Coming Out: stepping out of the closet and the church

I came out as a lesbian this past year. I spent the first 25 years of my life living with straight privilege but struggling internally with what was “wrong” with me. Coming out has been indescribably freeing but also incredibly tiring.

Sadly, most of the weariness comes from being a lesbian at a Christian seminary. On any given day it is likely that I will walk into a classroom or through the dining room and overhear students chatting about issues of sexuality. They may be discussing various takes on scripture and homosexuality, or the schism in the Presbyterian church over lesbian and gay ordination, or even general administrative or legislative policies towards queer people. The church’s relationship to LGBT issues, I imagine, is a hot topic in more than just my own seminary.

The actual discussion of these various issues is a good thing. I’m glad the conversations are happening and often start them myself. I am grateful to be at a seminary where the majority of the student body is open and accepting of queer people. I would never want these conversations to stop.

Nonetheless, being a part of them as conversation partner or object of conversation often wears me out. Arguing over the nuances of “practical” justice and how to be inclusive while maintaining “unity in the church” can be very hurtful. When it takes you 25 years to finally accept yourself for who you are, “dialoguing” with others about how to “handle” LGBT issues requires serious patience. It takes a lot of energy to constantly vouch for your own place in the church or in the world.

I have struggled with this immensely. I am not anti-church. I think it is a unique and important place which is often doing good work. I owe much of who I am today to people I knew through church who supported me in incredible ways. I wish in no way to mark the church as “good” or “bad” as if things were so simple.

For a while, I believed in the “be the change you want to see” mentality in regards to being a woman and a queer in a Christian community. But such a mindset doesn’t take seriously the odds of power over the powerless. It ignores the seriousness of the push-back and overlooks the isolation of being a voice of contention. A once powerful idea has become a naive cliche used without regard for the power of systemic issues in the church.

Marginalized persons cannot be the ones to create change on our own. We absolutely have to have people in power who are willing to stir the waters of their congregation regardless of the effect it will have on budgets. We need to hear voices that are not tip-toing around LGBT issues in hopes of keeping everyone happy, voices which are boldly declaring the radical inclusivity of the gospel. We need people who recognize that just because something overtly discriminatory wasn’t said doesn’t mean it’s an inclusive church. Until the leaders of the church are living this way, I probably won’t be there.

I think Christianity has much to offer to the world – I’m just not sure many of its congregations are actually living into it. I have heard so many stories from my fellow seminarians about the meaningfulness of their faith when they were engaging with people who live on the street, or with people living in poverty, or with people in a hospital bed. They were inspired by what they thought Christianity had to offer to people who felt isolated or estranged. I have heard these stories enough lately that I have been wondering why this faith seems to only manifest outside of the church.

Where the rubber hits the road, where people are suffering for various reasons, the church has something helpful to say. You are not alone. You are loved. It is not a fragile message. But why, once we step back into the sanctuary, is this same meaning and radicalness so hard to find? Suddenly, practicality, budgets, false unity, being “nice”, and maintaining the status quo take priority over the very meaning of Christianity. Where there should be hope, and rest, and community for marginalized people, there is too often, only another fight.

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7 thoughts on “Coming Out: stepping out of the closet and the church

  1. Dear Mary Ann

    It would be a great pity if you cannot “get out, and in there” (the Presbyterian Church) since you write so well, and make so much sense ! If your oratory skills are as great as the written, you should be able to purge “the dull and the stuffy” from their positions of “leadership”, which for them, is no doubt but sinecure.

    If that is not possible, then there are gay affirming churches who would love to include you in their ranks – eg UFMCC etc.

    Thanks to the “Boy’s Brigade”, I brought myself up as a Presbyterian, my parents being “lapsed Anglicans”, thinking that elected elders was the way to go, as in all democracy’s.

    What I didn’t reckon on was that a small church (especially a small minded church) could in no way be the “broad church” I wanted it to “be”.

    But I hasten to add that not one cap fits all, and that we cannot generalize complex situations. There is good in all people – we only have to look to find it.

    My approach to religion is now entirely practical, and I revamped my religious knowledge starting from the Wisdom of Solomon which is found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (practically slap bang in the middle of the Bible, and much neglected by Jews, as well as Christians and Muslims).

    Also, through much “soul-searching” after the 11th September attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and my desire to “encapsulate my thinking” in an artwork presented as a “gift of love”, I commenced my work, having not thought it all through, but allowing it to develop as the “Spirit” led me.

    My “Peace and Harmony” word, character and symbol picture-puzzle “labour of love” work of “art” was co-incidentally finished on the 11th September 2002.

    The significance of its date of completion was not lost on me, and I “gave thanks” for its creation. Much has flowed from this preparation since, including the concept of “The Universal ‘Man’ of No Clan for All Clans”.

    This poetic outpouring can now be viewed with the artwork at http://www.wound-wisdom.tk , and at http://wound-wisdom-poetry.blogspot.com , where you can gain further links to my work since then.

    My travels since then have taken me to speak at the “5th Parliament of the World’s Religions” which was held in my hometown of Melbourne Australia in December 2009.

    I was probably the only “co-opted” speaker, having been rejected as a speaker in my own right as an independant thinker.

    I was asked to speak “as a campaigner for equal rights within religion in Australia” within Michael Kelly’s program “Voices of Challenge and Wisdom: Gay and Lesbian perspectives on Faith, Spirituality and Embodied Grace.”

    “Equal rights within Religion” was not a topic at the head of the agenda, but we did speak to a full house in a smaller auditorium of like minded people. And we met many people who had been surprised that the topic had been raised at all. But since those in attendance at the 5th Parliament were, in the main “open-minded people”, our message was heard.

    And so, in closing, I send you all of my best wishes, and thank you, and the other interfaith columnists I have read with interest, for all that you do, and are….

    Donald Chalmers, aka “piper02” and “a piper too” etc, from the “Land of Aus”, downunder…

    1. Hi Donald,

      Thanks for your kind words! I checked out your website and it seems you are doing a lot of good work. The Voices of Challenge and Wisdom conference also sounds amazing. Glad you got to be a part of it and share good words with others. All the best as you keep at it!

  2. Mary Ann —

    Your piece has been open in my web browser for the past day or two. I have been having trouble deciding what I wanted to say, if I wanted to reach out privately or publicly, or if I needed to reach out at all.

    Your experience at seminary resonates both with my own experience at Hebrew College, and to a greater degree with my experience this year studying in Israel. The weariness you speak of is something I experience daily, and has taken away the energy I might have to write/reflect on my time here.

    What I am looking forward to most about returning to Boston at the end of May is returning to a community of LGBTQ-identified folks who are also actively engaged in religious community. I wish for you the same sense of love, support, and nourishment that I feel when I am with that community.

    — Becky Silverstein

    1. Hi Becky,

      Thanks for sharing and deciding to reach out. Feelings of solidarity are immensely encouraging, so I really appreciate it.
      I look forward to reading more of your reflections when the energy returns, perhaps when you get back to Boston. Peace and courage as you finish your time in Israel!

  3. Mary Ann –

    Just a quick note to congratulate you on your coming out, and to wish you the best. I myself only came out two years ago (I was 27!) and found it an extraordinary experience. I’m extremely glad that my (Humanist) moral community values and celebrates queer people unconditionally – I can’t imagine what my journey would have been like if, in addition to struggling to reconcile myself with my sexuality, I also had needed to reconcile my sexuality with my faith.

    Good luck!

    James.

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