To Come Out or to Not Come Out …. that is the question

It has often been my contention that there are things that I, as a mainly straight person, can say in this conversation that would be difficult for my LGBT brothers and sisters to say. And there are things that they can say that I have no business saying. When we stand side-by-side in solidarity and speak with one voice, our unity has the most potential for impact.

This particular question, “To come out or not to come out” seems to be on the border. There are some things I can perhaps contribute to this part of the conversation, but I am also keenly aware that I need to be careful to not say more than I should. I don’t know what it is like to come out and honestly share about the reality of experiencing same-sex attraction. But I have talked with hundreds of folks about their experience with deciding to come out and then actually doing it. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that there are many different experiences as people navigate these questions. So I hope that sharing some of my thoughts will be helpful – and I do so with this request: please add your insights and experiences to the conversation. This post is only meant to be a catalyst to interacting with this decision-making process. The more you contribute – the richer the conversation will be and the more we will all be able to learn from one another.

As a Canadian child growing up in a fairly sheltered Christian community, I had no idea who Harvey Milk was. I’d never heard his speech encouraging all gay people to come out as a way of once and for all destroying the assumptions, stereotypes, and inuendos about gay people. And when I first worked for New Direction, the idea of coming out was clouded over by the paradigm that suggested that if a person acknowledged their same-sex attraction it gave that reality extra power in your life. This would be similar to those Christians discouraging anyone to say they are an alcoholic lest that be an open door to draw you into further bondage to alcohol. Such a view elevates the power of our words and calls us to high levels of vigilance and avoidance.

But as I have continued to listen to and interact with people for whom their same-sex orientation is an enduring reality, I have observed the power in honest acknowledgement and self-acceptance. Even though different individuals held different beliefs and values about how they ought to steward their experience of same-sex attraction, in all of these different scenarios it seemed that people were much better positioned to live in alignment with their beliefs and values when they had safe environments in which to honestly share the impact of their same-sex attraction on their daily life.

Additionally, when I looked at the kinds of unhelpful assumptions being made in the Christian community about the reality of LGBT people, I found a synergy with the strategies of gay advocacy groups seeking to end discrimination: if people actually get to know real people rather than relying on their theoretical ideas based on caricatures or stereotypes, their prejudices will diminish and they will recognize that same-sex oriented people have just as much capacity as anyone else to be a good neighbor, citizen and friend. This is what the church needed! They needed to realize that in many, if not most, congregations there were wonderful people experiencing this reality and at the same time were committed to faith in Jesus Christ. But the more hidden and isolated they were, the more they would struggle with issues of trust, self-acceptance, connection and authentic self-expression.

So through the years, I often found myself wishing that the folks who came to talk to me would have the courage to come out in their church environments. In the most idealistic sense, I felt this would be better for them and for their church to move forward. But….. no one lives in a perfect ideal world. And I knew that the fear of rejection was a very real and challenging barrier to these individuals coming out. And so it seemed to be a catch-22. People in the church wouldn’t learn to relate to sexual minority persons better until they had the opportunity to engage in the lives of real people and build relationships. Sexual minority people didn’t feel safe coming out in the church until church members had a track record of positive relating with gay people.

The coming out issue was also complicated by questions and assumptions about whether or not same-sex attraction could change, be healed, transformed or altered. That’s why I think we need to pull the barn down on the idea of reorientation and nurture an environment that holds in tension the reality that people who experience predominant same-sex attraction will likely continue to experience same-sex attraction the rest of their life while at the same time, there may be some fluidity or bi-sexual functioning that may emerge.

So, it’s the year 2012. The tide is turning and most people realize that some magical gay-to-straight formula doesn’t exist. So, should people who experience same-sex attraction come out or not?

It may be helpful to simply understand what coming out is and what it isn’t. At the most fundamental level, coming out begins with a self-acknowledgment that these attractions are part of your reality – they aren’t a phase, they aren’t just confusion, they are what they are. To get to this point, a person needs to have given themselves some time to understand their internal experiences and make sense of what they seem to be feeling in various contexts as they evaluate their draw to their own or opposite gender. I often encourage people to not try to rush to a resolution on this question. Even though we don’t like the tension of uncertainty, sometimes the best thing we can do is simply give ourselves the space to make sense of all the complex thoughts and feelings we experience. But there will come a time when things seem consistent over time and you know in your gut that this is a facet of how you relate to the world of people and relationships – that you feel you would be most completed by someone of your own gender. Acknowledging this to yourself doesn’t lock you in to any particular perspective or future decision about how you plan on living your life. It simply accepts that this is something about yourself that you will need to navigate and steward. It can be helpful at this point, for people of faith, to remember that there isn’t anything about you that God doesn’t already know. God’s love for you is unconditional. Accepting that this is part of your reality allows you to talk with God honestly and openly about this. From my perspective, even if there should be any future shifts in the direction or intensity of your attractions, it will always be important to be honest and accepting of yourself – even as you make determinations about choices and behaviours that will be in line with your beliefs and values.

