Gather in close, because I want to share a secret with all of you. I don’t like the word “closet” as a reference to the period of time before LGBT people make a public declaration of their sexual identity. For some people this metaphor is really empowering. There’s a sense of being trapped and stuck in the dark and you really do have the power to open the door and step out into the light. You do have the power to leave that closet behind. This metaphor has its merits. I know many friends that speak with great pride about the day or the month or the year they decided to come out of the closet. In truth, this is a life long process. My own partner speaks with great pride about her decision to finally come out of the closet.
For me, that wasn’t the right metaphor. And I’ve been thinking about how I would choose to reframe it or what metaphor I would use for myself and I came up with the idea of a “Gestation period.” I like the phrase “gestation.” It’s a gentle phrase. It’s a kind phrase. My sister is pregnant right now, and so many critical things are happening for her little babe in the womb during this period of gestation. Her womb is a safe place. Her womb is a protective place. It’s natural for babies to need time in a mother’s womb. Her little girl was the size of a pea, and then a peanut, and then an orange, and she keeps on growing. Her little girl is growing a heart and lungs and a brain. She is growing strong. She’s being nourished by my sister via an umbilical cord. She is reaching full development, and when she’s ready, and when it’s her right time—she will exit the womb and she will greet the awaiting world. The journey to get here will be harrowing. She will arrive naked and vulnerable and probably a little traumatized by the trip for having been squeezed out of my sister’s womb.
Her little lungs will be filled with oxygen, and with a lion’s roar–she will cry, and she will scream, and she will announce her arrival to the world. And as soon as she has done these things, a precious community will envelop her with love. She will be embraced in community. She will be named in community. Mama lioness will grab this baby girl cub and clutch her close to her chest, and little one will be lulled by the sound of a beating heart. By presence. By family. Aunt Marcy and my partner/Aunt Adrienne, and my other sister, Aunt Laura will hover around this new baby girl attending to her, and doting, and attending to my sister and her husband. Grandmas and grandpas will be there too. She will have a tight-knit circle—a community pledging their love and support to her–speaking joy and hope and promise and blessing into her life. We will pledge ourselves to this little girl and to walking with her in her life, but especially in her first few years when she is so vulnerable to the elements. As she gets older, she will develop motor muscles, and she’ll develop skills and mastery, and we will start to protect her less and less, because she won’t need us to protect her in the same ways anymore.
By contrast, my partner, Adrienne, was born as a preemie. She was born several months too early. Her first few weeks, in fact, her first few months of life outside the womb were a full on fight for her survival. She was a scrapper and so she did survive, and she went on to thrive. But her first few months in this world were tenuous. She was rushed as an emergency delivery to a hospital. And then later she was sent on an emergency flight to an entirely different state with a bigger hospital and more state of the art equipment for neonatal care. She needed all sorts of outside intensive care to survive outside the womb. Her birth would result in a need for crisis care that would follow her for the first few years of her life as she acclimated to life outside her mother’s womb. Her gestation period was cut too short. She did not have the time she needed in order to come to maturity. She reminds me that she’s lucky to have been born when she was, because if she had been born 5,10, or 15 years earlier–the technology would not have been advanced, and she almost certainly would not have survived the birthing process and those first few tentative months outside the womb.
It’s been my experience that people have two basic personality types in coming out–and probably just two basic personality types.
One personality type naturally errs on the side of turning inward and hiding. When it senses danger, it shuts down, and it shuts everyone out. It keeps tender things bottled up. It puts on a facade or a charade before the world. Like a turtle, it goes into its shell. It has to be coaxed out. It has to be encouraged to take the risk of vulnerability.
The other personality type, my personality type, errs on the side of vulnerability. Too much vulnerability. When people initially resist vulnerability or behave recklessly with my vulnerability, this personality type often pushes me to offer even more vulnerability. The thinking is that if I just keep offering myself they’ll return in kind. If I just keep offering my vulnerability they’ll eventually rise to the occasion and hold me with great care. I don’t have personas or masks that I take on or off in different social settings. I don’t walk into the world armored up. I am the same in churches that I lead, at home with my partner, and at work for the military.
