If starting my journey to understand my sexuality was like the first day of my first mountain climbing experience, coming out was like reaching the peak. There’s nothing like reaching the point where you can stop, take a break, and realize you’ve made it. When I stood on the top of Mt. Albert and looked down, I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment; I could see how far I had come, and all the effort it took to get there was worth it. Coming out was kind of like that- not because there isn’t any further to go, but because the struggle it took to get there is worth it.
Coming out was hard, there’s no doubt about that. But honestly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought. It was over before I knew it, and life went back to normal within a few weeks. After fearing the worst for a couple months, it was a huge relief to feel an overwhelming sense of authentic love from the majority of my friends and peers as they assured me of their acceptance and support. That’s not to say they all agreed with me, or that there weren’t some difficult conversations, but what could I expect?
The hardest person to come out to was myself. Because of my background as a devoted Evangelical Christian, it was tough to get past the deeply ingrained belief that I couldn’t be both Christian and gay. I thought I had to choose between a relationship with Jesus and being true to myself regarding my sexuality. As I mentioned in my first post, getting professional counseling was a huge step, and I probably wouldn’t have addressed the issue without it. Part of the process also included cutting back on work a little and doing a little traveling and a lot of soul searching and Bible study. This time enabled me to build an even deeper, more trusting relationship with God. I’ve always told students, “The more you understand and love God, the more you’ll understand and love yourself.” It’s easier said than done, but it’s true.
When you’re a gay Christian, there’s probably nothing scarier than coming out. I hit some pretty extreme extremes and some pretty low lows as I tried my best to prepare for the inevitable. I knew I would be excluded from some circles. I was able to get over that with the “it’s their loss” mentality. What’s harder is knowing that even some of the people who will continue to love and accept you after coming out will always think differently of you. With Christians, there is a constant worry that the people that love and accept you most are always praying for you to change and someday realize you’re living in sin so you can snap out of it and be straight. They’ll never say that, but that’s the vibe you get, and I know that because I saw it happen with another Christian friend who came out a few years ago. The idea that people think something wrong with you is a big deterrent. But again, I guess I got over that by thinking, “well, just because they feel that way doesn’t make it true.” Another fear I had was that people would question my whole “career” as a youth leader and assume that I had inappropriate motives all along. I remember years ago at a camp training meeting, the camp director said something like, “We have to be really careful, because gay child predators seek out Christian summer camps as a means to get around children.” That might be true in some rare cases, but I know of course that’s not me. But knowing that this mentality is out there, and that a lot of Christians have misconceptions about gay people and believe they are all immoral and more likely to be pedophiles caused a lot of stress. I feel I’ve always been genuine and loved students in appropriate ways, and it was scary to think coming out as gay might cause some to think otherwise. I guess I got over that by just thinking, “it’s out of my control, and again, just because people think something doesn’t make it true.” Knowing that coming out would most likely disqualify me from continuing to volunteer in the organization I had devoted so much time, effort, energy and genuine love into was probably the most hurtful and disappointing factor that I knew I would face in the process.
Coming out to myself took 26 years, and after that it only took about two months to come out to everyone else. The first person I told was one of my students named Macky. Even though Macky had come to camps and been involved in the religious organization I served in for several years, he has always maintained his belief that he doesn’t need Jesus in his life. Even though I disagree, I’ve continued to love him unconditionally. I believe a mutual respect for individuality has allowed us to understand and accept each other on many levels. I hadn’t planned or prepared to come out to Macky when we met for Chipotle and a movie, but I guess I was ready anyway. As he ate his Chipotle and stared at his phone, I told him about my experience in counseling, ending with, “It’s helped me to understand and accept that I’m gay.” I waited for a look of surprise and a barrage of questions that never came; he didn’t even glance up from the Snapchat feed on his phone! I asked, “Uhh, how do you feel about that? Do you have any questions?” Macky looked up, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “No, what do you mean? It doesn’t matter, I don’t care, but I’m happy for you.” That was easy.
After telling Macky had gone so unexpectedly easily, and after realizing he didn’t act any differently toward me, I felt more confident telling a few other close friends. I set up coffee and lunch appointments with close friends, each time expecting a negative reaction that never came. Instead of preaching at me, telling me I was wrong and sinful, or keeping me at arm’s length, everyone I told accepted me, loved me, and drew even closer to me, sensing a deeper trust and authenticity in our friendships.
