Straight Talk About Coming Out

The Rev. Alison Cornish

October 8, 2006

Imagine a world in which your life appears only as a negative. Imagine that whenever you hear your life mentioned it is with a laugh or a sneer, in a whisper or an apologetic tone of voice.

– Rev. Barbara Pescan

Today we celebrate National Coming Out Day – October 11th. The day commemorates October 11, 1987, when half a million people marched on Washington, D.C. for gay and lesbian equality – and the first display of the NAMES project, the enormous quilt created to honor those who died from AIDS. This year’s Coming Out Day theme is ‘Talk About It.’

Readings excerpt from Am I Blue? Bruce Coville

This story was written for young adults about a gay teen, wondering about his sexual orientation and the puzzling and troubling feelings he has – as well as the routine beatings and harassment he’s experiencing from classmates. As he mulls this over a coffee in a cafe, he’s suddenly joined by – yes – a fairy godfather. They begin to talk. The godfather says -

‘Do you know the three great gay fantasies? Skip the first two. You’re too young. It was number three that I wanted to tell you about anyway. We imagine what it would be like if every gay person in the country turned blue for a day, so all the straights would have to stop imagining that they didn’t know any gay people. They would find out that they had been surrounded by gays all the time, and survived the experience just fine, thank you. They’d have to face the fact that there are gay cops and gay farmers, gay teachers and gay soldiers, gay parents and gay kids. The hiding would finally have to stop.’

And so, as the story continues, the godfather ‘gifts’ the young man ‘the sight’ – he gets to see the world this way – and this is what he sees:

‘It was just like seeing the world through new eyes. Most of the people looked just the same as always, of course. But Mr. Alwain, the fat guy who ran the grocery store, looked like a giant blueberry – which surprised me, because he was married and had three kids. On the other hand, Ms. Thorndyke, the librarian, who everyone knew was a lesbian, didn’t have a trace of blue on her.

‘Watching the news that night was a riot. My favorite network anchor was a shade of a spring sky – pale blue, but very definite. So was the congressman he interviewed, who happened to be a notorious homophobe.

‘Don’t get the idea that everyone I saw was blue. It broke down pretty much the way the studies indicate – about one person in ten solid blue, and one out of every three or four with some degree of shading. I did get a kick out of the three blue guys I spotted in the sports feature on the team favored to win the Superbowl. But it was that congressman who stayed on my mind. I couldn’t forget his hypocritical words about ‘the great crime of homosexuality’ and ‘the gay threat to American youth.’

Because Mark Belletini

And so one of the members of the search committee (group of church members of the Unitarian Church that hires new ministers) asks me “But why do you people” – he really said that, “you people” – “have to talk about it?”

Right.

Well, because

Because if I fell in love,

you know, with sonnets and everything,

and wanted to name all the stars of heaven

one at a time with a goofy smile on my face

I’d like to be able to.

Because, if I didn’t fall in love,

I’d like to grouse a bit,

or work up a bitter Theory

to explain it.

Because if my lover got run over

by a drunk driver (it happens, you know,

remember blue-eyed Stewart?)

I’d like to able to take a few days off work

to cry and stuff, OK?

Because, if my partner-in-life

whom I can’t legally marry because

it upsets someone’s stomach or something

suddenly developed an infection

and got Job’s sores all over his body

and had to go to the hospital

(you know, just like my friend Stephen)

I’d kind of like to take him there

and hold his hand for a few days

and still get paid on family emergency leave

so I could eat food and pay rent and all.

Because if my lover left me

after fifteen years I’d like to be able to sob

without consolation

and feel suitable depressions

and not have to smile a lot

and pretend to be stunned for months.

Because lying all the time is still wrong isn’t it?

Oh, and because, whether you believe it or not,

my life is just as important to me as yours is to you.