For the first personality type, growing strong means learning to take risks. This personality type is usually terrified of intimacy and vulnerability. This personality type is the personality type that needs a cheerleader to wait patiently as they tell their truth to themselves, and then to help them make a list of just 1 person or 3 people or 5 people that they’ll offer their truth and practice their vulnerability. This personality type struggles a lot with shame. This personality type engages in escapist behaviors when they are confronted with harder aspects of their life.
For the second personality type, wearing your heart on your sleeve is a default setting. And when you’re going through difficulty—wisdom and discernment means being a better steward of your own vulnerability. It means exercising greater restraint into who you let hold the most tender parts of your heart. It means recognizing that not everybody has actually earned the privilege to hold space with you or for you. It means learning to practice the art of turning inward. It may mean slowing down and becoming more discriminating and intentional in your relationships with people. A non-response or a thoughtless response from someone is a response to be taken seriously even if it’s not the response you had hoped for. If someone tramples a small amount of your vulnerability, they will continue to trample larger and larger amounts of your vulnerability. Welcoming more vulnerability may not be wise in these instances. This personality type intrinsically and enthusiastically trusts people, but because there are no safeguards in place, it has an incredibly difficult time recovering and putting the pieces back together when it is wounded in its most vulnerable places.
This personality type can move into unhealthy behaviors of demanding intimacy and vulnerability with people instead of inviting vulnerability and adjusting and stepping back accordingly when that vulnerability is not respected or reciprocated.
This personality type doesn’t need help to be coaxed out. It may need wise guides to come alongside and say—don’t give this much of yourself to people. It may need someone to tell it not to post the 2 page Facebook status update about your family member who is in critical condition at the hospital, because you will be devastated if a casual acquaintance leaves a thoughtless or unsupportive comment. This personality type needs to be given permission to draw inward and draw away from relationships on the periphery of their life for a season. This personality type needs coaching and needs to learn not to feel guilty about setting strong boundaries with people and actually sticking to them.
As I was moving toward the Coming Out process, I was terrified of anyone anywhere perceiving me as closeted. I could not think of a larger insult to my personhood than someone accusing me of being closeted. Nothing would hurt me in my heart more than someone accusing me of a lack of transparency or authenticity. I felt this way because vulnerability and bravery and intimacy–these are my natural gifts and they are my deepest gifts. I felt a desperate urgency to come out publicly, to be a role model for others, and to stand up and be counted as queer. But that sense of urgency was really not rooted in anything specific or particular. There was no timetable that I needed to meet or that I should have met for myself or to appease anyone else. And so I charged headlong into a process before it was really wise or prudent for me to do it.
I did not have a good social support system in place in my life. I did not have a supportive faith community. I did not have a supportive LGBT community around me at the time. I had LGBT communities that I had served in a professional capacity as a straight ally pastor and they had some difficulty in following along with me to the other side of a process in which I would emerge as a queer woman and a queer Rev. The old ways of relating to me had to be exchanged for new ways. I had upset the delicate balance of the status quo and I would never be returning to it. Those relationships (while meaningful to me) were transactional relationships. I was there to care for people not the other way around. I was giving of myself, not the other way around. And I desperately needed things to be the other way around.
I had not found my way to the right professional supports and resources in my life (i.e. counselors, spiritual directors, pastors to pastor me, life coaches etc..). I did not have a supportive partner in my life who was really “with me” in this experience. In fact, at the time, I had a straight male partner who was not at all “with me” and was actively resistant to my process. He really didn’t quite understand or get why I felt any need to declare a bisexual or queer identity if I really and truly loved him, and if I felt sexual feelings for him. He wondered why this couldn’t just be our little secret. He would frequently whisper in my ear–“No one has to know. Your church doesn’t have to know. My family & your family don’t have to know. Our friends don’t have to know. This is our secret.” But I didn’t want my personhood to be a secret. I desperately wanted to know others and be known for who I am.
