This week NBA player Jason Collins came out with the words, "I'm black. And I'm gay.". As expected this has been met with a wide range of reactions from praise to condemnation with apparently "sincerely held religious belief" being an acceptable reason to judge and condemn another person. Yet another response I read in the comments and even to some degree from Jason himself is this notion that coming out shouldn't be a big deal, almost a sense that one shouldn't have to come out. This goes along with the notion that he doesn't want to be known as a "gay athlete" which on the one hand makes sense - he just wants to be known as a great athlete or a team player, he wants his athletic ability judged by his athletic record not his sexual orientation. Yet he is a gay athlete and I would like to see him take pride in that fact - that he can be a positive role model and influence on younger people. That younger people can see that you can be an athlete and be gay - much like the importance of religious people being out - it is an important witness. It breaks down the stereotype that LGBTQ persons only fit in particular boxes - including the boxes of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer.
I want to talk more about this notion though that one shouldn't have to come out - that one's sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is private. That the mark of a tolerant society is that we don't notice difference and are therefore a society of equals. Yet our differences are what make each of us unique - if we don't see differences than we create a certain sameness. What this results in our society is a literal whitewashing of humanity and I use that term very intentionally. We erase the differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality - everything. It reminds me of the SchoolHouse rock video - Great American Melting Pot. What happens when we all melt together - a gloppy mess. It also subsumes everyone into the "ideal" of white, male and heterosexual - rather than valuing and seeing difference as important and valuable.
I do understand personally this impulse toward the "why do people need to come out", "why do we need a pride parade after all straight people don't go around flaunting their sexuality." I understand because at one time I believed that until I witnessed others coming out and then came out myself. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from southern California when I was 12. My dad is a third generation San Franciscan and I had visited my grandparents in San Francisco frequently as a child. I happened to be visiting San Francisco in 1978 when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot and killed. I remember watching Diane Feinstein on television. I also remember driving through the Castro and for the first time in my life seeing two men walking down the street with their arms around each other.
I also remember seeing coverage of Gay Pride on television and thinking to myself - why do they have to have Pride, why do they have to talk about it. After all straight people didn't go around having straight pride. I had grown up with a mix of religious disapproval (growing up Roman Catholic) and with a live and let live attitude. There was a tolerance that people should be allowed to live their lives as they choose. As a teenager I knew I was attracted to both boys and girls but also knew from my sexuality education that as a teenager that was normal and I would grow out of it (oops!). I didn't really understand heterosexism or privilige or how hard it is to be LGBTQ in a world that assumes everyone is straight until proven otherwise!
It was not until college that I learned that the live and let live attitude that I grew up in California was not the norm. My first experience was talking to my freshman year roommate during the summer before I began at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. My roommate was from St. Louis and she asked me "Are there really all those gay people out there?" The question truly took me by surprise. I didn't realize that living with the backdrop of the gay community in my back yard was something unique. It was just a part of living in the Bay Area (and realize I lived on the Peninsula - read suburbia and it was the 80's). I didn't personally know anyone who was gay. It was something I might see if I went to San Francisco (The City), on television for Pride or coverage of the AIDS crisis.
My second encounter with this disruption that live and let live was not the normal world view was also while at Marquette. I was enrolled in an education class and tutoring a seventh grade girl in reading. As part of the class I was to go and observe her in class at her school. As I was waiting in the faculty room at the school I overheard two of the teachers talking. They were talking about the TV movie that had been on the night before called "An Early Frost" and it was about young gay man dying as a result of AIDS. One of the women said openly that she would disown her son if he came out to her. I sat there silent and appalled. "Really, you would disown your son, your child, who you carried in your body for 9 months, loved, nurtured and raised and you would disown him for being gay?", I thought to myself. I just could not believe it.
Although I grew up with a kind of acceptance of gay people, I did not actually know anyone who was LGBTQ. It was at Georgetown that I became friends with someone who was openly gay - he happened to be President of the Gay and Lesbian group at Georgetown. I heard the stories of late night obscene phone calls to his dorm room. It was during that same time that one of my closest friends began the journey of coming out. It was hard. He was worried about his future career. I was witnessing the struggle of my friends.
It was not until after college that I realized that I was not growing out of this stage of attraction to both men and women. My friend whose coming out process I was honored and privileged to witness commented about how female identified I was - and he was not just talking about my own gender identity but my connection and relationships with women and feminism and the feminine. It was the late 1980's and the book "Bi Any Other Name" was published and it was a revolution of bisexual identity. One of my close women friends came out as bi. I began to understand myself as bisexual and I came out to friends but not to family. I did not come out to my family until much later when I was seriously dating the person who would become my spouse. I knew they would not disown me - a privilege I do not take for granted. Still, coming out wasn't easy for them and it wasn't easy for me.
While I was raised with live and let live and my attitudes had evolved and changed while in college it was quite another thing to come to terms that it is not just about other people, but about yourself. I didn't have a big crisis of faith (well I was having a crisis of faith but it was less about being bi and more about the Roman Catholic Church itself). I knew that God would love me no matter what (again a privilege not to be taken for granted). I did however have to come to terms with a different vision for my life. I always assumed I would marry a man and have kids (I wanted a lot of them having only one sister) and live in a house with a nice picket fence. Basically I would live the life my parents lived. Coming out and falling in love with a woman meant that image had to change. I am married, we have an amazing daughter and actually our townhouse does have a white fence. All kidding aside coming out is not easy and it never ends.
I have been very lucky. My family loves me, my wife and our daughter. Even my spouse's parents have come around and accepted me and our daughter as part of the family though there are limits to what we share with them. My spouse's sister does not have a relationship with any of us by her choice. I am a part of a religious community that accepts me for who I am and allows me to serve openly in religious leadership. Even though we have married both religiously and legally in California, I don't say that we are just like everyone else. We are not. Our family is not the same and thank God for that. I don't want to be the same. I want to be me - queer me, unapologetically queer me. I don't want a cure - my being queer is a gift - it is a part of what makes me me. It is a part of what makes our family what it is. My daughter has two moms - that is who she is - wonderful, amazing, unique.
Coming out is not this one time thing - one does it over and over again. We need to keep speaking the truth of ourselves and our lives. I don't consider this a bad thing. To speak the truth of who we are - not just about sexual orientation or gender identity - but speaking our truth, speaking to who we really are is part of the spiritual path. For one way to define the spiritual path is that it is the path to the authentic self. People are surprised that Jason Collins spoke of his faith as part of his coming out - I am not. God loves us for who we are, as we truly are and part of who we are is our sexuality. It is a gift!
I choose to live out and to be an out religious leader. Being a religious leader means in part to take one's religious or spiritual life, which many consider private and live it openly. Being LGBTQ means something similar. I know that my living openly, publicly, speaking out is necessary. It is necessary because there are others who cannot, others who are struggling, others who may lose their family, who may have to leave school or home or a job especially in the context of where I live now ... Virginia, the state of my spouse's birth. Coming out is important. It is an act of justice. It is a religious act.
So thank you Jason Collins for coming out. Please keep doing it. There are young people who need your example. They need to know that who they are is amazing! They need to know that God loves them. They need to know that LGBTQ people are an amazingly diverse group of people.
So let's not minimize being Queer or Black or Latina/o to the "we are all people" melting pot mess. Let's celebrate that yes we are all people - all kinds of people - all kinds of amazing people - in many colors, many genders and many sexual orientations. Let's celebrate it all! Let our differences be things we talk about and celebrate - not sweeping them under the carpet. Then I believe we will live into the vision that we are all created equal.