The Cult of Before Stories: Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.

The Cult of Before Stories: Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth. March 22, 2015

If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

King Lear, Shakespeare

I wish it could shock me anymore, seeing a family ripped apart by religion. It happens constantly in this modern age–and will probably get worse, really. But this story touched me particularly today because it hit a few all-too-familiar notes in that discordant jangle that is the Cult of Before Stories.

I mean, no pressure or nothin'. (tsaiproject, CC.)
I mean, no pressure or nothin’. (tsaiproject, CC.)

“The Cult of Before Stories” is a term I coined to describe that weird idolization Christians have of particularly impressive conversion stories. The more impressive the pre-conversion debauchery, the more divine grace that person had to have been given by “God.” So these stories have a distinct progression into worse and worse sin, a sudden moment of reversal, and then a glorious finale. They follow a predictable pattern–for a reason; their bearers are well aware that these stories get attention and rewards.

Christians who can spin an appropriately lurid tale of their horrible pre-conversion lives get a lot of breathless adoration from their peers. Nobody wants to hear a story about a young person who grew up Christian, didn’t really ever do anything outrageously bad or break any laws, and then rededicated his or her life to Jesus in college.

Wait. Well, that’s embarrassing. I basically just described myself as a Pentecostal convert. I guess that explains a few things about why Biff got all the attention with his (completely fictional) account of having been a Satanic Wiccan warlock and high priest who sold pornography to schoolchildren and got possessed during a totally for real sorcerous ritual. But one needn’t go that far, into obviously made-up territory. Any Christian who can tickle the ears of the folks in the pews can join the Cult of Before Stories. Right now the big boogeymen of fundagelical Christianity are atheists and LGBTQ people, whereas back in my day Christians panicked and wrung their little hands over Satanists and Wiccans, so obviously the cool kids will have conversion stories featuring lurid tales of how terrible it was to be LGBTQ or godless–and the very coolest kids will feature both.

On that note, let’s meet Heather Barwick, the latest poster child for bigotry-for-Jesus. She’s being paraded around like a puppy at church camp and doesn’t realize she’s being used to help her new tribe win the already-lost culture war they started, but I’m not sure she’d care if she knew. She’s got a cause. She’s got a goal.

Her method of reaching that goal is stripping away her own mother’s civil rights and human liberties.

“Dear Gay Community: Your Kids are Hurting,” her post opens. Shots fired!

Oh noes! Won’t someone think of the children?!? She goes on: “I loved my mom’s partner, but another mom could never have replaced the father I lost.” Therefore, she goes on to write in so many words, same-sex couples should not ever get the right to marry or be allowed to raise children as a couple.

It actually hurts my heart to see someone this hurting putting so much blame in such a totally wrong place. From her first sentence, she careens off-course. You see, she’s kinda right, but also totally wrong. Another woman wouldn’t replace her father, no, but neither would another man have been able to replace her father. By that I don’t mean that a birth parent is an exalted role that can never, ever be filled ever by anybody else. Take it from someone who got a new dad after a divorce: sometimes the new parent is a lot better (as mine was, and infer what you like from that assertion about how totally abysmal my birth father was at parenting), sometimes a lot worse, most times a mix of better and worse–and these parents can give their kids a new lease on life in a lot of ways, a lease that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten with the birth parent. But in Ms. Barwick’s eyes, that position was exalted. She might be an adult, but her childish declaration reveals that in her heart she’s still a child who is reeling from her parents’ breakup.

Her attack piece continues on from there–and it is an attack, make no mistake here. She writes extensively about how she thinks that gay people are “my people,” (emphasis hers), before going on to say that she doesn’t think her people deserve the same rights that straight people take for granted. Specifically, Ms. Barwick doesn’t want her mother to be able to legally marry the person she loves and cherishes, the person she raised her children with, and the person she wants to spend the rest of her life with. If that’s how she treats her people, I don’t want to see how she treats others.

Oh, she insists, but it’s totally not because she’s a toxic zealot with an ungrateful heart full of vitriolic bigotry against gay people for being gay. She insists it’s totally got nothing to do with them being gay. She strangely issues a nonsensical non sequitur about how much she totally loves her mother and totally isn’t opposing her mother’s right to choose her marriage partner because her mother is gay. Oh no.

