Coming Out Late

I knew I was a lesbian as soon as I knew what a lesbian was, which, due to the sheltered nature of my childhood, wasn’t until I was 16 and we studied Mrs Dalloway. So why did it take me until I was 30 to come out?

People stay in the closet for so many reasons. Some of mine were fairly standard, like family and religion. Others were a bit more complex.

Family is fairly easy to explain. I had tested the water by making jokes about bringing home a girlfriend. My dad’s face turned stone still and he said “We don’t even make jokes about that”. So I had my answer. I knew that coming out could cost me my relationship with my parents and I just wasn’t ready to pay that price until I reached the point where their love simply wasn’t enough.

Religion also played a major role, not really in the ‘gays burn in hell’ kind of way. I had already decided that God probably wasn’t that serious about hating gays or He would have made more of a fuss about it. It was more that religion had taught me to ignore my own desires. It never even occurred to me to question what I did or did not want in a partner.

Once I worked out that what I wanted was girls, other factors came into play. All the lesbians I knew fell into one of two groups; far too cool to be interested in me, or so weird I had no desire to be associated with them. Clearly the ‘too cool’ category were the ones I was attracted to, but lacked the self esteem to do anything about it.

Later, in my twenties, I let myself be persuaded by the narrative surrounding lesbian relationships, that they burn out because there is no ‘growth’ and no development ie no children. I didn’t know anything about LGBT families and didn’t know any lesbian couples. I wanted a family, so I thought the only option was a husband. I know now that this narrative is a lie. LGBT relationships are just as deep and lasting as heterosexual ones. Not only do we have kids, the studies show that our kids do just as well, if not better than the heterosexuals’.

I also didn’t want to end up dating someone just because we were both lesbians, even though I ended up doing that for a while. Again, this was lack of experience. None of the lesbians I had met shared any of my interests and I didn’t share theirs. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t dismiss all lesbians on the basis of knowing 6 of them by name.

Finally, I thought that my lack of experience was an issue. I think I imagined that if I walked into a gay club, I would set off some kind of sensor and be forcibly ejected by the bouncers. I had no idea what to do with a girl if I got one and was so naive that I thought it would matter (when I did come out I bought a very helpful manual and read it cover to cover – I made sure I had the theory down way before I had my first girlfriend).

I’m sure that some people still think that if I had met the right man, I never would have come out. In some senses they’re right. But then, there never would have been the right man and people have a way of spotting it when they are not what you really want. I tried, really I did, but it never worked out.

So I got to 30, so lonely and so depressed that I was frightened to drink in case I did something stupid. When my therapist asked me “Do you think you might be lesbian or bisexual?” it was like being given permission to act on all the thoughts and feelings I had buried for so long. Everything changed. I came alive and I have not looked back since.

Footnote:

The thing everyone wants to know is how you can have sex with men if you are a lesbian. It’s very much like TV. You can watch a black and white set and you’ll see the same show but a colour set makes it come alive. That’s all I’m saying.

Coming Out Late

Curioser and Curioser

The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.

“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”

It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.

Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.

Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.

The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.

That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.

Curioser and Curioser

Marriage Rites

Weddings, like births and deaths, are one of the key times that LGBT people are made aware that we aren’t equal yet. Even if the Supreme Court of the United Sates rules in favour of same sex marriage, weddings will still be a point where families and societies have the most power to make their disapproval clear, to wound, shame and exclude.

When equal marriage was introduced in the UK, a survey suggested that 1 in 5 people would refuse to come to a same sex wedding. A guy on BBC news asked me about it, I laughed it off and said that we aren’t that scary, people don’t have to be afraid of us.

I was deliberately misunderstanding the point, there was no way I was going to go on national TV and add to the sense of power that straight people have. Refusing to come to our weddings is one of the many ways that families can punish their LGBT relatives and it turns what should be a joyous event into an emotional Russian roulette.

Of course, LGBT couples are not the only ones whose families refuse to attend their weddings. Couples who cross lines of colour, religion or nationality are also punished.

My sister’s wedding remains one of the best examples of what a wedding should be in my mind. Her friends travelled from all over the country (one couple cycled down from Scotland) and all of them contributed to the day; they gathered boughs and made garlands for the marquee, they helped to cook, they mowed fields and laid paths. Throughout the preceding days and on the day itself there was a strong sense that this union was much more than just two people, that it was a union of two families and the communities which surround them.

I wish R and I had had that.

Marriage Rites

Who is being served in Indiana?