I did have a few supportive clergy colleagues who were kind and gracious in private–and that empathy was meaningful to me. But all of them worked for churches that are not LGBT affirming—much less—“Bi affirming” or able to say the word “bisexual” out loud and in public and from their pulpits. What they could say in private—they couldn’t say in public. And I felt that limitation of support. So as much as they might have cared for me, they were not safe people—not really. They didn’t mean or intend to be “unsafe people” but they weren’t actually safe for me, because they were entangled with systems and beholden to systems that actively encouraged my silence, my oppression, and my diminishing rather than the empowerment, freedom, and the full abundance of LGBT people. I know they did and they do care deeply for me. I can acknowledge that and receive that love and care. I can acknowledge that it’s precious to me while still recognizing my need to change the nature of those relationships–while still recognizing the need to pause, take a step back, add an arm’s length distance, and stronger boundaries with individuals enmeshed in oppressive systems.
I had an inner knowing. I had an inner wisdom guiding me during this time frame in my life, and I didn’t listen to it. That inner wisdom directed me toward something I call the 20min rule. If someone didn’t exhibit 20min worth of curiosity toward me–if they weren’t someone inclined to meet up for a cup of coffee and get to know me in an organic way—if they weren’t genuinely offering me the gift of friendship—they really had not earned the right to hold this tender aspect of my life. In fact, they were giving me indicators that they were likely to hold this tender and vulnerable part of me poorly–and worse they might inadvertently do harm to me in these vulnerable areas of my life. I felt guilty about this inner voice of mine. Likewise, my litmus test for churches and lgbt organizations was their express unequivocal support for bisexuals out loud and in public. And if they lacked that–they weren’t organizations or churches that were right for me. I felt guilty about this inner voice inside me and sad about the ways that my relationships with people and places might change if I had the gumption to honor it.This doesn’t necessarily make these people or places–bad guys or bad gals or bad people. We all have limited emotional bandwidth. We all only have 24 hours in a day. We all make really difficult decisions about how we prioritize and utilize our gifts and our limited emotional resources. It’s not loving to demand for someone or some place to love you, and in fact, it’s unloving. It’s not fair to others to demand their emotional labor. And finally it doesn’t work. Love and support and friendship are gifts freely given. They can’t be demanded.
In Mark 1:29-39, Jesus has been out in the world doing his thing. He has been loving and encouraging people, feeding people, healing the sick, casting out demons—ya know–standard Jesus stuff. Then he goes away to rest. Jesus rested. When his disciples came to him, they let him know that everyone had been searching for him. Even with Jesus own infinite powers to love people, heal people, feed people— there was a never-ending amount of need in the world. There was more need than even Jesus could manage. His response to his disciples was a telling response. He set a limit. He prioritized his own rest and revitalization over all that need in the world. He told his disciples he wasn’t going back there to that place to heal anyone else, because he had just been there. He let them know that he was moving onward to a new location the next day, onward to the next place that his ministry would take him. Even Jesus said “no” to people in need.
When someone says “no” to you, there is no need to vilify that person. Jesus said “no” to people. Likewise, there’s no reason to vilify yourself if you have to say “no” to someone. But it should give you pause. If you are a leader who says “no” what is the “no” teaching you about yourself. What is your growing edge. What is your inner voice wanting you to gain on the other side of that “no.”
If you are someone with a need and someone says “no” to your need—honor their “no.” It means that your need was meant to be met by another person, or by another means. This is really important–it does not mean your need is invalid. It does not mean you should try to overrule or ignore or simply push through your deepest needs. It does not mean you put yourself in places or around people or in situations where you feel unsafe or where you feel unsupported or unloved. There were good and healthy reasons for my needs. My needs were valid. I had an inner knowing and an inner wisdom telling me not to come out and not to share my story and not to entrust places or people with too much of me, and I should have gently adjusted my relationships with people, places, and groups accordingly. I should have picked up on the natural energies of these relationships, and if their needs and my needs were incompatible, I should have gently distanced myself and sought out more compatible people, places, and groups where all these things would align. That’s no easy task when you’re emotionally compromised.