Straight Talk About Coming Out The Rev. Alison Cornish

I’m going to start my comments this morning with a confession. I will probably make mistakes in what I am about to say. It’s bound to happen. In fact, it already has – just trying to get the sermon description into the newsletter unleashed a 3-day e-mail exchange on the ‘right’ order of the letters representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – is it GBLT? LGBT? BGLT? (everyone seems to agree the ‘T’ comes last!) In talking about a subject as important and as sensitive as coming out, I summon all my best intentions, and yet I am also hugely aware of how inadequate to the task I am. But, I’m taking this year’s theme of ‘Talk About It’ at face value. It’s a risk I feel I must take. Here’s why – here’s the story of the beginning of my thinking about this service.

The setting is my office. The people there, besides me, are a young couple, planning their wedding. I am asking my typical questions – tell me about you two as a couple – how did you meet? What made you decide to get married? Tell me about your families.

That’s when it usually gets interesting. This day, it became more than interesting. You see, the couple was two young women. As they talked about their families’ reaction to their decision to get married, one of them became silent, and looked more uncomfortable with each moment. Finally, her partner spilled the beans – you see, she said, Mary’s parents had come to the point of being OK with her being a lesbian, and they were even OK about our relationship – but this marriage? It’s put them back at square one. It’s like coming out all over again. They just keep saying, ‘why do you have to do this?’ (Why do ‘you people’?) Isn’t it enough to be gay? To live together? This – we just can’t accept this.

It was, I have to say, the first time I realized that, for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, the ‘coming out’ process is never over. And it made me furious.

Here I was, witnessing the obvious love and commitment of these two women sitting there together, yet the two people who meant more than anyone else to Mary, were holding back their acceptance of this relationship – after having already given it! In an uncharacteristic ‘editorial moment,’ I blurted out, ‘you know, I think EVERYONE should have to come out – really, every person should have to, at some point, declare their sexual orientation to the people to whom they are closest. And it should be just as important and scary as it is for gay people.’ Well, the two women stared at me, we all shared a giggle, and then we returned to the important business at hand – planning a wedding.

But that idea, a coming out moment for all, didn’t leave me. And it fueled my thinking about this morning’s words. ‘Coming out,’ in the context of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – a.k.a. GLBT – culture means to acknowledge one’s sexual orientation – to oneself, to others, and also publicly. Thinking about coming out as a process, not as an event, has shifted my fundamental understanding of what it might be like to be gay or lesbian in this time, and place, in history. Coming out is a constant issue throughout the lives of all bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people, because life is constantly changing, and every turn, every day, presents new situations.

Now, most of us have had some kind of ‘coming out’ experience, if not sexual orientation, then another time when you have had first, some sort of realization about yourself and then, you’ve had to make a decision about sharing that understanding with those closest to you and eventually, you might risk some public expression of this very personal, and very important, aspect of yourself. It might be that you’re an atheist, or a Christian – or maybe you believe in the paranormal, or the afterlife – or you might be an alcoholic, or a binge eater. In all coming outs, there’s as wide a range of feelings as there are experiences – pride, anxiety, relief, shame, acceptance, support, rejection, understanding, comfort, love. Perhaps you have been able to negotiate all the phases of your ‘coming out’ – or, maybe the risk proved to be too great, and the closet, so to speak, has stayed shut.

When I think of a time in my own life when I lived part of my life ‘in a closet,’ I recall being a college student, dating a professor considerably older than me. Now, we weren’t doing anything that was actually off limits – there were no college rules that prohibited our relationship, we were both consenting adults, and we were both unmarried – this was not an affair. But neither was it the type of relationship that would have been encouraged, nor would it have been easily or warmly accepted. I learned a lot about how it felt to be in a relationship that existed largely away from public view. For me, love and fear became entangled. Alongside the feeling of being in love, we both lived with the fear of being discovered. The inner, and wonderful, feeling of loving another person was always subject to the specter of fear pressing in from the outside. It was disquieting and confusing. I felt what it was like to want to shout my happiness from the rooftops, countered by the need to keep the whole relationship quiet, discreet, private. It was hard, very hard, to keep this part of myself cut off from the whole of my life. And, I was always worried that if we were discovered, people would think of me differently, even think less of me. In fact, that’s a fear that has never left me, even this morning, as I stand here saying this to all of you.