It’s because “traditional marriage and parenting” (by which she means straights-only marriage and parenting, using language straight from toxic Christian playbooks in a blatant logical fallacy, the appeal to tradition) seems to hold more “beauty and wisdom” for Ms. Barwick now that she’s had a pack of children of her own with her male spouse. Because the everyday reality of growing up in a same-sex household doesn’t hold the same subjective “beauty and wisdom” for her personally, her mother shouldn’t be allowed to access her right to marry a same-sex spouse. Presumably her mother thought her household had plenty of “beauty and wisdom” and likely thinks that her daughter’s newfound bigotry is horrifying and ugly, but only Ms. Barwick’s opinion matters when it comes to deciding what’s beautiful or wise, and only her opinion should have legal weight. That’s when this attack suddenly swerves into disturbingly familiar territory and becomes a conversion narrative.

She goes on to talk about her childhood as the daughter of two women who were immersed in the gay-rights movement of her area, even briefly touching on seeing Christian bigots demonstrating against LGBTQ people and how much that had hurt both her feelings and those of her parents. But none of that matters, because she’s still hurting inside herself about her parents’ divorce and has some issues to resolve about it, so therefore her mother should not be allowed to access a basic human right: the right to freely choose a marriage partner. That makes sense, right?

Well, no. Not to rational people who know, thanks to actual science that doesn’t rely on anecdotes and ancient books of superstition to handle big questions, that (among other things) when parents stay in miserable marriages “for the sake of the children,” that’s actually worse than if the parents just divorce!

A demand like Ms. Barwick’s makes perfect sense, though, if you happen to be a fundagelical Christian writing for a fundagelical audience that will cluck and coo and nod and feel outraged on her behalf at the mean, shallow, selfish mother who cared more about having a gay relationship than she did about staying in a bad relationship to make her daughter happy. The daughter feeds into every one of the negative stereotypes and nasty opinions that toxic Christians hold against LGBTQ people, validating their bigotry and fanning their flames. She’s doing it to build a case for how terrible her life was in a household that didn’t correctly worship Jesus.

Strangely, however, she takes pains not to drag religion into her attack. Christianity appears not even once in her post except for a confusing bit at the end of it about how Westboro-style picket signs were very hurtful for her to see as a little girl but that their language doesn’t apply to her or “us,” whoever that is. I’m seriously not sure what she’s talking about at all there. Does she not believe her mother is gay? I know that some Christian bigots don’t even believe that it’s possible to be gay, but she doesn’t make herself very clear here. If that’s what she was going for, we can add it to the huge pile of coded-language phrases she uses.

The Federalist piece doesn’t actually specifically mention her religious convictions at all. But opposition to LGBTQ rights is almost exclusively a Christian idea. Indeed, Ms. Barwick uses every single dog-whistle those bigots-for-Jesus use in her post: talking about how much better “traditional marriage” is for children; trying to find a non-religious-sounding excuse to bar LGBTQ Americans from the right to marry; separating being LGBTQ from having a same-sex relationship; falsely insisting–repeatedly at that–that an opposite-sex marriage is “the best and most successful family structure” in which to raise children; and worst of all, repeatedly claiming that other children of same-sex households are being silenced by some massive gay conspiracy and are too terrified to talk about how devastated and depressed they are about how they’ve been deprived of mixed-gender parents.

Hell, she even appropriates LGBTQ language to announce her bigotry: she’s “letting [herself] out of the closet” to announce that she simply cannot support equal marriage. Now, I’m not opposed to using that language sometimes, obviously; ex-Christians use that terminology too. But it’s a little weird to hear a bigot using it to describe holding a position that demonstrably damages, harms, and persecutes a marginalized group. It’s like saying that she’s letting herself out of the closet to announce that she’s not a racist; she just doesn’t think black people should be allowed to vote. Putting it the way she did, using the language of liberation and freedom to describe the dead opposite of liberation and freedom, is so insensitive and mean-spirited that one has to wonder why she ever thought it was a witty inversion to make. She’s punching down, to put it mildly.

