“Pivotal to my relatedness to God, on the one hand, and to my neighbor, on the other, is my relationship to myself. Unless I love and accept myself, I am not free to love and accept my neighbor. Loving myself in this context simply means self-respect, a self-regard born of the realization that I am the object of God’s limitless love and mercy, part of his creation. Self-acceptance does not mean uncritical self-approval, but self-understanding, awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, and the blessed assurance that God-in-Christ is working in me and through me towards the perfection of my life.”
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, The Second Great Commandment
I have a confession: As a person who grew up in church, I learned to hate myself.
To be fair, I do not believe that my parents, my pastors, and many members of my Christian communities wanted me to hate myself outright. In fact, I believe that they loved me, many of them as much as they were able, and that they ultimately did what they thought was best for me. They used the tools and resources that they could access for what they imagined was my benefit, and they made sacrifices with the intentions that I would be safe and well. I really believe all of that, without a doubt.
Ostensibly though, the collective impact of years with Christian people was that I learned to fear, shame, and hate myself. Here is some context of how that happened.
I was assigned male at birth and expressed a lot of femininity early on as a child. While my father and two older brothers provided plenty of familial examples for modeling masculinity, I remember feeling much closer with my mother and feeling social anxiety about playtime with boys, more so than with girls. My innocent interests in makeup, high heels, and the pink and yellow Power Rangers had to have been obvious giveaways that I was not a typical guy’s guy.
Despite expressing these kinds of interests at home, school, and church, I was regularly nurtured away from them, intuiting clearly that I was supposed to be more like my dad than my mom and that I wasn’t really supposed to act like a girl at all. I eventually became afraid of expressing those interests because of other people’s reactions and figured out that people would celebrate me more when I performed gender in ways that they could understand. By age seven, I committed to being a good son and brother, a good student (I was in fourth grade by this point), and a good born-again Christian. I had a strategy of being good in order to fit in and belong, and a major part of that strategy was staying within normal gender bounds of boyhood.
I patrolled myself and told myself it was goodness, patience, and self-control, the fruits of the Spirit.
By the time I made it to adolescence, I had already internalized a lot of the social, cultural, and spiritual formation of my people’s contexts. While I did grow up seeing several Black women preach, lead, and share power in church spaces, the men were still the models who set the standard. Alongside this subtle misogyny and sexism was a surplus of homophobia and transphobia. My communities of origin taught me undoubtedly that marriage was between one man and one woman and that homosexuality was a sin. Even though I believed Jesus loved me, I did not know how to make sense of my burgeoning sexual curiosities in people while maintaining my concept of righteousness. There was no affirming way to be homosexual and holy.
Thus, I was most certainly earning my way into heaven and proving to others and myself that I was better than good, that I was sanctified and set apart. I continued to overachieve academically, to practice Christianity as faithfully as I could, and to repress my sexuality diligently. Any indulgence in the pleasure my body offered me became progressively drenched in ascetic shame.
I avoided myself and told myself I was “denying my flesh” and “bearing my cross.”
As a young adult, I made it through Duke University, volunteering at my church and other Christian organizations, paying my tithes and offerings, and perfecting the practices of “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” I had developed into an altruistic Christian that was undeniably not heterosexual while also espousing beliefs that only made space for people to thrive in heterosexual marriage. My church, at that time, promoted this concept so much that they were arguably against folks remaining single. Despite the dissonance I really did feel, I doubled and tripled down, gave more sacrificially, and even managed to find a sister-in-Christ who reciprocated my romantic interests. I developed a strong sense of moral superiority in order to make up for a profoundly deep-seated inferiority complex.
While I had managed to accept that I was neither straight nor gay, other Christians sadly punished me for naming that truth and attempting to live into it honestly. I watched them withhold love from me because I refused to continue playing by the rules of the cishetero game, one I could never really win. I carried so much shame about who I was (not) and bitterness about God refusing to grant me the acceptance and affirmation I watched other people securing. I knew I deserved better but was uncertain if better would ever become my reality.
I deceived myself and told myself that this was God’s will and design for my life.
Whewwwww, y’all—the amount of quoting and qualifying necessary to recount my complicated upbringing is astounding. Yet I offer this testimony transparently because I really thought I was digesting milk and meat, but some of that spiritual food was poisoned. I was malnourished, being taught that my intrinsic desires and needs were inherently bad and wrong. Despite all the faithful attempts to relate with God and others righteously, I was mistaking false truth after false truth as absolute, and my spirit and psyche bore the impacts of those death-dealing, toxic theologies.
The journey into my 30s has been an ongoing healing process of deconstructing and decolonizing, or reimagining and reclaiming, of expanding and evolving. Thanks to a handful of people, mostly women, who lead and serve at my current church, CityWell UMC, I have come to understand the utility of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This particular Methodist model helped me articulate how the various ways that my parents, my pastors, and many of my fellow Christians stewarded scripture, tradition, reason, and experience had taught me to hate myself. They often knowingly and unknowingly weaponized these primary tools of faith, giving to me what they had received, doing to me what others did to them and what they had done to themselves, for better and for worse.
