On the road I meet loads of people who live partially out of the closet. They do have some queer friends, especially on-line. They may have someone in their lives “who knows” but they tell virtually no one on their job, in their family, or in their place of worship that they may be lesbian or gay or bisexual. (I don’t mention transgender people because I can understand many of the healthy reasons to be silent about the trans experience).
And I can see why many LGB folks silence themselves about their orientation. I get the e-mails and talk to folks who perceive that to come out would be mean loss–colossal loss of relationships, jobs, housing, financial support for college, and even expulsion from precious faith communities. In most states in the USA, one is not protected on the job in regards to sexual orientation (and it is worse for trans folks).
Then there is the physical danger. Even in parts of liberal NYC, to walk hand-in-hand with someone of the same sex provokes violence–verbal and physical.
So yes, we experience real impediments to coming out, some external, but for most of us the biggest obstacles remain internal. Through years of living under the weight of homophobia and in a society that insists that heterosexuality is the ideal norm, we build up storehouses of shame and fear and self-loathing. We may even express disgust at what we view as “the gay lifestyle” mirroring what our oppressors say about us.
The Coming Out process takes time. It takes courage. It takes building a network of safe people. It means that our lives may turn upside down, or even more surprising, that things won’t really change that much at all.
When we walk around with shame about who we are, we send out the message that it is okay to treat us shamefully. When we embrace the depth and beauty and uniqueness of who we are, even if people do not like us, they will treat us with respect.
People often remark to me that when I speak in public about my life, one of the things that sticks out for them is how comfortable I appear in my skin. They say it disarms people the way that I express my contentment with who I am as a gay man, as a Christian, as a Quaker, as a vegan, as ME. I don’t see it myself with all of the various insecurities I carry, but I do know that the coming out process for me has contained much more than simply announcing “I’m here, I’m queer, get over it!”
The process has become more than just coming out gay. Rather it has meant coming out as ME. In a world that claims to celebrate individuality and uniqueness, we experience tremendous pressures to conform, be it in the conservative church, the gay party boy culture, the Quaker meeting house, the lesbian drum circle or a thousand other groups that draw us.
The act of self-discovery, leading to a fearless willingness to truly be ourselves, creates conflicts and challenges for those around us. But with the potential difficulties, it also brings much needed wholeness and health.
I became a born-again Evangelical, fundamentalist, conservative, Republican Christian at the age of 17 (even though I presented as a flaming homosexual without even trying). That is when I went to war with parts of myself. At the same time I began to suffer lower back problems with my back going out almost every six months, sometimes for as long as a week at a time. The problem continued and grew worse. It happened the week before I got married. I ultimately developed a herniated disc that hurt so much, I could only lie down or sit for 20 minutes at time before having to stand or walk to relieve the pain. I never got surgery for it and just endured the pain for six months until it began to heal.
Once I came out and worked through years of gunk I piled on myself, my back stopped going out. My body sent me a message all those years. Something is out of whack. My body mirrored the imbalance inside me. Today even with all the plane travel and the many different hotel beds, my back stays solid and has not gone out in over seven years.
Today is National Coming Out Day. At his blog Journeyman notes how dark the closet can be. Even if you can’t imagine fully coming out and you feel you must keep a foot in the closet (or more) turn on some light and invite someone into your life. As the 1980’s AIDS activists taught us Silence=Death. And we experience death in the closet in thousands of ways. Similarly waiting for us outside we will discover thousands of ways to live.