The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent is interning with us at The Marin Foundation this summer, and you can find his blog at oddmanout.net.
The authentic life does not come easily for me. My process of coming out as gay took a long time—precisely three years, in fact, since I was sentimental enough to schedule my formal coming out with the anniversary of the day I first opened up to my best friend as a sophomore in college. The process was slow for me because I considered and reconsidered every conversation, knowing that each occasion in which I disclosed my orientation was an irreversible step. It was a step toward greater vulnerability and intimacy, to be sure, but it was irreversible nonetheless. There’s no way to climb back into the closet or coax that cat back into the bag, so I took my time.
To be honest, much of my reticence about coming out publicly came from the knowledge that living authentically meant exposing myself to the perceptions and stereotypes of others. It wasn’t the attitudes of my close friends or family that concerned me; after that initial awkwardness that always comes from revealing something significant about oneself, it was apparent my loved ones still thought of me as the same Brent they’d always known. No, in my vanity, what concerned me was the attitudes of acquaintances. I feared my decision to live authentically would relegate me to the status of The Gay Person in the minds of people who didn’t know me well, and the idea of others minimizing my experience into a particular category was undesirable to me. Even as I started writing a blog related exclusively to my experiences as a gay Christian—relegating myself to that category, as it were—I did so with the unpleasant knowledge that, for many of the people in my life, I’d probably exist in their minds as nothing more than The Gay Person, or if I lived my life as I hoped I would, The Gay Christian. You’re aware, of course, many Christians don’t think about gay people in the most positive terms, and I was loath to suffer the loss of the benefits my status as a Christian insider provided. For some, it would give me more credibility, and for many, it would give me less, but in both cases, their perception would derive from a particular quality over which I have no control.
To be even more honest, I experience similar reticence living authentically as a Christian when I’m in the company of predominantly non-Christian sexual minorities. As above, my close friends and family know exactly what sort of Christian I am, but I’m uncomfortable with the sort of conclusions my LGBT acquaintances might draw about me if they think of me only as The Christian, especially if their perception of Christians resembles the Westboro variety. You’re aware many sexual minorities don’t think about Christians in the most positive terms, and I want to prolong the opportunity to develop a relationship with someone before any negative preconceptions close the door between us. Talking about my faith to a gay friend often involves many of the same emotions as coming out as gay to a Christian friend—the trepidation, the relief—even as those conversations tend to take vastly different shapes. It’s always tempting to take the easy route and be vague about the seriousness or particulars of my faith commitments, even though my life circumstances (I’m in seminary preparing for ministry) mean I can’t be unspecific for long.
Over the course of the two summers I’ve spent working with The Marin Foundation, what has become clearer to me than perhaps any other reality is how often people’s attitudes toward certain communities begin to change when someone in their close proximity begins living authentically as a member of one of those communities. In most cases, this takes the form of a loved one coming out as L, G, B, or T in a Christian family. That coming out tends to be the catalyst that starts people on a journey of asking good questions, of examining unexamined perceptions, and of dismantling stereotypes and generalizations. Books, sermons, and blog posts all have their places (at least I hope they do, seeing as I’ve spent many hours writing blog posts), but there’s little that drives people to learn and grow like discovering someone close happens to be a sexual minority. That’s something we can’t manufacture or fabricate for the sake of generating change. Similarly, living in close proximity to an avowed Christian has the potential to challenge and change one’s perceptions of what Christians are and are not.
Our current cultural situation makes living authentically in the way I’m describing it risky, at best, and dangerous, at worst. For example, even in the best of circumstances, being openly gay means you will exist, at least for the time being, as The Gay Person for many people in your life, and that’s undesirable. In the worst of circumstances, being openly gay subjects you to the danger of violence or abuse, and that’s unacceptable. Identifying as a Christian in mostly non-Christian circles carries its own social baggage—Ira Glass expressed this well in a recent interview—and it often incites a litany of assumptions and suspicions from people who don’t share similar religious commitments, regardless of your beliefs on homosexuality. It can feel awkward to admit that, yes, you do believe all that stuff about Jesus and that it does have major implications for the lifestyle decisions you make.
So it’s with great fear and trembling that I have encouraged and will continue to encourage us all to live as authentically as our circumstances allow, as Christians and sexual minorities and everything else, for the sake of bringing about cultural change that is long overdue. Living authentically begins, I think, with accepting the real possibility that we’re opening ourselves to stereotypes and labels, including the ugly ones. This is precisely the fear (one that’s not necessarily irrational) I described above: that as soon as we begin to let certain parts of our identity show, we’ll bump up against the baggage other people are carrying related to those certain parts. We’ll come face-to-face with negative attitudes, and it will get personal, because we’ll realize those negative attitudes are directed at us, intentionally or not. We’ll lose credibility in many cases, and we’ll have to work to rebuild trust actively with people for whom our self-disclosure is too uncomfortable. (To be clear, I’m not talking about imposing ourselves on people when that’s unsafe for either party. Instead, I’m talking about those situations in which it’s essential for people to step outside their comfort zones for the sake of maturing.)
Living authentically continues with actively subverting those stereotypes and labels through ongoing conversation in the context of relationship. It’s in the slow rhythms of life together that we have time to finish our sentences: “Yes, I’m gay, and…” “Yes, I’m a Christian, but…” This is hard work, and these talks won’t always come naturally, because our culture has trained us to speak before we listen, to think in broad strokes rather than individual stories, and to rely on sound bites rather than conversations over coffee. But that hard work is necessary, because perceiving the world in strict categories of “LGBT” and “Christian” and other various permutations is just as dangerous as maintaining a world in which certain categories of people—be they LGBT or Christian—aren’t able to live authentically at all. If the first step is to acknowledge the humanity of people who wear certain labels by inviting them to live authentically, the second step is recognizing the limitations of those labels in light of the wondrous complexity of every person. Relationships with living humans undermine our stereotypes much more effectively than statistics or studies.
I want to live in a world that welcomes authenticity, and I think we bring about that world by practicing authenticity until it catches on. We’ve got plenty of kinks to work out, of course, but the seeds of transparency and honesty have already begun to take root, and it won’t be long before the blooms of authentic lives appear in full.