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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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Breaking the Silence

From the moment I began to acknowledge my connection to women, many of my Christian friends began to immediately critique my spiritual standing.  The conclusions always jumped to my lack of self-control, some failure of mine to “respond to the Holy Spirit” or that I was willfully sinful, headstrong and purposed to throw out my concern for pleasing God. The thought of my spiritual mentors and evangelical friends always ended with the conclusion that something was horribly wrong with me.

I wish that I could say that I was surprised by these reactions, but I was not. On more than one occasion I was “admonished” privately for the mere appearance of being gay (I don’t really like to wear high heels!) Despite years of celibacy and years of ignoring any sense of my own sexual identity, I was still being cautioned. The message to me was very clear: being gay was not an option for a “true” Christian.

It took many years of fearing to ask the difficult questions, but eventually I discovered that my sexual orientation was not the sole determining factor in my journey of faith. I began to investigate how other people of faith approached the issue. I discovered that there were actually well respected theologians,  supporting denominations, and members of clergy that had been facing up to this reality for decades. What was even more amazing to me was that there were actually gay Christians out there…REALLY!

In 2010, I publicly disclosed that I was in a same-sex relationship. Under heavy scrutiny, I maintained that I still considered myself a person of faith. I received terrible emails and letters. I was deleted from thousands of iPods and dropped from Christian retailers and radio stations. Although a painful experience, I was aware that this scenario was on the horizon. But what I didn’t expect was how my inbox began to fill up with stories from other people just like me.  I was not alone. I was not the only person in the world that was being silenced by their very own faith community.

For a while, I could not be convinced that I had anything to offer this conversation. I considered it a stalemate at best. Frankly, I was more than ready to wash my hands of the whole “church thing”. But then I started to notice something incredibly powerful; simply by being honest about my sexual orientation, a door had opened that encouraged others to speak of their personal stories. Over the last couple of years I have met thousands of LGBT people who have less than pleasant narratives of their religious experiences. I have met many who have not yet known the joy of affirmation and support of a caring faith community. They continue to sacrifice their own spirit in response to the shame they have been convinced they must endure. All of this because some religious folks insist that God would have it no other way.

Much to my surprise, however, I have also witnessed many people who have found healing and hope. They share their deeply moving journeys of spiritual odyssey, limitless love and abiding faith. I have seen that sexual orientation and gender identity is not the lens through which faith can be fully qualified. I have not learned this alone, but by the journeys, experiences and courage of others who dared share their stories with me.

Last year, after many requests, I began to directly engage the faith community by telling my story. Today, I speak candidly of my experience as a gay person of faith through an event I call Inside Out Faith. After experiencing rejection and criticism, I have had to overcome my own prejudices toward the church. I share how I reclaimed my faith experience, owned my sexual orientation and how these two qualities in me co-exist. But I recognize that my story is just the starting point for a much more complicated tale.  For many churches that I go to, it will be the first time they have said, as a faith community, that they will openly stand in support of LGBT people. Some of the pastors I meet are openly supportive of their gay congregants for the first time without threat of losing their position. For the first time in decades, many LGBT people of faith are walking back into the sanctuaries with hope rather than fear. I, for one, am happy and grateful to be one of them.

 XOXO
Jennifer