Her contortions were all for naught, anyway; when I read it I immediately knew she was Christian–very likely a fundagelical Protestant, from the coded language used. I knew long before I even looked her up online what I was going to find. Not all Christians are anti-LGBTQ bigots, but I’ve yet to run across an anti-LGBTQ bigot who wasn’t a fervent Christian. But when I first made that connection, I told myself, “Cas, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s not completely fair. Maybe she’ll be the first, who knows?” So I did a little legwork, and it didn’t take long to turn up what I wanted to know: she’s using the language of liberation and freedom because she’s making a case about becoming free somehow. She’s just not doing it strictly honestly in this piece.

I’d like to walk y’all through my reasoning.

The Federalist, is, first off, clearly trying to be a right-wing mouthpiece without dragging religion up in overly transparent terms, sort of like a slightly more intellectual Fox News. I’ve seen that a lot lately, especially with regard to the twin hills that fundagelical Christianity is currently dying on–LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights; the religion’s writers, speakers, and thinkers have clearly figured out that phrasing their arguments in definitively religious terminology turns off more moderate listeners and readers, so they’re scrambling to find more secular ways to express their overtly religious ideas. Forced-birthers have been doing that for a very long time, long enough that there are plenty of non-Christians who have totally absorbed and internalized the movement’s fallacious arguments and pseudoscience, but anti-gay bigots have only been at it a short while and they’re still so bad at it that one would term their efforts “comical” if those efforts weren’t trying so hard to cost Americans their rights. If this website isn’t a thinly-veiled Christianist site, I don’t know what would be.

On her Federalist author-bio page, Ms. Barwick describes herself as a “former gay-marriage advocate turned children’s rights activist.” She never says she’s a Christian, but she hardly needs to. In fundagelical-land, those two fields are completely mutually exclusive. The more outrageous and bombastic ends of conservative Christianity, especially, have been trying to tie homosexuality to every serious social evil under the sun for decades–from Scott Lively flat-out asserting that the Nazis’ most powerful members were gayer than gay to Mike Huckabee linking gay people to pedophilia. None of that is true–but you’d never know it to talk to toxic Christians.

Implying that children need extra protection from LGBTQ people is a favorite tactic of right-wing Christian hatemongers, so specifically claiming that she stopped being a gay-marriage advocate to focus on children feeds directly into that demonstrably false ideology. In truth, gay-marriage advocates are very much children’s rights activists; in fact, the material and emotional damage done to children because of bans on equal marriage have formed the basis for most of the lawsuits overturning those bans. Every lawsuit discusses (and offers evidence for) exactly this issue: that not allowing same-sex parents to access their right to marry actually hurts children considerably.

But the way she specifically describes herself here, with the word “turned” implying that there was some U-turn from “gay-marriage advocate” to “children’s rights activist,” speaks to a conversion narrative. She used to be this, but she turned into that. Yeah, that’s a convertin’.

And here we find exactly what we seek: Ms. Barwick specifically phrases her story as a traditional conversion narrative elsewhere. She left out religion from her story on Federalist, but on the much more overtly Christian World News Group website, she feels free to let the Jesus-fication flow in a totally standard “testimony” format. First she describes how worldly and outlandishly antithetical to evangelicalism her childhood was; secondly, she talks about how terrible her life was; and thirdly, at last, she shares how she found “healing” only after dedicating herself to Christianity and now everything is perfect:

Barwick said she only found healing for her “father wound” after she began attending church with her future husband. “It really wasn’t until I came to Christ that I felt that burden lifted off of me. And I’m not bitter. I’m not angry,” she said. “I forgive my dad.”

At the end of the day, though, this bigot-for-Jesus is at heart a hurting child deep down, as I mentioned earlier. “If we say we are hurting because we were raised by same-sex parents, we are either ignored or labeled a hater,” she writes, blithely unaware that the problem wasn’t that she was raised by same-sex parents. I do not ignore her, nor do I think she hates her mother. She’s bought into a flawed and hurtful faith system that taught her these things, just like I did many years ago, but she doesn’t need to hate LGBTQ people in order to be perfectly willing to sacrifice them for her childishly simplistic solution to and explanation of her suffering.

