Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coming out, part 1: The summer of '08

This post is dedicated to the brave and wonderful people who allowed me to include their stories as a part of mine. I write this in hopes that this piece of my journey will help to break down walls rather than create new ones.

Sex was a concept I picked it up slowly in elementary school, starting with the words my friends used, the movies I saw unwittingly at sleepovers of more worldly-wise friends, and the giggles whenever our fifth grade teacher said “do it.” It was in the same way that I picked up “gay”—first the language only, from my friends, usually used as a derogatory term for the boys who pierced their right ear or the girls whose hand-me-down clothes were a few styles too old. Then, slowly, that it had something to do with girls kissing girls or boys kissing boys.

My parents cornered me in about fifth grade, on a car ride home, and started telling me about menstruation and the reproductive system. When we arrived home they were just getting to the juicy part and were going to show me some diagrams in a book, so I excused myself to use the bathroom. I emerged and my mom yelled down the hall, “Don’t you want to know how the egg gets fertilized?” Embarrassed, I told them I was too busy arranging my Celine Dion and Backstreet Boys cassette tapes.

Later, when they were out, I snuck the book from their room and devoured it. I learned in depth about sex, masturbation, pornography, and homosexuality, those fascinatingly forbidden topics. I still remember the wording: “When a man and a woman are married, they go somewhere by themselves and start kissing and hugging…” After reading it, I went to bury my face in my teddy bear.

From the book, from church, from my community, I drew the implicit assumption that it was only between a married man and a woman that sex should occur. Implicit is what it always was; for me there was never an angry sermon about gays destroying the culture. At summer camp in high school, we had long and deep discussions about sex and dating and relationships, which did not mention but certainly assumed that everyone was straight. We now know from Facebook this was not true.

I realized my uncle was gay when I was 13, in a sudden burst of insight. My uncle's partner (his "friend" I thought) mentioned in a card that they were taking a trip for their anniversary. This was my first encounter with real live gay people. By the time I got to high school, my straight assumptions were entrenched enough that I was scared of the high school gay club, LeTsGaB. Honestly, it was less repulsion and condescension than it was discomfort. I was nerdy, quiet, and decidedly evangelical, and the gay club seemed to represent a loud and proud discussion of sexuality I was not ready to have at all. My church had never told me to hate gays, but it had certainly never told me to love them.

So in college, I made mostly evangelical friends, steered clear of yet another gay club, and mostly tried to ignore the idea. Until senior year.


In 2008, three women came out to me.

Kate was a college friend. One night she asked me if we could talk. She told me she felt terrible for not being honest. I had asked what she was doing over the weekend, and she said she had a training for work. Another day, she told me she was going into the city to meet some friends from her trip abroad. She was tired of lying to me. The truth was, she was bi, and dating a woman for the first time. She wanted to be out, but she was scared to tell some of our other friends for fear of judgment.

I tried to listen compassionately. I told her nothing changed about how I felt about her. But I felt it would be dishonest if I didn’t share my perspective. I asked her if she had a sense about how this new revelation about her sexuality fit with her faith. She said she felt pretty good about it. I mumbled something about how I still wasn’t sure whether or not it was okay to be gay. I told her that I wanted to be supportive, but I was trying to figure out where I stood.

We graduated a couple months later. I’ve seen her only twice since then.

A couple weeks later I arrived at my fourth and final summer as a counselor at a Christian camp. The whispered conversations of pain and trust and Jesus seem even more beautiful five years later. The last two weeks, Lana and I were counselors for Cabin 12, the oldest girls in camp. It was the clearest night of the summer and Lana and I took the girls up to the soccer field to gaze into the soul of the universe. I asked everyone to share about their relationship with God over the past year. Each girl told a story, but Emily didn’t want to talk.

“You don’t have to share,” we said, “but this is a safe place.”

She waffled. “I really don’t have anything to share.”

“Emily, it’s okay, you can say it.” One of the girls encouraged her, and she continued.

“I mean, I can’t have a relationship with God.”

I was not the only one on the field to jump in immediately. “What do you mean? Everyone can have a relationship with God!”

She took a deep breath. “I mean, I’m gay.”

That was not the explanation I was expecting, and I was silenced momentarily. The stars were bright with beauty. The other sixteen-year-old girls began to respond with acceptance and love. I was proud of them. I think Emily felt free.

When we returned to the cabin, Lana and I met on the porch, as we did every night. There were tears in her eyes as we prayed for the girls.

I sat on Emily’s bunk and we whispered into the night. She told me when she first knew, though in a way she had always known. She told me about coming out to her mom and sister, but not her dad who would be furious. She told me it was hard coming out to her girlfriends, because some of them started acting weird, like they were afraid she would be attracted to them.

I prayed for the Spirit to give me the right words, and the words that came were of God’s unconditional love.

I woke the next morning and I knew clearly that my role was simply to show grace. To let her see she could reconnect with God. To emphasize that the central message of our faith is God’s surprising, consuming, boundary-breaking love.

Lana and I went out to the porch for our morning prayer. “I knew exactly what Emily was going to say as soon as she started,” said Lana. “I knew because I’ve been there, in that exact conversation. I’ve said those exact words.” She was quiet for a while as I took in what she was saying. “And the hardest thing is that no one knows. I couldn’t work here if they knew. And I can’t talk with Emily about it because I signed a statement of beliefs.”

This time I just listened.

When it was time to pray, I prayed, thank you God for your great love, greater than our love.

Part 2 is up! I would love to hear your thoughts. Please keep comments charitable.

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