There’s a picture of the signing of the latest legislation in Indiana, the governor and a group of priests, religious leaders and nuns. They are all smiling beatifically, radiating holy satisfaction. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the governor had just signed a law that would make sure that no-one in the state would have to suffer loneliness, sickness or poverty. Actually, Governor Pence had just signed a law that makes it okay to hate people so much that you refuse to serve them. And the church is just delighted.

Governor Pence of Indiana claims that the legislation simply limits the power of the state to force people to act against their religious principles. In practice, it seems designed to protect companies from being sued should they choose to refuse service on the grounds of religious belief.

I worked for a principal in North Carolina who was so motivated by religious belief that she used to shout at me in front of my students every single morning. When I tried to leave her school, she phoned every single school in five counties to out me as a lesbian. It is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between religious belief and hate, especially when you are on the sharp end.

There are quite a few of us on the potential sharp end of this act; the LGBT community, breast feeding mothers, Muslims, heavy metal artists and fans, possibly even Black Americans. All of us could be refused on the grounds that a service provider’s religious beliefs don’t include us. Being turned away and preached against feels a lot more like hate than like the expression of religious freedom.

And here is my question. Jesus says that His followers will be known by their love. In exercising religious freedom like this, who is the Church really following?

Who is being served in Indiana?

The Christian Church and LGBT people – Tolerance is not enough

Why hating the sin and loving the sinner is an inappropriate response to homosexuality

This is based on what I sent to my father, who is a minister, when he kept saying that my sexuality was “very difficult” for him. I thought that other people might find it useful even though it is a few years old.

To help you through (it is a LOT longer than my posts usually are), it’s in these main sections.

  • Sinful identity
  • Why homosexuality is not a sin
  • The fruits of homophobia
  • Paul sometimes contradicts Christ
  • What would the church look like without homophobia
  • Personal experience

Sinful Identity

The ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ approach depends on the idea that non practising homosexuals are not ‘sinning’. This is nonsense. We do not become homosexual or heterosexual only in the moments when we are engaged in sexual activity. Sexuality is part of our identity; it infuses our thoughts and informs our responses in a whole variety of situations. If homosexuality is a sin, a homosexual person is sinning even when he or she is not having sex. Hating the sin then, cannot be separated from hating the ‘sinner’.

To form a truly Christian approach to homosexuality, we must accept that it is not a sin.

Homosexuality is not a sin:

  1. The teachings of Christ – Generally in the debate about homosexuality, we forget that homosexuality is not mentioned by Christ, nor is it included in the Ten Commandments. This would suggest that, despite the concern of the modern church with this issue, it is not a major consideration of God’s.
  2. Biblical context – There is not only a great deal of evidence to suggest that condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible was exclusively linked to condemnation of competing religious practices, but also several positive examples of positive representations of homosexual relationships, two of which come from Jesus’ own family in the stories of Ruth and David (see especially 2 Samuel 1: 19 – 27 and see Jonathan Loved David by Tom Horner)
  3. Biblical interpretation – Christians today pick and choose which elements of the Bible they class as fundamental. Many of our modern practices would be considered unthinkable by Christians of past ages. For example, we not only allow women to enter churches with their hair uncovered (1 Corinthians 4: 11 – 16), we also allow them to talk and even become leaders (1 Corinthians 14: 34 – 35). This is not to suggest that because one element is ignored, others may be also, but that Christianity is a living religion which exists within modern culture. As education and understanding evolve, so too do the practices of religion. It should not be forgotten that biblical interpretation has been used in the past to uphold practices, such as the trading of human beings, which we would now consider deeply sinful.
  4. Confusion of aesthetics and morality – Although a practice may be distasteful to you, it does not mean that that practice is a sin. The church long ago gave up attempting to dictate sexual practices between married people; the same attempt should be abandoned in the case of homosexual people for the same reasons.
  5. Fearfully and wonderfully made – the Bible tells us that God created us exactly how he wanted us to be. The fact that there are homosexuals in countries like Uganda should be clear evidence that homosexuality is not a choice, if the social costs of homosexuality in more liberal countries were not evidence enough. Science shows little evidence that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma, in fact, there is increasing evidence that homosexuality is biological. This would mean that homosexuals are part of God’s plan, and that God loves His homosexual children just as they are.

By their fruits you shall know them

The fruits of homophobia, which has its root in the teaching of ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’, are exclusion, hatred, violence and murder. In its mildest forms, that of tolerance rather than acceptance, there is a focus on one element of an individual’s life rather than the quality of the whole. The fruit of this teaching is exclusion.