This finally brings me to self-love and to our beloved Pauli Murray.
In case you don’t know who Pauli is, here’s a quick point of reference for this particular hidden figure, especially for those who live in the United States. There is no Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Thurgood Marshall, two of the country’s most notable Supreme Court justices, without thee reverend, doctor, and saint, Pauli Murray. Pauli was a human rights pioneer who left behind a legacy of revolutionary love and creative energy that we still live in today.
That said, Pauli is clear in their sermon: the practice of loving yourself is fundamentally inseparable from that of loving neighbor and of loving God. She reminds us that we don’t have to like everyone but that we also don’t get to choose who we accept and reject either. Pauli exposes our hypocrisy and humanizes the inevitable obstacles and risks that come with negotiating how to love.
Oftentimes, we learn to live into insidious binaries, like the idea that loving oneself is selfish and loving others is selfless. This weighs more heavily when society teaches some to regard themselves as inferior—again, it’s the self-hatred for me. Consequently, we can feel bad whenever we choose ourselves first, and we practice giving up parts of ourselves, parts meant for us to possess with dignity. This lukewarm way of being subtly dehumanizes, obscuring the nuance of how loving oneself deeply connects to how one loves other people, God, and really all of creation.
Learning this lesson was a challenge for me because I had been accustomed to prioritizing others’ needs and opinions over my own and misinterpreting this practice as holy. I focused almost singularly on giving others love because I believed that would make others love me. I had no real practice or concept for loving myself well. I was abstaining from self-love.
The examples of Pauli Murray, James Baldwin, and many other queer people of color whose names are too many for me to count opened me up to understand self-love as an act of good trouble, a holy practice of resistance. I have stopped trying to earn love and offered myself the unconditional acceptance and affirmation that was always mine. I have changed my focus and set new boundaries. I have committed to protecting my energies. I have retired from prioritizing the conflicting opinions of others, and I refuse to compromise my intrinsic personhood. I love myself even when it makes others uncomfortable.
Little by little, the sum total of bitterness, shame, fear, and hatred have been subsiding—thanks be to God. It is much easier to offer kindness to others when I am already offering it to myself and when I no longer always need others to reciprocate. It also makes a world of difference being with people who know how to love me well and being part of imperfect spiritual communities that use our tools of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to make real peace rather than to keep false peace. And while I still want to be good, goodness now is less about earning and achieving human dignity as a goal and more about practicing human dignity as a given.
I believe now that these tools of faith, when stewarded well, can protect all of us, especially those whom our world makes most vulnerable, and can help us generate processes for restoring and transforming our world, especially when we fall short. We can activate their utility in order to offer ourselves more than just the rigid binaries of absolute pardon or punishment. We can think with sober judgment and give ourselves permission to be imperfect. We can hold each other accountable with the truth in love and without shame and condemnation. We can emancipate ourselves spiritually and heal from the psychic violence we have inherited, suffered, and even caused.
This kind of love can be hard to imagine, let alone offer to ourselves and to others, especially when entangled with all the other toxic, traumatic stuff we have experienced. It can be challenging to lift your gaze beyond the traumas and shift attention to the joy, fortitude, dignity, and wholeness, and I declare it is possible and happening. If, like me, you learned to hate yourself, whether because of your identities or something else, I am here to declare that you are more than that hatred and that you deserve to love yourself just as you are. There is nothing to earn or to prove, no one to make you eligible or qualified. We deserve this kind of love, unconditionally and fundamentally, as part of our communal life together. However you identify, I invite you to love yourself and to love LGBTQ+ people like Jesus taught Pauli. Nationally, Pride Month is in June, but that invitation to love is open year round. It is always the right time to celebrate and commemorate the practices of loving us LGBTQ+ folks well. Join with any and all who choose love and truth, resist abuse and neglect, and use the tools and resources we have collectively for the ongoing work of healing and justice.
Jesse Nathaniel Huddleston (he/she/they/we) grew up in church participating in worship through song and dance and comes from a family full of ministers, artists, and educators. He has lived in North Carolina since 2006 when he enrolled at Duke as an undergraduate student. They finished in 2010 with degrees in sociology and psychology and later completed a master of science in counseling in 2014. Jesse continues to develop her vocational work for equity and community engagement through the arts in Durham, and she has served with CityWell UMC since January 2017. As a Black genderqueer human, we draw significant inspirations of learning, healing, and joy from our Blackqueer ancestors, Pauli Murray and James Baldwin, and we aspire to encourage all people to resist any human development rooted in shame or control and to pursue healthy, humanizing formation grounded in revolutionary love and creative energy. In their spare time, they bake pound cakes from scratch, tend to their indoor plants, and mind their business. He is often spending time with friends and neighbors, be it over food and drink at home, out at a social or political event, or on a dance floor. You can follow Jesse on Instagram at @huddlespeak.