Mostly, I had transactional and non-reciprocal relationships. I had relationships that put me into a Rev role in which I was giving of myself but those relationships were not reciprocal (or reciprocating to me) and they’re not meant to be. I had a series of professional relationships in my Government job where I was expected to perform for people. There’s nothing wrong with that either. That is the rightful expectation of a professional relationship. You provide a product or service for someone else. I’ve had to learn “no” in my life. I’ve had to learn how to accept other people’s “no” to me. And I’ve also had to learn how to start saying “no” with greater frequency.
Somewhere in the balance, I lacked really solid and reciprocal friendships. And my deepest inner needs were screaming at me–that this was lacking, and that my number one priority should have been to push everything else to the side and attend to this part of my life. I had failed to build these relationships. I had neglected to maintain them. I had cast myself into the role of always being “in service” to others. The 20min rule was a reminder to me, that this was a moment where my needs should have taken center stage. This was a moment where instead of “care taking” or “giving”—I deserved to be taken care of, where instead of giving, I was allowed to receive. Where instead of tending to others– I was allowed to seek relationships where I would be tended. Where instead of being drained, I was allowed to be filled.
But instead I pushed through. I quieted my inner voice. I found myself coming out to a whole lot of people before I should have attempted it. I shared with colleagues, family, acquaintances. Enduring painful relationships. Loss of relationships. Loss of job opportunities. And a handful of years ago, this culminated with me sharing my bisexual status in confidence to someone, and then due to a miscommunication with that person, I had my personal information, my sexual orientation, and various other information released on a national website. I was cast as a leader in a movement. At the time of this release several years ago, I’m sure I wasn’t the 3rd bisexual Rev in my denomination, but I was only the 3rd “out” bisexual Rev in my denomination to have her personal information published on this particular national website, and I saw my name being spread all over the internet like wildfire. I saw my picture and my deeply personal information scrolling through Facebook feeds, through twitter, through other websites. I had completely lost control of my coming out process and the surrounding narrative. I felt completely raw, wounded, and wildly over exposed.
I remember the day this happened. I will never forget this day. I was sitting in a hotel room at the time, and I was not just lonely—I was lonely to the bone. I wasn’t just lonely. I was completely alone. I didn’t know who to call, because the truth was, I didn’t have anyone to call. I didn’t have an emergency contact to walk with me through this process. I sat there like a deer in the headlights watching my name scrolling across the internet, and I did the only thing a person can do in that situation. I did a face plant on the desk in front of me and I wept for several hours knowing that my career trajectory as a Rev. had been permanently altered. Knowing that several hundred or perhaps even several thousand people were now learning something about me and commenting and engaging with an intimate part of me that I had wanted to be the one to share. I wept until I couldn’t cry anymore. I was a preemie. I had been born prematurely. I hadn’t been outed exactly, because I had willingly shared of myself with this person, but I had not shared my express consent or my permission for my information to be broadcast publicly. At the time, I was not ready to represent any sort of movement. I wasn’t leading an affirming church. I didn’t have a “post coming out” business plan for ministry. I didn’t have a supportive community to go home to. I didn’t have a supportive partner to go home to. I didn’t have really any of the things I needed to thrive. I am ready now. But then, I was still in the process of sharing with all the people in my life. I was still in my gestation period–a period that I needed to honor and let unfold in its own good time.
