By Rod DREHER
Areader whose name is known to me — and I know her parents — writes a sobering letter:
I’d like to share the following story in response to your recent reader who writes “We Thought We Were Safe.” It’s a bit lengthy in concept (though I’ve tried to edit it down to the crucial details), so that’s why I’ve decided to send it to you this way instead of posting in the comments. If you’d like to share the entirety with your reader (or post excerpts of it, if you think others would relate) please do- as I’ve kept everything fairly non-specific.
I want to preface by saying that the situation I’m about to share was hurtful to me, but that as a 24-something year old, I am not in a place where it shattered my world. In truth there are parts that I anticipated, and that I probably mentally prepared myself for without realizing. The shocking nature of the discussion, reflecting back on it, actually comes from my own thoughts about ‘what if’ I had not, in fact, been a 24 year old from a supportive background. I’d like for you to consider the things I’m about to discuss from the perspective of a Gen Z (or younger) teenager, because that’s the perspective that keeps dwelling in my mind. I’ve recalled this incident several times in that context while reading some of your recent posts about the Equality Act, Trans Activism and topics related to public schooling, and, most recently, the post from a concerned parent “We Thought We Were Safe.”
To begin, some explanation. Up until last semester (my graduating semester) I was a student at a local state university. While at that university, I made many casual friends from a variety of backgrounds, (some Catholic or Christian like myself, many not) both from school and from my student job. In the spring of 2020, when classes moved to being fully virtual for almost everyone in my social sphere, many of us felt uprooted socially and mentally, and for several months struggled to deal with the results of being so far removed from our usual circles. This isn’t a terribly uncommon story, I’m just relating it to give some background.
During this period of forced isolation, I decided to chance something I hadn’t done in a while: create an online chat group with some of my friends for the purposes of playing online video games and talking to each other (about school, and whatever else). I had done this once before (somewhat unsuccessfully) but this time I told myself that I was just going to invite people I actually knew in real life, and that those people could invite others they knew IRL but that was it. (If you’re not familiar with online gaming chat rooms, this is actually a pretty sound strategy- many chat rooms fall into chaos because of high membership and almost no IRL connections). So, this is what I did. I created the chat room in a popular messaging app (Discord) and then invited various friends that I knew to join in. My purpose in doing this was mainly to create a way for us to connect over gaming, a shared interest- and some other common topics. I felt that as long as I wasn’t dealing with too many unknown factors, I could control the group’s overall behavior and make sure we didn’t step on each other’s toes. I was very wrong about that, as you’ll see shortly, but at the time it made perfect sense to me.
I’m not going to spend forever trying to explain exactly how the group functioned, since it would be a long and involved conversation. Instead, I’d like to turn my focus to one person. I’m going to call them A for the purposes of this story. A and I had met at school at my student job- she was from a Protestant Christian background, loved video games and like me, had been homeschooled most of her childhood. Though we hadn’t gotten to know each other deeply at my job, what I had seen of her I liked and though she had graduated the previous semester, she was still connected to others of our mutual friends— as such, she was one of the first people I invited to join the server. At first, A and I got along swimmingly. Her siblings also joined us on the server, and she pulled other personal friends in as well. A is one of those people who is talkative and gregarious, and so made friends easily with others of my personal contacts and in a very short amount of time was dominating much of the conversation on the server.
I didn’t mind A’s involvement at first. I thought of her as a fairly positive influence, and when I realized the server was growing too large for me to handle on my own, I offered her a position as a fellow admin to help me enforce the few rules I had drafted. She jumped at the chance and the other members hailed her newfound powers as a good thing, and I felt confident having someone to share the minor responsibilities with.