I know that the challenges I faced were not the same as those of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. My experience was about a specific relationship, and time, in my life. It ended, and I moved on. It didn’t have to do with my personhood, my basic self understanding. Still, it gave me an inside view of a kind of a closet, and I know this – I would never wish that on another person. The exclusion and isolation of living in fear, and of living part of life separate from the rest, is terribly painful.

Which brings us around to the main subject of National Coming Out Day, this annual reminder of how just much work there is left to do to ensure that all people may fully express the capacity to love one another in a world that is safe and accepting. Coming Out Day is for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people that are committed to a just and equitable world. It’s a time to reflect on all the different phases of the process of coming out.

Consider, for example, coming out to one’s self. The recognition of difference, and of uniqueness, starts in childhood, and grows more important, and intense, in adolescence. For GLBT people, this includes a growing realization that that you don’t necessarily ‘fit the mold.’ It takes self-awareness to realize there’s more than one way to be in the world. And it takes courage, too. It takes self-acceptance, and love. It takes new language to describe an emerging identity. It takes time and space – to wonder, to question, to explore, to test. This coming out – the self-recognition of one’s identity and orientation – doesn’t happen just once in a lifetime. There’s the teen who can finally openly say he’s gay – that’s a coming out. But then there’s the woman who’s known she’s a lesbian since she was twenty, yet only years later can she begin to imagine herself as a mother – that’s another coming out. Or the man who’s never felt completely at home in his marriage to a woman, and finally sets out to find a new way of loving, and being loved. Or the woman who sees the world through the eyes of the man she longs to be. In the words of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, ‘coming out and living openly as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender person – whether it’s for the first time ever, or for the first time today – is an act of bravery and authenticity.’

But even though this phase of coming out is primarily about GLBT people and their own self-understanding, still it calls for something from the rest of the world, too – from straight, and thoughtful, allies. It requires a model of a world that reflects back to GLBT people that different sexual orientations, and relationships, are normative. It means a world where GLBT people can actually see people like themselves on television, in politics, in novels, on the cover of a magazine. Think of those words at the top of your Order of Service – Imagine a world in which your life appears only as a negative.

Imagine that whenever you hear your life mentioned it is with a laugh or a sneer, in a whisper or an apologetic tone of voice – that is the world that GLBT people experience every single day. If straight allies don’t help to dismantle stereotypes and correct misinformation, then each time a GLBT person looks for his or her own reflection in the culture around them, they will find distortions and ugliness, not mentors and heroes.

Another phase of coming out is to share one’s orientation and self-understanding with other people. Behind the fears and anxieties of these tremulous moments is the fierce hope of acceptance. The person who comes out has one message to try to somehow say, and that is, ‘I’m still the person I always was, it’s just that you know me better now.’

But coming out to those who are close friends and family poses enormous risks. I have been told heartsoaring stories of acceptance, and heartwrenching stories of rejection. To come out, to touch subjects potentially so charged, is to risk encountering booby traps of prejudice, of unconscious, or unknown homophobia, of touching unexpectedly raw nerves. This coming out, too, happens again and again – the couple I spoke of earlier thought they had gotten past this phase of coming out, but instead, Mary found that her loving parents had reached a limit in their ability to accept her life in all its fullness. And it’s a coming out that is passed on – there’s the coming out as the father of a lesbian, the sister of a bisexual brother. At another same-gender wedding where I officiated, the father of one of the grooms confided to me his delight that his son had found love and entered into a committed relationship. And yet many of his own coworkers won’t know he spent the weekend celebrating the marriage of his only son – because he has spent the last 20 years listening to them bash gays.

