On Coming Out and Being Known

I attended a lecture about disabilities recently. At the end of the lecture, a steady stream of students and professors walked up to a microphone in front of the audience and offered questions to the speakers. The questioners mostly came up one-by-one, asking abstract questions about abstract people. Silence fell when the final questioner stepped before the microphone. It was a woman, her left arm clinging to her friend beside her, and her right arm holding a long white stick extending out in front of her—she was blind. And when the conversation changed from an abstraction discussion about disabled people, to actually talking with a disabled person, there was a subtle but obvious shift in tone.

The moment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few months before. I was around a campfire with a group of Catholic friends, discussing the Church. At a certain point, gay marriage came up. One of the guys, with whom I was friends but didn’t know particularly well, said, “I know that a Catholic guy came out in order to defend traditional marriage when it was being debated, and I understand that. But, as a Catholic, I don’t know why same-sex-attracted people would want to be open about and discussing their sexuality. I mean, I don’t go around discussing my sexuality with other people.”

Before I had ‘come out’ and people would say things like that, I used to shift uncomfortably in my seat and hope that no one would notice. I’d become self-conscious and hope desperately that people wouldn’t realize that I was being talked about, that my experiences were being questioned. I would want to hide and hope that the topic wouldn’t come up again.

Some people argue that sexuality is something that shouldn’t be discussed publicly, especially for gay people. This point comes up especially in Christian circles, where critics remark that gay people shouldn’t be so “out and proud” but rather discreet, while at the same time making sweeping remarks about my experiences that are anything but discreet. They would insist on talking about my sexuality, while also insisting that I cannot talk about it myself.

That night I felt a little awkward. But I had already ‘come out’ publicly by that point, and I no longer felt the shame of having to hide myself when people were talking about me. I turned to another friend next to me who knew I was gay, and I whispered to her, “Should I say something?” She responded that she didn’t know, smiling gently. So I did what’s become my standard practice—I just listened, asked questions, and gave general opinions, without disclosing any information about my sexuality. Then I waited a day and sent him a message over Facebook:

Hey, I was thinking about our conversation the other night, and I came across a blog on sexuality that one of my friends recently wrote. I thought it might interest you: What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?

I’ve also written a bit on sexuality. If you’re interested, some of my writings can be found here.

I’ve found this practice to be good for a few reasons. Mostly, when the topic of sexuality comes up, I want people to be able to be honest with me about what they think. I usually wait to disclose my sexuality, because, if I tell them right then, I know that they’ll be nervous about offending me and won’t know what to say or how to properly present their opinions to me. Because, if I come out to them, they suddenly realize that they’re no longer talking about some abstract issue—they’re talking about me.

And this scares them. If I’m gay, then they have a different responsibility towards the things they say about gay people. Their words will no longer be sufficient if they only correspond to the abstract idea of what they think gay people are like. Their words have to respond to me and how I actually am. Getting to know me forces them to rethink, because I—like a lot of gay people—am very different from the things people usually say about us.

Since I’ve ‘come out’, my friends no longer talk about gay people. They talk about me, and they talk with me. They’re forced to break out of their monologues and to engage real people in questions and answers. And, eventually, they come to love gay people. Because they love me.

My friend eventually messaged me back. I think that Christians would have a much better relationship with the gay community if they responded like he did:

Thanks a lot for pointing me to these blogs. I think first-hand perspectives are really valuable to learning about homosexuality and the like, and I hope to keep learning more about it. My opinions are not as formed as I would like them to be so getting a better understanding about the matter is something I hope to do. In particular I liked the end of your post titled “This is Me.” I would love to talk more about this with you if you have time next week to get together over lunch or if we ever run into each other again.

Chris DamianChris 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. He can be found on Twitter @UniversityIdeas.