On a larger scale, the church devotes a large amount of energy to this issue, energy which would be better and more constructively expended elsewhere. Neither this condemnation nor the division resulting from the debate about homosexuality is glorifying God or advancing His kingdom on earth.

Christ left clear instructions about the function of Christians, and by extension, the function of the church. We are commanded to love one another (Matthew 22:9). We were not called to enforce the law of the church upon one another. When we attempt to do so, we generally break the two great commandments left by Christ. We also teach our children, homo- or heterosexual, that there are limits to the love of God, and that they are condemned for things which they cannot change.

Paul and Christ

As I have said above, we tend to pick and choose which elements of Paul’s teachings we apply to our lives. Many of the great social movements towards equality have been opposed by the church based on the teachings of Paul, but in the end the church has been forced to recognise that a substantial amount of Paul’s teaching was written for the audience of his time, rather than for our time. Think what the reaction would be today if the church were to apply Paul’s teaching on slavery in Philemon (Philemon 1: 12) and send a Togolese boy back to slavery in a Ghanaian cocoa farm, or recommend the return of an Eastern European sex worker to the gang that brought her to this country. The recent changes regarding the status of women in the church have also been the result of a re-evaluation of Paul’s teaching.

There is no denying that Paul was a great theologian, and that his elaboration of the life and teachings of Christ form the basis of Christian theology. However two important factors must not be forgotten. Firstly, Paul, as Saul, was a member of a privileged elite. His social teaching stresses the importance of mercy to those lower down the social order, but also of unquestioning submission to those above. Secondly, Paul did not anticipate that social structures would be in place for much longer as he lived in daily expectation of the second coming. Social justice was simply not important to him. Christ, on the other hand, was radically critical of those in the upper echelons of power and did employ violence against those who oppressed or excluded ordinary people (Matthew 21:12). Thus the teachings of Paul often conflict with the teaching and action of Christ.

If we measure Paul against Christ, we should be able to judge where his writing is culturally influenced and where he is genuinely elaborating the word of God. Christ had ample opportunity to condemn homosexuality, yet He did not. Therefore, when Paul writes about homosexuality, he exceeds the example set by Christ, just as he did when he wrote about slavery and the social order.

 If homosexuality is not a sin…

Let us consider what the church would be like if it accepted that homosexuality is not a sin, and that all human beings exist on a spectrum of sexuality, with some being homosexual, some heterosexual and some bisexual.

It would be inevitable that a schism would occur. It is possible that the schism would fall along national lines. This is nothing new. The church has weathered such divisions before. They have generally occurred when one section of the church moves closer to the word of God, while another section clings to dogma.

Homosexual men and women would retain the acceptance and love of the congregation as a whole. Some of them would become church leaders, some of them would be involved in mission and ministry. None of them would need to conceal their identities in order to follow God’s plan for their lives. As accepted and valued members of the congregation, they would form role models for younger homosexuals.

Homosexual marriages would be recognised and celebrated within the church. Homosexual marriages would be subject to the same accountability and support as heterosexual relationships, giving them greater stability and minimising risks of abuse and infidelity. The process of recognising the roles, duties and supports given to marriage by the church community would strengthen the institution of marriage in the whole community.

Children of homosexual parents would be accepted into the church community without experiencing intolerance. The authority of homosexual parents would be upheld by the church, enabling their children to grow up within the church community and following Biblical precepts. Parenting roles would be re-evaluated, placing emphasis on the need for active, engaged parenting rather than adherence to traditional gender roles.

Within families, homosexuality could be spoken about honestly and openly. Parents would be aware that homosexuality was not a result of their parenting, freeing them from needless guilt. They would also accept homosexual offspring and encourage their talents rather than trying to ‘prevent’ or ‘cure’ their homosexuality. Homosexuals would retain the bonds and support of family life. Parents would doubtless monitor dating behaviour and encourage young people of all sexualities to refrain from inappropriate intercourse. Parents of homosexuals would support each other, recognising that homosexual offspring and their parents face different challenges.

Both heterosexual and homosexual members of the congregation would understand that God’s love is limitless, and that it is possible for all believers to strive to live following the teachings of Christ in all areas of their lives.