By this point, the group was lively and was meeting twice a week for live chat calls during gaming sessions that lasted 3-5 hours apiece. It was way more social interaction than any of us had had since classes went online, and all of us (myself included) were feeling the mental health boost. We sailed along for a while on this high, but then- I began to notice some things with A that felt… off. She had receded for a short while from the server to deal with some physical health issues, and when she returned, she was in a sour mood. The election was drawing nearer, and though I already knew A was very liberal, I didn’t expect her to begin being quite so antagonistic about various political viewpoints and so on during the one night a week that was just chat (no gaming). Almost everyone else on the server agreed with her liberal viewpoints except for myself, and though I kept quiet (adhering to my own policies of trying not to instigate dispute) I couldn’t help but feel that I was slowly becoming isolated mentally from the group. I don’t have to go into details about what kinds of things she brought into conversation, but LGBT topics were at the forefront, and various social policies and movements like BLM were brought up as well, under her instigation.
I had my first real dispute with A a few months after the group was formed, when, during a gaming session, she made some off-color jokes about the Christian faith. I pulled her aside after the gaming session, (in DMs) and told her that although I understood she didn’t mean anything, I was very hurt by her comments and asked her to refrain from doing such things in the future, out of mutual respect for the others (and myself) who would have issues with what she said (I won’t repeat what she joked about, but it was the kind of thing that, if a sincere Christian has said it, would have been open blasphemy). To my surprise, (and despite that she had often apologized for much more minor offenses easily to other members) she argued with me a little, citing that she felt that her experience growing up in a protestant Christian household as a child was ‘traumatic’ to her (the group she belonged to did, admittedly have some cult-like movements) and that she was merely using humor to alleviate her stress about religion. I was somewhat shocked by her response. It wasn’t that I didn’t have sympathy for her (I did, and we had discussed her upbringing on other occasions) but I was shocked at how easy it was for her to dismiss any truly negative feelings I had about listening to someone drag my culture in the mud because she ‘didn’t like religion anymore.’ I tried to explain to her how in spite of this, her comments were still deeply inappropriate, and she listened, vaguely. The matter was put aside for the moment- but I recount it here because it factors into my final encounter.
Over the next few months, my feeling that something wasn’t the same about A increased. She broke up with her boyfriend (also a member of my group, and a fellow Christian) citing irreconcilable differences in opinion. Then, she changed her avatar name to a specific name that after a short while, I began to notice her siblings using in conversation (In the server we all had screen names, but we used our real names in conversation). A mutual friend one day took me aside and told me, with apparent concern, that she had suspicions (somewhat confirmed) that A had been dabbling in gender identity activism and was ‘transitioning’ to non-binary. By the time this friend related this to me, I had already noticed that A had begun, more and more, to talk of LGBT topics above all else in our mutual chat nights, and I found myself withdrawing from conversation more and more because of the knowledge that anything I had to say would likely be attacked instantly. I had believed, prior to this, that if I simply kept silent when I needed to, and only spoke when I had to, that no one would ever need to know how I really felt about these issues. After all, the server was for gaming, right? We couldn’t possibly spend so much time talking about LGBTQIA++ topics that I would be made into a target.
Unfortunately, that is where I was wrong. My friend’s suspicions turned out to be correct, and A slowly but surely began to insert topics about sex and gender in everything from memes and jokes we shared to our discussion nights to even our gaming profiles and what kinds of things she deemed worthy of conversation. Only when A was occasionally absent did the group revert to being open and balanced in discussion, but when A resumed, the group naturally followed her control and discussed what she wanted to talk about. It even got to a point where we had slacked off from playing games altogether and we spent most of our evenings online just following A’s track of conversation for the night.
The problem, and what finally broke the camel’s back, came with A’s above mentioned deep issues with religion. A, like many liberal friends I have had, looked back on her experiences as a Christian and saw them as the source of any and all pain and suffering she had ever experienced. She never wasted a moment to trash on her upbringing, and was at times absolutely vile with regards to conservative thinking. When she dived deep into LGBT activism, her spite against religion came back full force. One night, during a conversation, she said something to the affect of how she only had ‘backwards views’ about homosexuality when she was ‘young, dumb and uninformed’ (i.e., during her Christian formative years). After spending night after night listening to her say such things, I finally had enough, and I dropped out of the call for the evening without saying anything.
