The following post by Brent Bailey was re-posted from his blog at oddmanout.net. Brent is a student in the Masters of Divinity program at Abilene Christian University and he will be joining us this summer as an intern at The Marin Foundation. In the post below, he shares about how the theme of silence has played itself out in his own journey and why he will be participating in the Day of Silence to stand alongside others that have been silenced in some capacity due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In schools across the country today, students will participate in the Day of Silence to stand against the bullying of LGBT students. Beginning in 1996, it has now become a yearly event sponsored by GLSEN, encouraging people to take a daylong oath of silence in solidarity with LGBT people whose voices have been silenced by harassment or oppression.
Whenever someone gives me the chance to recount my experiences as a gay Christian, there is exactly one piece of my story that makes me cry every time I tell it.
After the first time I came out to a friend, he helped arrange a lunch for me with a guy he knew who was much farther along the journey of understanding and interpreting his own attraction to other men. I remember feeling apprehensive as I approached the table to sit down with him, but my fears quickly dissipated when we realized how much we had in common. I hung on every word as he explained his perspective, and I cherished the empathetic understanding shining from his face as I found my own voice and told stories I had never verbalized. Maybe for the first time, I was able to laugh about pieces of my experience of sexuality, and I remember feeling a bit irreverent as we joked about something that had always felt so heavy to me.
As I drove away after we finished our meal, the warmth of tears rushing down my face surprised me. (The next line of this story is the part that invariably brings the same tears back to my eyes whenever I revisit it.) I struggled to name the epiphany slowly rising to the surface of my mind until I had a sudden moment of clear insight: “Oh,” I thought to myself, “So this is what it feels like to have a relationship with another person.”
I doubt my storytelling abilities adequately convey what a profoundly earth-shaking revelation I experienced at this moment. It was absolutely pivotal in my life. I’m not using hyperbole when I say it was like a blind man receiving his sight, a poignant and bittersweet mixture of rejoicing the fulfillment of a deep need in my soul while suddenly grieving the lack of something I didn’t know I had been missing. Was this kind of connection what everyone else was talking about when they described friendship? Did this kind of trust and understanding come naturally to everyone else? How had I ever survived or thought I would be able to keep surviving without actually being known by another person? The kind of relationship I had found with the first person to whom I came out and with this man who shared lunch with me—the kind of relationship I would continue to find as I opened up to others in my life—was addictive in the holiest sense of the word.
Before I started coming out, I had many dear relationships with family and friends and friends who may as well have been family, but every single relationship in my life was distorted by my obsessive need to keep secrets and cover my tracks, by closets full of topics I could never discuss and questions I could never answer, by the pervasive fear that they would abandon me if they actually knew me. Of course, you don’t have to know I’m gay to know me. You certainly don’t have to know I’m gay to be a true friend. My sexuality is only one element of a huge collection of memories and motivations and meanings that constitute my identity. But the constant fear of being exposed—even when it was totally unlikely!—meant I was never completely at ease, even in the presence of people who truly loved me unconditionally.
About a week before I graduated from college, a deep melancholy swept in and hung like a pall over all of my end-of-the-year celebrations. I was reflecting on my time at the university and the sort of legacy I would be leaving, however small, and I could not avoid the question that haunted me: “Do any of these people really know me at all?” By this time, I had opened up to some of my friends about my orientation, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself for me to share with others who deserved to know. Outside of those friendships, I was aware most of the people I encountered in college wouldn’t remember me and couldn’t care less about to whom I felt attracted, and I knew most of them only shallowly at best. Nevertheless, there remained a sharp poignancy in my acknowledging how much of my experience in college (and thus the legacy I was leaving) consisted of self-consciously keeping up appearances and obsessively trying to manage others’ perceptions of me.
The longer I spend thinking and talking and writing about faith and sexuality, the harder I find it to say anything with absolute certainty, but I feel entirely confident when I say: This is not how we were meant to live. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians, and I think we’d do well to consider the vast implications of this simple command in the context of the order God has sewn into the foundations of our existence (6:2). Living in the closet not only made me lonely and fearful; it made me extraordinarily self-absorbed, so consumed with maintaining my image that I had no energy left to attend to the needs of others. I could not carry their burdens because I was not allowing them to carry mine, and the weight was too heavy. This isolated, self-imposed martyrdom is not the kind of life God intends for any of us, and we err when we we allow shame to construct walls of defense against the genuine relationships God designed for our proper functioning. Coming out is not about forcing my sexual orientation or any agenda on you; it’s about inviting you into the reality of the way I experience the world in light of the commitment you’ve made to walk through life with me. Claiming those genuine relationships God gives us requires such self-disclosure regardless of how comfortable either of us feels in that conversation.
I marked the launching of my blog as the day in my life when I fully and conclusively came out, and I can’t say my life has changed dramatically in any outwardly visible way since that day. From where I’m standing, though, the world feels like a completely different place. Although I don’t feel any pressure or desire to assert my sexual orientation to other people, I no longer occupy any of my attention with hiding it, and the freedom that confidence grants me in my relationships is breathtaking. The attitude that says, “I’m not particularly concerned with whether you know I’m gay,” is worlds apart from the attitude that says, “I need to make sure you don’t know I’m gay.” Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I always feel completely at home outside of the closet; I lived in silence for so long and grew so comfortable there that I occasionally wish I could return to secrecy. This is not because the closet is a good or healthy place to be. This is because the chains of slavery cut deeply, leaving permanent scars on the psyche of the freedman so that a bit of him may always believe he belongs in captivity. I believe in complete resurrection, but I also believe there are some wounds we receive that never completely heal in this life. Becoming convinced I am worth knowing as I am and that God loves me as I am has been a long, difficult journey thus far, one that the compassion and love I’ve received has nurtured.
This, my dear friends, is why I plan to participate in the Day of Silence and invite you to consider doing the same: because I know what it is to be silent. Although I have not been the victim of extensive anti-LGBT bullying, which is the main focus of the Day of Silence’s protest, I want to do whatever I can to make our classrooms, our sanctuaries, and our living rooms places where people will feel safe to be honest about sexuality. If participating in a nationwide protest will help accomplish that goal, then I will gladly put tape over my mouth for a day. My desire is not that people would feel pressured to come out, to squeeze themselves into identities that don’t fit, or to tattoo themselves with permanent cultural labels for the sake of feeling like they belong. My desire is that people would be able to travel the journey of sexuality and faith—a journey with innumerable paths and outcomes—with the support of other people who will listen to them and learn from them and challenge them, since I no longer believe it’s possible to walk that journey alone.
So, allow me to say this now, since I won’t be able to speak it on April 20: I do not know where I would be if God had not put people in my life who responded with love and compassion when I took the risk of vulnerability, and I did not know how alone I had been until I was no longer alone. I don’t believe a wilderness of loneliness has to be an inevitable chapter in the LGBT narrative, and I don’t want the silence of an oppressive society to force others to suffer that isolation I escaped. I want you to know me because I want us to know each other, and I need you to love me because we need to love each other.