October 11 is National Coming Out Day. First observed in 1988, organizers established the day to reframe resistance to anti-LGBTQ action from defensiveness to a positive witness. Hearts are changed less by debate and more by learning people we know and care about are LGBTQ.
Coming out provides a much welcomed witness to others that they are not alone, not broken, not without value simply because of their gender or who they love.
Coming out also challenges the notion that there is only one way or norm that is the “default” and everything else is “deviant” or “intrinsically disordered” (as the Roman Catholic Catechism teaches). Such assumptions and language literally kill others, so resisting it is a baptismal action of “resisting the evil powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”
Coming out is both a challenge and a gift for everybody. The gift is that the person who reveals an important part of their life is inviting the other into sharing more fully in their life, into knowing them better and more authentically. The ability to affirm and embrace such a person is a huge gift, even if one does not fully understand or agree with the other person. When one comes out, one is saying “You matter to me and I need you to know this so that we can be in a more authentic relationship as friends (family, co-workers, neighbors etc.).”
It is challenging because coming out pushes us beyond our comfort zones. It can be uncomfortable to hear about something we do not understand or are not comfortable talking about. It is uncomfortable to take a risk that one will be rejected and that a relationship that mattered to us might end. No one likes to feel awkward and when we are outside our comfort zone, we are awkward.
Yet, as a card someone once gave me quoting Zora Neale Hurston says, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” Coming out, therefore, creates a tremendous opportunity for growth and a richer life for everyone involved.
I came out to myself and close friends and clergy in 1986 in South Carolina when I was 21 and then, soon thereafter, to my family. I chose to be very cautious because there were some I did not trust. I later found out that I should have trusted some more than I did and the fact that I did not trust them caused them pain. I also found out that it was very wise I did not come out to some people, as well. I was blessed in that nobody to whom I came out rejected me. Indeed, I experienced much love, support, and affirmation.
There is also the reality that only God loves perfectly. The rest of us love imperfectly. Yet, love is also patient and kind as St. Paul writes. Genuine love is rooted in patience, kindness, generosity of spirit, desire for the well-being of the other.
I also learned that affirmation is not the same as agreement. Some people understood right away. Others struggled and did not agree with me. Yet, they still supported me, loved me, and wanted the best for me. Even though we could not agree, we could stay in relationship because we could affirm our commonality that we mattered to each other and wanted the best for each other.
Quite frankly, in many ways, this is the story of my life. Some of the most influential people in my life were people who thought my being gay was less than ideal. One of them even sponsored me for ordination despite believing that gay people should not be ordained! Indeed, the Bishop who ordained me was elected bishop after stating that she would not ordain an openly gay person to the priesthood.
She struggled. I struggled. We struggled together. I affirmed her as my bishop even though I disagreed with her. She affirmed me as a postulant and later candidate for holy orders even though she was not sure she would ordain me. At the same time, she was also clear with me that my relationship with my then partner and now husband Jim would always take priority over my ordination vows should she ordain me.
And then she did ordain me. And we both learned much from each other and grew through our struggle together. I had the great joy of welcoming her some 16 years later to St. Peter’s, Freehold for confirmation because we maintained our relationship. She was able to see what positive things had come out of our willingness to struggle together.
I am never a fan of cancel culture or casting people away. I know that sometimes relationships are so toxic they must end, and that some people are indeed abusive and cruel and need to be stopped.
I worry that we are in a time in which our nerves are raw from the pandemic and extreme polarization in our country. We do not always have the patience we need and our reserves are spent from dealing with the harm such divisiveness has caused.
Coming out is not easy and it is always up to the individual whether and when to do so. The greatest gift we can give is to listen and to love. Demonstrably love, even when imperfect. Coming out must also include a willingness to love the imperfect in return. It is in the ongoing relationship that more perfect love emerges. Ending relationship ends that opportunity.
I believe that what the LGBTQ community has taught us about coming out can also apply to our mission as Christ’s Body, the Church.
I believe it is for this time that God has called us to be the Church. It is our values of respect, dignity, and sacrificial love for the well-being of the other that creates a healing way forward. It is our time to come out, with great pride and joy and without apology for what we believe and who we are. It may be uncomfortable. It may be awkward. It may be challenging. It may even be scary, but Christ promises that it is the way that leads to new life.