Despicable Me: Queer shame and forgiving our past selves

Q:

My late teens and much of my 20s were spent homeless, couch-surfing and high. I left my parents after they bailed on me emotionally when I came out, and I’ve done things that others would find questionable if they never had to live on the street.

I’ve come a long way, but I still wake up thinking that I’m on a park bench, under an overpass, or naked in a stranger’s bed. The first feeling is relief that it’s only a dream. The second is a shame that I can’t shake even when fully awake.

I became an expert liar. I learned to scam and seduce my way into food and shelter. I sold my body, not as a matter of choice but for survival. To this day, my first impulse is to manipulate or cheat to get what I want.

One of the tools I use to stay sober and off the street is the 12-step method of change, including surrender to a higher power. Still, I struggle to forgive myself for things I’ve done and the person they turned me into.

Dear New You:

Just as who you were then isn’t who you are now, the person you will become is not set in stone by your past. The future is up for grabs. 

You’re not alone. Queer shame is legendary, and everyone has regrets and struggles to forgive themselves, no matter their story. Some pasts are more and some less difficult than yours, but the process to accept and overcome them is the same for all of us. Too many queer people did things to cope with injustices that, even a few years ago, we didn’t even have language to discuss.

You already took difficult steps to pull yourself together and take ownership of your past, but the process never ends. Forgiving ourselves is not something we do once, but continually.

An apropos Audrey Kitching quote makes the rounds now and again:

“Forgive yourself for not knowing better at the time. Forgive yourself for giving away your power. Forgive yourself for past behaviors. Forgive yourself for the survival patterns and traits you picked up while enduring trauma. Forgive yourself for being who you needed to be.”

Her platitudes are a great starting place, but how?

Since you surrendered to a higher power, let them do their job. If a higher power can forgive you, how could you know more than them? Who else do you value? Would you forgive your best friend for their past? Cut yourself the same slack. 

As we move through coping with difficult experiences, we must allow ourselves basic humanity and room to make mistakes. It’s not “total forgiveness now or give up.” Start with the intention to forgive yourself as much as you are able for that day, and then commit to try.

If all else fails, you might as well forgive yourself. Not doing so leaves you exhausted and immobilized, and that’s not working.

There’s one more tool in your 12-step box. We can put our pasts to good use by helping others, even if it’s just sharing our experience and strength, which you have done here so valiantly. This allows the past to be transmuted into a tool rather than a weight.

This column originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the Q advice column archives here, and read the latest issue online here:

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