to thank my mother and sister one last time. They gave me the courage to be myself and have shaped me to be the woman I am.