This post is part of the series Queering the Christian Table. To begin reading at the beginning of this series, click here.
My Coming Out Story
There’s a genre of writing, videos, and songs dedicated to telling peoples’ experiences of coming out of the closet. Some emphasize the long process of coming to love and accept oneself and begin to be honest with the world on the outside about who you are on the inside. Some of these stories focus more narrowly on a particular happy, funny, tragic, or terrifying moment when we first told someone that we were [Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, etc.].
Some people, myself included, have several of both kinds of stories. There are even a few folks who don’t have a distinct coming out story because they were able to grow up in homes where they were loved and accepted for who they were in a very open way—I’ve even heard stories from people who’s coming out was their own realization about themselves and that when they told friends and family, the response they got was something like, “yeah, we’ve always known that. Didn’t you?”
I have stories of coming out to myself, my former spouse, my classmates, my sister, my friends, my teachers, my parents, my boss, my coworkers, my church, my landlord, my students, my HR director, people on the bus, my trainer at the gym—GOOD LORD, I hope it’s clear: coming out is a reality that we deal with every day.
Whether or not people make assumptions about my sexual orientation from how I present myself, talk, dress, behave, who I am with, or how long they have known me, I can never just assume that people know that I am gay. And the reality is that LGBTQ people, to varying degrees, are always in a process of coming out of the closet.
The slant of the floor in the room we call society is angled in a way to slide us back behind that door.
Coming out to my parents was the hardest time for me–that is, after coming out to myself. The acute anxiety, the stress, and the tears surrounding my coming out to my parents is bundled up tightly into a weekend in July when I was 27. The process of receiving messages of shame from society, the church, and my family began at birth and, like the process of coming out, never stops. In November, I will have been coming out of the closet for 29 years.
When I was an adolescent, I was a part of a church program where we did quiz-bowl-style tournaments on the Bible. Oh yeah.
In order to do well with this, I would sit on the floor of my closet, with an extension cord powering a desk lamp, and I would memorize chapters at a time of the new testament. In this same closet, I furiously scribbled depressing poems that I hid underneath the carpet and padding that I had pulled up from beneath the baseboards. I hid my writing as deep in the closet as I could. This was after my mother had found a hidden file on the computer where I’d written a poem that caused her to ask me if I had ever thought about suicide.
There, on the floor of the closet, with the door shut, I would sometimes turn off the lamp and just listen to the sounds of the house all around me; listen to the dull sound of my breathing and heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay. I cried as I begged Jesus to forgive me for being attracted to other guys. I would sit for hours at a time in that dark space beneath the hangers filled with church clothes.
I wish that I could say that while I was sitting in that tiny room behind the louvered doors, I memorized John 11 and began to hear the voice of God calling me to come out. But the story is never that simple.
It’s only years later that I have learned that Jesus was also weeping with me on the other side of that closed door.
A lot of folks have used the reference to Jesus healing people with leprosy as a way to talk about how “we’re all broken” and the church can love gay people while condemning them to hell because Jesus loved sinners and lepers. Hmm. I could talk about what’s problematic here for about six ways till Tuesday.
Suffice it to say, there’s the problem of equating people with a medical condition, and then, equating sexual orientation (something everyone has, by the way) with something to be cured.
But somehow, even though death is kinda seen theologically as more closely tied to sin—as the enemy of God, defeated through the resurrection life of Jesus, we’re somehow more accepting of death. For this reason, I want to turn to the story of Lazarus as a way for us to talk about how Jesus loves LGBTQ people.
Because death, unlike disease (and even taxes, thank you very much, tax-evading CEOs), happens to everyone, it’s less likely to be wielded by the church as weapon of heteronormativity. And yet, the Christian narrative is that death’s annihilation of life is no match for God—God will not stand to let death cut off relationship between God and humanity in the person of Jesus. Holy Saturday is a reality that holds open a space of death, grief, and sorrow, and God’s Spirit hovers and honors that place of abandonment, witnessing the vacuum, even as God strains toward resurrection.
I do not know why, in John 11, Jesus lets his friend Lazarus die. The people ask him this very question.
I do not know why God allows churches and families and cultures to oppress people who experience their sexual orientation in different ways than the majority.
I do know that Jesus weeps outside of the graves of those he loves and Jesus weeps for those held within dark closets where they are told that there is no space for them to be authentically alive in the world.
In John 11, Jesus is confronted and asked why he let Lazarus die. Jesus is moved to tears and demands that the tomb be opened. Jesus calls his friend by name, saying, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus comes out, alive, it disrupts the order of things and the religious leaders want to see Jesus killed in order to preserve religious and political norms of power and stability.
For those in the church who view homosexuality as a sin, there is a burden of proof laid against them—if God takes care of sin in Jesus, then why is it that we do not see people able to change their sexual orientation, no matter how ardently they pray and follow Jesus? Could the church treat homosexuality (indeed any sexual orientation) less like a disease (sin) and more like death (a given reality of being human, and a natural part of life that is being mediated by God)?
If so, let’s wonder together about the story of Lazarus and how Jesus works with death to bring about more life. Sin and death are God’s enemies when they each cut off relationship with God and others. When they function this way, they are enemies of loving God and neighbor. And yet, death is also a natural order of the cycle of life in the world.
Certainly sexuality can be twisted is selfish hateful ways (see: rape, incest, sexual addictions, pedophilia, sex trafficking) and certainly sexuality can be a place of intense pleasure, connection, love, and relationship. In the story of Jesus, when death encounters Jesus, it is catalyzed into resurrected life—into restoration of relationship. Jesus lets death happen (to those he loves and to himself) because it is natural, but he doesn’t allow death to cut off relationship, instead he enters the space of grief and, through it, gives life.
When churches, families, and culture keep people in the closet through shame and fear, it is an oppressive act of twisting a person’s sexual orientation against them and colluding with death against another human being–it’s twisting a natural part of life and using it to cut off authentic relationship. Jesus bears wit(h)ness to this death by weeping, demanding that the closet be opened, and calling each of us by name, saying, “Come out!”
For LGBTIQ folks to better love God and neighbor, we need to be able to live honestly in relationship with God and neighbor.
For heterosexuals in churches, families, institutions, and society to better love God and neighbor, they need to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus at work to bring LGBTIQ people more fully alive. They need to learn to celebrate this life rather than oppressing people back into the closet.
Of course, in John 11, the religious folks wanted to kill Jesus for messing up the norms of death. They didn’t have the imagination to believe that if Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life he might be able to bring them back to life as well.
On this National Coming Out Day, I want to say to those still in the closet:
I don’t know why society, the church, or your family wants you in the closet, and I know that it feels like death, but I stand in the confidence of divine love, on the other side of that door, and I cry with you. And when you are ready, I will say your name and echo Jesus’ words, “Come out!”
Know that you are dearly loved for who you are, that your sexuality and your sexual orientation are natural, and the only thing bad is that there are people who will work to use them against you. And while it is painful and hard to live with that reality, there is a deeper reality of you being able to be authentic and fully alive in the world. And that authenticity and life is worth so much more than the cost of every single time will you come out to someone.
Much love, and we are waiting here for you on the other side of that door,