Religious trauma, defined simply, is the result of various experiences in a religious community, such as a church, that expose members to indoctrination, coercion, and abuse. I grew up Christian, and not only did I go to church on Sundays, but I also lived in a Christian household, attended Christian schools, and had to abide by Christian values in every single space I existed. I was taught two very important things: 1) I should never, ever question God—his decisions, his abilities, or his existence; and 2) God came first in everything. The first rule was one I could never live by. I was a wildly curious and thoughtful child and wondered why God would or would not let certain things happen and why everyone was so comfortable serving the unseen.
However, as doubtful and stubborn as I was in the face of my religion, the second rule was somewhat easy to follow when I was younger. To me, “God comes first” meant saying my prayers before letting any food enter my mouth. It meant not taking part in the latest trends and swapping my ripped jeans for knee-length church dresses without complaint. It meant scampering to cover my head with anything I had—a hat, a scarf, or even a handkerchief—every time I realized I was in the presence of God. At the time, I did not yet know who I was as a person or what my convictions were, so I let Christianity decide for me. Instead, it swallowed me whole and spat me out when I became “too much.”
As I grew older, the expectation to always consider what God thought of my words and actions began to put tension on my relationship with Christianity and religion as a whole. Suddenly, I was aware of how much participating in organized religion meant having to shave off any parts of yourself deemed unacceptable and agreeing to be put in a box. Growing up as a person who does not fit into Christianity’s tight box of identity surprised me. I had followed all the rules, so why did I end up being “different”? Why am I queer? Why am I neither a man nor a woman? Why do I no longer worry obsessively about what the church says about certain clothes I wear, the music I listen to, or the company I keep?
On one hand, I have never been more myself. I am finally getting to know the person I am deep down, and most importantly, on my own terms. I study astrology and all different forms of spirituality because I am fascinated with such topics, and I don’t have to force myself to ignore that nagging voice at the back of my mind asking if my father would approve. On the other hand, I have completely shed the skin I have worn for most of my life, and sometimes I still feel naked. I no longer belong in the society I grew up in, and that can be extremely difficult to navigate.
TRYING TO BELONG IN A BINARY SOCIETY
Religion is one of the many institutions in society that reinforces binaries, such as the gender binary. For me, religious trauma exists in my life in different forms, but there is a major one that is important to address, as many Nigerian youths like myself also deal with it: the shame that comes with being a person who does not fully fit into the ideals of what Christianity thinks a woman or a man should be. I identify as an agender. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines agender as “relating to or being a person with an internal sense of being neither male nor female or some combination of both”. Of course, this is just a dictionary definition as gender identity that can be differently expressed by people.
Personally, being agender means that I am anything and everything at the same time. I believe that I am neither a boy nor a girl, but I also believe that I may appear to society as one or the other. Recognizing this affirms my belief that gender is a social construct and that I can choose to identify as genderless or all genders. This is a decision I arrived at by myself, and it has allowed me the freedom to live my life as authentically as possible. However, despite this important self-realization, there is the glaring fact that I am still just a person, and I am not bigger than society. Of course, practicing self-love and learning to accept yourself for who you are is important, but it can only go so far when your environment remains the same.
At the beginning of my journey to acceptance, I thought loving myself was all that mattered and that if I loved myself hard enough and ignored everything else, I would be okay. This meant that I still hung around people with a backward mindset regarding gender and sexuality and tried to remain at least “a little religious,” all in an attempt to somehow be myself and still fit in. In truth, I was still ashamed of the person I turned out to be and was desperate to still belong, even if it was in spaces where I felt restricted.
It took a while, but I finally realized that I was purposely putting myself in the same box religion had put me in all my life. From then on, I decided the only logical thing to do on a journey to self-acceptance is to surround yourself with people who accept you too, and that is what I have been doing since then. I finally gave up religion and turned to spirituality, where I can focus more on myself and my pursuit of life’s meaning.
(RE)DEFINING RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY, AND BELONGING
As suffocating as religion is for me, and as often as I carry around the feeling that I do not belong in religious spaces and ideals, there are parts of it that still belong to me. For example, I have always loved gospel music. During church services, the only thing that kept me from dozing off was the praise and worship. I found no shame in clapping loudly and swaying to the music. Music is one of the only reasons I survived in a Christian society.
I have come to realize that, as a victim of religious trauma, I deserve the opportunity to reclaim parts of my identity that are intertwined with my past religion. I believe that I, and others like me, deserve to hold on to anything that we may have found pleasure or comfort in, whether we still belong to those institutions or not. Hence, up until today, on Saturday mornings, I still put on Hillsong and other Christian bands my father introduced me to when I was younger, and I do my chores and go about my day as I sing along.
Gospel music brings me joy and a sense of safety, and I have decided to allow it in my life even though I do not identify as a Christian anymore. In this way, I have carved out a way for myself to live truthfully and belong in a space I have created for myself. I hope that other queer Nigerian youth like me, who were indoctrinated and had to lessen themselves for the church, can find that as well. We mustn’t understand the concept of belonging as something that is out of our control or something that we must earn from others. This manner of thinking builds a hierarchy in our minds in which we are at the bottom, constantly seeking approval from people who do not respect us as people. It can be hard to break away from this traditional concept of belonging. But still, it is worth it and possible with community, patience, and the willingness to dig deeper into understanding your identity.