The following post is from Brent Bailey, who is currently with us in Chicago as an intern at The Marin Foundation. He is working on his Masters of Divinity at Abilene Christian University and regularly blogs at oddmanout.net.
Chicago’s Pride celebration culminated this past weekend, and our involvement in various events brought back to mind questions regarding how conspicuously I should wear my orientation as I seek to follow Christ.
It took me about six months to get used to being out of the closet in a predominantly conservative Christian environment. Like those first few blinks when you walk outside into the brightness of the sun, I frequently encountered brief moments of panic when I re-realized the secret I’d meticulously curated was no longer a secret. For three years, I had slowly and quietly been opening up to friends and family as I sought to discern and define my sexual identity, but there was a definitive day when I formally came out and stopped asking people to keep my orientation confidential. In the months that immediately followed, there was a lot I missed about the closet. I missed the security of being able to predict (mostly accurately) how strangers and acquaintances would feel about me and how they would treat me. I missed the comfort and privilege of being part of the majority, the assurance of my ability to achieve whatever I wanted with little resistance. I missed the nonchalance of fitting (to the best of my ability) what I thought others expected me to be.
And, of course, I was and still am uncomfortable with others who might define me by my sexuality. I’ve said before that I’m looking forward to the day when my orientation will be the least interesting thing about me, but I fear we’ve got miles to go before our Christian culture will demonstrate that kind of familiarity and indifference with regard to sexual minorities. For the time being, my decision to be openly gay (i.e., my decision to be upfront) in that conservative Christian environment made me an agitator and a dissident—and, had you known me before I came out, you’d have scarcely used those words to describe me. I didn’t particularly want to disturb the status quo; I just wanted to live with integrity, and the injustice of a culture with little room for me transformed my attempts at integrity into acts of rebellion. I wanted to be known as I was, and I wanted my orientation to occupy no more and no less room than it deserved in that portrait of me. I wasn’t interested in trying to change my personality or behavior to fit any particular stereotypes of the LGBT community, and I didn’t want others to change their perceptions or expectations of me based on their own stereotypes.
Now that I’ve gotten used to being out, though, I honestly don’t know how I survived for so long in secrecy, and I can’t imagine returning to a place of silence. Denying my orientation helped me feel comfortable and safe with others, but it also made life enormously stressful and strenuous. Life is different outside of the closet: There’s less self-obsession and less concern for managing others’ perceptions. My language is less calculated and more straightforward, and my interactions with others feel easy and informal rather than rigid and contrived. I waste no more hours trying to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t know, and my relationships are no longer stratified into measurable levels of varying trust. I suppose the best metaphor to describe the feeling is the long exhale after you’ve held your breath to your limit; it’s a shock to your system, to be sure, but it’s a shock of relief that restores you to the inhale-exhale rhythm of life.
It’s only since I’ve been out that I’ve been able to understand how essential is honesty—even when it makes others uncomfortable or challenges cultural norms—to my spiritual health. Being honest about that area of my life has profoundly shaped my perceptions of what it means to pursue God in community with others authentically and meaningfully in every area of my life. It’s also made me uncomfortable with any Christian community that fosters dishonesty and dissemblance. God knows me exactly as I am—every hair on my head, every pimple, every fleeting moment of selfless love, every cynical remark, and yes, every affection and infatuation. Are we sure we totally understand this? From the earliest stories about humans in the Bible, we see one of our greatest follies has been our arrogance in thinking we’re clever enough—or perhaps that God is uninvolved enough—to hide ourselves from God, to present a convincing facade of what we think we’re supposed to be or what we wish we could be or what the other wants us to be. Beyond the hubris of thinking we could hide ourselves, we’ve often convinced ourselves we’re supposed to, that there’s some virtue in sanctimonious pretense or misguided self-loathing in our lives of worship. This is the foolishness that allowed me to deny my orientation internally for so much of my life as I compensated in other areas to try and achieve what I imagined I was supposed to be.
This is also the foolishness that has invaded many of our faith communities with the result that we behave as if our primary responsibility to the community is to hide who we really are and where we seem to genuinely believe my facade can have a meaningful relationship with your facade. The image of community I perceive in the scriptures simply cannot function in the context of superficial, simulated relationships: We carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we provide for each other’s needs (Acts 4:32-5), we rebuke and forgive each other in our sins (Luke 17:3-4), we confess to each other and pray for one another (James 5:16), we share meals at each other’s table and celebrate God in gladness (Acts 2:26-7), we call each other to high standards of behavior (Ephesians 5:3-7), we rejoice with each other and mourn with each other (Romans 12:15), and we work together to overcome the differences that might separate us (3:26-8). I’d go so far as to argue Christian communities ought to embody more radical honesty than any other communities on the earth in light of our access to the hidden knowledge that God’s love is unconditional and that God’s love is what matters. God’s love frees us from the compulsion to pretend we’re anything other than what we are. Among those with faith in Christ, we have no reason to be dishonest and much reason to be honest—namely, so that we might perceive a bit more fully how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ for us as we are, not for some theoretical versions of us who wander throughout our imaginations.
Regardless of whether you think my orientation is a symptom of humanity’s sinful brokenness or a God-given gift that makes me beautifully unique, my inclination to males is a reality of my experience of the world. No matter the language you use or the paradigm through which you understand sexuality, I’ve learned from countless mistakes that it’s unhealthy and irresponsible to practice self-deception or to force others into self-deception, especially when that self-deception involves something so centrally tied to how one interacts with other people. (With that being said, I’ll be the first to admit not every environment is safe for every person to come out, and I’ve been enormously blessed with the warm reception I’ve met; but I think the ideal toward which we should be striving and actively creating is one in which people feel no hesitation coming out.)
I want the people in my community of faith to know I’m gay, then, because I want them to know me. I want to welcome them into the reality of my experience of the world to enable them to walk with me, to support me, to challenge me, to confront me, and more than anything, to love me, but these all remain idealistic principles until an environment of fearless vulnerability makes them tangible realities. It’s much more difficult to do justice to the profundity of God’s work in my life if I’m only letting others see a portion of my life. At the same time, of course, I want to know them in the same way, and I shouldn’t always be so surprised when my openness inspires similar openness from others, as it often does. In that context, gay pride is not about asserting my sexuality; it’s about our shared humanity, our mutual giving and receiving love, our need to know and be known. In other words, it involves sharing how I’m different in order to remind us how much we all share in common, beginning with our shared reception of God’s overwhelming love.