When sharing Pilgrimage’s mission with a new colleague, she told me about the time a friend came out to her. “We were talking,” she said, “when Lisa told me she’d recently come out.” My friend confessed that she was surprised by the comment and, quite truthfully, wasn’t sure how she felt about her friend’s coming out…so, she asked one of those good deflecting questions: “What does that mean for you?” Lisa responded, “It means I’m gay.”
When she heard that, my friend was greatly relieved. “Oh! You’re gay! What a relief! When you told me you’d come out, I thought that meant you were a debutante.”
This Tuesday is National Coming Out Day. Coming out is the process of naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. And as the quote in your bulletin reminds us, coming out isn’t just a one-time event; it’s something that happens again and again and again. One person told me, “Last week, I came out 12 times.” Another said: I didn’t have a dramatic coming out experience…it’s staying out that’s been hard. When I feel like so many people feel hatred for me, it’s hard to keep my chin up and think about the goodness and love I feel from God every day.
In many places, being gay, transgender, bisexual, or non-gender conforming is still dangerous. In some places, it’s illegal. Even in countries with few legal restrictions, prejudice remains and violence against LGBTQ folks still occurs with alarming regularity. The person who named “staying out” as hard writes: I still have a hard time introducing my wife as “my wife” for fear of retribution—even in my loving and supportive world. She goes on to say that she has always felt safe here at Pilgrimage… If only the rest of the country would treat me the way this community of Christians does…and I pray that every GLBTQ person in the country could feel the love from their community like I do from mine. I know we all have various political affiliations and different mindsets about social issues . . . but you treat me with kindness and love. That is why I love this community because you truly live out the Good News of Jesus Christ!
In our world, naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation takes great courage. We’re so welcoming of folks here at Pilgrimage, it’s easy to forget that, outside this place, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters don’t always experience the same kind of welcome.
That’s why it’s important we are here. That’s why it’s important to live and celebrate our mission to welcome everyone in Christ. That’s why it’s important to create a safe place for folks to be who they are created by God to be, to listen to each other’s stories, to support each other when the world beats us down, to remind each other just how precious each of us is to God.
I suspect that if we asked our LGBTQ friends, most would confess to having struggled at some point in their lives to feel precious in anyone’s eyes, especially God’s. When basic rights are denied, when threats to one’s personal safety are constant, when people try to change you or call you names, it takes a lot of energy and imagination to believe in your worth.
The same was true for those suffering from leprosy in first century Palestine. According to Jewish law, here’s a day in the life of a leper:
The person who has leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
This business about being unclean was taken seriously in biblical times. If you were clean, you were in the community; if you were unclean, you were out. The rationale was that illness resulted from sin. If you’re living right, you’re healthy. If you’re unhealthy, then you must be sinning. And if you’re sinning, you don’t deserve to be in relation to God. If you’re sinning, the rest of us don’t want to be in relation with you…because then we might “catch” your uncleanness. Then we’ll be cut off from the community and God, too.
Some of us know what it’s like to be excluded from communities. We’ve been asked to leave churches. We’ve been thrown out of our families. We’ve been “disfellowshipped” from our denominations. Some of us have been told we’re not welcome… and not just gay and lesbian folks. Also disabled folks, divorced folks, unmarried parents…lots of folks. Others of us, while not explicitly excluded from communities, have been treated in ways that we had no choice but to leave; at some point, the actions of people in the community made it impossible for us to stay.
Exclusion–overt and subtle–is devastating. It makes us feel small, powerless, unloved, unworthy. If you’ve ever experienced exclusion, you know just how devastating it can be.
