As I mentioned in my last post, I’m often asked by other sexual minority Christians how open they should be about their sexuality. There is no single answer for everyone, so I would like to offer some reflections on the process of discernment. Towards that end, in my previous post I discussed my own story of getting to where I am today. In this post I will offer my advice for others, using the second person for convenience.
One thing I want to point out from the beginning is that there are very few cases where I’d say you are actually obligated to discuss your sexuality. About the only case I can think of is that your spouse or even potential spouse, if you have one, needs to know as early as possible. Otherwise, it’s ultimately your own decision how widely you want to open up. As I’ve discussed before, I think you really ought to open up to a few people for your own good, but it’s your decision how broadly to do that.
For my straight readers, I should offer the aside that it’s really important to respect a sexual minority person’s choices about who to come out to. If someone has trusted you with a secret about their sexuality, you need to keep it secret. If you think he or she would do well to open up to a particular person or group, you can encourage him or her to do so, but never do the sharing yourself without permission.
Why Come Out Broadly?
If you’re thinking about coming out more broadly, one thing on your mind is likely your own emotional well-being. I can testify from my own experience that I never knew how bad the closet was for me until I had been on the other side. It’s been really freeing to not feel like I’m hiding a big secret any more, and I’ve been blessed by the ways God has used me in the lives of others. As I’ve become more and more open, I’ve found being able to share increasingly beneficial. I have absolutely no regrets about the steps I’ve taken.
On the other hand, I’ve had friends who have had significant regrets about coming out, because they have faced significant negative reactions without the necessary support structures. I don’t want to offer an overly rosy picture of what the consequences will be without knowing your individual circumstances.
As I hopefully made fairly clear in my last post, the primary reason to come out should not be about your own health. It should be about the ways God can use you to minister to others. I tend to think that the best ministry can happen in the context of the local church, but this can only really work if more people start opening up and offering themselves as resources.
Another way that coming out process can be a ministry is in changing attitudes that other Christians have towards sexual minorities. I often quote Matt Jones here: “I’m choosing to live openly because I love the Church too much to let it love LGBTQ people so poorly.” I’ve found that a great many Christians assume the worst about sexual minorities simply because they don’t know that they know any personally, so they have no reason to question the negative messages they hear. We can complain about the resulting hurtful comments, or we can do something about it by letting them know about our own stories.
Why Not Come Out Broadly?
There are a variety of reasons that it may not be a wise idea to come out too broadly, or at least not yet.
The most extreme would be an issue with safety or the possibility of significant consequences. For example, if you’re financially dependent on your parents and they have a visceral negative reaction to anything LGBT-related, you need to consider the possibility that they react negatively. If you live somewhere like Russia or Uganda, coming out could get you attacked by a mob or in really big legal trouble. If your situation is anything like this, I emphasize my statement that you should not feel obligated to come out particularly broadly.
You also need to weigh the possibility for negative consequences. Homophobia within the Christian church is unfortunately not dead. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve lost count of the number of friends I’ve had who have been fired from or denied employment at Christian institutions on account of their sexuality—and that’s just the cases where the institution was honest about the reasons for the decision. The potential issues are not limited to reactions from conservative Christians. For example, if you hold to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics, this could create tensions with those who don’t share that understanding.
You’re also almost certainly going to face some amount of negative pushback. In my case, most of the direct pushback I’ve gotten has either been from people I don’t know that well, or from people who clearly still valued and cared about me despite disagreements. But the writers of Spiritual Friendship have definitely faced a fair amount of criticism as a group. Much of this criticism comes from the Christian world, as people want to pressure us to adopt or not adopt certain approaches. Not everyone is cool with being open about being attracted to the same sex, using words like “gay” or “bisexual,” or not pursuing orientation change.
In the case of these less significant consequences, I hope you don’t ignore the possibility of coming out entirely. These are cases where people coming out is what it will take for things to get better. Perhaps God is calling you to be part of that process, even if it comes at a cost to yourself. However, I can’t discern that for you, and I want to be honest and upfront about the possible consequences.
If you’re married, then your spouse needs to be part of how you decide. Coming out more publicly will affect his or her life as well, and if you have made marriage vows, you have promised to do life together. So if he or she isn’t OK with you being more public, you shouldn’t be. And if you’re not married but are considering marriage, keep in mind this may affect whether a given person is willing to be married to you. In my own discernment process, I’ve concluded that if God is calling me to speak publicly, then if He’s also calling me to marriage, He’ll make it work.
If you don’t have a good local support network, coming out broadly is probably a bad idea. It is always possible you will face some painful consequences. If you have nowhere to turn to help you process the results, this could be much more devastating than it needs to be. In this case, you may just need to take some time and build up that network, so that you are ready to come out publicly later. As I mentioned in my previous post, part of why I was able to open up as fully as I have is precisely because I had such a good support system.
There may be individual circumstances that affect things as well. For example, if you have a history of sexual addiction, you have more baggage that may come up than if you’re a virgin or have been faithful in marriage. There are unique ways you could minister to people, but the cost may be greater in some ways.
A Bad Reason Not To Come Out Broadly
One common reason not to come out broadly is quite simple: fear or discomfort. If you’re like most people, coming out broadly is going to take you well outside your comfort zone. This is simply a fact of life. If I had waited until I was comfortable coming out to start doing more of it, I would still be rather closeted. And if you’d told me five years ago that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I probably wouldn’t believe you. I thought my fears would just be too insurmountable.
A Note on Social Media
Social media is one tool that can be used productively in this conversation, but I want to point out that it needs to be used thoughtfully if you decide to use it.
I’ve often found that it’s easier to include someone in the view permissions on a post than to come out in person. This can be both a blessing and a curse. If you haven’t come out very broadly, I’d be concerned that sharing via social media might keep you from learning the skills to have the conversation in person. It’s also easier for people to misunderstand you in that medium, so it’s definitely not a substitute for developing a good support network.
I also wouldn’t see sharing on social media as an end goal. It’s just a tool, and one that will be most effective in sharing with people who already know you in real life.
A Parting Thought: It’s a Process
As I tried to get across in my previous post, learning to come out broadly was not a simple matter of making a one-time decision and then being totally public. Rather, it was a process that happened over the course of several years. I want to reiterate that even if you do decide to open up as broadly as I have, you shouldn’t be hard on yourself if it requires a similar process. You may have to push the borders of your comfort zone slowly.
You also don’t have to decide right away. You may discern that God is calling you to take smaller steps now, and there’s no reason to fret about where He may call you in the future.
I hope these reflections have at least given you some pointers as you consider God’s call for your life in this matter.
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.