A followed me into my DM’s and demanded to know why I had left- if I was upset and why (to explain- I had previously written a rule stating members shouldn’t ‘rage-quit’ and drop the call without saying goodbye— I broke my own rule that night out of desperation). I told her I was upset, but that I didn’t want to discuss it. She continued to hound me, and I finally admitted that what she had said hurt me, because as a Christian who has specific beliefs regarding sexuality, the inference that I was somehow ‘dumb’ or ‘uninformed’ for holding such beliefs was deeply upsetting. Like in our previous conflict, she immediately took an antagonistic approach, and began berating me for being upset when after all, Christians do such hateful things to the LGBT population and how could I possibly be upset? Anything, everything I said in defense of my beliefs and culture was tossed out with the same answer- that Christians are inherently hateful and cause suffering to others, therefore, my feelings didn’t count. We argued back and forth for almost 2 hours, very late into the night, and until our former ‘friendship’ (which had been dissolving for weeks) was in threads.
I was ready to drop the matter, knowing she was likely to be angry with me no matter what I said, but at the very end of the conversation, she decided to throw in the conversational equivalent (I’m sure, in her mind) of a mic drop. She was coming out to me as Non-Binary! She told me this, in wording that made her seem like she was being brave and hesitant, and then requested that I, from now on, call her only by her new name and her new set of pronouns.
I have to digress here, because I think it matters what went through my mind at this moment. We had just spent until the early hours of the morning arguing about whether or not it was ‘acceptable’ for me to be upset that she had insulted my beliefs and culture, and now she was stamping down with a reveal about her identity. I truly, honestly believe it was a challenge. She now viewed me as a hateful bigot (for saying that I was not dumb and uninformed on LGBT issues?) and was testing the waters to see if I would conform to her worldview in a partially acceptable manner.
I mulled over what to do for all of three seconds, and then decided to take the challenge. I told her, quite honestly, that I already knew she was identifying as non-binary. (Almost everyone in the group had known for months, I can’t imagine how she suspected it was still a deeply held secret from everyone) And I told her that while I was perfectly fine calling her whatever name she wished (many of us had channel nicknames and called each other by them) I was uncomfortable, as a Christian and as someone with various thoughts on Trans and Non-binary issues, using gender-neutral pronouns, and would try to come up with a compromise.
There was no compromise. She immediately lashed out at me, telling me how hateful it was for people to refuse to use gender pronouns. She tried to convince me of this, but I said I was done discussing it, and said goodnight.
I didn’t know for sure what she would do, but it was hardly surprising, an hour or so later, when I glanced back at my phone and saw that she had pasted an angry rant on the server’s homepage, revealing herself to everyone as a Non-Binary individual, screaming about how terrible and horrible it was for her to be misgendered and mistreated, and also crying about how members of the group had ‘ousted’ her to me before she was ready to officially come out. She pinned the post to our homepage, left the server and commented that she was sure I would delete it before anyone saw it.
I almost did, but in that moment of hovering over the message, I had a revelation to the effect that nothing I could possibly do would ever cover over her angry rant. She had already won, and she knew that when she began the argument. Out of almost 30 people, there were only 3 or 4 in the group who would take my side. Whether I erased her message or not, most of them would eventually find out what we had argued about, and most of them would eventually leave.
There was a bigger concern, as well, in that several of the people on the server were either past or current coworkers, hers and mine. She had nothing to lose (having left that job for good) by screaming at me in an online server. But I had had everything to lose if current coworkers saw her accuse me of being “Anti-LGBTQ” and heard her side of the story. A obviously didn’t care about that, but I did care. I also cared that I did the right thing. So, after blocking everyone I could think of that would get me into trouble at work, I gave the rest of the members a time window and deleted the server.