12 thoughts on “On Coming Out and Being Known

  1. I am a 62 year old heterosexual woman. Because of my traditional Catholic upbringing–some of which I am grateful for and try to live out, other of which I have rejected–I am intrigued by the musings in “Spiritual Friendship”. When Damien’s acquaintance said gays should not be “out and proud” because “I don’t go around discussing my sexuality with other people”, I wonder about the speaker. Would he never refer to “my girlfriend” or ” my wife.” If he does, he is outing his (hetero) sexuality. Even commenting–or rather, how one comments –that someone eg movie actor) is attractive reveals something about one’s sexuality. I lived through the era when gay people were “discrete”, as the speaker wished they would continue to be; in practice this meant closeted. Such individuals had to watch their body language, eyes, voice intonation. As a result they carried themselves stiffly and were stilted. They changed pronouns from male to female, from plural to singular, (as in response to “so what did you do last weekend?” saying, “We–er, I–went to..etc”. In these blips the hearers lost track of where they/he went and had to conspire with the speaker not to hear what came out when the mask slipped. After a while the mask didn’t slip and “friendship” became limited by all the things that couldn’t be acknowledged–most of them not even overtly sexual. Not to mention the men who fooled themselves and therefore a woman into opposite-sex”marriages”. Whatever today’s difficulties [and, to be frank, there seem some contradictions that I can’t see how the celibate gays (plan B’ers, if you will) are going to solve] they pale beside the price of the closet (a price paid mostly by gay people, but also by those who would have liked to have had more genuine friendships with them.)

    • That is the best description I’ve yet heard of the effects of not being out, Hypatia. Thank, I’m probably going to be sharing your comment with people. 🙂

    • It would help to elaborate on “contradictions.”

      I find the “side A” Christian position to have the most intellectual contradictions.

      Those who attack the work on this site tend to bring a very secularized worldview that effectively equates romantic love with salvation and try to judge our experiences though that. It is a basic Christian belief that a celibate life can be abundant, even if it not ideally what a person wants.

  2. About three years ago, I was talking with a gay Catholic. He said, no matter who he is talking to, he is generally slammed. ‘Gay activists’ for lack of a better word, hate on him for ‘denying his sexuality and living in this archaic Church’. ‘Faithful Catholics’ for lack of a better word, hate on him for being so open about his sexuality, suggesting he ‘prays the gay away’, etc… He said, depending on which priest he confesses to, he generally hears one reaction or the other. Anyway, it was at that time I realized those who are in the LGBT community and choose to live within the reality of Church teachings, face CONSTANT martyrdom and constant rejection…even from those who claim to be of love and acceptance. It bummed me out for him and so many of my brothers and sisters like him. That is all.