If the church were to speak out about the persecution of homosexuals across the globe, it could bring support to an amendment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would protect the lives of homosexuals around the world, thus connecting the church once more with the advancement of fair and humane behaviour. This connection would revitalise and reinvigorate the Christian message with the immediacy and relevance it lacks presently in the public’s perception.

It is too late for some – My personal experience

For many homosexual believers, myself included, growing up in an openly homophobic church has caused what I believe to be irreparable damage. I do not believe that I have a place in the church. It is only recently that I have been able to believe that I could have a place in God’s heart.

Although I was aware that I was attracted to women from the age of 15, I did not deliberately act on these feelings for another 15 years. I knew that admitting to being a lesbian could cost me my faith and my family. I tried to be straight, but was not very good at it. I didn’t stop trying, no matter how miserable I was. In the end, I went through months of near suicidal depression before I realised that whatever the cost, it could not be as bad what I was going through. As soon as I was honest with myself, I felt as though my whole life acquired new meaning. Every aspect of my life; my work, my friendships, my ability to cope with adversity, blossomed as I was no longer expending so much energy in trying to be something I wasn’t.

During this time I made no attempt to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. It was not until I met my future wife that I began this process. She also had had a religious upbringing, and yet was adamant that God loved her just as she was. For the first time I considered the possibility that I might be acceptable to God just as I was; a lesbian. The journey back to faith was long and convoluted, in all of it, my wife was my guide. Eventually we gave God the opportunity to take away our relationship if it were not in His plan. It was a very real possibility as we needed a visa to proceed with our civil partnership. The visa came through. Since then, God has provided exactly what we have needed when we needed it in order for us to grow and become strong as a couple.

So on one hand, I am in a relationship which has been showered with blessings by God, and on the other a church which claims that it is sinful. At best, I think Christians can only tolerate me, so long as I am not too open about my sexuality. If I cried in church, I believe that most Christians would think it inappropriate for my wife to comfort me. I would not trust Christians to uphold my honour in front of my children if I were not present. My response has been to keep faith, but to avoid the church.

Bibliography

Jonathan and David: Tom Horner (I think the writer here gets a little over enthusiastic in some of the later chapters, but explains the need to read the condemnation of homosexuality in the context of the time)

The Church and the Homosexual: John J McNeil (not very exciting, but covers quite a few of the arguments)

Note: I used ‘homosexual’ here, my internal jury is out about the term. It does have negative medical connotations and tends to negate bi and trans experience, but it is the term my dad understood so I used it. It must be remembered that this post was written several years ago and things have changed a bit since then.

The Christian Church and LGBT people – Tolerance is not enough

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

No Gay Superpowers – Unfortunately

When I come out to kids in my classes (I have to do it regularly because we get a new batch every year) I like to demonstrate my lack of gay superpowers. I prance around the classroom trying to cause a major storm or an earthquake. I even direct my evil gay ray at a random kid in an effort to influence his/her sexuality. We all stare with interest at the kid in question, who looks slightly embarrassed. We wait. The kid does not sprout a rainbow halo or even hum a show tune. We ask if he or she feels any different than they did before I exercised my evil powers. The kid shakes its head. We are disappointed. I assure the class that when my gay superpowers kick in they will know because we will have 10 straight (!) snow days just before my reports are due.

The ability to influence the weather and the sexuality of the people around me are not the only superpowers which have sadly failed to manifest themselves. According to Jeremy Clarkson, R should be able to flick through the jobs section of the newspaper and demand any job she chooses. She is Black and a lesbian. The only reason, as far as I can see, that she isn’t running the BBC is because she is not also a Muslim. I have tried persuading her to convert; we could do with the extra cash.

Last week we were also attributed with the power to suck all of the joy out of the British public. “Man-hating, comfortable-shoe-wearing, hairy-legged lesbians” dictate what can and can’t be printed in the British press. We removed the topless ladies from Page 3 of the Sun and condemned the British male to never seeing any boobs again, ever.

Fortunately, I and my evil man-hating, comfortable-shoe-wearing, hairy-legged sistren were defeated. Page 3 has been reinstated and boobs are restored to the British male. Our dastardly plan came close to fruition, but the plucky and oppressed observers of boobs fought us so valiantly that we were forced to retire, hissing and spitting.

Leaving aside the obvious misunderstanding of the relationship between lesbians and boobs, I do find it somewhat trying to have such power ascribed to me by public perception, and yet to be so powerless in real life. The rhetorical device of casting the oppressed as the oppressor is particularly cruel because it highlights exactly what we haven’t got – power.

No Gay Superpowers – Unfortunately