During that final brief time window, I took a lot of heat from other members on the server about how cruel and unfair I had been to A. When all was said and done, only those 3-4 members I mentioned previously were still speaking to me- and that’s all that I have left of a previously large social group.
Does it all sound like a pretty childish argument? Probably. But here’s the meat and potatoes: I, a Christian person, was being harassed for my religious views. By people I considered friends. And when I tried to defend myself, I was forced to ‘oust’ myself as a bigot- and was subsequently cancelled. Again, I’m an adult— and I like to think fairly well rounded—but imagine being 16? Imagine being 11? Imagine your 11 year old daughter coming to and telling you that all her friends decided she wasn’t worth talking to anymore because she refused to use one friend’s pronouns, or had questions about it? Imagine that same kid having to deal with the social pressures of a group that was actively squeezing the life out of any member that didn’t respond to LGBTQIA topics with immediate applause and affirmation?
(I had written that last paragraph prior to reading your reader’s posting: and now I have a new response- because they don’t have to imagine their young daughter in this situation: she’s already in it)
This is the insidious reality we now live in. That those of us who dissent, even slightly, from the social norms and pressures that are becoming increasingly bewildering have two choices: retreat, or be shunned. I’m a young adult, and the above experience was so overwhelming for me that I’ve retreated a great deal from any online interactions I previously had. But what went through my mind at the time, and what’s going through my mind now after reading (your reader’s) story remains constant. Children, under this kind of pressure, without continued and resilient backing, will eventually crack. It starts innocuously, because the person on the side of the friendship or the screen asks you to just be tolerant, accepting of them and their identity. But as we all know, acceptance doesn’t mean you used their pronouns, or you avoided discussing your own beliefs, etc. It means you praise them, worship them and give to them the adulation they think they deserve. Otherwise, you are being hateful to them. There is no in-between.
In my case, upon further reflection, I could have agreed to use my former friend’s pronouns: but that was never the problem. The problem was that she had already so forcefully undermined my control and dismissed my pleas for mutual respect that there was no way I could repair our relationship, even on a surface level. LGBTQ issues were so much more important to her and her friends than anything else we had bonded over that it was enough for her to merely oust me once as having transgressed for nearly every one of them to abandon me.
And being socially isolated as an adult hurts, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as badly as it does when you are a young teenager. In your reader’s daughter’s case, I think her parents are doing everything they should be doing right now. Keeping her active, keeping her away from social media, and trying to be understanding about the parts of her identity she’s holding on to will cause her less pain in the long run.
On the other side of things, you can never be too careful. If there’s one important thing my parents did for me, it’s this: they never, ever shied away from the truth. Your children may be unwilling, with the social pressures of today, to listen to the tenets of their parent’s faith and your heartfelt explanations of why you believe what you do. But you must try to explain. You must try to give them that understanding, even if it’s difficult or requires theological backing. The world will tell them, in simple terms, how hateful and bigoted you are for having any of these opinions. And the world will tell them the same thing—and if they are left speechless, with no defense, they will not be able to stop themselves from being swept up in the tide coming from their peers. Their inability to offer explanation or to know, for themselves, when a peer is becoming toxic will be their downfall. You need to give them the power to stand for themselves, before they see you as a roadblock to social and peer freedom instead of a safety net from harm.
From my own experience, there’s a very large chance this reader’s daughter’s friend will drop her sometime in the coming months, once she finds a more easily targeted person to go after. After all, if this friend is anything like a version of A, they most likely will become more and more hostile to the daughter for her continued interactions with religion and ‘hateful’ parental figures, and may eventually force her to choose between her single friend and her family and healthy peer group. All these parents can do is wait for that to happen, and commit themselves to being there for their daughter when she goes through the hurt that is undoubtedly coming. My prayers go with them. It’s not going to be easy.
