When I was a kid, I believed the world was a certain way. Because nearly all of the people in my life shared that worldview, it seemed likely that it was probably correct. Even as my family moved, over and over again, from state to state, we always settled in areas where, once again, everyone we interacted with agreed with our perspective on the world.
Because it happened so many times and in so many places, I started to believe that people everywhere were exactly the same: White, Catholic, and Conformist.
It never occurred to me that the reason these people were in my life, and they reason they all agreed with one another, was more to do with the decisions my parents had made in setting up our lives than it was undeniable proof that everyone was right about everything.
I heard hushed whispers and rumors from both of my parents about “other” types of people: Baptists. Jews. Muslims. These words were all spoken with an air of disdain, despite being followed up with phrases like, “but God taught us to love everyone equally, so we love them.” We just weren’t allowed to associate with them, speak to them, or spend any time with them. In my mind, they were mythical figures who would corrupt my soul and prevent me from taking my rightful place in heaven.
It also never occurred to me that choosing to intentionally isolate ourselves in bubbles of Catholics was causing my entire family to be intensely fearful and judgmental of everyone else in the world, to such a degree that we couldn’t even speak about those “other” people amongst ourselves without lowering our voices (presumably so God wouldn’t be able to hear us judging).
Religion was our primary basis for exclusion, but race was a factor as well. “Don’t ever let me catch you bringing one of them people home,” my mother said to me in a private conversation after a Black girl had called our house to talk to me. When I lamented that that was extremely racist, she said, “Not because they’re Black! Because no one would love your babies!” As if that would excuse the racism.
And yet, this was my family. These were the people who “knew best.” They were there to protect me (as they were so keen to remind me whenever they were hitting me). So I came to associate these feelings, the feelings of judgment, fear, racism, hatred, and abuse… with love. With safety. With home.
When the decision was made to take me out of Catholic school and put me into a Public school, I overheard a few conversations about who I should be allowed to associate with. Because I got good grades, my parents made concessions and allowed me to spend time with other kids who got good grades, even if they weren’t our religion, but drew a hard line in the sand whenever they felt someone wasn’t worthy. Typically, these were people who were poor. If someone lived in an apartment instead of a house, that was a strict NO. If their parents were divorced, NO. If they were allowed to watch R rated movies, NO.
I say all this just to say, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in my life. I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of people, so I never learned how to assess people upon meeting them to determine whether they were someone I would get along with. I never really understood the “getting to know someone” process in building a relationship. I didn’t understand that people were allowed to choose who they spent their time with, because I had never been allowed to make that decision for myself.
So when I moved to Los Angeles in 2015, I didn’t have a very good skill set for judging people’s intentions or determining whether we were compatible.
In the intervening years, I had grown and changed a lot. I rejected Catholicism (sure to be its own blog post one day), and then the concept of religion as a whole. I did my own research and explored the world enough to declare myself an atheist. I continued to grow and change. I explored my gender and discovered that I was trans, something that I had been ignoring for years (and was looked down upon by literally everyone in my family as a mental illness).
But there was something that didn’t change. Something that still holds me back and hampers my ability to find confidence in myself. I spent so many years surrounded only by people who were one specific way. People who believed the same things. People who never questioned the beliefs their parents instilled in them. And I had grown accustomed to them. Even if I didn’t like most of them, I felt safe around them. They were my community, and thus, whenever I meet someone in LA who is like all of those people, my internal sensors start going off and saying, “Someone like you! Someone you can get along with! Become their friend, and invest emotional energy!”
And I allow myself to do this. I allow myself to see only the good in these people. In fact, sometimes I think I’m actually blind to the red flags, because I see them as signals of home.
And then after a few weeks, or months, or sometimes years, they say something so deeply racist or hateful that I cannot believe how I missed all the warning signs. They say something that is so exclusionary, so small-minded, that it calls into question my own ability to assess people. It makes me think I may never find people who are truly like me, because I keep being blinded and led astray by people who remind me of who I used to be. People who remind me of my family, of my old small-town community. People who were friendly (but only to each other). People who would give you the clothes off their back (but only because it would get them into the good graces of their God). People who claimed they loved and respected everyone (but as soon as the doors closed, would tell the most offensive racist jokes you’ve heard in your life).
