Back in 2013, I wrote a post about the importance of “coming out” and how I first started coming out to people. (In that post, as well as this one, by “coming out” I simply mean disclosing my orientation.) I previously focused on the initial process of coming out to a few friends and/or family members for support. As should be obvious from the fact I’m blogging here under my real name, that was only the beginning of a trajectory towards becoming much more open.
Given what I’ve been doing, I’ve found that a lot of sexual minority Christians have been asking me about how open they should be about their sexuality. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Rather, it’s a process of discernment that depends on individual circumstances.
I’d like to offer some reflections on that process. In the past, people have found it helpful when I’ve put my practical reflections in the context of my own experience, so in this post I will offer a summary of how I got to where I am today.
When I initially started coming out to people, it was about pursuing emotional health and, to a significant degree, change in orientation. Although I never found the orientation change I was looking for, I did come to a place of peace. I had enough people in my life who knew about my sexuality to feel that I was being known, and I wasn’t so overwhelmed by shame. I didn’t really see the need to open up more broadly, though I did know that as I moved to new places for graduate school and employment I would need to develop new support networks.
My world was rocked in July of 2009 by a guy named Steve who had attended Wheaton College the same time I attended Taylor University, from 2005 to 2009. He wrote a post called “Gay at Wheaton” in which he discussed his own experiences. His description of Wheaton sounded exactly like Taylor—-and like many other conservative Christian environments. Homosexuality was discussed as an abstract issue, without real awareness of or concern for the actual gay people present. I had always found this frustrating, but hadn’t really been motivated to do much about it. But Steve’s post also had one sentence that hit me like a ton of bricks:
In my time at Wheaton, I have known probably two dozen gay students, and almost all of them have shared with me that they were (or had recently been) suicidal.
This gave me the realization that it really wasn’t just about me. I had never been to the point of being suicidal, but that fact apparently made me the exception rather than the rule. Something about conservative Christian responses to homosexuality had gone even more horribly wrong than I’d realized. But what?
In that post, Steve mentioned the “well-meaning but deadly silence:” straight Christians didn’t talk about the gay people in their midst, and the gay people in their midst were never open about their sexuality, creating a vicious cycle. I realized that I had a unique ability to fight this cycle by coming out more broadly.
I also came to think about how I had always wished for more role models who had similar experiences with same-sex attraction and the pursuit of traditional Christian faithfulness, and how blessed I had been by the few I had known about purely from the Internet. I realized that what I had always really wanted was for more people in my position to talk more openly and offer some hope.
So did this mean God was calling me to be more open than I needed to be strictly for my own emotional health? The thought was terrifying. Although I had opened up to a few people, it was still fairly difficult and scary every time. So my basic thought was, “Everyone else needs to start opening up, because I’ll never have the courage. Right?”
That wasn’t the only thing that happened that summer. I had been following a blogger named Karen who had been open about her sexuality and her failure to experience orientation change in the context of ex-gay ministry. The way she engaged the conversation and her openness had both been an inspiration to me. It turned out she was moving to North Carolina the same time I was, within quite reasonable driving distance.
I started wondering about reaching out to Karen and getting together. My biggest fear was that she’d somehow talk me into being more open about my sexuality. That turned out to be one of the most rational fears I’ve ever had, but I’m so glad I didn’t let that get in the way of getting to know her. In addition to the wonderful support, she had a way with questions.
She’d ask, for example, “What would happen if all of us Christians who experience same-sex attraction were open about that in our churches?” The obvious response to me was, “That would be awesome. Everybody else needs to do that.” Or she’d ask, “Why is it that only Christians who affirm gay relationships are coming out?” It became pretty clear to me that somebody really needed to start being more open.
It obviously occurred to me that expecting everybody else to come out, rather than me, wasn’t really reasonable. I quickly realized that most others faced the same kinds of fears I did. Were they really in a place where it made more sense for them than it did for me?
By this time, I had come to have a decent amount of local support. I had brought up my sexuality during my membership interview at my church, and it had gone over well. There had been the time in small group when I had thought about bringing up my sexuality, but was too afraid to bring it up. I prayed that God would give me a sign if he really wanted me to do so. Then another member promptly brought up a friend who came out as gay, and during that discussion I shared about my own experience. I had also shared with my apartment-mate, whom I had a close friendship with.
I came to realize that even if my worse fears were realized, I had a significant support network to fall back on. So it actually made more sense for me to start opening up more than most people. I started to discern that maybe God was really calling me to do so. I thought and prayed a lot about it, and I got some counsel from folks at church. In the end, the fear didn’t go away, but I decided to take the plunge.
2011 was the year most of this started. I was a student leader in the graduate chapter of InterVarsity at UNC, and we brought in Karen to do a talk to the chapter. During the introduction, I shared some about my own story. I shared my story again with my church during a Sunday School lesson. For National Coming Out Day in October, I shared a social media post with a select group of friends that was broad enough to include everyone I knew from church, InterVarsity, or Taylor. I also started posting other things about sexuality from time to time, visible to the same people. These were just a few of the more significant steps I started taking around that time.
So I started becoming an influence on my own communities, and showing believers that there are sexual minorities among them. I also learned to overcome all the fears and anxieties that came with sharing more openly. Coming out was initially difficult and nerve-wracking, but with time and practice it slowly got easier.
I figured I’d finally arrived. This was what God was calling me to, right? I’d be open with the Christian communities in my life, but nothing too public. I’d never want this stuff to show up on an Internet search for my name or anything like that, because that would be a little much.
Well, God wasn’t through with me yet.
In 2012, I also got connected with some of the online discussions that were the precursor to Spiritual Friendship. I was really encouraged to see some good thinking from many of the same people that are active here today. In particular, I got to know both Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill. When they created Spiritual Friendship, I was excited that the ideas we had been discussing were becoming more public, and that I could share them more broadly.
Then, in early 2013, Ron mentioned that he liked some of what I had been sharing on social media and was interested in possibly having me contribute to Spiritual Friendship. This was an exciting opportunity, with the only downside being that Ron and Wes wanted to keep Spiritual Friendship a forum where real names are used. Among other things, I was concerned about possible issues with employment, either in the Christian world (due to my sexuality) or the secular world (due to my convictions). I took several weeks to think, pray, and seek counsel before deciding to take another plunge and start contributing.
So that’s basically how I got to the point I’m at now. I’ve still taken some steps so that my contribution to the discussion isn’t too front-and-center with the wrong people. For example, my coworkers can’t see the social media posts I make about sexuality. However, they could always find out by Googling my name, so it’s not really secret. The cat is out of the bag now. It’s amazing to see how much further God has brought me than I ever thought would happen.
In my next post, I’ll offer some further reflections on how a similar discernment process might look for someone else.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.