When Fundamentalism Follows You Out the Door: Transphobic Statement Exposes Exvangelical Trauma

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Religion Dispatches Sex/Gender/Justice

When Fundamentalism Follows You Out the Door: Transphobic Statement Exposes Exvangelical Trauma

Chrissy Stroop

While the "exvangelical" community was designed to help former evangelicals heal from a toxic environment, a subgroup of exvangelicals calling itself the “Magdalene Collective" released a statement that's been called transphobic and that many see as a replication of the very abusive patterns from which they'd been trying to escape.

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Last December, I waxed optimistic about the accomplishments and potential of the exvangelical community and movement in a year-end retrospective here on RD. Then this January, exvies exploded onto the scene with the #ExposeChristianSchools campaign I launched in response to the defensiveness of Vice President Mike Pence and movement conservatives over criticism of second lady Karen Pence for returning to her job as an art teacher at an anti-LGBTQ evangelical school. While the success of #ExposeChristianSchools seemed to justify my optimism about the future, just below the surface, tensions were brewing. The devolving of exvangelical social media into recriminations and infighting this spring leaves us with important questions about what exvie visibility has achieved and who, if anyone, speaks for the community.

As Bradley Onishi pointed out in an April 9 article for Religion & Politics, communities and social movements formed around collective trauma are fraught, and the exvangelical community needs to grapple not only with issues surrounding the representation of people of color and women but also “with questions of whose stories are centered and why.” Addressing such questions can be particularly challenging; however, given the harsh reality that survivors’ communities tend to replicate the very abusive patterns from which members have been attempting to escape.

Former fundamentalists can run from one all-encompassing, authoritarian ideology to another, making atheism, for example—or even concern for social justice—into reflections of toxic Christianity. Dubious exercises in gatekeeping, Twitter mobbing, and vicious scapegoating couched in a simplified and weaponized social justice rhetoric, have all characterized exvangelical online spaces this spring, hampering both individual paths to healing and the coalition building and appeal to outsiders that are necessary for exvies to make the kind of impact that will ultimately weaken conservative, mostly white evangelicals’ political power.

To me, exvangelical community building has always been about both things: finding each other in order to know that we’re not alone, and gaining the attention of the broader public in order to wrest control of the narrative around evangelicalism from evangelical leaders themselves, who are masters at PR and spin. But, for traumatized people, healing generally requires professional help. As sexuality and embodiment coach Jamie Lee Finch stresses, survivors’ groups are not a substitute for therapy.

Several weeks ago, Finch herself became the target of a Twitter mob for tweeting that there is no such thing as progressive Christianity, a hot take that, many noted, erased African American and Latinx liberation theologies. While the line between a valid call-out and toxic cancel culture may not be a perfectly bright one, Finch quickly showed a willingness to listen and learn but was nevertheless “canceled” by many. She certainly did not deserve the barrage of harsh criticism that carried on for days.

This brings us to a bizarre episode featuring the so-called “Magdalene Collective,” a small-group of AFAB—assigned female at birth—exvangelicals whose Twitter account and collective statement (both of which have since been taken down) essentially asserted that AFAB people and people of color represent the only valid leadership in exvangelical spaces. The MC incident originated in a falling out in a group DM on Twitter between myself and several of the people who crafted and signed the statement, the details of which I will spare you, except to say that the nonsensical phrase “quote tweet privilege” was invoked. The MC’s passive aggressive statement, which exhibited a classic evangelical vagueness, and yet was oddly specifically coded for those who knew the context, swiftly followed. The frequent invocation of the terms “AFAB” and “AMAB” (assigned male at birth) throughout the statement amounted to TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) dog-whistling—that is, this language contributed to a clear animus toward transgender women that was evident throughout the statement.

The group DM had initially been created to promote #ExposeChristianHomeschooling, a sister hashtag to #ExposeChristianSchools, and remained as a space in which to strategize and promote each other’s work. My assessment of the MC situation should, of course, be read with the full knowledge that my view is inevitably colored by the fact I was the primary target of the MC’s ire, which screenshots from the group DM make clear.

The MC’s deleted manifesto was widely and rightly panned as antagonistic toward transgender women. In fact, in an attempt to stanch the bleeding from the divisive affair, I decided to come out fully as a trans woman despite not yet feeling ready to do so. Previously, I had occasionally made comments about being genderqueer in an effort to build toward coming out when I was in a more financially stable place and able to start transitioning.

