School did much to teach me my life’s meaninglessness. Mine was a religious school no less; a school connected with Anaheim’s now defunct Grace Lutheran Church whose sermons typically thundered its damnation of Communists and anything that happened to irk the pastor. The school pretended to be a heaven on earth. But for me, heaven became something impossible, unobtainable.
I remember its legacy of hate and fear today in a year where hate and fear has defined America, fists of Donald Trump supporters against journalists like the fists of the pastor with his public sneers. Despite its name having fallen away from its buildings and the last members disbanded, something profound in a silent lesson kept me alive.
That something was a crystal prismatic perfume bottle. Your family might have had one like it. My mother kept one on her dresser with her favorite perfume: Shalimar from the nearby Owl Drug Store, a perfume that most might think to be a cheap stink, but it to her was delicious.
The violence of my family and its imposed perfectionism filled me daily with a toxic brew of isolation, fear, and shame. My father’s loyalties lurked in a trade union with a bad reputation, though he told none of us about his activities till he illegally sponsored my entry to work through his union as a 17-year old. I dared not refuse. This was a man whose appearance at home consisted of swilling in a recliner in front of a ball game, and to punish me for every complaint against me real or imagined. When I brought home a report card with all A’s instead of one which was an A minus, he lashed into me for the A minus. He tolerated nothing less than 100 percent in anything I did and the belt always awaited any shortfall, and possibly the burn of a cigarette butt as well.
Acceptance at school could only be described as an unobtainable pipe dream. In Kindergarten a classmate pushed me off playground equipment to break 4 of my bones. When I appeared in a wheelchair, the children ridiculed me. Then after my recovery, they taunted me daily, followed by shoves, then hitting and kicking.
At those times I approached my mother about their targeting me for mistreatment, she said over and over, “They’re only teasing.” By the end of 1st grade I had sunk into self-silencing knowing my parents would not listen.
But those kids weren’t just teasing. Their attacks went on every day and I was unilaterally blamed and punished if I attempted to fight and defend myself. After some years the pastor himself threatened me with expulsion. He denied that anyone could possibly hurt me, that I was not a proper boy, that I deserved it all because I didn’t care about boy toys and sports and was the center of trouble whenever it occurred on campus. I was the unilateral offender of Jesus and nobody else. My word stood alone against 30 to 50 haters, and who in his right mind would listen to the one isolated girly-boy?
Soon the schoolchildren learned how to tie knots with rope with which they dangled me while my classmates refused to help, or to bind me to a pipe and press sharp objects into my head until I fainted. All that time I heard new words and nobody told me their meaning: “queer”, “faggot”. None of my assailants ever were punished for their attacks. Instead, whenever an incident inevitably occurred, a report would go to my parents who continued their bullying on their behalf.
In my last year at that school the 4th grade teacher who was studying to be a counselor took note of my isolation and downward spiral and asked my mother to interview me. My mother nervously asked my consent. Having no reason to refuse and being curious as to what this was about I accepted.
On the day of the interview the teacher sat me down and switched on a tape recorder. The teacher asked me probing personal questions about my life for which I was ill prepared to answer. The session was an interrogation about the state of my family, my falling grades, the daily attacks upon me, and the overall rejection. I was shocked and embarrassed by his invasiveness. But then he called in my mother and played back the tape in my presence.
Her rage colored the atmosphere with an impending explosion of wrath.
That evening consisted of hours of shouting and condemnation, of my flesh being seared by the metal end of a belt over multiple episodes, marks on my body that could be seen for years after. All the while she demanded, “Why didn’t you tell me this was going on?”
When I said, “I tried but you wouldn’t listen to me,” she slapped me to the floor and whipped me again, entirely out of her own rage and embarrassment.
That evening, and for every evening for many years no words passed between us at the dinner table. She refused to speak of that teacher to the day of her death except for a couple of times when she said she wanted nothing to do with him.
Soon after my mother dusted the dresser and bumped the perfume bottle. The bottle fell onto the hardwood floor and shattered. She gathered up the shards and tossed them into the garbage barrel. That’s where I found them. I fished out the shards and put them on the windowsill of my room.
The next day I came home from the latest beating. When I opened the door of my room I saw the walls resplendent with rainbows. I sat down and pondered the scene, remembering something from my mother’s books from the Bethel Series that she taught at the church.
The Bethel Series included in each weekly lesson a symbolic painting. Each painting was accompanied by a key to the symbols. Some paintings included a prism which disbursed a rainbow when a ray of light passed into it. It was supposed to represent the promise of the covenant in which God’s people would be “blessed so they could be a blessing.”1
But for me there could be no covenant. I knew any talk about forgiveness from God could only be a sham because my parents, teachers, and schoolmates all hated me. They would never forgive me for anything. Because I could not secure their forgiveness I could never truly know the forgiveness of God. After all, Martin Luther made it plain in his Small Catechism that the Office of the Keys allowed church people like the pastor to retain sins at will, and my own pastor certainly retained mine whether real or perceived.2 My dreams as a child reflected this exclusion amid the religiosity manifest in the children of a hateful God.