Yet, what a powerful gift to be given, the revelation that you have known and loved – and been loved by – a gay person. You see, when our hearts are stirred, our heads have a chance to revise what we think weíve always known is true. When love is stronger than any stereotype or misconception that threatens to divide us, true transformation can happen. Being a friend, or a parent, or a child, of a GLBT person doesn’t mean that you’re instantly and perfectly comfortable with human differences or orientations that seem foreign to you. What it means is that you’re being invited – by your heart – to honestly work on your discomforts, ignorance, and prejudices. It is a gift, indeed.

Coming out publicly is, of course, a never-ending, and unbounded, process. But with each new person who ‘knows,’ there’s another element of risk. What about coming out at work? In the neighborhood? How about to the extended (and ethnic) family? Or at church? In each place, every situation, there’s the promise of living more fully, more completely as oneself, and also, at every turn, the potential for more harm, less safety. We live in a world where every GLBT person needs to be selective in choosing conversation partners.

A gay friend shared with me his current dilemma this week. My friend lives a life largely out of the closet – but he’s not out to everyone, and even those that know he’s gay may not know the full extent of his life as a gay man, and activist, and father. A colleague ‘googled’ him, and, in addition to finding out more about his professional credentials, also found references to his political and social commitments – as a gay man. The nature of our interconnected world makes trying to control how ‘out’ anyone is extremely difficult. Is it breaking down more barriers? Or increasing risks?

This, perhaps, is where straight allies have the biggest task – of creating and holding places of safety for GLBT people. And even more than that, to do the hard work of partnering together to dismantle oppression, homophobia and heterosexism. I, for one, believe that this work begins here, in religious community. Why? Because, as I offered in my ‘confession’ a few minutes ago, this work is bound to have us making mistakes, missteps, and inflicting ‘cringing moments.’ No matter how well-intentioned we are, when we are GLBT and straight people trying to talk about this together, we run the risk of hurting and offending each other. But the gift of a spiritual community is that we can make mistakes, sometimes even terrible ones, and still be valued and loved as we try to better understand each other – and ourselves. We are a covenanted community. That means we promise to walk together, in love. Our covenant calls us back to the place where we can try, again, because it matters to people that we care about.

It’s a big dream, to create a world free of hate, where people can choose to love whomever they wish to love. But I have hope. A couple of years ago, the UU World published an article that contained some stunning statistics about our own denomination’s long road to the place we now occupy as one of the leading voices calling for an end to discriminatory practices around sexual orientation. 39 years ago, in 1967, our denomination’s members were surveyed on a number of issues, including acceptance of homosexuality. Here’s what they found: 8% of our members believed homosexuality should be discouraged by law; 80% believed homosexuality should be discouraged by education, and another 12% believed that homosexuality should be discouraged by either education or the law. Only .1% (yes, that’s one-tenth of one percent) believed that homosexuality should be encouraged. Through the 1970s and 80s, great controversy surrounded the few clergy who performed same-sex unions. It wasn’t until 1984 – 22 years ago – that our General Assembly passed a resolution supporting services of union, and only in 1997 – 10 years ago – did that same body call for the extension of civil rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

Yes – we now consider ourselves a leading voice in many of these issues, but I gaze in wonder at where we have come from in a time period shorter than my own lifetime. What growth there has been, and what promise there is still. I hope that youíll join with me as we, together, work to dismantle closets, and make possible for all people to live these words from Anais Nin – ‘There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’ It’s time to come out – as gays, as lesbians, as bisexuals, as transgender people, and as straight allies.

Closing Words (Paul Robeson)

Sorrow will one day turn to joy. All that breaks the heart and oppresses the soul will one day give place to peace and understanding and everyone will be free.

References:

Bruce Coville, ‘Am I Blue?’ in Marion Dane Bauer, ed., Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence, NY: HarperTrophy, 1994.

Human Rights Campaign Foundation, ‘National Coming Out Day,’ www.hrc.org.

Unitarian Universalist Association, The Welcoming Congregation Handbook, Boston: UUA, 1999.

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