Among other things, the manifesto lamented “the rise of trauma porn as a method of generating both attention and income.” It also conflated AMAB people with cisgender men and placed blame generally on “men who hadn’t come to the exvie community through or concurrently with” the writings of Rachel Held Evans, a particularly odd form of gatekeeping. I, for example, began deconstructing at the age of 16, some 14 years before RHE published her first book, and my major early influences in deconstructing were in fact singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Dolores O’Riordan, and Adam Duritz.

By the time RHE—whom I had come to respect, and whose tragic early death this year was a cause of sorrow for me—published her first book, I was well over trying to find solace within any kind of orthodox Christianity. As the oldest child of parents who worked in ministry, I did not want to rock the boat, so I suffered in silence for years over my deconstruction, only going public with my criticisms of evangelical subculture in 2015. My point in bringing this up is to note that there are multiple paths of deconstruction and reconstruction, and multiple endpoints, and that to build exvangelical community, we need to hold space for different people’s paths and paces of deconstruction and reconstruction.

In their weaponized use of social justice rhetoric, like many fundamentalists before them, those behind the MC appear to have latched on to what they take to be a shortcut to virtue. Of course, there are no shortcuts. I do not want to relitigate the whole MC affair here, but the broader context of the dangers of fundamentalist and abusive patterns reasserting themselves in post-fundamentalist and survivors’ spaces is one that needs to be addressed in the hope that the exvangelical community can be healthier and more functional going forward. In that spirit, I asked two experts and advocates with experience of such matters to weigh in.

Ashley Easter is a survivor of the Quiverfull movement and an abuse survivor advocate who runs the Courage Conference, an annual event focused on empowering survivors of abuse in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. (Full disclosure: I will be leading a workshop on building bridges between believing and non-believing survivors of toxic Christianity at the 2019 conference.)

In our conversation, Easter told me, “The Magdalene Collective fallout gives me flashbacks to ‘church discipline’ in fundamentalist circles. Small disagreements, such as how and when a person can retweet another person, are elevated to a point where the perceived offender is publicly shamed in the name of purity just as I have seen in fundamentalist churches.” She then added, “You’ve heard the saying, ‘The church is the only organization that shoots its wounded,’ and while that was often true in fundamentalist religion, I’ve sadly seen some ex-fundamentalists bring this puritanical behavior with them even after deconstruction.”

Ryan Stollar was in the group DM in which the falling out that led to the MC manifesto occurred, and he has worked closely with some of the people behind the manifesto in Homeschoolers Anonymous and the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). Although he agrees with some of the concerns the MC statement raised (as do I)—for example, the problem that the de facto leadership of exvangelical survivors’ communities is far too white—Stollar also agrees with Easter on the dangers of puritanism. “The most significant pattern I have seen replicated from fundamentalist communities into post-fundamentalist communities is seeing the world as ‘us versus them,’ a Manichean struggle between ‘allies’ and ‘enemies.’ If you’re not 100% with me, you’re against me, and I have to put you on blast.”

Where does all this leave the exvangelical community going ahead? We certainly need exvangelical voices to continue to be heard, and I still believe that we can only move the needle on the national discussion around evangelicalism if we act collectively. I also agree with Stollar when he says, “There’s absolutely room for criticism in survivor communities, but we need to be smart and constructive about that criticism.”

For my own part, I strive to remain accountable and to listen to good-faith criticism, but I don’t believe the MC attempt to cancel me and other visible “AMAB” exvies fits that description. I believe that Stollar’s thoughts on infighting—“We shouldn’t treat our friends in the same way we would treat our enemies, otherwise we risk replicating that ‘us versus them,’ Manichean struggle we learned from fundamentalism”—should be taken to heart, not just by the exvangelical community, but by the entire political left as we head into the 2020 election cycle.

Despite the recent infighting, I remain convinced that exvangelical critique is essential to undermining the power the Christian right has come to wield through the GOP. Thus, a final word of advice from Stollar: “If we’re going to create lasting social movements,” he says, “we need to do the personal work (through therapy, self-care, restorative justice, etc.) so that we can better manage our triggers and not cause our movements to self-destruct.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Ryan Stollar was not, in fact, asked to leave the board of CRHE due to any issue related to the Magdalene Collective. Stollar resigned in 2017.