It's a very particular perspective, narrowly focused on the intersection of my church-going experience (vs. my actual faith, which I don't broadcast widely and especially not in that setting) and my identity as a queer person (and not all of that, either). But I had the opportunity and thought my story could be of use to others, and so far the feedback I've received suggests that it is. So here you go.
Happy Belated Coming Out Day (Oct. 11)! Maybe next year I'll write a less heavily redacted version.
I first came out in 1988, 30 years ago, when I was 16. I’d known before then that I felt different but I didn’t have words to explain how – it was the 80s and all we heard about was gay men and AIDS. Then I was reading the alumnae journal of a college I was considering attending and the then-president of the college was talking about the “lesbian problem” there, and I knew, quite clearly, that that’s where I wanted to go.* I went to college that fall, promptly came out as a lesbian, and once I’d been there a while longer and knew more words, came out quietly to myself as bisexual.
But the language still didn’t feel right. Back then that word didn’t seem to include trans people, or people who might now describe themselves as nonbinary, and I knew I was drawn to them as well. So I chafed. Then I came across the word queer – as a word nerd I just loved the word itself, the sound and its history and its connection to Queer Nation – and that word felt big enough, broad enough, queer enough to include me and all I was interested in and attracted to.
On to faith.
I grew up unchurched but seeking (and with a strong Catholic bent thanks to my cultural background) – and then angrily atheist when at first I could not find a faith that made sense to me, and then again when it seemed Christianity had nothing but condemnation for me. For years I was happy to turn my back on organized religion – though not entirely on faith – only to first be turned upside down by multiple experiences I can only describe as mystical, and then the growing conviction that I needed to explore my faith within a community. So I started seeking again, reading, praying, and trying to find a welcoming church home in any of the cities I found myself during my twenties. And I’ll tell you, none were a great fit. In some I felt at home liturgically, but not as a queer person (and unbaptized to boot). In others I felt safe if not exactly welcomed, but my spirit was dissatisfied. Eventually I found a church home where both my partner at that time and I felt welcome and invited to contribute to the life of the church, and if my spiritual needs weren’t entirely met, it was made up for by that congregation’s place in New England transcendentalist history.
And then I moved. And I needed to find a new church home, which was complicated by my growing desire to be baptized – which I didn’t understand, but knew was important to listen to. I started my search again, and again didn’t find any place that felt right. In the end, as I was already working at Fourth Church – another decision that didn’t make sense at the time but felt like the right one – and it was as much a community as any I’d found, I decided to be baptized here and to become a member.
But it wasn’t enough. Quite aside from the serious lack of saints, there’s a world of difference between not feeling unsafe and feeling welcomed. And in 2004, still seven years before the PC(USA) would pass Amendment 10-A, and with the lack of any kind of visible effort to invite LGBTQIA+ folks in, I didn’t feel as if there was room for me to bring my whole self to the life of the church. So I continued my search, and ultimately found a smaller Episcopal church on the Northside, near where I lived, with a rainbow flag prominently displayed, and I have continued to worship there since.
So that is my coming out in faith, and I feel that the two are intimately connected. In part because both my understanding of myself as a queer person and as a person of faith are absolutely foundational to my understanding of myself. But also because I see these two journeys as parallel, not just intertwined. My thinking on faith continues to grow and change, and it’s important to me to have a church home open to that – and my queer identity continues to grow and change as well. For instance, in the last few years it’s become more important to me to claim myself as bisexual and not only queer. This has grown out of changing use of the word – as people insist on its inclusive nature rather than exclusive – and also the knowledge that the bisexual community, while statistically the largest component of the LGBTQIA+ community, has, with the exception of trans and intersex people, the worst health and domestic violence outcomes of that same community. So it’s become a kind of political act for me. And my understanding of gender continues to expand as well.
And with that I want to say something about language. It should be clear from my story that language is important to me. It should also be clear that language around sexual orientation and gender identity continues to evolve, sometimes very rapidly. For example, there are definitions on the vocabulary sheet we provided that I’m not wild about, and that’s only four years old. So while language is important and I think it’s hugely important to keep learning, I would encourage us to let go of expectations of getting it “right”, especially if that means we don’t dare say anything at all. Respect and openness are what’s most important – and then listening to what one is told and respecting that.
I imagine the question is out there – as a bi person in a heterosexual relationship – that is, I could “pass” – why come out? Why put myself out there? And my answer is twofold and also intimately connected to my faith.
First, I come out because I can. I’m secure within my family, my workplace, my church – I don’t risk anything by coming out other than other people’s opinion of me. By doing so, though, I may make it easier for others to do so, and I may also make it easier for others to advocate on our behalf. I live out my faith through service, and through trying to “be the change I wish to see in the world”. Coming out is one way I do this.
Second, if I don’t come out, if I keep some of myself back, then I lose opportunities to be of service, and I am not being who I believe God called me to be. For example, a year ago I was asked to lead a workshop at a women’s event at the Presbytery level. And I was flattered, and interested, but without knowing who would be there, and without being publically out, my gut feeling was “But you don’t know who I am, and I can’t trust that I will feel safe”. And I turned it down. I have faith that I have contributions to make in this world, and I don’t want anything to limit them, especially not my fear.
So that’s why I’m here, tonight, speaking to you all.
*I don't think I ever shared that with my parents before. Hi, Mom and Dad!