And the right-wing-Christ-o-sphere was happy to let her do it. Just as they spread the urban legend about how the guy who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” had his 180-degree turnaround, they point to how a little girl who grew up as the centerpiece of a real-life Heather Has Two Mommies has now turned around and is spouting the proper fundagelical party line now about her very own parents. That’s the kind of turnaround that gets their attention!

Very obviously something went a little pear-shaped in her rearing. Something that really needed to be addressed wasn’t; something the family needed to discuss went unspoken. It’s very sad that she’s latched onto this magical fantasy of hers–that if her mother had only either stayed married or chosen a man to marry next, then everything would have been totally perfect and awesome and wonderful and unspeakably lovely–instead of addressing her very real hurts and pains in a constructive and realistic manner. I know exactly how that goes; my little sister spent most of her formative years openly fantasizing about our birth father returning to rescue us from our adoptive father. Our childhood did not look traditional or idyllic, and she was sure that when–not if–he swooped in to save us, everything would be perfect again.

The nice thing about childish fantasies is that they roam in a child’s mind unfettered by the cruel reality of logistical issues. In one lonely child’s mind those fantasies coalesce into a talking stuffed-tiger pal; in Ms. Barwick’s, they manifest as a rock-solid conviction that if only same-sex couples had remained stigmatized, her life would have been totally different and better. Her happiness depends on depriving other people of their rights, and just as forced-birthers are perfectly content with the society that results when sometimes someone’s rights are negligible and disposable, she’s content with what will happen to LGBTQ people if they remain marginalized. Her narrative all but depends on them remaining so.

As it is, one can hardly imagine the pain her poor mother is going through, having a daughter basically say in so many words that she thinks her own mother doesn’t deserve the same rights her daughter was raised to expect without even requesting them. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, indeed.

I guess that’s why the Federalist piece seemed like it was missing something. It was. She was spinning a conversion narrative, a witnessing-style testimony, but for some reason had to leave out the overtly religious bits. It was a safe risk to take; her chosen audience would fill in the blanks, while leaving the post enough plausible deniability to avoid an overtly religious label and this hopefully form part of a secular argument against equal marriage. Does she really believe that banning equal marriage would have made her childhood happy? Does she really think that the whole problem here was that her mother was legally allowed to ditch her husband and then go on to form a partnership with another woman? Possibly; the euphoria of religious conversion can convince people of a lot of nonsensical ideas.

Either way, it’s quite clear to me that she’s confused, a sentiment echoed by a great many detractors of her original post. As one of those detractors has put it, “denying a huge swath of American citizens our civil rights is not an answer.” Another notes, correctly, that while her pain is absolutely valid and not to be dismissed, she’s really aiming at the wrong people here.

I wish it all surprised me anymore. As long as Christianity rewards its adherents for creating these kinds of stories for themselves, we’re going to keep seeing them. And as LGBTQ people continue to be mistreated by Christians, more and more of those narratives are going to hit all the buttons of what they think LGBTQ people and relationships–and families–are like, and more and more testimonies are going to offer them a glimpse into that forbidden world that they so ache to see.

And the funny thing? As I said, this battle is already lost. They can trot as many testimonies as they want out in front of people, but the vast majority of kids raised by same-sex parents will know the truth–and so will their friends, families, and neighbors. And rights are rights; if someone has the right to marry, then that’s that. These testimonies not only don’t impact an essential right, but backfire by demonstrating just how necessary those rights are to protect.

The author of this testimony might not realize what she’s really communicating here any more than her target audience does, but the rest of us do.

PS: I’m trying hard to restrain myself from discussing her genuinely creepy and off-putting Jesus Smile, because I know I’ve mentioned it a couple times in the past about other Christians-behaving-badly and it’s probably getting old, but…. Y’ALL. SERIOUSLY. DAT JESUS SMILE. Look at how happy she is denying her very own mother her basic American rights. Just grinnin’ ear to ear with how amazing that grace is that is poised to slash her own mother’s freedoms. Ain’t Jesus wunnerful? Awww, so sweet.

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