In my experience, the best predictor of emotional health for an LGBT person is generally how many people he or she has come out to. This effect is most dramatic between someone who is completely closeted and someone who is out to a few friends. To make sure it’s clear what I mean, to “come out,” short for “come out of the closet,” is simply to disclose one’s romantic or sexual feelings, regardless of one’s behavior or convictions. If a person is “closeted,” his or her sexuality is a secret, and if he or she is “out,” it has been disclosed. Neither term is all-encompassing; it is common to be out in some contexts but closeted in others.
Most of us are initially closeted as a result of fear. We are afraid that people might shun us if they knew about our sexuality. Those of us who are Christians often fear that we will be judged not to be if we come out. Our fear is often rational – I know people who have lost positions of leadership or employment upon coming out, and some have lost friends or been disowned by family. However, I think the risk is also overblown for a lot of us – I haven’t really faced any of these negative reactions myself. Nonetheless, rational or not, the fear is extremely real. I think of my own experience. Long before I actually came out to anyone, I had the sense that I needed to do so. Around the fall of 2004, I finally decided that I wasn’t going to take my secret to the grave. However, I didn’t actually build up the courage to share until the summer of 2005, after my brother initiated a deep conversation about some other things. Even once I decided the time was right, it took about half an hour to get the words out of my mouth. Coming out the next few times remained similarly difficult, although it has slowly become easier with time and practice.
Coming out was absolutely critical to coming to a place of emotional health for me. It helped me not feel like I was living a lie, and not feeling like I had to keep my sexuality secret was critical to forming authentic friendships. Coming out also helped me see that I could be acceptable to people, and it dramatically reduced my sense of shame over things I couldn’t control. I’ve seen it have the same benefits time and again for others, at least for those who get positive reactions.
For my straight readers, I strongly encourage all of you to think about how to help people overcome their fear. Of course, you often don’t know who is LGBT until they come out, so you basically have to advertise yourself as a helpful person to talk to. I saw this happen with the first couple floormates I talked to in college. One was the RA, and he explicitly mentioned in a floor meeting that there could be guys on the floor who were sexually attracted to other guys, and we needed to make them feel welcome and not ostracized. That took the risk away from bringing up my sexuality. Another guy didn’t really talk about LGBT stuff specifically, but he did mention the need to be aware that there are people who struggle with socially unacceptable sins, and that we needed to provide good fellowship and support. That also showed him to be a safe person.
My biggest suggestion for straight readers would actually be this: be the one to defend LGBT people. If you hear someone call something they don’t like “gay,” ask them about how that would feel to a gay person listening in. If you hear people railing against the “gay agenda,” mention that there are people who find themselves attracted to the same sex and have difficulty following traditional teaching, and that it’s not just a matter of rebellion. That doesn’t mean that you should compromise your convictions, but it does mean that your conviction about needing to love your LGBT neighbors needs to come across at least as strongly as your conviction against gay sex or relationships. That will scream to LGBT people that you care about them even to the point of risking your own reputation. You may catch some flak for this, but the benefit is that you may dramatically improve someone’s life and might even save someone from abandoning faith or committing suicide.
For my LGBT readers, I think it’s important to realize a few things. For one, don’t be discouraged if you find it very difficult to come out, especially the first few times. This is completely normal. You may find you need to e-mail and set up an appointment with someone in order to force yourself to talk. Even after the first few times, learning to be more comfortable being open is a slow process. Even four or five years ago, I would never have believed that I’d ever be posting about my sexuality under my real name on a public blog, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally got to that point. Please don’t be too hard on yourself for not being where I am in 2013.
Also, as important and beneficial as coming out to a few people can be, it’s also important to use wisdom. If you first tell someone who reacts poorly, not only will that be painful in and of itself, but it will be more difficult to open up further afterward. I’ve only been able to be as open as I am now by having a significant network of people in my life who know about my sexuality and will be there to support me if I get negative backlash. If you do face that kind of backlash, though, always remember that God loves you immensely and that there are people who will accept you even with knowledge of your sexuality! I’m also not sure that any particular person will ever be called to be as open as I am, and it’s not my place to decide how open someone else needs to be. However, I’m very glad for my fellow Christians who have felt similarly called to speak out.