These are the people who I cannot stop myself from being drawn to, and then repulsed by. My ability to become excited by new relationships is slowly dying, as time and time again, I find myself being so wholly and completely wrong about the people I think I want to know.
Take, for instance, a girl I met while I was out for Halloween in 2019. I was experimenting with my gender and dressed up as my favorite character from HBO’s Euphoria: Jules, the show’s transgender lead whose mere existence causes strife and violence in the small town she moves to. This girl was drunk when we met (which isn’t a judgment, because I was also on a thing or two), and treated me with kindness. At one point, I can’t remember what I said, but I expressed a genuine feeling I was experiencing. She looked at me and said, “you’re really committed to this character you’re playing, huh? I love the commitment!”
The only thing is, I wasn’t playing a character. I was being my genuine authentic self for what felt like the first time in my life. And it felt like she really saw me in that moment, and I got excited about the possibility of a friendship with her. She wasn’t the only “new” person I met that night, but was the only one who rang that little bell inside me that said, “home!”
And then two weeks ago she started sharing some of the most insensitive content about Black Lives Matter, stating that Black people have an “agenda” that goes against God, and that God wouldn’t want us to support a terrorist organization that hates White people. When I reached out to simply let her know that those things aren’t true, she said I was an “elitist” whose sole motivation was to make her feel stupid. I was horrified to discover that someone who had made me feel so safe and secure in one moment could use her religion to attack a movement that I am heavily invested in, and my own motivations. I was shocked at how wrong I was about her. More than that, I was incredibly hurt.
Looking back at that initial Halloween interaction now, I can see the red flag as clear as day. She denied my own internal reality. She saw my expression of self as “commitment to a character,” rather than an authentic feeling I could possibly be having. At the time, I hadn’t come out to anyone apart from myself, and I think my own fear of being rejected twisted her comment into a positive. Into the validation that I needed to hear, even if she wasn’t actually giving it to me. It felt like she was saying, “you’re trans enough,” when she was actually saying, “it’s so hilarious that you’re playing this woman character, LOL!”
How is it possible that I’ve unlearned so much of the hatred and judgment that religion instilled in me, but I haven’t unlearned the feeling of “closeness” that goes along with meeting someone who still lives by those old rules? Why haven’t I re-calibrated my emotional sensors to be more excited about people who align with my current self? How would I even go about doing that?
Will I ever be able to tell, upon first meeting someone, whether their kindness is based in love or fear? Will I be able to sense a red flag as a red flag, instead of warping it into a compliment that was never given?
These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. And, unfortunately, because I’ve been wrong so many times about so many people, I continue to have my heart broken time and time again. When I realize that these people who claim to love me actually, deep down, are afraid of me, and think that there’s something wrong with my brain, or that I’m a mean-spirited person who only wants to make them feel stupid, I feel so small. I feel like I can’t trust myself. It causes me to retreat even farther away from people, deeper into myself, where I can care for my wounded soul in a place where I can’t be hurt again.
But that’s no way to live. So, inevitably, I manage to build up the courage to go outside again. To interact with people again. And, as tends to be the case, the people who make me feel the most safe are the people who remind me of my parents. The people who navigate life in the way that my parents did, leading with the blind confidence of someone who knows nothing but is absolutely certain that they understand everything about the world.
Those people are attractive, because certainty and confidence are attractive. It’s only when they peel back the layer of false confidence that they reveal the fear, judgment, and doubt that actually rule their every motivation.
I don’t have an answer here. Maybe that’s why I’m blogging about it, trying to parse through it and see if I come out on the other side with a solution, or at least a hypothesis. Maybe some of you, out there reading this, have some ideas?
How do I find people who ignite my excitement for friendship but aren’t just carbon-copies of all the people I grew up around who made me feel like there’s something wrong with me for being different?
Looking forward to thoughts and ideas <3
October 9, 2020