For LGBT people, coming out of the closet is a definitive event. But what is a “closet?” And how do you know when you are hidden “in the closet?” And at what point do you become confident that you are safely “out of the closet?” Are closets self imposed? Or externally reinforced? And for the latter, how do you deal with closets that are not of your own making? How do you deal with spaces where your voice is shushed and silenced or where you feel like other people are transmitting shame onto you or seeking to hide you away or erase you. These are good questions. Queer people of all stripes ask them.
My own working definition of closet is an experience that is internally motivated. You are afraid to share something of who you are in a space or to a certain group or to a certain person. In a closet, we hold the keys to our own exit path.
Erasure is an experience that is totally different. It is an experience that comes from the outside, from externally directed sources. You neither invite it nor want it, but you have the choice to comply with it or not comply with it. And often the only way to successfully handle erasure is to step outside and disentangle yourself from people, organizations, and systems that are doing the erasing.
On Coming Out
Before I engaged in my own bisexual identity journey and subsequent coming out process, I was a pastor. I was a straight identified ally to the LGBT community. For 10 years I listened to gay/lesbian and occasionally trans people’s coming out stories. Everyone I spoke to had a sense that they were out of alignment with the environment around them. In some way, shape, or form they were misunderstood. In some way, shape, or form they couldn’t be themselves. They feared judgment. They felt shame. They struggled with depression and exhaustion. Coping mechanisms were as a numerous as the stars.
Some people saved up funds, made a plan to escape their current environment, so they could start over somewhere brand new. They hit the reset button.
My partner is from Texas, and she searched high and low in her immediate surroundings and did not find bisexual support groups. She did not find bisexuals in broader LGBT spaces. She had a hard time finding bisexual resources, and she did a Google search and discovered that Boston had a large bisexual community. She applied to graduate school in Boston. She got accepted. She uprooted her life, and left all of her friends, and family, and work colleagues, and she started over. In a brand new city. She pressed the reset button on her life, and that gave her the courage to live into a new identity. It also put her in proximity to other bisexual people who were on the exact same journey she was on.
Some people stayed put either because they couldn’t afford to move or they didn’t want to do so, and they made the courageous choice to bloom where they were planted. Maybe they made a list of 10 people or 20 people or 100 people and ranked them from people they perceived as most supportive and most receptive to their coming out story to the people they perceived as most difficult in their life. And they slowly worked their way down the list gaining confidence and courage and a support network from those early coming out stories to give them practice for their more challenging coming out experiences that awaited them later. Sometimes this process takes six months, and sometimes it takes a lifetime.
Some people opted for a high stakes/high impact coming out. This is the “rip the Band-Aid off the wound,” approach in which they come out on social media to all their friends and family, or come out in some public fashion with a press release, or come out from a pulpit if they’re a minister. Some acts of coming out are subtler. Perhaps putting a picture of your partner on your desk at work is a silent act of coming out. Perhaps putting pictures of your partner on social media without explaining them at all is an act of coming out.
There’s really no right way to engage this process. It’s highly individual. There’s only a right way for you. Coming out is a process that’s never really done. It’s a process that you will engage the rest of your life. In my own life, and in my own process I have utilized a combination of these many different approaches.
But the conversation above centers on closet experiences that are “internally motivated.” What if your experience of a closet is coming from the outside in the form of organizational silencing, shaming, or in the case of people in your life, what if you make attempts to come out and have people actively refuse to offer you space or to hold space?
What if you are elated at the person you’ve become, and you want nothing more than to share some vulnerable part of yourself with the world? What if you tap someone on the shoulder and say you’d like to share something deeply important about yourself, and someone rejects your attempts at sharing. They either don’t want to entertain your story at all, or as you are telling your story they reject the conversation that’s taking place and they get up and leave. This happens. To “come out” you need a communal or public space where there is both a person willing to do the “coming out” part and the transmitting of their story BUT you also need a person or a group willing to be on the receiving end of that story.
Thoughts on Erasure
These external experiences of erasing or erasure have happened to me. It’s happened in the context of various family members of mine who actively refused to entertain my coming out story. They do this by stonewalling, by being non-responsive, or by actively rejecting my attempts to share as they disengage from conversations and walk away.
This erasure has happened to me in the context of faith organizations where I have candidly shared who I am with hiring committees and I have been actively discouraged from sharing those things in public spaces or with congregants.
It’s actually also happened to me in the context of LGBT organizations where I have been invited to attend meetings or to support the larger work of the organization, but I have not been invited to contribute, participate, or speak from my own authentic voice as a bisexual. As a woman. As a leader. As clergy. As bisexual clergywoman & community leader. I bring all of those fully integrated things with me into every room. To deal with me as an integrated and whole person is to engage all those identities together.
For those of us who identify as bisexual we call these silencing, shushing, de-valuing experiences “erasure.” Erasure is the sense that to fit in and a find a sense of belonging with a larger group, the price you have to pay is having some part of your personhood “erased.” And that’s an extremely painful experience. So if you’ve been through an “erasing” experience, give yourself permission to feel anger, to feel pain, to walk through the stages of grief.
