More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

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.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

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 EricksonJeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

12 thoughts on “More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

  1. A thoughtful post. I’d add one thing. You say that married couples should make this choice as a couple, which is totally right. But they also ought to realize that the stakes are higher for married couples, since their children are involved in the consequences — and the children are, most likely, not consulted. Moreover, I’ve seen some examples of people online who are clearly coercing their spouse, in some way, to be OK with their coming out. That’s not acceptable. It either has to be a decision that both spouses are 100% behind, or it shouldn’t happen.

    The most common type of coercion, I imagine, would be emotional coercion: “If I don’t come out, then I’ll be in so much pain, because I have to hide who I am.” Too bad. The only thing worse than using your wife as a decoy in order to hide your homosexuality is using her as a doormat in order to be open about “who you are”.

  2. I have a hard time believing that, in this day and age, there are people who still lack significant contact with LGBT people. I’ve spent the better part of my career working for two large right-leaning law firms in DC. There were a number of openly gay attorneys at those firms, despite the firms’ rightward political leanings. I’m now a licensing attorney at a fairly non-political tech company in the Midwest. I work mainly with other corporate attorneys, financial analysts, and business development types–not exactly professions that are magnets for liberal activists. Even so, about 5-10% of us are openly gay.

    I’ve had significant contact with gay people in my professional life, and have done so without seeking out employers that are liberal politically or jobs that tend to attract liberal people. I’m a corporate attorney, after all. So, I have a hard time accepting that others’ professional environments could be so devoid of gay people that they have no opportunity to interact meaningfully with any of us. If this were 1995, I could probably buy that. But not in 2015.

    • Well, for one, not everyone has a cushy professional job or lives in a major city. So I don’t know that everyone really has had that kind of interaction.

      Even if people have the opportunity to interact with LGBT people, they may not have much interaction with LGBT Christians, particularly LGBT Christians with a traditional understanding of sexual ethics. So I think there’s still a fair bit of work to do, and we’re just seeing the beginning of the coming out that needs to happen.

      • I would probably make an accommodation for people in rural areas, etc.

        But I’m speaking from experiences in a 500-member suburban PCA church where nearly everyone had a college degree and worked a white-collar job. When you live in one of the largest metro areas in the US, have a college degree, and move in a white-collar circles, I’m not going to cut you any slack. If such people are ignorant, it’s because they’ve chosen to be so.

      • I may be reading too much of my own personal experience into this. But I really don’t think it would make too much of a difference if people hadn’t previously known a gay Christian.

        Look at the treatment of Wes Hill and Julie Rodgers at the hands of Owen Strachan. Strachan is certainly capable of understanding the argument that’s being made, yet seems to go out of his way to misunderstand and mischaracterize.

        PCA churches in college towns are very different from those elsewhere. In college towns, being nuanced and accepting of difference is a plus. But such churches are by no means typical in the PCA and SBC. A PCA church in suburban Atlanta, suburban Houston, or suburban Tampa, etc. is going to look a lot different from a PCA church in Berkeley, Madison, or Chapel Hill. Moreover, the former are much more indicative of the environment where most of us are going to have to make our way.

        I spent 18 months being patient with my pastor and session. But, at a certain point, it became clear that they just weren’t interested in understanding. I didn’t challenge them publicly; it was all done privately over email or through one-on-one meetings. But the more I challenged their views, the more they dug in. In a couple of cases, they went out of their way to misunderstand me. It was clear that the family-values narrative was viewed as sacrosanct, and that no amount of discussion could convince these guys otherwise.

        A pastor at another church finally counseled me to leave, and recommended a good PCUSA church in the area. He noted that gay Christians are just too far afield of the target demographic for most PCA churches. Most suburban churches would lose families if it were known that there were gay Christians in the church, and that’s just not something most suburban churches are willing to do. He noted that his own church had lost 5-6 families because the church failed to discipline a member who mentioned publicly that he had voted for Barack Obama.

        I’m glad that you’ve found a church that’s an exception to the rule. Even so, I don’t think we as LGBT evangelicals can fool ourselves into thinking that our experiences in a few college towns define what the experience is like for gay Christians elsewhere. In most cases, people just don’t want to understand us. They’re more interested in having a program that offers clear answers, even if those answers are not necessarily right.