  3. To Happiness1535: Here’s my attempt to “elaborate on the contradictions in part B.” It seems to me that there are three main religious arguments against gay relationships/marriages. The first is Biblical, the second, tradition/ Magisterium, and the third, natural law (which last is supposed to be understandable to all regardless of religion). As I am limited to 300 words, I’ll touch on the first two and lay out a broader case around the third. The Biblical arguments have been exhaustively canvased on both A and B sides. A succinct summary of A (i.e. the side I’m “elaborating on”) is in chapter 12 of “Torn” by Justin Lee. Re: tradition/Magisterium, it usually comes down to side B Catholics quoting the Catechism/Letters from CDF and Protestants citing historical and contemporary authorities versus side A’ers listing divorce(for Protestants), the massive broadening of criteria for annulments (for Catholics), and slavery (for both) as examples of how Christian thought/law has taken new realities into account. The third pillar, natural law arguments, interests me most. It seems to me gays must choose among three different ways of being “unnatural”. 1) The first is the most obviously biological: histology (i.e. cell biology) suggests the penis and vagina are fit together in a way that penis and anus don’t. (The mouth is an intermediate case.) So same sex intercourse–and therefore same sex marriage–could be seen as unnatural.
    2) Evidence is accumulating that desire for the same sex is part of a “package” of traits–many of which, like finger length ratios, spatial ability, and acoustic acuity, are not obviously related to sex. We are converging on the epigenetic, hormonal, intrauterine influences that structure the brain to either hetero or and homosexual orientation (less often, both). Those structures are just as natural, and more complex, than genitals. [See the book “Gay, Straight, and the Reasons Why” by LeVay for a summary of the physiology.] Generally, for a homosexual (not bisexual) person to attempt to be sexually attracted to, fall on love with, and then remain in a true marriage with an opposite sexed person is as impossible (due to brain structure)as would be the reverse. [I ask my fellow hetero readers to contemplate a marriage with a friend of the same sex. However much you may love that person, to relate sexually as one does in marriage would not be sustainable.] Gays who have entered cross-gendered marriages often report resenting the straight partner for wanting sex and then feeling guilty for resenting an innocent, often loved, spouse. So heterosexual marriage is also unnatural for gays. This leaves the third option, celibacy. Though I hope I do not “equate romantic love with salvation” such love can be life enhancing–to the point where even bystanders catch the joy in “that dizzy, dancing way you feel”. Romantic energies expand one’s horizons and have inspired art and song. But leaving that aside, it seems to be the “mutual society, help, and comfort one has of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity” that is especially, achingly, missed by the vast number of persons who are not especially called to celibacy. Those who are so called can sometimes be lonely too, but their calling, by its very nature, can often supply compensations. [Ironically I have been celibate for the last 10 years for various circumstantial reasons–certainly not a calling. I am quite happy because: 1) I live in a small town where we share our lives, 2) I have very satisfying work that involves helping people, and 3) I had a satisfying heterosexual marriage for a while earlier in my life. But I don’t believe my good luck will apply to most persons who are gay (or to straights for that matter) and to ask them to live a whole life without sexual outlets and without a helpmate can cripple them. I invite anyone who doubts this to read Stephen’s experience on his “Sacred Tension” blog and Wesley Hill’s book, “Washed and Waiting”. The former tried a chaste coupledom with a man he loved; the latter is more conventionally single. Each was/is a side B’er, heroically striving to observe what he saw as the precepts of his religion. Both are eloquent accounts and painful reading. So those are the three choices religious gay people have: 1) gay partnerships/marriages, 2) straight marriage, and 3) celibacy. All are “unnatural” in some way. They can’t NOT choose. I believe most will, and should, choose gay relationships as by far the least harmful option It seems also the least unnatural, since sex is so much more than genital body parts; thus the psychological (also a body part, the brain), emotional, and spiritual connection should take priority when there is a conflict. (The exception to number 1 being the best choice is those truly called to celibacy, independent of their gayness, the way some straights are called to celibacy independent of their straightness). The several Christian gay married couples I know live fine, flourishing lives, are hurting no one, and helping marriage by giving their neighbors such positive models.

  4. Correction to sentence number fourteen above: “We are converging on the epigenetic, hormonal, intrauterine influences that structure the brain to either hetero or homosexual orientation (less often, both).

  5. Another correction: So heterosexual marriage is also unnatural for the vast majority of gays. I should have included the qualifier.

  6. Hi Chris,

    We had a lot of discussions about homosexuality at the Bible college where I trained before being ordained in the Church of England six months ago. At first I said nothing about my being gay, I would always just air strong views defending gay Christians in the context of discussions, and people could tell it was a subject I was intensely passionate about. I told a few close friends about my sexuality including one who was gay and opened up to the whole college about his being gay in our second year (he’s now in a civil partnership). My friend received quite a mixed response from people at college (this was at the time when we were all being actively encouraged to sign the petition against same-sex marriage), and eventually moved to live out of college. It was a tough time for him and I didn’t want to face similar difficulties so I stayed closeted. I also stayed closeted because I didn’t want to face upsetting my parents who want we me to be quite private about it. Unfortunately this went badly wrong in my third year at college. I told some of the friends whom I lived on site in college with (because it was too difficult to stay quiet with so many debates going on), but one of them who wasn’t very understanding gossiped to the kitchen staff about it so eventually rumours flew around the college about me. So in college, in my “semi-closted” state I never knew which of my colleagues really knew I was gay, and who suspected it but never properly knew, which was really awkward.

    My present church has been very welcoming to me and I have decided with my vicar that we are going to have a session about the Church’s pastoral response to gay Christians where I will give my full testimony. I am a bit scared about “coming out” in this way but have decided it will be better to have conversations in our church in the context of at least one “real” scenario rather than lots of hypothetical conversations where I just represent an “interested party”. I think in my case, openness will be better for me than hiding (though I understand this is a personal decision and wouldn’t be the right decision for every gay Christian to make, especially given that it can come at a cost).

    Mark

  7. Pingback: Coming Out and Being Open | Spiritual Friendship

  8. Pingback: And The Walls Came Tumbling Down | Building Bridges in War Zones

  9. Pingback: More On Coming Out Part 1: How I Got Here | Spiritual Friendship

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