And like my partner who was born as preemie, my coming out was way too premature. Like my partner, I needed a few years of highly intensive care to repair the damage of being a preemie. Like my partner, I was a scrapper. I survived. And I grew to thrive. And ultimately I grew new layers and new depths of compassion. I grew wisdom from this experience. There was grace for me in the lack of discernment. There was grace for me in learning to set strong boundaries. There was grace for me in lacking the wisdom to be true to myself and following my inner wisdom before entrusting people with my deepest self. I’ve had a series of heart to hearts with the individual who released of my personal information via the internet and we worked it out. There was no ill will or intent to cause harm. There was grace for me. There was grace for that person and there was grace for many others who bumbled or bungled their interactions with me. All around there is grace. The world is filled with grace. Every day is a new day and tomorrow’s graces are new too.
For those of you who are moving toward a “coming out” process, maybe you’re in a closet. Maybe you’ve been in that closet for 5 years or 10 years or 15 years, and you need someone to encourage you to kick the doors wide open and greet the awaiting world. In regard to her coming out process, my partner was in a closet. She sat on the deepest parts of herself for almost 15 years before she started trusting others. She lost a lot of her life living in that closet.
But like me, maybe you are gestating in the womb, and you need a wise and loving voice to tell you to take a deep breath, slow down, and to honor the gestation process unfolding in your life. You don’t have to take on the entire world in a single day. In a world where a throng of people were clamoring for more of me–I should have followed Jesus’s lead and stolen away to get some rest. I should have said “no” a lot more often and to a lot more people than I did. I should have focused on finding really solid support, building a solid foundation and a community with deep ties to help me weather the most daunting elements of a coming out process. At times, we find support quickly and at times we’re in the wilderness for a long while as we wait for that support. The good news is that we will survive either way. I eventually found support in my current partner, and then I eventually started finding other sources of support in my surrounding community. But this took a long time. It didn’t take a month or 6 months, it took several years for me to find my people, and for my people to find and claim me.
For those of you who are still in development, who are still gestating, there’s no shame in staying in that womb until you come to maturity, until you’re really ready to come out.
To encourage you, as you discern, here is a lovely poem from David Whyte to journey with you in tender space “pre-coming out” space. It’s called “Hiding.” It’s a poem I come back to again and again. I have a few years distance from my coming out process but this still blesses me each time I read it. It still invites me to slow down and turn inward. May it bless you and give you food for thought. May it help you to guard the wellsprings of your heart and to recognize them as the life giving source that they are. May it help you to protect the beauty and the tenderness of your vulnerability so that you can keep offering your authentic unvarnished vulnerability to others. May it help you to know which season of your life is a season for hiding and gestating and which season is a season for venturing out and coming out.
is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light. Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world: the protective quiet of an icy northern landscape, the held bud of a future summer rose, the snow bound internal pulse of the hibernating bear. Hiding is underestimated. We are hidden by life in our mother’s womb until we grow and ready ourselves for our first appearance in the lighted world; to appear too early in that world is to find ourselves with the immediate necessity for outside intensive care.
Hiding done properly is the internal faithful promise for a proper future emergence, as embryos, as children or even as emerging adults in retreat from the names that have caught us and imprisoned us, often in ways where we have been too easily seen and too easily named. We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure; our thoughts, imaginings and longings exposed to the light too much, too early and too often, our best qualities squeezed too soon into a world already awash with ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others. What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.
Hiding is an act of freedom from the misunderstanding of others, especially in the enclosing world of oppressive secret government and private entities, attempting to name us, to anticipate us, to leave us with no place to hide and grow in ways unmanaged by a creeping necessity for absolute naming, absolute tracking and absolute control. Hiding is a bid for independence, from others, from mistaken ideas we have about our selves, from an oppressive and mistaken wish to keep us completely safe, completely ministered to, and therefore completely managed. Hiding is creative, necessary and beautifully subversive of outside interference and control. Hiding leaves life to itself, to become more of itself. Hiding is the radical independence necessary for our emergence into the light of a proper human future.
© David Whyte: March 2014: Excerpted from ‘HIDING’ From the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.