      • I guess I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the long term as you are. Yes, there is some push back from some people, but I don’t think it’s fair to let Owen Strachan’s reaction represent the whole of evangelicalism.

        A lot of the people who have responded well to what I’ve said haven’t just been people from church. There have been plenty of other friends and family members, some pretty suburban. In my experience, the biggest difference in how people respond seems to be whether or not they know me (or another LGBT Christian) well personally outside of LGBT discussions.

        I don’t think everything is all sunshine and roses, but I do think that we have some power to turn the tide by coming out more openly, especially as more and more people do so. As I’ve mentioned before, the PCA’s seminary (Covenant) has featured Mark Yarhouse and Wesley Hill at a conference for the next generation of PCA pastors. I don’t think that sort of thing would have happened a few years ago, and I think it’s a sign things are starting to change (and will continue to do so). There are still a lot of frustrations in the meantime as things move more slowly than I’d like, but I’m not giving up on the PCA or the evangelical world yet.

  3. Hey Jeremy – I have a question for you about terminology. When you come out to people, have you used the word “gay” or “bisexual” or something else? I’m afraid to use “bisexual” because of its connotations of trendiness, college experimentation, and lack of acceptance among both straight and gay people. But if I told my friends “I am gay” I would be lying and possibly causing more confusion. Because of my environment, I’ve either used “same-sex attracted” or some long explanation like “I’m attracted to women, not just physically but emotionally, but I also have been attracted to men”… which is a tad unwieldy. Do you have any advice as I move towards being more open?

  4. My terminology depends heavily on who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to someone my parents’ generation, for instance, I’ll typically start by saying I’m “attracted to both sexes” and then getting into a fact that I do mean something with a sexual component. If I’m talking to someone younger or someone who is likely to be unchurched, I usually just say “bisexual” but then go on to mention how my convictions play into that.

    I’m not sure what kind of environment you’re primarily operating within. If it’s mostly conservative Christians you’re interacting with, I think your use of explanations is probably helpful. If it’s a context with broader familiarity with LGBT people, it’s probably not a bad idea to just say “bisexual” and then get into an explanation of what that ends up implying for you practically given your beliefs. Using a term for a stereotyped group, while not fitting the stereotype yourself, can actually be helpful in helping people overcome stereotypes. And if you’re in a context where you wouldn’t have time to explain yourself a bit, I’m not sure how much benefit there would be to bringing up your sexuality at all.

    I’m not sure I have a magic bullet, but the basic idea is to try to use the terminology that will be the most readily understood by the particular person you’re talking to, which I think is what you’re already getting at in your comment.

    I hope this is helpful.

    • That is very helpful, thank you, especially your point about stereotypes. I go to a more conservative Christian church, but also a large public university, both in a very liberal city – so I find myself in several overlapping circles. I suppose each individual conversation will have to be approached in its own way. Thanks for your reply!

  5. Reblogged this on Same-Sex Attractions and commented:
    This week’s exposition is a reposting of another thoughtful and helpful article by blogger Jeremy Erickson (at SpiritualFriendship.org). What are some of the pros and cons of self-disclosing one’s experiences and feelings of same-sex attraction? What are our motivations for doing so? What are some productive ways to navigate this process?

  6. I have rarely read such a blistering condemnation of the Church.

    There you are, a Side B Christian. You imagine that your sexuality and sexual attractions are merely temptations, without anything positive about them. You are determined not to act on them.

    Yet, you claim that the “Christians” you associate with will judge you for your temptations, rather than actions; that however loudly you state that with God’s help you will not act on those temptations, your parents may disown you, you may lose your job, you may be unwelcome in a church.

    What sort of “Christians” are these people? Has Christ had any effect in their lives at all?

    • Well, if you just look at my warnings about the potential dangers of coming out, things do look pretty grim. I am indeed frustrated with the way a lot of these people behave.

      However, as I’ve tried to indicate (especially in Part 1), the problems haven’t been universal. Most of the Christians I associate with don’t judge me for my temptations. I’m not worried about my relationship with my parents, who have actually been some of my biggest supporters in all this. In my particular case, my job is with a secular employer who has been quite willing to hire qualified LGBT people. I’ve been welcome in the churches I’ve participated in.

      I did find it important to point out in this post that not everyone has an experience as positive as mine, though. The problems definitely still exist, and I think God is still working on a lot of folks.

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