Velvet Spade explains what it’s like growing up in the south, navigating religion, and unexpected self-discoveries about sexual orientation and gender.
You can call me Velvet. I find, in my experience, having a new name suits having a new kind of life, and I’m not the same person I was when I was living with my family; I wasn’t actually “me” yet.
Growing Up in the South
Take a step back with me, into my past life. I was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, what I know as the Conservative Christian Capital of the world – my world, anyway. You may not recognize the name right off, but you may recognize what made my little town infamous: Liberty University, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Jerry Falwell. If you still don’t know the Hell I’m from, take a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Now keep in mind, this isn’t to say I’m against Christianity (that would make me as bad as any other closed-minded shithead); I’m just making a statement about the discrimination present in my hometown.
I talk to people from all over the world every day for my work. Typically when someone hears, “I’m from Virginia” they think about Washington D.C. and Richmond. I quickly correct them by letting them know that’s Northern VA, while I’m from Central VA. Now I live in the deep southern swamplands of Louisiana. Not actually the swamps, though. I live in the one blue dot in a sea of red. Having been in both, I can assure you, Lynchburg is still the south, both in beautiful customs of hospitality and southern charm, but also in the not-so-pleasant pre-civil-rights-movement way of thinking. Lots of southern baptists dislike people that aren’t just like them.
Growing up, I was the ‘weird kid.’ I had a ‘lesbian’ label slapped on me as an insult in elementary school, before I was old enough to be sexually attracted to anyone, let alone know what it meant. In middle school, I ‘won’ the “most unique” superlative, also as a big joke. Children told other children they would not be spoken to if they befriended the ‘weird kid.’ In high school, I didn’t know how to function in my first relationships. Years of abuse, both from my classmates and my home life, left me scarred. I felt too ashamed to even let someone hold my hand.
I had one best friend whom I seldom saw, and with whom I had no means of communication. Throughout all of this, I was mostly alone. So I dressed to fit the part: I wore heavy eyeliner, dressed in all black, and my favorite band was Marilyn Manson (all still true). He was the only person I could identify with. Even when I was bullied, I never held back in being who I was. In 9th grade, I finally began making friends with some of the upperclassmen, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day. One person in particular came out to me as gay in high school, and I thought nothing of it at the time. It wasn’t until years later, when he told me that I saved his life with my ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude, that I had any kind of concept just how hard it must have been for a gay black man to come out of the closet when I had never really been in it. But sometimes you don’t even realize you’re in the closet.
Fast forward a few years, and my dear friend, whose life I had unintentionally saved, also saved mine. We often spoke of philosophy and theology through the years. During our school lunches I learned about Wicca, his practicing faith. He was one of the most compassionate, spiritual people I’d ever known, and I envied that. I wanted to be like him, so I tried out the religion for myself. I found it wasn’t for me; perhaps it was even too spiritual. I ended up falling comfortably into LaVeyan Satanism, via my own research and development.
In earlier years I spent some time in a critical Christian church, searching for home. I never found my community there, so I swore off of churches entirely. It comes as no surprise that it took until after I had graduated high school for me to finally take him up on his offer of visiting his church. I was skeptical. I had never been to a Unitarian Universalist church before. I assumed it was a non-denominational church but I really had no idea. Once I actually attended, I fell in love. The UU church was where I finally saw true diversity. Not just in race or gender or even religion, but I really saw a full spectrum of people. They accepted me with open arms, and made me feel comfortable in my own skin. I had finally found my home. While I still identify as a Satanist, I will always be proud to call myself a UU.
Again, it wasn’t until later that I made another startling self-discovery. I was actually at a Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation conference put on by several UU churches across the northeast. I had already known that I was pansexual, but I had no idea how wide the spectrum for gender identity was. Here, I found myself wandering through a range of emotions varying from, “How didn’t I know?” to “What will this mean for my current relationship (with a straight cis man)?” Half of me wanted to share with the world, “I’m genderfluid, wow! There’s a word for what I feel, that I can use to find like-minded individuals to share this journey with.”
I wanted to tell my partner, and then I realized what it meant to fear the opinion of another person. Particularly, one I’m in love with, that I care about. I knew what it meant to be in the closet.
So I started slow. I kept going over and over what I would say in my head and how I would present it. But you know life; The time ended up presenting itself and we ended up getting into an argument. So I explained. I told my straight boyfriend that I’m sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes neither. He didn’t understand and I didn’t expect him to. It hurt, but I understood where he was coming from. It finally clicked with him when I stated, “I’m still the same person you love.” It took him a while to get used to my new identity, but he was warm with me. When I dressed more traditionally masculine, he’d called me ‘handsome’ as opposed to ‘pretty,’ and it made me feel good about myself. I loved him and I understood that it was hard for him to know how I was feeling on any given day. So it was easy to forgive him for misgendering me. Especially because I still wear makeup when I’m a man.