Yet I still pondered the symbolism of those rainbows and saw something more basic than what the Bethel Series offered. I was broken as a child like that perfume bottle was broken. Yet that perfume bottle still disbursed light to show how beautiful it is. I knew that I must do the same: disburse Light, and show how beautiful it is.
For me that became the meaning of life, or at least a meaning for my living. It would be many years before I would really be out of personal danger in terms of risk of suicide. But this represented my basis for hanging onto continuing my life at all.
But what was that Light if I did not find it in the church? Clearly, their light offered nothing more than darkness. I found much more light in science than religion, something for which I was also condemned at school for enjoying. But much of my life has been the pursuit of illumination wherever I could find it including truth that many others might not recognize as truth at all.
That included the truth of my own essence as a transgender person.
I found Light in incredible places: in the eyes of the lover, in the astral beams of a temple as I gathered them in my hands and cast them to the 4 quarters, in the wisdom of sacred texts as I translated them, in the insights of philosophers, in acts of gratitude and mercy, and in the waters and fires of purificatory rites. I felt it in the touch of an angel and in the burst of a living sparkle that may answer a blessing when lighting candles before it fills a dwelling with a delicious luminous warmth.
But never did I realize these things in their fullness before I no longer spoke of myself as a Christian. Light transcends all religion. I’m convinced of that.
One day I even managed to find the strength to describe these things in a letter to the pastor who had hated me so much. Soon after a letter came back from him with a new heated demand:
“I challenge you to read the Bible from beginning to end, and repent of your wickedness, for you will never be clear with your Lord and Savior until you do.”
I wrote him again saying, “I have read your Bible many times over and far more completely than you had ever taught it in your church. I also remember the words of your Christ when He said, ‘you will know them by their fruit.’ I have seen the fruit of your work and know how debilitating it has been, offering damnation instead of healing, condescension instead of consolation, and hate instead of love. You presided over years of abuse against me through both teacher and parent. When it comes to teaching anything spiritual you are not qualified.”
I never heard from him again.
But I saw how his life work faded away. He had been chief in the building of Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim as well as his local church and school. The Lutherans eventually lost their entire hospital chain to UniHealth who taught New Age psychobabble as a condition for employment while administrative corruption laid waste the entire system and the professionals who worked there. What was originally Martin Luther Hospital is now the North Orange County Community College District offices and the remedial School of Continuing Education. Grace Lutheran Church is now a Korean Presbyterian church. The Lutheran school eventually closed with marks of vandalism upon its street facade, retreating to a solitary preschool adjacent to a relocated playground on South and Citron streets, then disappeared altogether when a new pastor allegedly said enough is enough.
The fact that I survived childhood amazes me. I had attempted suicide 3 times before I was an adult and when I hit 18 years of age I was unable to look anyone directly in the eye because my sense of shame overpowered me. Many years had passed before I was able to speak to an audience with any level of ease. Eventually I came to terms with my own femininity and when I at last dared to live it. That’s when at last I began to genuinely heal. But the cost in the meantime was enormous.
For I didn’t chase rainbows; instead I learned from what they do and from where they come. They appear when the sun and moon make love together. Likewise, none can truly dance whose heart has not first been broken and what follows isn’t a rigid set of steps that follow a course that never satisfies a ballet master. Real dance flows naturally from the heart that has realized how incredible the universe really is. It manifests in a smile that has been washed with the tears of one who had been broken like a prismatic perfume bottle whose beauty extends beyond its initial aroma.
There may be some of you reading this article who could relate and may also be on the edge of suicide. This writer won’t pretend to know your particular issues. For that matter, apart from having failed in my own suicide attempts and understanding then how I was condemned to live, I pretend to know nothing. But whatever may make sense to you in your continuance, please understand that you must find that seed within yourself that drives you to live, a seed rooted in the innocence of a child, however damaged that child might be. And as you look, please go to one of these numbers for the Trans Lifeline:
In the United States, please call 877-565-8860.
In Canada, please call 877-330-6366.
- Swiggum, Harley. The Bethel Bible Series, Week 6: United for a Destiny (1960) Web: http://www.biblestoriesforadults.com/Bethel/OT/BOT06N.pdf. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
- Luther, Martin. The Small Catechism: Confession (1529) Web: http://catechism.cph.org/en/confession.html Retrieved November 2, 2016.
- Matthew 7:16.