This post is written by Michael Kimpan, Associate Director at The Marin Foundation.
Today marks the celebration of the 25th National Coming Out Day – a day where individuals are encouraged to courageously step into greater transparency and wholeness in both their life and relationships. As more and more LGBT individuals in our culture have come out to their friends and family, those who have been ‘in the closet’ are encouraged to express themselves as proud of who they are, rather than living with the stigmatism, guilt, fear and shame they may have experienced previously.
In short, it’s a day which encourages honesty and integrity, respect and dignity toward themselves and others- regardless of whether one identifies as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or heterosexual person.
I remember the first time someone came out to me.
And I absolutely blew it.
During my sophomore year at my alma mater, I became fast friends with an international student from the UK (we’ll call him ‘William’). Even beyond my deep appreciation for his fantastic Scottish accent and his disdain for the more particular rules at Moody Bible Institute, William and I connected almost instantly.
During his year in America, William and I spent countless hours in conversation and drank an ungodly amount of coffee with during all night study sessions – staying out past curfew at 24 hour coffee shops littered throughout the city of Chicago.
That coming fall, I followed William back to his hometown in Glasgow, and studied there for a year. During one of our regular evening theology pub sessions, William asked me if I’d mind if he brought along a few of his friends for our next get together.
Of course, I was thrilled. The more I spent time with the locals, the easier it would be for me to decipher the nuances of the Scottish brogue. Glasgow in particular has a distinctly difficult accent for American ears.
‘I have to warn you,’ he said with a sly grin, ‘Matthew and Crissy used to be dating. The more they drink the more likely they are to flirt with one another, hold hands and such. Just a fair warning.’
I got his message loud and clear – I shouldn’t flirt with Crissy, the female friend. She used to date Matthew. I wondered if she’d prefer Crissy to Christine or Christiana – or whatever the long form of her name was. I was certain I’d find out at the pub.
But no flirting.
Days later, I again met my friend William, and we were joined by his friends, Matthew and Christopher. You’d think I’d have put the puzzle pieces together, but the connection was lost on me. I was young.
However, what was not lost on me was that – just as William had predicted – as the evening went on, Matt and Chris began showing an interest beyond friendship. After a few more rounds and a minimal amount of hand holding, they left. William and I sat silently at the table.
‘So… Matthew and Christopher are gay.’
‘I realized this. Crissy. Chris. Christopher. Got it.‘
‘…and, so am I.’
My head was spinning – and it wasn’t as a result of the Guinness. I’d known William for nearly two years at this point. He was my friend – and an excellent biblical scholar. How could he be…gay? Did I know other people who were gay? How would I know? How did he know? It didn’t make sense to me, but I knew that wasn’t the point. I did my best to respond the way I thought I should to my friend’s courageous move to enter into a vulnerable space with me.
I really tried. Put forth my best effort.
But looking back, my response was atrocious.
Though we still remained friends (quite gracious of him, in fact – one of his many character qualities), we soon lost contact after my time of playing Braveheart came to a close. It wasn’t until several years later that I found William through the mystery and magic of social media, and apologized for my missteps when he had come out to me.
What follows is a brief look into those conversations ::
Me :: ‘i feel that i responded better than some others – yet not at all how i really should have. though we continued to hang out a few times together, i feel like i gradually distanced myself from you…for fear of your… gayness? ; and attempted to reconcile my traditional upbringing with this ‘liberal’ interpretation of the scriptures that you spoke of. again, my response wasn’t the worst – but it certainly wasn’t the best, either. though i’ve grown and learned from that experience, i wish i could do it over again.
you coming out to me was a sacred moment. a moment that i didn’t recognize as such. and in so doing, i suspect i caused you pain through my response (which i also remember vividly). if i did, i’m so terribly sorry and ashamed for my actions and words. i was uncomfortable, and scared of that which was unfamiliar to me.
perhaps part of my desire to elevate the conversation between evangelicals and the gay community is to address the missteps i’ve taken in my own relationships.
so i’m gladly stepping into that arena, attempting to forge uncharted territory with some like minded (and some not-so-like minded) people who simply want to be ambassadors of reconciliation. and as i do so, i’d highly value any input that you may have, as a christian, as a gay man, and as my friend.’