But, as devastating as overt and subtle exclusion are, there is another even more insidious form of exclusion: self-exclusion. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to be part of the community…so we exclude ourselves from the full benefits of community membership. We get involved, but not too involved. We get to know people, but not too well. We let ourselves become known, but only superficially. It’s as if we have an internal leper, something inside that convinces us of our uncleanness, that tells us we are wrong or less-than or unworthy, something that convinces us we don’t deserve the nurture of a faith community.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about flying on a small plane once that hit turbulence. As the ride grew rougher, the Archbishop found himself hoping the pilot was white. The thought shocked him. He, who had worked so hard to end Apartheid in South Africa, he, who was himself black, he had internalized racism to the point that, in that frightening moment, he assumed a white pilot would be more skilled than a black pilot simply because of the color of his skin. Internalized racism– even in this enlightened individual–continued to diminish him, continued to convince him of his unworthiness. Internalized racism was, for the Archbishop, something like an internal leper.
Have you ever done that? Taken a part of yourself that’s just a part of who you are and, because of how other people demonize that part of you, turned yourself into a leper? Do you have an internal leper, some bit of unhealed suffering deep inside you?
What do we do with our internal lepers? How do we help them heal? How do we allow ourselves back into the nurturing embrace of God’s love? Perhaps we can begin by kissing the leper within.
St. Francis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy. As a young man, he lived a profligate life, mostly partying and blowing through his father’s hard-earned money.
Then one day Francis met a leper in the road. Something compelled him to go to the suffering man. When he reached the man, he kissed him.
That kiss changed Francis. Places inside him that once harbored selfishness and gluttony suddenly were filled with compassion. Where he’d once focused only on hedonistic pursuits, from the moment of the kiss, compassion for others, especially the poor, became his sole pursuit.
Not having gone through a coming out process, I’m only guessing, but I wonder if coming out might be a little like kissing the leper within…a process of embracing a part of you that has been labeled and dehumanized by others, a sweet, tender part longing to be loved simply for who she or he is.
Because I haven’t experienced the process of coming out (except maybe as a former Baptist), I asked a few of our members about their coming out processes.
One person said the coming out process always begins with oneself. She writes:
There’s a phrase, “process of your own becoming,” that resonates with me about my coming out; coming out is deeply and internally intimate. Whether I come out as a lesbian, gender non-conforming woman, feminist, or Christian, I deal with it first within; whether or how or to whom I come out publicly is always secondary to that.
Another person wrote:
Coming out is a repeated process by which I can measure the progress of society; in the 90s, we would use coded language to come out to each other; now it’s direct and frank.
When brain scientist Oliver Sacks came out to his mother at the age of 18, she did not respond well. She told her son: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” It’s little wonder that, as soon as he could, Oliver moved to the States from his native England. It wasn’t until he was 80 and writing his memoir that Sacks was able, as he wrote just before his death last year, “to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.” (Gratitude)
Happily, not everyone’s coming out story is so traumatic. One of our members writes:
My parents’ initial reaction was opposite of what I expected it to be. They said, “You will always be our son and we will always love you.” I can’t imagine what my life would be like if their reaction had been different, but I can say with utmost certainty that their reaction did give me confidence and hope in my future. I am reminded of their words every Sunday when we hear the “Good news that brings us new life.”
My hope today is that all who come out, especially those who come out at a young age, experience that same unconditional love from their parents. I also hope that parents realize the impact of their words and actions, especially in moments like that, so they can help act their children into wellbeing.
Another member described coming out as
stepping out into the sun and really feeling light on your face for the first time. Being birthed into existence in the middle of your life. Finally exhaling.
One last quote:
Coming out was better than the best Christmas I have ever experienced. I feel authentic, living my truth for the first time in my entire life. It took some time but it has also brought me closer to God.
Several years ago, someone who was thinking about joining Pilgrimage—a straight person—said this: “At first, I wondered why we talk so much about ‘the gay thing,’ but now I get it. I get that it’s really important to give voice to their experiences.”
Indeed. There are so few places in our area where faithful Christians who are LGBTQ can proclaim both their faith and their identity with freedom. It’s true that our ONA identity as a community is only part of who we are…but it is an important part. And so, on this day, we celebrate all who have come out, all who just want a place to live out their faith authentically, all whom God loves, just as they are.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2016