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‘You Must Come Out’: How Harvey Milk’s Challenge Resonates With Gay Christians Today

Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.

– Harvey Milk 1978

MILK
I think about Harvey’s impassioned plea quite often. It whispers in my brain with both inspiration and reservation. Inspirational, because, as an out woman, I have experienced what only coming out will teach you, that life is significantly more reliable and fruitful without secrets and shame. Yet, as a Christian, I also know that the blanket call for coming out and the purging of all secrets is a dangerous, painful prospect. I know that it is not as simple as pushing folks into a river of deadly rapids with a promise of rest on the distant shore. The reality is, not everyone survives the journey. Not everyone who takes the plunge is a strong swimmer. Worse yet, there are plenty who are more than wiling to follow you into the deep just to push your head under into suffocating silence. When asked what prescription I’d give to an LGBT Christian on the necessity, urgency or even obligation to “come out,” I lack Milk’s confidence insisting that all LGBT should identify themselves. Maybe it’s the burden of my pessimist nature, but for those of us in earshot of anti-gay religious voices, I usually say “It does get better, but make sure you prepare for the crossing.”

Somewhere along the way, particularly in religious environments, coming out is an act more along the lines of a confession than a natural step toward self-awareness. The result is that it makes me think long and hard before I insist that every LGBT show their hand, knowing for certain that the Church still packs a punch. It’s so very difficult for the average person to hold the ground of what they know to be true about themselves against an onslaught of Biblical magnitude, that can be both confusing and demeaning. The reality is, that most people aren’t gay because it’s statement of style, it’s just one portion, one quality that helps complete the picture of their own identity. Yet we live in a time, where coming out often requires one be prepared to defend their position, as if it is, in some way a political statement or religiously justifiable way of being. We are asked to debate, what is in the end, ultimately undebatable. Most of us start out with little more than the story of how we just “know.” It’s the story, and it’s all I’ve got.

I was four years old when Harvey Milk spoke those words. I had yet to hear them when, at the ripe old age of 27, I realized I was actually lesbian. While I stared into the darkness of the closet so many people insisted was my certain destiny, I was fortunate, because Harvey, a gay man, decades before had asked his friends, his family, his neighbors and ultimately the world, to break the devastating chains of LGBT silence. I cannot imagine how I might have fared without the courage of those who came before me, who have risked so much by coming out in times when the costs were so assured and so great. It is because of every single person who has come out, that, today, I have the privilege, though it may not always be easy, to speak of my own sexual orientation today, with more ease than, arguably, any generation that has come before me.

Perhaps this is the hidden wisdom of Milk’s charge revealed by only what experience and time can teach us, in that there is nothing more disarming to prejudice than looking into the eyes and knowing the names of those we harm. For however much sexual orientation and gender identity will ever be debated, investigated or legislated, there is no more insightful evidence than that of the truth we carry in the story of our lives being lived out in the open. In the 36 years since Harvey encouraged the veil to be pulled back, we have discovered, not just to the heterosexual community, but to ourselves, that human sexuality is in actuality, fluid and diverse in expression and identity as the people it inhabits. We are, in fact, doctors, mothers, pastors and children, cross dressers, truckers, artists, politicians and more. Evidence suggests that orientation and gender are not merely expressions of sexual choices, but more likely the mysterious makings of what we call humanity. The more the story is told, the less power the stereotypes and myths have to limit our potential. The ignorance of the dark closet gives way to vibrant life, of whole beings, of good mental, physical and spiritual health. Once we dare to speak of what causes us fear, whether gay or straight, we now know that we are less inclined to punish or harm ourselves. In the light of day we can find community that shares in celebrating our unique traits, disarming those who once ridiculed us.

You see, this is where Milk’s charge broke the barrier of being solely a political call to action and tripped into the territory enduring wisdom, that if one does not speak, one will never be heard. He reminded us that silence in an anchor and it is impossible for any human being to have a full life bound in chains.

As National Coming Out Day approaches on October 11th, I’m grateful for both the discomfort and inspiration Milk gave for me to consider. For behind every political yearning for equality, behind every taboo that has ever been broken, at the core of any religious belief worth its salt, the one challenge that we all universally share is the need to be accepted as we are found.

It’s important to take a moment, at least one day a year, where we put aside viewing “coming out” as a political statement or an act of religious rebellion. I would argue, that it’s not just a gay right of passage. Learning to love yourself and to love others, however and whoever they confess themselves to be to you, that, to me, is a universal kinship we all share. To accept and be accepted. To be treated with equal opportunity, respect and dignity, one neighbor known to the other.



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National Coming Out Day 2012

National Coming Out Day ImageOctober 11th is National Coming Out Day.

Much has changed in terms of public awareness and acceptance of LGBT people in our modern history. I wasn’t yet born when the pain of anti-gay prejudice erupted into the Stonewall riots. I have some consciousness of “the Twinkie Defense” but had little clue as to who Harvey Milk was when I was four years old. As a small town Kansas girl, I heard the word “gay” whispered in hushed tones of speculation while eyes winked when a neighbor was referred to as “a confirmed bachelor”. I don’t think any of it set in until some funny lady named Ellen came out on national television to Kansas native and rocker Melissa Etheridge. (Apparently, back then you had to sign in triplicate with a confirmed and “out” witness, but these days it’s a lot more casual.)

Most people forget that Ellen Degeneres paid a heavy price when she paved the way for mainstream “out” entertainers. From “Will & Grace” to “The New Normal” & “The Modern Family”, it might be easy to forget that “Coming Out” can and is for many people, still very, very hard. Lest we dare forget the tragedies of Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi or the countless unnamed youth who have lost their lives to silence.

The reality is that coming out is the beginning of openly confronting the stigma and prejudice that keep so many closeted. For every human being who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, regardless of faith affiliation, most will face some form of religious assault to their human dignity. Destructive religious traditions set out to socially and emotionally shame any and all who do not uphold the conditions of membership, including would-be straight allies.

National Coming Out Day is not solely about outing oneself as LGBT, it is about breaking the bonds of silence. It is about showing ourselves willing to be a part of a community that includes all people. A community that is incomplete without the support of straight allies.

Many straight, Christian allies hesitate to act in public affirmation for fear of facing the same measure of persecution and judgment. The “guilt by association” branding is very real. Just ask Brian McClaren. When the popular straight, postmodern evangelical author and ally recently presided over his son’s same-sex wedding, immediate accusations of disloyalty began. (Pull that thread here, here, and here.) Sure, he may lose a few book sales, but the impact of such willingness to act openly not only blesses his son, his act blesses many who have waited in silence for leadership.

So when you think of the challenges facing our closeted LGBT friends, neighbors and youth this week, think on this: For whatever repercussions you might hesitate to shoulder by “outting” yourself as an ally, consider what it means to those who have been waiting their whole lives for your compassion. To my straight Christian friends, let me blunt: little will change until you match the courage of those who have dared to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. It is simply not enough to be a friend who says nothing. No burden is fully eased unless it shared by another. We need you. Please come out…