‘I was terrified of being ‘found out.’ I was taught by my church I wasn’t allowed to love, I was either ‘of God’ or ‘of Satan.’ It nearly cost me my life.’: LGBTQ man shares childhood trauma, homophobic upbringing, ‘We are poisoning a generation’

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of childhood sexual abuse which may be triggering to some.

“Growing up in a fundamentalist background I was never taught about ‘parts.’ I was simply taught I was either good or evil, a saint or a sinner, ‘of God’ or ‘of Satan.’ It was this type of harmful thinking which taught me I was completely broken, a forgotten sinner and an abomination in the eyes of God. It was this type of toxic theology which drove me out in search of nourishment. As a preteen boy, I was terrified of being ‘found out,’ full of shame and desperate to be seen and loved. I was able to find this world, but it didn’t turn out to be what I needed. In fact, it nearly cost me my life.

Courtesy of James Powell

I have a private hidden underground world where all of my pain fades away. In this world I’m confident, bold, and free. I ask for exactly what I want, and I usually get it. In this world, all my fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness, and worthlessness melts away. In this world I’m desired, I feel powerful, and I’m wanted. In this world I am loved…at least that’s what I thought for decades. Our society doesn’t like to talk about the things in my hidden world. We all know this world exists, but we turn our heads and hope this world will somehow disappear. This world used to only exist in the dark, in back alleys, in sleazy videos stores, or on the back pages of classified sections. This world now exists in the palm of our hands, it’s accessible 24/7 and it’s virtually free.

Some judge this world and assume it’s filled only with bottom feeders, cheaters, and lowlifes. Others have done a good job normalizing this world, celebrating its pervasive presence in our cultural zeitgeist and claiming victory after a long-fought battle for freedom of expression. But at a very young age I started to inhabit this world, because I was taught by my Christian community I’m not worthy of love in ‘your normal world.’ I never wanted to live in this world, but I wasn’t given any other viable options. I moved into this world in order to survive. This world I thought was helping me to survive ended up almost costing me my life.

Courtesy of James Powell

I was introduced to my private world at a friend’s house after school in fourth grade. Five of us crammed into an unfinished basement cold room as Tom unzipped his older brother’s hockey bag. He dug under all the equipment and pulled out a stack of magazines. He passed each of us one of the well-worn magazines and we drank in the images. Something magical happened that afternoon. I felt an intoxicating wave of danger mixed with goodness pass through my body. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and yet I was completely entranced with what I was seeing. Time stopped, and all my pain and anxiety slipped away. I felt connected with my friends and a pulse of sexual energy surged through my body. For the first time in my life, I felt powerful. The other boys were commenting on the women on the pages, but I was mesmerized with the naked images of a fully-grown man.

I immediately knew this is what I was searching for when I played truth or dare with the friends who were my age. I didn’t want to explore with boys my age. I wanted to feel the love of a man…one of these men. Those magazines would later evolve into a secret collection of online images with the generous help from those AOL CD-ROMs full of trial minutes which would be regularly delivered to our home. Sneaking downstairs into the basement after everyone else was asleep, the crackling and hissing of the modem handshake from our cutting edge 56.6 dial-up connection, would transport me into a magical world. In this world, I was like Pinocchio and his visit to Pleasure Island. I was no longer ‘me,’ I was an alter-ego who was strong, bold, in control, and free. In this world I didn’t have to hide ‘what’ I was, I was free to desire what I wanted, and I could exchange with others just like me.

Courtesy of James Powell

This world became my medicine. It was my anti-depressants, my anti-anxiety meds, my sleeping pills, my everything. Whenever I felt alone, overwhelmed, or when I was scared, this world was the replacement for the protection I needed from my family, my church, and my community. This world gave me the love, warmth, and assurance so I could get through another moment. At 13, this world became fully immersive and experiential. I was reading a newspaper article talking about a place where gay men went, called a bathhouse. I didn’t have any idea of what a bathhouse was, but the article made it seem interesting to me. These were pre-Google days, so I got out the Yellow Pages searched for ‘bathhouse,’ and to my surprise there were several listings. I randomly picked one of the numbers. I waited until my family was out of the house, picked up the phone, and hit *67 to block our number, since I didn’t want anyone gay knowing our home phone number, and then I dialed.