When people think of churches, most people think of churches that are either strictly non-affirming, or strictly affirming. But that’s actually not true of most churches. Most churches not 100% affirming. Or 100% hostile. They are complex. They are on a journey. Most of the churches that I encounter in my mainline protestant environment are neither overtly hostile to LGBT people nor would I be willing to call most of them affirming. They sit in a very complex and messy middle space where they exhibit the dynamics and behaviors of both hostile churches and affirming churches side-by-side and sometimes both on the exact same day. To offer the wisdom of Forrest Gump, “Life (in these churches) is like a box of chocolates, you never quite know what you’re going to get.”
Many of them have blind spots. They have unspoken discomforts and boundaries that are not clearly defined or articulated. For instance, they might be comfortable serving LGBT people communion, but they wouldn’t be comfortable performing a same sex marriage, and they wouldn’t have the ability to communicate or articulate this out loud. In fact, you wouldn’t know of this hidden boundary at this church until you stumbled into the position of asking the church to preside over your wedding and triggered the boundary. They might be comfortable with LGBT ministers that are not partnered & single. But they’re not comfortable with partnered LGBT ministers. Again you wouldn’t know this hidden boundary until you triggered it.
In my own life, here is how I’ve chosen to deal with the experience of “erasure” in churches. As a bisexual clergywoman who preaches in many different contexts, I had to become crystal clear about what my own personal boundaries are. The environment around me usually doesn’t meet my own personal definition of safety, so I’ve learned to bring my own sense of safety into a situation. I come into a situation fully integrated, fully present to myself and also fully present to the people that I am serving. In counseling and therapeutic worlds, we call this practice the cultivation of a “non-anxious presence.” This learning did not come easily for me. It came through some incredibly painful trial and error experiences in which I got sucker punched in some of my most vulnerable places and hurt very badly. But if we allow it, this kind of pain, can be a very powerful teacher.
Here are some of the best practices I’ve cultivated for myself:
I started my own consulting business which took me outside of any one particular church. I now exist outside of church systems instead of being entangled in them.
I now work with churches across the theological spectrum from Southern Baptist to Unitarian to Quaker to everything in between. They don’t have to be calling me to preach on LGBT Pride week for me to say yes to an offer. Of the myriad of gifts and skills and interests and passions and theological ideals I hold, if there’s an authentic point of convergence somewhere/anywhere between us, I’m happy to come in as an invited guest preacher, to hold space, and to share sacred worship with a beloved community. It’s an incredible gift for me to share space with all kinds of communities. I love it. It’s enlivening.
But for churches that have not made the explicit commitment to be LGBT affirming churches and for churches that do not see LGBT ministry as a vital part of their community, I limit my engagement. I hold them at arm’s length, and I remain squarely outside of all of their systems. I come in to preach 2 or 3x a year, or I come in as an outside consultant to work with them as clients on very specific projects that have a beginning/middle/end and where the boundaries/roles/my job description are also well defined.
None of these churches or organizations in any way restrict the LGBT work that I do in the community. They don’t speak for me, and subsequently I’m not being called upon to speak on behalf of or represent any of these various organizations. I now speak for my own consulting practice, and I speak on behalf of my own company HolyShift LLC
I am perfectly comfortable with these organizations discovering or learning about my LGBT work or learning more about me and choosing not to hire me for future projects or future preaching opportunities. I own whether or not I’ll choose to engage with a particular space or organization. They own whether they’ll hire or invite me back for additional opportunities.
To know me beyond these occasional preaching opportunities or consult projects is to invite a deeper knowing of me. Different people have different philosophies, but I personally would not be willing to take a part time/full time staff position or a staff position of any kind at any church where I couldn’t be fully visible as a partnered bisexual clergywoman starting with day 1.
When I’m not playing the role of clergyperson, and when I’m worshipping somewhere for my own spiritual benefit, I will not worship in churches that are not explicitly LGBT affirming and that boldly say so in their literature, on their website, and in ministries that they have cultivated.
In LGBT organizations, I now bring the distinct voice of a bisexual clergywoman & leader–I look for opportunities that allow me to be all of those things.
I fully expect to be a.) fully visible and to publicly name myself as a bisexual woman in LGBT spaces b.) to contribute my unique bisexual voice/experience/perspectives to panel discussions, keynote speeches, workshops etc. c.) to create bisexual content.
I draw these distinctions because there have been many occasions where I have been called upon to function in the old role that I used to have, the role of a straight ally pastor, or in some other role which does not align with my current gifts, skills, and the voice I’ve cultivated for myself.
For more than a decade, I functioned as a straight ally pastor in LGBT spaces, and for a number of peers and colleagues in local LGBT spaces and beyond, the process of recognizing me in this newly defined role as a Queer Christian leader hasn’t just been a journey for me, it’s also been a journey for them. They’ve been asked to surrender old ways of relating to me, and to learn to relate to who I am now, the voice and role that I have now, the gifts that I bring now, and the unique ways I desire to serve now. They’ve had to learn to see me and know me in brand new ways. With a measure of compassion, we’ve had to learn these things together.
Rules of engagement in any space: Be kind with yourself and with others. Be professional. Set clear boundaries and direct expectations. Gently remind people of who you are. You might have to walk a few miles together before people understand who you are and that’s okay.
Know your worth. Know your value. You are beautifully, wonderfully, uniquely –you.
Add your own voice to the conversation. What are some of your best practices? How do you maintain safety? What things have you learned on your coming out journey? In your journey toward integration and wholeness? Where do you want to be supported as you hone and define your own voice and give your gifts to the world?