The second part of coming out is the public part. And even here, it isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Most people begin with choosing a very trusted confidante to come out to. This is a person who knows how to listen well, who is non-judgmental and won’t leap to conclusions, someone who respects confidentiality and will honour your privacy, someone who will love and care for you unconditionally. Once you’ve had some positive experiences sharing with some individuals like this, then you can think about widening the circle a bit if you think that would be helpful to you and supportive of you in your ongoing journey to know yourself and live in alignment with your beliefs and values.

Sometimes telling the people closest to you is the hardest. It can feel like you have the most to lose in these relationships if people do not respond well. Depending on your age and stage of life, such persons could be your parents, your spouse, or your siblings. It may be helpful to think through your reasons for telling them and your goals for the outcome of your disclosure – and then communicating that clearly with them. For example, you might say, “I want to tell you this because I feel like I can’t be as open and as honest in our relationship as I would like to be.” “I want to tell you this because I want there to be a high level of trust and transparency in our relationship.” “I want to tell you this because I want you to know me – and as long as I am not honest about this I will always feel like there is a part of me you don’t know.” Some examples of goals for the outcome of your disclosure: “I want you to understand what my beliefs and values are and my intentions to live a life that is congruent. We might not completely agree on these, but I hope that you will respect the thought, care, prayer etc. that I have put into this.” “I want to work on a more open and trusting relationship with you and this disclosure is the beginning of that.” “I want to feel safe when I come home and know that I’m not going to hear gay jokes or derogatory statements about LGBT people.” “I want to be able to open dialogue about these matters so that we can come to a better understanding of what we each believe, why we believe that, and how we are going to relate to one another despite some disagreements we may have.” As these examples illustrate, coming out demonstrates an investment in the relationship. You come out because you want to move forward in relationship. This may be very important to communicate.

Coming out always comes with the risk that the individual may not react well. Sometimes, it can be helpful to say, “I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time – and I know you’re just starting to process what I’ve told you. I want to give you the time and space you need to think through what I’ve told you.” You may additionally let them know of some good resources that they can access – but leave it up to them if they take advantage of them or not. Sometimes this can become the white elephant in the room, and people don’t bring up the subject for a long time. This can leave you feeling unsure in the relationship. It may be helpful to see if you can commit to a time in a few weeks to return to this conversation with any questions they may have that you can help bring clarity to.

When you disclose your experience of same-sex attraction, it may be very helpful to articulate clearly so that you can prevent assumptions from the beginning. You may choose to disclose in stages if you are involved in a same-sex relationship. You might want to begin by telling them about your same-sex attraction – and give them some time to digest that before asking if they would like to meet your partner. If they ask you directly don’t lie. Tell them the truth. But also encourage them to recognize that this conversation is really a journey and you don’t need to cover everything right then.

Be as clear as you can be about where your current thinking is at concerning beliefs and values. Your clear answer might be that you just don’t know right now where you are going to land. That’s ok. Just be as clear as you can be.

It may be helpful, if your loved ones have a bit of a tendency to try to be “fixers”, to be really clear about what would be helpful for you. Some examples might be: “It would be really helpful for me if you would just listen to my story.” “It would be really helpful for me if you would read this book.” “It would be really helpful for me if we could watch this DVD together and then discuss it.” “It would be really helpful for me if you would ask me questions rather than give me advice.”

There may be some helpful qualifiers to communicate as well. You will want to communicate the language you are using to describe your experience. If you want to use the word gay, then ensure that there is a clear understanding of what you mean when you use it. If you do not want to use the word gay to describe you, you may want to explain why. You may want to say something about your primary sense of who you are, your identity. If faith is a priority for you, then it may be helpful to clearly say that your primary identity is that of a Christian. Or you may simply say that while you feel that it is important to be honest about your sexuality, you are much more than your sexuality and that you do not intend for your sexuality to define you. You may even need to differentiate between attraction and behavior for some folks you disclose to.