Choosing a Letter is Complicated

A reflection by Lindsey

Today is National Coming Out Day, so we decided to modify our usual Saturday Symposium routine by starting with a bonus reflection for this week.

I have a love/hate relationship with National Coming Out Day. On one hand, I know many people who have used the day to be honest with family and friends about sexual orientation and gender identity. October 11 is still 6 weeks before Thanksgiving (unless you’re in Canada), and I appreciate how some people value having a bit of space for the dust to settle amongst family members before the holidays. On the other hand, talk around National Coming Out Day frequently assumes that once a person has decided to come out, disclosure is comparatively straightforward.

As Sarah and I have been blogging, I’ve noticed that many people feel comfortable assigning labels to my sexual orientation and gender identity based on things they have figured out about Sarah or things they assume about me given my first name. That bothers me because lesbian has never been one of the words I have used when it comes to my own sexual orientation. I can see why it’s easy to assume that I identify as lesbian, but it still bothers me when people do because labeling others assumes that you know more than they do about how they experience attraction and gender identity.

Beginning to come out is like getting on a roller coaster of self-understanding. I cued up to this roller coaster while I was part of a Christian community that asserted every person created by God is not only clearly male or female, but is also heterosexual. There was no such thing as a “gay Christian” because that was an impossible juxtaposition of terms. In 2007, I started meeting other gay Christians and found myself surrounded by people who understood why I hated the tradeoffs between trying to adhere to cisgender, heterosexual social norms and doing my best to follow Christ with my entire self.

However, any label comes with a script of its own. I felt blessed to be negotiating my journey in a community with Christians who could affirm different vocations. As a community, we robustly affirmed that people needed freedom to seek God’s direction. I have friends from a wide swatch of Christian traditions on the journey, and we negotiated various tensions associated with being an ecumenical community. My current Christian tradition has a rich history of exalting both married and celibate vocations. For a while, I was definitely most comfortable describing myself as a celibate gay Christian. It’s a clunky enough phrase that I only deployed it in specific situations. Most of the time, I didn’t have any need to say anything. Coming out was nicely personal, and I could make the decision whenever I felt the need to say anything. I worked on growing into my celibate vocation and became more and more comfortable in my own skin.

When you’re more comfortable in your own skin, it’s easier to identify when other people misread you in society. I started noticing that people were frequently misguided, even to the point of being patently wrong, when they tried to gender my motivations or experiences. I picked up on how the friends closest to me have always held me in a category of my own when it comes to gendered treatment. I’ve developed an absolute disdain for how many people use pronouns, and I become more and more aware of the reality that my own experiences of sexuality and gender are not always understood even in the gay Christian community. Unlike sexual orientation and vocation, gender is an entirely public reality. It’s difficult to know how and when to correct people about various things when gender is often used to indicate socially polite behaviors.

Choosing a letter can be especially complicated when people everywhere have expectations of what certain labels mean. Many people assume that if a woman is in a relationship with another woman, then both people are necessarily lesbians.  If you are a person who enters into an opposite-sex relationship, then many people assume that you were never a member of the queer community after all because you’ve realized that you’re straight. Using specific relationships to label people’s sexual orientations does a lot to erase bisexuality. Many people will assert that if you’re on the transgender spectrum but you’re not interested in any form of medical transition, there’s no way that you’re transgender. Very few people have any idea about what words work best when a transgender person is in a relationship with a gay person. Sometimes people don’t know the best language to use because they know that none of the available scripts associated with existing language fit their experiences.

Every National Coming Out Day, I hope that people experience freedom to be honest about the unique elements of their story. I pray that the conversations started today continue in love and charity. I recognize that opening a conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity can be hard work, and I respect people who make plans to begin a conversation today only to conclude that the conversation is still just too hard.

In the spirit of our usual Saturday Symposium questions: we’d love to hear about your experiences with National Coming Out Day. What does National Coming Out Day mean to you? Do you know anyone who has used National Coming Out Day to start a conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity with their friends and family? Have you encountered situations where a person’s experience does not fit into existing language about sexual orientation and gender identity?

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