The “Closet” is OK, But Here’s an Alternate Floorplan-Based Metaphor for Coming Out

The term “coming out” is an interesting phrase (with a long and fascinating history that you can find out abouthere). The imagery associated with it is one of emerging from a closet (a place of hiding) into a room (a shared space). It’s moving from a private space to a public one. It implies a decisive moment for an LGBTQ person. One minute their sexual orientation or gender identity is a secret, and the next it isn’t.

I’m not so sure about this metaphor. When a loved one comes out to us, they’re not stepping into our world. They’re inviting us to step into theirs.

In contrast to the “closet,” let me offer my own floorplan-based metaphor. When someone says, “I’m gay” or “I like other girls” or “I was born into the wrong body,” it’s an invitation to come into their house. This is where they live. This is their space.

So what kind of guest are you going to be?

We all know what a bad guest feels like. He overstays his welcome. She sneaks a peek in your medicine cabinet. They offer unsolicited advice on your decor. Bad guests violate your hospitality.

Good guests, on the other hand, know that there are boundaries. They know exactly how far your hospitality extends.

Let’s say you’re stepping into the foyer of someone’s house when they come out to you. Where you go from there is up to the owner of that house. Let them lead you around. Or respect their decision to keep you under the doorframe.

Asking intrusive questions is like pushing past the homeowner to take a look around. Here are some examples of questions likely to be considered intrusive:

  • Asking about how or whether they have reconciled their sexuality with their faith.
  • Asking about tension within their family dynamics surrounding their orientation or identity.
  • Asking about their relationship history or current status.
  • Asking about their sexual ethic.

Consider these curiosities to be rooms of their house you haven’t been invited into yet. The house tour may come in several stages. Or it may not come at all.

When individuals come out, they’re deciding which pieces of information to disclose and which to withhold. They’ve likely been doing this with you for far longer than you realize. They may have tested the waters with inconspicuous questions, comments or behaviors. They wanted to know whether you were a safe person to trust with this information.

And even after they’ve disclosed their orientation or identity, they’re still likely trying to gauge how much further to let you in and longer to let you stay. They’re asking questions like, “Do I want this person’s voice in my life?” or “Does this person feed my soul, or darken it?” or “Do I trust this person to give me advice about (blank)?”

If you’re resolved to be a safe person, a good steward of delicate information, a respectful houseguest (and I hope you are), here’s three great things for you to say:

  1. Thanks for sharing this with me. I feel honored that you’ve trusted me with this.
  2. Nothing you could ever tell me will make me think any less of you. You and I may not always agree on everything, but I’m proud of who you are and that will never change.
  3. What do you need from me, if anything? How can I support you?

Take every step you can to be a good guest, one who gets invited back.

 

Note: This post first appeared on Love is an Orientation here.

Why My Wife Came Out

Last year at about this time, I wrote about when my wife came out to me as bisexual. It was an exposé of my own baggage (of which there was a lot) as well as a tribute to her patience and generosity (of which there was more).

Amid the flood of response, I received many different iterations of the same question: “Why? Why did your wife feel the need to come out at all?”

I understand this curiosity. After all, we’re an opposite-sex (some might say “traditional”) couple with attraction for one another and no desire to change how our marriage operates. What’s the point in even bringing this up, or labeling it bisexuality?

The funny thing is, even in the throws of my doubt and insecurities this question never crossed my mind. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve actually given it any thought.

This is what I’ve come up with (with her help, of course). Here’s why Courtney came out:

It was about personal integrity. I recently heard a pastor talk about how much she admired her transgender daughter’s commitment to living authentically. “Really, I’ve learned so much about integrity from the trans community” she said. I told her that this was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. It resonated with me.

I see the same ethic at work in Courtney. There’s a sense of wholeness that only living in the truth can provide. She’s taught me that. I’ve come to learn so much about authenticity from my wife.

It was about her commitment to me. Authenticity and transparency have always characterized our marriage. When I was first asked why Courtney came out to me, my immediate thought was “why wouldn’t she tell me?” We’ve never had secrets. We’ve never had the instinct to repress our thoughts or perspectives on anything (faith, politics, money, sex, family), even when we knew there would be conflict.

