October 11 is National Coming Out Day, a date on my calendar that makes me tender for the courage of individuals taking the risk of stepping into greater transparency and wholeness. As more and more LGBT individuals in our culture have come out to their friends and family—many of them on October 11s—we’ve collectively learned better ways to come out to others and better ways to receive someone else’s coming out. In my own reflections over my journey coming out, though, I think I’ve often overlooked what a daunting task it was merely to come out to myself, and that oversight has prevented me from empathizing with those LGBT individuals who can’t come out to others because they haven’t yet come out to themselves.
Many LGBT individuals can point to a specific moment when they looked into a mirror and spoke, or opened a journal and wrote, those life-changing (or, maybe more accurately, life-integrating) words: “I think I’m bisexual.” “I think I’m actually a woman.” In my case, coming out to myself was a series of episodes of increased self-awareness and honesty, some of which preceded and some of which followed my initial conversations coming out to other people. I had to acknowledge to myself I was attracted (physically, emotionally, romantically) to men in a way I was not attracted to women and in a way most other boys my age seemed to be attracted to women. I had to acknowledge to myself my feelings were consistent and persistent, that they still hadn’t changed by the time I started high school, and still hadn’t changed by the time my family moved when I was in tenth grade, and still hadn’t changed by the time I started college. I had to acknowledge to myself there were words in our language that described precisely what I was feeling, that my experience of sexuality wasn’t particularly special and couldn’t be explained away as an anomaly. Each of these was an agonizing process, slowed by my own trepidation and doubt.
Whenever you start coming out to others, you may expect a variety of reactions: Some may celebrate, others may grieve, and many may find themselves surprised at how their attitudes change over time. Ideally, you quickly identify the people whose posture toward you is love, and you cling tightly to them, and their support allows you to weather the reactions of people who may be unloving. Before I ever reached a point of taking the risk to tell someone else I was gay, though, I had to take the very same risk on myself. That may have been the most intimidating coming out of all, because there wasn’t any other person in a posture of love I could cling to, not yet. Coming out to myself felt like a horribly lonesome undertaking in which I was simultaneously my only advocate and my worst accuser. I happened to be much better at accusing than I was at advocating for myself, so the fears and lies about what my orientation meant for me shouted loudly enough to trap me in a state of confused denial for years.
Every year on National Coming Out Day, there’s plenty of celebration and momentum surrounding those who come out to others. My advice to people who receive a coming out is generally simple: Be gentle. Listen. Ask questions that invite honesty. Assure them of your faithfulness in continued relationship with them. This year, though, I’m particularly conscious of those people who probably won’t come out on October 11 because they haven’t come out to themselves. Perhaps fear and trepidation have slowed their journeys like they slowed mine, and maybe the sluggishness of that journey has become agonizing. Perhaps, like me, they’re better at accusing themselves than they are at advocating on their own behalf. Perhaps fears and lies about what their orientation or gender identity might mean for their lives have shouted them into a state of confused denial.
My hope for those people is that, before they ever take the step of coming out to someone else, they would receive the same overwhelming appreciation for God’s faithfulness I received: that God is gentle, that God listens, that God invites your honesty, and that God will be faithful in continued relationship with you. May that faithfulness lead each of us to a place of integrity and vulnerability, first and foremost with ourselves.