This is going to take some time to digest. My first thought, though, is that we Christian parents and church leaders (and for that matter, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and all traditionalists) had better start right now training our children to expect to suffer for their faith, and in the importance of standing firm for and in the faith, no matter what it costs.
UPDATE: The correspondent e-mailed just now this response to some of the comment-box criticism:
Why did I make those friends? Why hang out with these people? Why not my community?
This is kind of a loaded question. The answer is complex. First of all, I think it should be mentioned that the original group I created consisted of about 6 people, all of whom I knew personally. (They weren’t previously connected to each other, except in smaller clusters—2 friends from work, 2 from a former on-campus Catholic org., etc.) The other thing I probably failed to mention is that the group was formed around a very specific video game title that all of these people had recently started playing. The purpose of the Discord chat was to swap game info, related in-game conversations etc. The voice chat we used to play together, online, once a week. That was how it started out. Yes, we were casual friends, and yes, not every person I originally invited agreed with me on every aspect of political and social life, but that didn’t matter at the start of the group. We were only using the server for one main purpose: to play a game with relative non-strangers. How it spiraled out of control is another issue, one that I do still blame myself for, in many ways.
As for why not make it exclusively people in my ‘community?’ I don’t really have one. That’s the honest answer. I tried and failed to make friends in my (state school’s) only Catholic organization and left, disgusted, a few semesters in because my fellow Catholics were disturbingly lukewarm about their faith and I couldn’t deal with the cliquishness and hypocrisy that was going on behind the scenes. The two friends from that org I brought into this server were all that had survived and one of them had also quit the religious group (the org, not the faith) for good, for similar reasons. (And when I say disturbingly lukewarm— I mean it, I wasn’t just being picky. Part of what eventually drove me out was that my fellow young Catholics were using it as a dating circle and I was repeatedly stalked and harassed by young men that didn’t seem to understand that the girls weren’t there for their benefit. Enough said)
Why didn’t I assert more control/why delete the server in the end?
This one is primarily on me. The reality is, I let myself grow complacent, and never suspected that the group could spiral so far out of my control that anything like what went down would happen. A’s dominance over the group escaped my notice, (the only reason she was an admin originally is because she volunteered to help out when I needed it— big mistake on my part) and she displayed more and more toxicity over time.
As for deleting the server- there were a lot of things under the surface that led to that decision. Part of it was A’s control and how many people had sided with her already. A large part of my own decision came from the fact that A targeted another two people in her rage-rant at me, and left our names out of her aggressive postings, in such a way that I feared the other members would resort to trying to ‘figure out’ who had ‘hurt’ her. I had two choices: remove A and everyone associated with her from the server and hope for the best (which, at that stage would have been almost everyone) or respond to her publicly and take the negative out-lash myself, so that a few of the people I still trusted and cared about could honestly make their own decisions about who to trust and what they wanted to do going forward. I have never once regretted that decision. In fact, I found out who my real friends were, and I appreciate them more all the time.
Why does this story about online gaming matter?
I see a lot of comments talking about how online interactions are naturally toxic and some genuine shrugs about the gaming part. The point isn’t either of those things, in actuality. Think about it this way- do you have a group of 6-10 people you regularly hang out with right now? Are they all from your community? Do they all agree with you on everything? I bet the answer to those last two is no, for most people. The point isn’t that this story is necessarily special: the point is, it could happen to anyone. All it takes is one person like A, preaching whatever gospel they are inflamed with (LGBTQ rights, BLM, even Far-Right political movements) to turn a quiet, stable social hour into an activism march- from which anyone who dissents will be forcefully ejected (or forced to leave under their own power, to avoid the fallout). If you think this can’t, won’t happen to you or your kids because you do all the right things, have all the right groups and do all the policing in the world— go read “We Thought We Were Safe” from the other day. It can, and will happen. The important part isn’t how petty or ridiculous it seems—the point is this: Are you prepared to stand up for what you believe in the face of isolation?