Posted on January 23, 2015 by Marg Herder
This post is part of the series of posts inspired by the 2015 Gay Christian Network conference held in Portland, Oregon. The series introduction is here. Trigger warning: Rape is mentioned in this article.
During the last year, I’ve found myself engaging with some important personal issues that I’ve been afraid to look at for, well, my whole life. In doing so I’ve had to learn a lot about trauma because, as it turns out, I’ve experienced some trauma in my life.
I’m pretty sure all of us have.
First, I had to learn that there are many more causes of trauma than I had imagined. I think almost everyone can agree that certain events are traumatic—that injuries are inflicted by natural disasters, physical and sexual assaults, bullying, and being caught up in war, just to name a few.
What’s harder to recognize is that trauma can result not only from such obvious physical events as those just mentioned but from other kinds of happenings in people’s lives as well—happenings that can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually traumatic. And these can not only have a psychological impact that’s just as great as physical wounding, but often they’re more difficult to identity and accept because “they don’t leave marks.”
Examples are feeling abandoned or ignored by your caregivers in childhood, having your authentic self pervasively and consistently invalidated, being rejected by people you love (including your family or your faith community), being frequently exposed to shaming or damaging words directly aimed at you or other people close to you. These are just a few examples.
Before this year, I thought trauma always left a mark. I thought the rest of it—the harsh words, the negation and abandonment, the derision and resentments— were injurious only in the moment and had no lasting effect on one’s mind and body.
Turns out I was totally wrong.
The Foreshadowing of a Change in My Thinking
Years ago, I attended a workshop at the National Women’s Music Festival led by a PhD therapist by the name of Katherine W. Unthank. She was a lesbian who identified as a Christian. Back in the day, it was commonly understood that you couldn’t be both a lesbian and a Christian, but by the time I met her I had heard of the MCC church and was beginning to let go of the either/or way of looking at being LGBTQ and Christian.
Her small book, Riding Wild Horses Home, is her story about driving to apologize to a lesbian friend for having told her that one could not be both a lesbian and a Christian. The story illuminates how Katherine came to terms with her own same-gender intimate partner relationship preference and realized that one could, in fact, be lesbian and Christian. It was a matter of both/and rather than either/or. In her workshop, Dr. Unthank proposed that when a Christian person comes out and subsequently suffers the loss of family, friends, and faith community, the psychological effect is best understood as an extremely traumatic experience akin to a form of power rape (see note below). And, just as is the case with physical rape, survivors are often subsequently burdened with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
As Unthank delineated these symptoms, I grew very still. My breathing slowed. I leaned toward her so as not to miss any of her words. As she described the symptoms, I mentally checked each one off the list of my own difficulties.
She was describing my experience.
She was telling the story of what happened to me. But it was more than that. She was telling the story of people like me. There were other people like me!
Other people who felt as if everything happening to them was somehow unreal. Other people who felt a peculiar sense of distance from others. Other people with anger problems (in my case, an inability to admit to feeling any at all). Other people going to great lengths to avoid knowing their pain. And still other people locked in addictions, depression, lacking motivation, and even experiencing a surprising inability to connect with their own bodies.
I sat stunned, simply holding what I was hearing in my mind, unable to do anything but marvel at what I had just been told.
She had no idea— I had no idea—that everything changed for me that day.
After the festival was over, maybe thirty-six hours after that workshop, I started crying. I was a thirty-something butch dyke who almost never cried. But I couldn’t stop those tears for two days. I thought I was losing my mind. But really I was finally starting to feel the pain of the traumatic event that had happened to me more than a decade before.
Those tears were the current that carried me into an awareness of my own spiritual wounding. It was one of the most important realizations in my life.
Responses to Trauma
Different people respond to trauma in different ways. Some may be affected deeply, and exhibit symptoms of traumatic stress for extended periods of time, while others may be able to integrate and find peace with their experience more easily. Better outcomes are associated with those people who have sympathetic witnesses and good support systems.
When someone involved in conservative or evangelical Christianity experiences the trauma and wounding associated with coming out, generally they do not have access to sympathetic witnesses or good support systems. Often nearly everyone around them believes that to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans*, queer, or questioning is sinful and shameful.
For too many people in this situation, the trauma must be borne alone. Perhaps like me, it will be years before they realize that what happened to them was, indeed, trauma.
Opening Our Eyes and Hearts to the Wounded around Us
During the second week in January, at the Oregon Convention Center, I watched hundreds of LGBTQ Christian people, their friends and parents, walking around me, each acting and interacting in a unique way.
I wondered how others had experienced their coming out. Had they, like me, been left to sort it out alone? Thirty years ago the supportive resources now available didn’t exist, but do they exist in conservative and evangelical Christian culture today? Being a lesbian Christian was an impossibility when I came out. How many in evangelical and conservative Christian culture still struggle to find how those two words can possibly go together? How many had to come out in a culture that lacks accurate information and support systems?
I saw people obviously traumatized. Walking crumpled over onto themselves, heads down. Steeling sideways glances at the people around them who were laughing and moving comfortably. I heard the trauma in people’s voices. I saw the pleading shame in people’s eyes.
How many of the joking and laughing people, I wondered, were quietly carrying deep trauma of which they were unaware? Trauma that they won’t recognize or name for years, because they believed, as I once did, that unless it leaves a physical mark it’s just here and gone, not a wound at all.
I spent a lot of time praying silently, asking Her to grant all the wounded people the good fortune to one day sit with someone who will not only acknowledge and name their pain but who will also explain that what they’re feeling is a totally valid reaction to attitudes and actions that were undeserved, un-Christian, and violent. Just as Kathryn Unthank did for me.
Your children have suffered at the hands of those who deny us the right to exist
To live and breathe and laugh and love
Show the ones who wound us the fire of your heart,
Change their stony denial to warm acceptance of your will for us
To live and breathe and laugh and love
Tenderly reach into each of us and plant the seeds of knowledge
Grant us the fertile soil of your spiritual embrace
And let the current of our healing tears carry us
To live and breathe and laugh and love
Note on the term “power rape” –
Nicholas Groth defined three types of rape, based on the intent of the rapist. This is referred to as the Groth typology. Click here to read more on Wikipedia (scroll down a bit on the page). Might be triggering for some readers.
(back to reference in article)
Index of GCN 2015 Conference Content on Christian Feminism Today
Introduction to the #GCNConf Series
Introduction to weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
Interview with weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
The Wall of Love at the Gay Christian Network Conference (on the Patheos Emerging Voices blog)
An Opportunity to Practice Grace and Love (guest post by Criselda Marquez)
Trauma and the LGBTQ Christian
Our Job Starts and Stops with Loving Each Other
Together At the Table: Inclusive Communion and Intimate Conversations (guest post by Erica Lea)
The Words of the LGBTQ Christian Experience
Precious God, Forgive Them, Because They KNOW What They’re Doing
The Gay Christian Network Conference: The Kingdom of God Unfolding (guest post by Marcy Bain)