Earlier this week I was talking briefly online with a friend who’s still in the middle of the process of coming out to family and friends. It’s been a few years since I was in his shoes, and hearing him describe both the newfound freedom and the emotional exhaustion of coming out took me back to those moments of my own life.
I think, for instance, of sitting with a friend at her kitchen table late one night. I’d come upstairs from my basement apartment to where she and her husband lived on the third floor of the house, having decided this would be the night I confided in her, dear friend that she was. And even though I counted on it going well, and even though I’d had the same conversation with other friends a half dozen times in the previous weeks, I still felt jittery. Imagine knowing you are about to describe some hitherto hidden part of your psyche and your life’s narrative that, somehow, isn’t just one discrete part but rather something that suffuses the whole. (My hands are sweating a little as I type these words now, even recalling that moment about ten years later.)
I remember sitting across the table from my friend in the half-light of the lamp above the sink, and I started shivering a little, apparently visibly. “Are you okay?” my friend asked, turning up her Minnesota accent a bit at the end of her question in order to convey that she didn’t want to sound accusatory. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I assured her, and then tried to stop beating around the bush. Finally the words tumbled out. And there was, as before, that potent cocktail of emotions—relief at being more deeply known, joy at her mothering tenderness toward me in that moment, fear of what misunderstandings she might nonetheless still be harboring, nervousness about whether anything would be disrupted in our future relationship, excitement and happiness about the prospect of a deeper friendship, and more.
But what I really found myself thinking about this week, in conversation with my friend, was how this coming out process is never, ever finished. There’s a real sense in which it’s done and dusted for me. Heck, I’ve written a book about being gay, and I contribute regularly to this blog. At one profound level, I’m as out as can possibly be. Even so, there’s another, seemingly deeper and truer sense in which I’m still coming out, or would like to be. I want to be further known, better understood. As I wrote to my friend,
I’ve been thinking lately, for instance, as someone who’s in my early 30s, about how there is so much to my current experience of my sexuality—the longing for friendship, the surges of sexual attraction, the moments of being so aware of my difference, the loneliness of singleness, the jealousy of certain friends’ friendships and marriages—that I still find it difficult to talk about, sometimes even with close friends.
All my nearest and dearest friends know I’m gay. And each of them would be willing, at a moment’s notice, to talk with me about it. Yet, somehow, finding words to tell them about how that one spark of attraction last week felt at once so confusing and revelatory and problematic—how do I perform that impossible task? How do I tell them that, even though I write about the comforts of friendship and hospitality, and how I am called as a celibate man to honor and celebrate same-sex closeness and camaraderie, at times I am still searching and not finding that closeness for myself? (Should I even try to tell them?) Or how do I describe something it seems as though I should have gotten over years ago—namely, those stabs of envy I feel on seeing a happy marriage, or observing a double date at a nearby table in a restaurant? (As my gay friend Karen has said, “I have found that life has its ups and downs. I have gone through terrible miserable years, followed by exuberant years, followed by difficult years, followed by bittersweet years. Our struggles and spiritual life ebb and flow in different ways. Perhaps old struggles and joys of the past are gone but new ones arise.”) Or how do I tell my friends—and really communicate it to them—that, even though, as a traditional Christian, I believe in the moral wrongness of gay sex, there are still aspects of being gay and belonging to circles of gay friends that move and delight and instruct me in ways that might be hard to articulate and comprehend?
I’m not saying I feel obligated, or even desirous, of sharing all these things with all my friends. There are, as a counselor of mine once told me, circles of appropriate transparency. Not every flicker of desire or anguish is something even my best friends need to hear. But still, there are ways I feel as though I need to keep coming out, and all the more as any given friendship deepens. In those moments, I am quietly awed by the power of a second, third, thirtieth, or three hundredth coming out.
I often quote G. C. Lichtenburg to my students: that there is “a great difference between believing something still and believing it again.” Tweaking that line, I’d say there’s a great difference between coming out initially—having the “I’m gay” conversation for the very first time—and coming out again—having the “I’m gay” conversation for the thousandth time. The first one is fearful and wondrous, and the second is more than just its extension.