William :: ‘Don’t worry about how you reacted to me being gay. What else did you know to do? You had been conditioned, as I had, to seeing ‘gay’ as evil, change-able and a threat. That is the standard reaction from mainstream conservative Christianity.
In regard to how to reach out to the gay community – just treat them like anybody else! I have a mix of straight and gay friends who all treat me the same. The straight friends don’t ignore my sexuality, they just accept it as part of me. Talk about relationships the way you would with someone straight – don’t assume everyone wants into your pants (and if they do take it as a compliment and not a threat).
‘Being gay drove me out of the traditional evangelical church but I’ve not found anything else I feel comfortable in. A couple years ago I started to go back to church… I like the conservative Christianity I grew up with. I like its clarity, its hymns and that people do actually believe something. Only I don’t fit as I don’t believe what they do.
To be honest, I’m not sure I even believe in the existence of God anymore. I want to, but…’
And the conversation continued.
That was a number of years ago, now… I look back and wish that I had known and behaved better – that someone would have taken the time to help me learn to live and love – and that I would have had the maturity to listen.
The experience and conversation with that one friend led to many others, in which I know I’ve grown in my ability and capacity to love better. I hope and pray that I’m on the path toward loving well.
Which brings us back to National Coming Out Day.
Many folks from religious backgrounds refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender variance because it feels taboo, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, as I did when William first came out to me. They may even fear being unintentionally or inappropriately categorized as ‘homophobic’ or ‘anti-gay’ as a result of their missteps.
Here are some DOs and DON’Ts I’ve learned through my own experiences and in conversations with others, for you to better honor your relationship to LGBT friends and loved ones when someone comes out to you.
• Recognize this as a sacred moment – thank them for their trust and courage, and realize your reaction will likely stick with them in this vulnerable space you’ve been invited into (though your long-term engagement is more important than your short-term response). Cherish the intimacy and honesty they’ve extended.
• Take time to listen.
• Take language cues from them, not the other way around (e.g., don’t say ‘gay’ if they say ‘same-sex attraction’, and vice-versa)
• Realize that in many cases, this is not an invitation to a hours long discussion on human sexuality. It’s okay to ask questions, but try to let the other person set the tone – they may not want to process or reflect with you.
• Validate their experience as legitimate to them, regardless of whether you understand or believe the same things. It’s ok to just say, ‘Thank you for trusting me with this. I really value your friendship, and I don’t want treat you any differently.’ Then, of course – DON’T treat them differently!
• Don’t assume to know how they feel or what they believe
• Don’t turn the conversation into a theological discussion, unless they initiate that conversation. This isn’t about what you believe – it’s about sharing your life and relationship. If they want to know your beliefs, they’ll ask.
• When you’re unclear about something, simply say :: ‘Tell me more.’ Don’t take a challenging or antagonistic tone just because your experiences reflect different conclusions than their own.
• Many well-intentioned heterosexual folks see gay people as textbooks on homosexuality and gay culture – but it’s not their job to teach you. They may indeed be willing to walk with you and inform you – especially if it’s a close friend – but you shouldn’t enter the relationship with that expectation.
There are plenty of other helpful resources available online. Download or flip through the digital copy of this guide from HRC and pay special attention to their über helpful glossary guide in the back.
For those who are new to conversations surrounding the potentially volatile intersection of faith and sexuality, this resource is intended to be a helpful tool in building bridges of understanding when someone they know comes out to them.
From the conclusion of the guide ::
‘This guide has been written to help straight people feel comfortable asking questions so that they can build understanding and, ultimately, support for the LGBT people in their lives.
Some of you reading this will be taking one of your very first steps in learning about LGBT people, while others will have more experience and understanding. Please feel free to take the pieces that apply to you, and leave the rest behind. You may want to explore the resources at the end of the guide for more information.’
When in doubt, LOVE.