In 2010, I visited my mother in upstate New York. I don't know why it came up, but I mentioned the term “grooming” in passing. I’d heard the term during a group therapy session and I assumed my mother knew about it because she was a child sexual assault survivor. But she hadn’t heard it and so she asked me to define it. I explained that it was a kind of abuse where child molesters ingratiate themselves into children’s lives using gifts and praise to coerce “consent” or silence. This behavior is especially insidious because it makes children feel complicit in their abuse.
This conversation took place during an early dinner, and my mom excused herself brusquely and went to bed. Later, she said she’d cried all night, but she thanked me for offering an explanation. She said then (and several times before she died) that the term saved her life. She had long blamed herself for her own molestation and the term “grooming” helped her understand it wasn’t her fault.
While accusations of pedophilia are an old right-wing slander, this appropriation of clinical language is new. It’s bizarre to see a word that helps people make sense of their abuse redefined, politicized, and weaponized against trans people and their families — especially since LGBTQ kids are at such a high risk of being abused themselves.
Sexual abusers are overwhelmingly people who are cisgender and straight. I’ve seen people who are transphobic and homophobic cite statistics about the heightened risk of child sexual abuse among gay and trans people, claiming that abuse is what causes queerness. It’s not. Predators target people who they think they can hurt without experiencing repercussions. For this reason, predators often target kids who are different. I wish I could say I hadn’t been targeted myself, but I can’t.
Most Christians assume I became an atheist because of something to do with trauma — not anything specific, they just rudely assume something is clinically wrong with anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Being an “out” atheist who also spoke with evangelicals led to deeply invasive questions being asked about my childhood sorrows. Interleaved in these questions were insinuations that I was “crazy,” and if they additionally found out that I was queer, it often took on an even meaner tone. If I disclosed I had post-traumatic stress disorder, that was usually enough for them to conclude there was just something wrong with me. Others assumed my atheism had something to do with the question of theodicy — that is, why a loving God would allow suffering. But theodicy never compelled me personally.
My ethical opposition to theism and Christianity began during my pre-teen days. Once, I overheard Christian adults on talk radio casually debating whether gay people should be permitted to visit their partners in the hospital. I was immersed in homophobic evangelical teachings, but I simply couldn’t understand why a gay person shouldn’t be permitted to have the visitors they wanted, give their property to whomever they wanted, or live with whomever they wanted live with.
The thing that was most striking about this radio conversation: The man on the evangelical side of the debate was not merely unsympathetic to gay suffering — he seemed to take pleasure in imagining their suffering. “The wages of sin is death,” I remember him quoting from Romans 6:23. This man seemed to see dying alone of AIDS, having a funeral your friends and partners were not allowed to attend, and then having your belongings divided among a family who hated you as a righteous smiting. Although I was immured in evangelical Christianity, I couldn’t square homophobic cruelty with the Christ who healed the sick and welcomed the sinner. I didn’t know of any queer affirming churches and concluded that if there were a righteous God, Christians didn’t know this God and this God didn’t know them. I arrived at atheism because it seemed more polite to assume there was no God than to believe Christians were, by and large, damned.
I was not yet aware I was a part of the LGBTQ community: As a small child, and persistently throughout my teens, I told my parents I was not a girl; at the time, I didn’t know what being nonbinary meant. I thought I was merely odd in one of the many ways I’m comfortably odd. So, I didn’t fall away because the church hated me. Instead, I left the church and began identifying as an atheist because the church was hateful.
But while my ethical objections led me to atheism, my trauma led me back to Christ. Simply put: I had a relapse and sought out a faith community because I needed to be around people. Praying helped. Being around people helped. Devoting myself to something bigger than myself and to Christ on the cross was an incredible comfort while I searched for effective medical treatment.
The most compelling language to describe my illness was that of “moral injury” — a term that grapples with the ethical dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is how Robert Emmet Meagher, professor emeritus of humanities at Hampshire College, defines moral injury in Killing From The Inside Out: “‘Moral injury’ has most commonly come to mean the transgression, the violation, of what is right, what one has long held to be sacred—a core belief or moral code—and thus wounding or, in the extreme, mortally wounding the psyche, soul, or one’s humanity.” Meagher’s book touches on moral injury in soldiers, but medical professionals also commonly struggle with it, as do people who feel (rationally or not) complicit in their own abuse.
For my own part, I didn’t leave an abusive partner as quickly as I would have liked because staying was less dangerous than being homeless. As I recounted for The Bias Magazine, I also have moral injury from my time working in the medical field. The residue of trauma is a sense of shame over things that have been done to you or things that you were powerless to undo. There were situations where I chose to betray my ethical convictions rather than die and now I have to live knowing I made those “compromises.” I can reframe that more positively and say that I love myself, and so I took care of myself so that I would live. Despite me knowing — and other people reminding me — “it’s not my fault,” this mantra doesn’t always bring comfort. Think of Peter, denying Christ before the rooster crowed thrice: He did that for his survival too, but I believe it haunted him anyway.
The groomer narrative and the anti-LGBTQ legislation that accompanies it are a stark reminder that I don’t feel the love of God in my life or see it often in other Christians. And yet, I still identify as a Christian. I relate more to Esau in his alienation than to Jacob in his blessings; I only relate to Jacob when he wrestles with God. My faith is perpetually Lenten. My devotion to Christ is on the cross. Christ himself cried out in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m dedicated to the unresolved mystery of how the harrowing of hell is three days of stone silence here on earth.
The transphobes who claim to be Christian don’t enter my thoughts. Christ died for me. The question isn’t how I can be a Christian given that many Christians hate me. Instead, the question is: How can you? God is calling you to love your trans siblings, to protest discrimination, and to engage in civil disobedience until every trans person is free to transition without fear of state violence. I expect you to disobey laws requiring you to deny healthcare to trans children and adults; I expect you to disobey laws requiring you to report trans children to the state. Anything less makes you complicit. I can’t make you take up your cross with Christ and me. If you decide not to be there, I won’t miss you.