Photo by Reggie Tiongco at Creationswap
Shame is an ugly emotion. It runs deep in the soul, whispering words of self-hatred, a script continuously running through our minds. It tells us we are not enough—not attractive enough, not smart enough, not witty enough, not funny enough. While we feel guilty for what we do, shame afflicts us for who we are—personality and appearance. We’re all a little ashamed, trying to cover up the parts of our being that we think others don’t like. We hide ourselves–afraid to be naked emotionally and found lacking like Adam and Eve in the garden.
There was a time I didn’t feel quite as self-aware. I fit the description of an oldest child. Bossy, always with something to say. I played with both my brothers and my sisters without feeling out of place. My parents thought my gender atypical behavior was just a phase. They didn’t shame me and I didn’t feel weird. I lived in a bubble separate from the real world.
My first experience outside my sheltered life came through Boy Scouts. I enjoyed it, finally around other boys my age. I made my first best friend, Charles–a boy with glasses, an inferiority complex, and an obnoxious sense of humor. I didn’t care. I had a best friend and we hung out all the time. I felt so cool finally having a friend. I told him everything, and by everything. I mean everything. I didn’t realize some things in my life needed to be kept secret. I knew I was different from other boys, but I was a happy kid who believed in a world filled with nice people who wouldn’t care. And while Charles knew about my effeminate interests, he never said anything as long as I did boy stuff with him.
The friendship lasted a couple of years. I didn’t analyze relationships back then, but I thought we had a good friendship. Charles didn’t have friends at his school, so I guess he didn’t have many options. We went to a Boy Scout camp alone with our troop one year. My childhood experience in the real world teetered near its conclusion.
I didn’t realize all the boys were pressured to be seen as straight. We still had a few years until puberty. I was still clueless about homosexuality. I’m sure I heard the word gay that week, but it didn’t click with my sheltered comprehension. The boys talked about girls. They made jokes about breasts. I felt disgusted—what a bunch of perverts. I didn’t get it. My parents hadn’t seen the need to tell me about the birds and the bees yet. I wouldn’t figure out where babies came from until I saw a news snippet about a birth control pill a few years later—and that was a scary realization. Lying on one of the bunks, all the jokes and shadow puppets of large breasts were lost on this confused boy.
My innocent childhood ended on a Thursday. The air was stifling, the food sucked, and all the boys were tired. Charles snapped at me when I tried to talk to him. Or he ignored me. The week had bonded him with the other boys. Being a good natured kid, I shrugged it off. We finished up a game of basketball in the afternoon. It was time for the next activity and we started down a path to its location. Charles ran ahead to the other boys while I fell behind lost in my imagination. The boys were looking back at me and laughing. I smiled back not knowing what was going on.
“He really plays with Barbies?”
“Oh yeah! And his favorite color is pink. He’s so girly.”
They looked at me like ravenous wolves. I felt exposed. An emotion burned in me that I had never felt before. I felt sick. I felt betrayed. I clenched my fists and ran up to Charles, shoving him.
The boys laughed.
“Girly-girl! Girly girl!”
They wouldn’t shut up. Charles taunted me, tearing me down to build himself up, my own Brutus or Judas Iscariot. Tears were streaming down my face. They loved that. I turned to the Eagle Scout who was supervising us. He looked utterly lost.
“Make them shut up!” I yelled at him, begged him. But he said nothing.
I turned back to the cruel, gleeful faces in front of me, and then I saw a path that went back to our camp. I ran. I ran with tears stinging my eyes as trees and shrubs blurred by. The taunts and laughing faded to the sound of my breath entering and exiting my lungs. My heart thumped loudly threating to burst. I didn’t see the stump in the middle of the path. I fell among the roots and rocks, scraping the skin off my knee. I didn’t get up. I just lay there sobbing in the dirt while blood ran down my shin. Alone. I was alone out in the middle of nowhere. Wanting someone to tell me I was ok. The woods remained silent to my tears and screams. I had seen the real world. I didn’t belong in it. And I wanted to die. I had never felt that feeling before either. It would stay with me throughout the rest of my youth.
The Scout leader called my parents and they took me home early. I never went back. I didn’t tell my parents what happened and they didn’t understand why I wanted to give it up, but they didn’t argue. And that was that. No more Boy Scouts, no more Charles. But hello self-hatred, secrets, and isolation.
That silly, bossy boy had transformed into a quiet, depressed, and insecure young man. I didn’t speak back. I mostly smiled back in response because I usually didn’t know what to say. I had become the meek and weak nice guy. And a co-worker discovered he could bully me and I wouldn’t fight back. I had taught myself that I couldn’t take care of myself.
I don’t remember how or why it began, but he began to joke about my skinniness. And one night he grabbed my butt. The act wasn’t sexual. It was threatening—a cruel joke.
“You got a flat ass. Women don’t want that.”
I couldn’t believe what he had done. But I didn’t think anyone would believe me if I told them. I worried what people would think, so I didn’t stand up to him. And he continued grabbing me, laughing every time I would frown and do nothing.
I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. He was just being immature. I justified what he did, even though it made me uncomfortable and physically sick. I became more depressed. I didn’t feel like a man, just a coward. And I hated myself every time he touched me. It reinforced every insecurity I had about my body.
He didn’t stop until my younger brother (who worked with me) caught him grabbing me. Later when he irritated one of our female co-workers, my brother blew up. He knocked the guy to the ground. The co-worker stopped grabbing my butt after that. Hurray for brothers who know karate.
It’s very hard to share these two stories. They embarrass me. So much in fact, that I’ve never really verbalized them to anyone, at least not in as much detail. These experiences both shaped and reinforced how I perceive myself. They influenced how I relate to others, the clinginess and the walls that separate me from others. I’m still paranoid about other people. I don’t trust anyone. I expect to be hurt and disappointed. And I create many, many self-fulfilling prophecies. But I also pursue people hoping they will prove me wrong.
I realize these two incidents could never compare to the constant bullying and abuse that many LGBTQ youth experience on a regular basis. As damaging as these moments of bullying and sexual abuse were to my spirit, I have been blessed with a loving family and friends who have patiently walked with me through my flaws and brokenness. I grieve for those who have been traumatized and have not yet found the support system that has formed around me as I’ve grown up. I believe there’s one out there for each of us if we’ll fight for one and have faith that God will provide it. It’s so sad when many are damaged by the very churches that should be their refuge.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I was that hurting boy lying on the forest path. I’ve tried to bury him, to kill him, to forget he ever existed. He represents everything I dislike about myself. But it’s ridiculous to hate myself for incidents that were not my fault. My spirit broke that day, but God is redeeming my story. As Christ sanctifies me, molding me in His likeness, I’m actually finding more of myself under the clutter of my baggage. I’m finding my courage, and I’m finding room to thrive in God’s kingdom. I’m building self-efficacy in a community of people who confront the negative script in my head. There is love here, the love I’ve always craved but didn’t feel worthy to own. No, I’m not like the other boys, but I belong here. No matter what they say or what they do, I belong in this world as long God wants me to participate.
And if you tell me I have a flat butt, watch yourself, man.