Some of the best responses to my coming out have come from those who listened receptively. They take in what I have to say and seek to understand as best they can. In some ways, my coming out has changed very little in my relationships with others. I am the same man that I have always been. Most of my relationships have neither taken a radical redirection nor experienced a great rupture. So things have more or less remained the same.
Yet, everything has changed. It’s like a man who has always loved music and then learns musical theory. He loves the music, as he had loved it before, but his love is, in some ways, entirely different. He loves not only that music is beautiful, but he loves the particularities of that beauty that he had not seen before: its profound order, the development of a musical score, the genius of a composition.
This also shows the importance of receptivity. Rather than forming some idea of what I am supposed to be, they are open to me as I am. I’m not supposed to be straight or not gay. I am who I am, and they accept that. And rather than forming some idea of what being gay is supposed to mean for me, many of my friends have just sat silently while I tried to explain what it actually means to me, at least as I see it. They could think me right or wrong, but, instead of making rash judgments, they simply try to see me as I see myself.
When people come out to you, it’s important to just let them talk. Let them explain themselves. Just hear what they have to say. If you must ask questions, ask questions that are non-judgmental and that ask only for further explanation. Don’t say things like, “You feel this way because” or “You don’t understand this” or “This might be transitory.” Don’t try to explain it to them. Just take things in, right or wrong, and withhold your judgment for a later time. Simply offer a listening ear and loving support. You can offer your opinions and judgments, but do this either later or if you’re absolutely sure that this is what they want at the time.
Most likely, at some point in your life, one of your friends or family will “come out” as gay. It’s important that you form yourself to be the kind of person who lives a life of acceptance. Pope Benedict XVI has written that “man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: it is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself.”
It’s important that this acceptance be unconditional and unreserved. A friend, Laurie, recently told me about a man she knows whom she suspects is gay. She asked me how she could tell him that she loves him, whether or not he’s gay. I told her to simply tell him, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you and care for you, and nothing that you could think or say or do could change that.” Even if you think a friend is gay, he may not think that about himself. So it’s important to accept him either way. Although we may have disagreements and arguments, it is important that the virtue of charity, of love, be unconditional.
If someone comes out to you and you don’t know how to respond, here’s a note out of Tina Fey’s recent book, Bossypants:
“Brendan and I ran into each other on the front lawn. He seemed to be in a particularly Oscar Wilde mood. “May I kiss you?” he asked. Sure, who cares. After a tender, playacted non-French kiss, Brendan suddenly “came out” to me. In my experience, the hardest thing about having someone “come out” to you is the “pretending to be surprised” part. You want him to feel like what he’s telling you is Big. It’s like, if somebody tells you they’re pregnant, you don’t say, “I did notice you’ve been eating like a hog lately.” Your gay friend has obviously made a big decision to say the words out loud. You don’t want him to realize that everybody’s known this since he was ten and wanted to be Bert Lahr for Halloween. Not the Cowardly Lion, but Bert Lahr. “Oh, my gosh, no waaay?” You stall, trying to think of something more substantial to say. “Is everyone, like, freaking out? What a… wow.””
But, even more (and on a more serious note), the commitment of “straight” Christians to the virtues of chastity and purity will provide an inclusive world for gay Christians. Often, when gay Christians are considering a life of celibacy, the world of promiscuity illustrated by their straight counterparts is a challenge to the celibate life. Many straight Christians implicitly argue, by their lives, that celibacy is an unlivable and unreasonable life choice.
The hook-up culture was less prevalent at my Catholic undergraduate college than at most universities, but it still had an affect on its gay and lesbian students. Although the University had strict policies against any pre-marital sex, gay students felt that people would turn a blind eye to heterosexual intercourse, while strictly condemning homosexual intercourse. If the “hook-up culture” is implicitly acceptable for straight students, why isn’t it implicitly acceptable for gay students?
This “implicit acceptance” may or may not be true, but the important thing to note is that the general student body made this acceptance appear to be real. This has a natural alienating tendency towards those students whose sexual habits are less “socially acceptable.” One is led to ask, “Why is his sin acceptable, while mine is not?” The next question would naturally be, “If his sin is not really a sin, then why should I accept that my sin is really a sin?” An ambiguous commitment to Christian teaching will lead to ambiguous views of the Christian life. If one chooses a list of sins to avoid, based on convenience or social acceptability, one has no reasonable grounding for any concept of sin. At that point, sin is only the product of private judgment and personal prejudice, the natural precursor to and aid of unjust discrimination.
To create a world in which gay Christians can easily see a life of happiness without same-sex-marriage would be to create a world of heroic devotion to the traditional teachings of Christianity, including a devotion to the virtues of chastity and purity. The greatest aid for gay Christians would be for straight Christians to live out the virtues that they insist their gay counterparts commit themselves to. In short, the call for sanctity is most believable when it is a call from a saint.
Chris Damian recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing degrees in Law and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.