Honestly, one factor that prevented me from coming out even quicker than I actually did was my commitment to volunteer at two Christian summer camps this summer. I didn’t want to be shady or break the rules on purpose, but I felt it was for “the greater good” that I hold off on coming out until after the summer camps. I knew coming out before would most likely prevent me from participating, and I did want an opportunity to kind of wrap things up with students I had been committed to for several years. I really didn’t plan to come out until after the second summer camp, but it didn’t work that way. At the first camp in July, the camp speaker addressed the issue of identity and suggested that we all wear some sort of mask- a topic that resonates with many adolescents struggling with the pressure to fit in with their peers. As I sat in cabin time listening to the common surface level responses of eight freshman boys, I couldn’t help but break down the walls by telling them about my recent struggle. To my surprise, they responded similar to the way Macky had, shrugging it off like it was no big deal but thanking me for being honest. The rest of the week, each cabin time we had was deeper than any other I had experienced. The students opened up in ways and shared more openly and honestly than I had ever witnessed from boys their age. When I was removed from leadership in that organization a month later, the boys were shocked that I was punished for removing my own mask and revealing my true self as had been encouraged at that camp. Even though they couldn’t put words to it, they were disappointed at the hypocrisy of the organization.
A couple weeks later, I went to another camp with students I had journeyed with for many years. Some of them already knew before camp, but I came out to the whole cabin of eight junior guys and experienced a similar acceptance and deeper trust and honesty the rest of the week. My act of opening up enabled the students again to open up in new ways. Rather than severing our relationship, it brought us closer together and allowed for new levels of honesty and authenticity in all our conversations.
A few days after returning from the second camp, I met with the director of the organization to explain my recent journey and tell him of my recent realizations and self-acceptance. He was kind and tried his best to handle the situation as graciously as possible, for which I am thankful. It was a tough conversation, partly because a conversation like that will always be tough, and partly because he was the first to bring up a lot of the issues that caused a lot of stress and anxiety. He was the first to imply that coming out would cause parents to feel uncomfortable having me around their children. He was the first to imply that I was sinful and that it would mean a change in the relationship between the organization and I. He asked me not to put a gay lifestyle on display for the students I’ve worked with (I’ll address the term “gay lifestyle” in a future blog, but it’s offensive for a lot of reasons). Probably the worst part of the conversation was that he implied that I should basically keep quiet about the next steps and not draw a lot of attention if the organization did terminate me on the grounds of my sexual orientation. That didn’t sit well with me. I think if people or an organization want to keep what they’re doing quiet, that’s a good indicator that what they’re doing is wrong. Christians are called to live in the light, and if we’re proud to stand by their convictions we shouldn’t feel the need to do it quietly. But again, despite all that, he tried to be as nice and understanding as possible.
The next day, I came out more publicly. How else would you do it except for Facebook? I came out on Facebook. Again almost all responses were kind and supportive, with only a few in the “Lord’s Army” who felt it was their duty to play God’s advocate. I understand that, it’s whatever. After I came out, I received some private messages that were very encouraging, and even received messages from three closeted gay Christians asking for advice on how to begin their own journeys. I also received some messages from loving, well-meaning Christians who brought up all the arguments I had already been wrestling with for months and suggesting books I had already read in my learning process. A lot of close friends stayed quiet, and I still haven’t heard from them to this day. It hurts, but I think they’re following their mother’s advice: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” In many cases, that’s more mature than the alternative.
About a week later, I met with the area director and staff person of the organization again and received the official news that I was terminated from my volunteer role with the organization. It’s not their fault, it’s an international organization, and policies don’t change overnight. They have no control over HR. I still got the sense that they wanted me to keep quiet about the process, but I believe it was important to share. When the organization knew something new about me, it made an informed decision to exclude me from its ministry. I feel it’s important for everyone involved to know the core values of the organization and determine if and how they want to be involved with an organization that discriminates based on sexual orientation.
I posted a few more times, probably to the point of being obnoxious, so that’s one reason why I started this blog. The release of all the stress, fear and anxiety alone it worth it. Getting to be myself and enjoy deeper, more authentic relationships with God and people is a bonus.
When you stand on top of a mountain, you have a bird’s eye view of everything below. It reminds me of how God sees things. On the trail, we could only see the steps directly in front of us, but from the top the perspective is so much different. When you’re going through a struggle like I was, it’s tough not to see past what lies ahead. It’s only when you come out of it that you can look back and gain a different perspective. God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and when we can only see what’s directly in front of us, He knows where He’s leading us, and that’s a comforting thought.