I “came out” just about a year ago. It’s odd looking back on the days when no one knew and comparing those days to my life today, partly because my life looks so different and partly because my life looks so similar. I’m still here. I’m still Catholic. And I’m still the kind of Catholic who affirms everything in that little book we call the Catechism.
But I’m also so different. It’s as if my life were an iceberg and coming out was the decision to let others finally see what was beneath the surface. They had always seen me, but they had also missed out on so much of what puts me together, what lies hidden and holds me up, what gives my life the unique shape and color that it has always had. And coming out has let me look beneath the surface of myself as well.
A friend recently challenged me to imagine a world in which everyone was blonde. Being in the closet is like being the only brown-haired person in the world and having to dye your hair so that no one finds out. In another world, being brown-haired wouldn’t matter so much and you wouldn’t spend much time worrying about it, but when everyone assumes you’re blonde and you have to stay blonde to function reasonably in the world, hair color is everything.
For many gay men and women, being closeted means constantly attending to your dress, mannerisms, and tone of voice. It’s plucking out the occasional hair that didn’t dye right. It’s freaking out one morning that your roots are showing and either staying home from work or having to wear a hat. And it’s avoiding association with the other brown-haired people. One of the things I’ve loved about being out is having the opportunity to meet other people who know what this life is like. It’s been tremendously life-giving to meet people who understand this strange experience and who understand that former life of hiding, of hiding even from yourself.
At the same time, the analogy shows some of the superficiality of coming out. For some, coming out is treated as if it were dying your hair black or shaving your head. Rather than letting their roots naturally grow, they choose to make a statement that is just as artificial as the closet. For many, coming out is such a rapid embrace of “who you are” that it makes you almost unrecognizable. In an effort to be authentic, an image is suddenly and forcibly undone, and everyone is left shocked and confused.
That same friend told me about how his initial instinct after coming out was to include the words “and I’m gay” after “hello, my name is…” He issued out this introduction as if it were a challenge rather than an invitation, forcing the other to declare his or her views on the issue rather than inviting the other to begin a friendship.
Over time, we both realized the problem with this approach. It’s the distinction between being “out” and being “open.” “Coming out” is making an announcement for everyone to hear, forcibly breaking others’ limited understanding of you and publicly declaring your identity. “Being open”, by contrast, is allowing yourself to be better known by others through an organic process of unfolding, not seeking to hide certain parts of yourself but also not throwing out personal information until you have a personal relationship.
In this way, others knowing your sexual orientation is like their knowing the color of your eyes. Most of your friends won’t be able to accurately describe it until they’ve spent a lot of time looking at it. And often they’ll get the shade or tone wrong, and you’ll have a gentle opportunity to correct them, in a desire to help them see you better.
Perhaps writing this seems disingenuous; when I came out last summer, I wrote a series of public blog posts stating my experience and positions. But, before those posts were released, I made sure to have a quiet conversation with many of my closest family and friends. And even with my sexuality posted across the pages of the internet, there are still many in my life who don’t know about this part of it.
This doesn’t strike me as a problem, and I don’t seek to remedy misunderstandings as soon as they arise. My “being open” isn’t a political statement or a challenge to others or a badge of honor; it’s a gradual unfolding, the pulling away of a veil, an added color to the way in which others see me. It’s depth and color and clarity. I’m not coming out anymore. I’m being open.
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. He can be found on Twitter @UniversityIdeas.