‘Hello, Club Toronto.’

‘Um hi, is this a bar?’

‘Yes, we have one.’

‘Are you a gym?’

‘Yes, we have one.’

‘Are you a night club?’

‘I guess so, we’re busier at night…listen, you sound curious. It’s probably easier if you just come and check it out yourself…and you do know it’s an all-male establishment?’

‘Yes, thanks.’

It was all I really needed. I took it as my personal invitation to check it out. The next weekend I made up an excuse I needed to go downtown to the reference library for a school project, and I asked my parents if they would drop me off at the train station on Sunday afternoon after church. They agreed and I was off. Arriving at Club Toronto, I had no idea what I was doing. I opened the door and saw a small counter and behind the security slats was a man. I was clueless and completely out of my depths, and all I could think to say was, ‘One, please.’ He looked me up and down and replied with, ‘Locker or Room?’ I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Locker?’ I gave him some money and I heard a buzzing sound from another door. I froze, not knowing what to do next. They guy behind the counter just stared at me. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘You need to push the door open and come on through.’ I pushed the door open, went through, and was handed a towel and a key on an elastic key chain. Everything inside was so dark, and as my eyes adjusted from the outside sunlight I froze again as I looked around.

I was dumbfounded and had no idea where to start or what to do in this place. At that moment I knew I had made a big mistake. I knew I shouldn’t have been there. I knew it was time for me to go. As I started to look for a way out, I was approached by an older man…a particularly larger older man, wearing a towel, who said, ‘You look lost, can I help give you a tour?’ I don’t remember saying anything back to the man, yet my body started to move and I followed this man who was easily five times my age. He showed me the gym area, the sauna, the whirlpool, the outdoor pool, and the lounge, before he asked to see the key in my hand. I followed him up a level where he pointed out my locker and told me he would wait while I changed into my towel. I was trembling, but I followed my instructions as I tried to cover myself up while taking off all of my clothes and wrapping myself in the towel.

As I locked up all my belongings, all I could think of was the amount of trouble I would be in if my house keys were stolen while I was here. I was still lost in this strange world and had no idea what to do next, but I was intrigued by a number of the men I’d seen on the tour. ‘One more stop, let me show you what one of the rooms looks like,’ said my tour guide. Again, I mindlessly followed him up to the fourth level of the building. This time he gave me his key and asked me to unlock the door and go inside. Going inside, I was surprised to see this wasn’t a ‘room.’ The barren space was no larger than a closet, with barely enough space for something resembling a cot jammed into the corner. My tour guide invited me to get onto the cot. I obeyed. My tour guide started to touch me and position my body.

I was frozen inside my head as I watched what was about to happen from outside of my body. I was terrified, but there was nothing I could do. Suddenly, something inside of me came back online. I was back in my body and I realized what HE thought was about to happen. Adrenalin kicked in, I shoved my way out of the room, bolted down one flight of stairs to my locker, changed as fast as I could, ran down two more flights, and found the exit. Out on the street my heart was pounding and the thoughts in my head were spinning: ‘What in the world am I doing? Is that man coming after me? I could have been killed. I almost got AIDS from that man. I am never going to be forgiven for this. I just want to get home and pretend this never happened.’ Then it hit me. I told my parents to pick me up from the train WAY later in the afternoon. I was terrified, ashamed, and I had three hours to kill, all by myself. To this day, I still don’t remember what I did with those three hours.

Courtesy of James Powell

The next week went by with my usual self-flagellation (of the religious discipline type) and general hating myself for orchestrating such a massive sin, but nearing the week’s end, I told my parents I needed to go back downtown to finish up research for my project. The next Sunday I made my way back downtown to Club Toronto, walked inside, and was greeted with a, ‘Welcome back.’ This time around I didn’t need a tour guide. I knew what to expect and where to go. I found my locker and entered into this underground world like I owned it. This underground world became my sanctuary. That Sunday morning, I started off at church as a closeted sinner. Within the walls of my church I believed I was unlovable, unworthy, and people like me were dirty, evil, and headed for an eternity in Hell. That Sunday afternoon at the bathhouse, I became a saint.

