October 11th is known as National Coming Out Day. Each year as the date comes and goes, the Twittersphere and blogosphere fill up with posts marking the occasion. Christians who hold to the traditional historic Christian sexual ethic may find it hard to know how to view such a day. ‘Coming out’ often carries with it connotations of embracing sexuality as identity and choosing to pursue romantic and sexual relationships with those of the same sex, both of which don’t fit with a Christian understanding of sexuality. But as Christians, we need to talk about coming out too.
If you are same-sex attracted, whether Christian or not, there will likely come a point where you have to reveal this to people explicitly since it’s not the expected norm.
The reality is, if you are same-sex attracted, whether Christian or not, there will likely come a point where you have to reveal this to people explicitly since it’s not the expected norm. You may not be embracing everything that is traditionally associated with coming out, but you are still opening up about a personal—and often difficult—part of your life experience. Even same-sex attracted Christians come out, and coming out is not a one-time thing.
I’ve come out countless times now. I still remember the first time. I was in my mid-teens. I had experienced exclusive same-sex attraction since at least the beginning of secondary school, but I had never told anyone.
But then one day a guy who was discipling me asked, ‘Is there anything else you want to tell me?’, and, almost to my surprise, through faltering words, I told him. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I think we were both in a state of shock. He hadn’t expected me to say that, and, to be honest, neither had I. Nevertheless, it had happened. This thing which had previously been known to only me and God was now known by another person. I was out - or at least, I had taken the first step. I remember going into school the next day and suddenly it all seemed so much more real. ‘What does this mean?’, I remember thinking. ‘What is life going to look like? How can I be attracted to guys and follow Jesus?’ These were questions I would have to wrestle with in the coming months. But that was just the start. Over the years that followed, I came out to other friends, youth leaders, church leaders, and my family.
For some people, coming out can be like exposing a fragile, sensitive, and, often, hurt part of yourself to another person.
Coming out can be a difficult thing to do. Different people in different contexts will have different experiences with coming out, but there is rarely a natural way to bring it up in conversation; it pretty much always requires an awkward gear change. And it’s an exposing thing; for many of us, sharing about such personal elements of our life experience is not easy or comfortable. For some people, coming out can be like exposing a fragile, sensitive, and, often, hurt part of yourself to another person, and you almost hold your breath wondering how they will react. I now come out to crowds of hundreds in churches and Christian conferences without really even thinking about it, and yet there is something about coming out to an individual or small group which still leaves me feeling very vulnerable. Coming out is often not an easy thing.
So, perhaps it might be useful if I shared a few of the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m sure there is much more that could be said, but here’s some advice to get us started.
For Christians coming out
- Remember your identity in Christ. There is nothing more important than this. You are not defined by anything internal (who you are attracted to) or anything external (how people respond to you); you are defined by being a child of God, eternally loved and eternally secure. No matter what happens, that cannot change.
- Try to manage your expectations. The reality is, even those who will become a brilliant source of support might take a little time to process what you share. Protect yourself by remembering that this is only the start of a conversation.
- If you’ve never told anyone about your sexuality, start by telling someone with whom you feel comfortable. Don’t feel you have to tell everyone straight away.
- Try to choose a situation where you will have enough time to share and to talk through what you share. You don’t want to open up and then suddenly have to move on to something else.
- If you want to come out to someone but are not sure how to do it, pray that God would give you a good opportunity. In my experience, the awkward gear change moment is usually still there, but I have been amazed at how God has answered some of my prayers and provided moments where the gear change was slightly less awkward.
- If you are particularly worried about coming out to a specific individual or group, ask someone whom you have already told to be alongside you as you speak to them.
- If you know what you think about how your faith and your sexuality interrelate, share this as you feel comfortable to do so. If you’re still wrestling with it, it’s ok to share that too.
For those to whom others come out
- Thank them for sharing with you. However lovely you are, it was probably still a big, scary thing for them to do.
- Stress that you love them and that God loves them and that their sexuality doesn’t change this. If this is as far as you get in your first conversation, it’s enough.
- Let them talk. They may have carried this for many years without telling anyone or having only told a few people. Let them share what they want to share and listen carefully. If they seem comfortable, ask questions, but don’t interrogate them. You don’t need all your questions answered straight away.
- Acknowledge where the pains, difficulties and frustrations they have felt are legitimate. Express God’s heart of love and compassion.
- Help them know that they are not alone. They are not alone because they have you, and many others, who will walk alongside them, and they are not alone because there are many people who are same-sex attracted and who are seeking to follow Jesus. You may find some of the stories here on Living Out helpful.
- Don’t say you had always wondered. It is more likely to make them stress about why you wondered and whether everyone else is also wondering, and it offers little comfort.
- Ask how you can best love and support them.
- Always be listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying.
- Be the kind of communities where it’s safe to be really honest and open and to talk about struggles and temptations. In a sense, all of us need to ‘come out’ about all sorts of things. Show people how the gospel frees us all to do this and equips us to spur each other on when we do.
- Homophobia, stereotypes, and jokes about sexuality should not be accepted in any context. Same-sex attracted people will not feel safe to share in a context where any of these are present.
- Equip people with a good understanding of the Bible’s teaching on identity, love, singleness and church as family, as well as about sexuality.
- Use our Church Audit to think about how your church can better serve same-sex attracted people.
This article has been adapted from a blog originally posted on thinktheology.co.uk in response to National Coming Out Day in 2018.