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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9 thoughts on “Choosing a Letter is Complicated

  1. When it comes to asexuality, most people have never heard of it and many seem to have never conceived that it might exist. I myself didn’t know that asexuality was an real sexual orientation until I was 31. Before that time, I mostly conceptualized my sexual orientation as “not interested” and I thought it was just something weird about me; I didn’t realize that there were others like me. In 2004, I read a media article about asexuality and realized that was the right label for me. Of course, there is no letter in the LGBT acronym for asexuality and few LGBT movements or organizations seem to recognize that asexuality exists. So I know what my “letter” is, but it seems to fall in a no-mans-land, neither LGBT nor straight.

    I find that most discussions of “coming out” seem to assume a simply binary, either you’re out or you’re closeted. People who know me well or who have known me for a long time know that I’m not interested in romance, sex, dating, or relationships. They don’t necessarily know that “asexuality” is the label that I now give to that experience. And, as long as I’m able to live honestly as I am, without pressure from family or friends to change, I’m frankly not as concerned what specific label they know me by. Does that mean I’m “out”? I don’t know.

    • Hi Laura, thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree that the discourse around National Coming Out Day tends to hide the experience of asexual people. It’s certainly true that asexual people are gender and sexual minorities.

      I also appreciate your observation that “being out” is not a binary. Many people have collections of folks who know, collections of folks who don’t know yet, and collections of folks who won’t know. Everyone needs to draw those boundaries for themselves. –Lindsey

  2. After learning about the diversity of orientations and the spectrum of gender, I came to view the acronym LGBT as an incomplete shorthand for the whole gamut. LGBTQPIA is better, but probably still missing some (it does cover most people… unless they’re straight). QuILTBAG flows better, but it leaves out pansexuality.

    As in Laura’s experience, my experience with being out is far from binary. I’m out to two people, but no one else knows, unless, that is, they’ve figured it out independently and haven’t said anything. Maybe everyone thinks it’s obvious and I’m oblivious to their awareness. Without being more fully out, I simply can’t know.

    The past two National Coming Out Days have been an exercise in frustration. On both days, I’ve been with small numbers of people whom I’ve been ready to tell, but the conversation never went anywhere near the topic. I can’t see myself saying “hey everyone, by the way, I’m gay!” in the middle of a conversation about video games or science or the other nerdy stuff that my friends and I discuss. You’ll probably never see me come out publicly on Facebook. But if someone were to ask when I’m going to settle down and find a girlfriend, at this point, my coming out constipation is so bad that I’d be overjoyed to answer honestly.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience LJ. Many people struggle with finding a way to bring up the topic in general, especially if they are single. Some people have friends where conversation constantly drifts naturally to questions of sexual orientation, while other people have friends where conversation never is close to sexual orientation.

      When I was first coming out, I started talking with other Christian friends. It was clumsy and awkward at first. I don’t know how many friends I lost by handling the LGBT questions in the “wrong” way. But I have more than a handful of friends who have walked with me nearly every step of my journey. I’m so grateful.

      May God grant you wisdom! -Lindsey

  3. Thanks for sharing your reflection and lending this space for NCOD thoughts. “It’s complicated” does sum it up nicely. Where I’ve grown up and live now, gender identity awareness has lagged sexual orientation awareness by 15 years or so, at least by my non-professional reckoning. They tend to be regarded as two separate things a lot of times, and I can understand why that happens and can work. For me gender identity and sexual orientation are tied together tight, rhythm and melody. When I came of age I tackled questions I had about my sexual orientation absolutely head on, trying to pound it flat, availing myself of every resource I could reasonably lay my hands on. I did that because sexual orientation was in the cross hairs, an occasion for sin. Gender was a given, cut and dried, not up for discussion, certainly not an identity to be nuanced. Over the years one could say I’ve been refactoring my understanding of those two aspects of my life along with my faith and beliefs, self understanding in general. It’s by no means been a progression. Laura captures the experience of where I am now nicely.

    I’m glad that NCOD exists. One of my friends at work used that day to come out, pretty much all at once, some years ago, and it was a really good experience for him. At work we’re hosting a coming out at work event, a discussion of people’s experiences with that. It’s under the auspices of NCOD. I know more people who feel there’s too much pressure for that being ‘the day’ and just find the right time to bring up their experience explicitly.

    • Hi Kacy, the conversation about sexual orientation does seem to be in a very different place than the conversation about gender identity. It will be interesting to see how the public discourse about gender identity continues to develop. -Lindsey

  4. You’re doing a great job with this blog.

    As for the topic at hand… I came out about a year ago. At the time, I came out as “gay” without really knowing what that was supposed to mean for me. I just felt that I had gone through life for too long acting out the masculine script that my evangelical upbringing said was right for me. I was tired of living a lie, and was ready to start looking for the truth. It’s been a great year.

    After coming out, I was initially struck by how few gender scripts our culture permits. I knew that I didn’t really fit comfortably within the traditional masculine script, but I didn’t seem to fit into the gay script either. Sexuality is just a lot more complex than we make it out to be. The available categories just don’t do it justice.

    I’m not sure that creating more categories necessarily answers the question, though. We need to take time to figure out what makes us tick and to look for relationships that are a fit. This may take some experimenting. Although I tend to be aesthetically attracted to men, I found that I’m more attracted to women at an interpersonal level. I hadn’t really recognized that before because I was too busy trying to conform to the straight male script. Once I abandoned the script, I had a lot more freedom to be honest with myself and to experiment. I dated both men and women, and learned that I generally prefer the company of women. The interpersonal connection was more fulfilling to me than the aesthetic connection. Does this mean that I came out as gay only to discover that I’m straight? Hardly. Coming out freed me from a narrow script that negated my humanity and brought me nothing but despair.

    • Hi Ryan, you’ve done a great job with your comment!

      One thing that I’ve noticed about scripts is that I tend to gravitate towards people who give others space to define what words mean. One person might use “gay” as shorthand for “I’m a man who enjoys having sex with other men” while another person uses “gay” as shorthand for “experiencing a considerable degree of otherness related to how I perceive beauty.” Freedom to ask questions can go a long way in helping people discern why they use the words they use. -Lindsey

  5. Pingback: Is “Gay” Just Another Adjective? - Crisis Magazine

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