Within the bathhouse walls I was desired, special, and adored. Within these walls I found people who accepted me for me. Within these walls the fear, anger, and frustration of living with my family disappeared. My fear of abandonment, the overwhelming anxiety of my mortal annihilation from God, and the sadness, loneliness, and terror of being bullied at school all disappeared. Within these walls, for the first time, I felt seen, I felt safe, I felt loved. This world would get much deeper and darker, but for the past 30 years this world had been the balm to whatever ailed me. This was the world where I learned the crucial developmental tasks about ‘love,’ sex, relationships. This world became my drug and overtook so many aspects of my life, damaged many relationships, and hurt many people. Diving into this world at such a young age damaged my soul, inflicted trauma and abuse, and led me down a path to a distorted and harmful view of what I thought love was.

Courtesy of James Powell

To this day, when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, a part of me starts up and old memories, vivid flashbacks with scents, sounds, and body sensations flood into my thoughts and infiltrate my dreams. I’m now learning these are trauma responses from  years of conditioning when my brain doesn’t want to be ‘here’ in our world. It transports me back to place where I felt alive and free. What I thought was love was really my hiding place, a space I needed because I was afraid to let love in. In this world it was easy for me to survive because I had to give nothing…I only had to take. In this world I pretended to stand for liberation, choice, and adventure, was actually my prison and my executioner. I can now see I was attracted to this world because of my pain, my low self-esteem and low self-image, my fear of intimacy, my lack of trust and my need for control…all of these stemming from being taught I was not allowed to love. I wouldn’t wish this world on anyone, but I never felt I had a choice. When you teach a child that because of who they are they are not allowed to love, they will search for anything that could be a substitute.

By being taught I wasn’t allowed to love as a young boy, I ran to this world. Like so many LGBTQ+ youth growing up in the evangelical church, I was robbed of the opportunity to learn from my parents or church community what healthy intimacy, love, dating, and commitment looks like. I naively thought my underground world was providing me with the love which was forbidden by my church. I now know there was never any love there. It would be more than a quarter century later I would start to see I was never really in those rooms with those men. My body was there. I wasn’t there. It would be more than a quarter century later I would start to see this part of my life for what it really was. This was sexual assault. This was repeated rape of a minor. This was the love, acceptance, safety, and community I thought I deserved. This was what I was taught I was worth. This is what evangelical Christian churches continue to teach our children today. The lives of our LGBTQ+ children are being tossed around as part of a partisan political debate and the toxic shame from puritanical teaching around sexuality is poisoning a generation.

Courtesy of James Powell

* 6 out 10 LGBTQ+ youth in America said someone attempted to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
* 3-5% of Americans can be classified as being addicted to sex.
* Porn use nearly doubles the probability of a couple getting divorced.
* 35% of all Internet downloads are porn related.
* Porn sites receive more monthly traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

Ends up my hidden world isn’t so hidden. We must stop this abuse. This is where I’m dedicating the second half of my life. I’m an advocate and activist for the queer community. My mission moving forward is to build a community which advocates for self-love, inclusion, mental health, and spiritual health for ALL people. Much like Love What Matters, I believe in the power of healing when we own and share our stories. By sharing my personal story of spiritual abuse, religious trauma, sexual abuse, and addiction through my podcast, ‘This Little Light Of Mine,’ I am bringing light to the hidden psychological, spiritual, emotional, and mental abuse which continues to be inflicted on LGBTQ+ children in religious communities. When we know better, we have a responsibility to be better and do better. We need to love what matters. And what matters most to me is the message, ‘You are loved.’

You are designed with a powerful voice, no matter who you are. We need to hear what you have to say. You matter, you are needed, you are wanted, and you are loved…and there is nothing you (or anyone else) can do to change that.”

Courtesy of James Powell

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by James Powell. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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