Courtney knew that the only thing scarier and more hurtful than being truthful with me would be to hide the truth from me. She came out to me because she trusted in the strength of our marriage. She wanted me to know.

Being on this side of that conversation, as painful as it was for me, I know it was the right thing to do. Working through it has brought us much closer.

It was about wanting to be an advocate. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully appreciate this at the time. For Courtney, the fact that she could go throughout life being assumed to be straight never sat well with her. It felt like a kind of cowardice, especially when so many of our LGBTQ friends, just by nature of their same-sex relationships or gender identities, were lightning rods for stigma and scrutiny. She didn’t want to hide behind the facade of a “traditional” marriage.

Before I ever joined an organization committed to standing in solidarity with the other, whoever that other might be, my wife showed me what solidarity actually looked like. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my wife. She paved the way for my work here at The Marin Foundation.

Watching her live out her integrity, her love for me and her sense of justice in standing with and for the LGBTQ community…it’s been such a revelation to me. In the end I know she could have chosen not to come out. But I’m so glad she did.



Note: This post first appeared on Love is an Orientation here.

Labels

“I’m not a big fan of–you know…labels.” That was my mom’s response a few weeks ago when I asked if she considered herself a feminist.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve never been very comfortable with that term. For some people, especially of my generation, it seems to have some negative connotations that I’m not sure I want to be associated with.”

There’s a certain irony in hearing the word “feminist” rebuffed by the very woman who inspired my own adoption of it. What my mom sees as an unwelcomed and uncertain set of loyalties to a cause, I see as a basic acknowledgement of gender equality, illustrated everyday by billions of women like her (I’m a proud feminist, but that’s a post for another time).

Labels are tricky. On the one hand, they can be incredibly useful as tool for self-definition and community-affiliation. This was my wife’s attitude toward the word “bisexual.” Finally, she had a label that helped make sense of her experience and connect her to a community of like individuals.

On the other hand, labels can be oppressive. My wife and I tend to feel this way about the term “mixed-orientation couple” or “mixed-orientation marriage.” Technically, my wife and I fit that description; she’s bi and I’m straight. But the term seems to imply a conflict of sexual orientations that is absent in our relationship. So it’s not a particularly useful label for us.

It really comes down to agency. When labels are used as a tool for self-identification, the agency remains entirely with the individual. When labels are used as a system of classification imposed on individuals by others, the agency is stripped from the individual.

I remember talking with a guy a few months ago. When he and his wife were married a few years ago, both identified as lesbian women. Then, about a year into marriage, he transitioned to male. A big part of their journey was figuring out the right labels to adopt. For the guy I was talking to, identifying as a man meant that “lesbian” didn’t really fit anymore. He had never really felt like a lesbian, and after transitioning he finally felt the freedom to identify as “straight.” That’s what he had felt all along.

His wife had a different perspective. She loved her partner and was fully supportive of his transition. But the term “straight” didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel “straight.” “Lesbian” didn’t seem right anymore either, but it’s not as if her orientation had somehow changed since they were married. She settled on the term “queer,” an umbrella term that acknowledged her not-straight orientation while also, she felt, keeping ties with the LGBTQ community, an important part of her life.

I’ve talked with many people who identify as same-sex attracted and who are very uncomfortable with the term “gay.” I know many people who identify as gay and who despise the term “same-sex attracted.” Labels are often hard-won and in constant need of defense against misinterpretation. (Just look at Eliel’s excellent post about bisexuality last week.)

The healthiest and most effective use of labels I’ve ever seen was in the documentary “(A)sexual.” It’s on Netflix. Find it. Watch it. It centers around a guy named David Jay who more or less invented the term in 2002 to describe his own lack of sexual attraction to anyone at all, ever. His website, AVEN (the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) attracted thousands of people around the world whose own experience paralleled his. “I thought I was the only one,” one woman said in the documentary. “Finding AVEN gave me a name for what I had always experienced but could never explain.”

We watched this documentary at one of The Marin Foundation’s biweekly Living in the Tension gatherings. During the discussion afterward, I remember one individual, who identified as asexual, say that finding the term made him feel so validated. “It’s like someone finally gave me permission to exist.”

I cannot imagine a more ringing endorsement for labels. At their best, they can catalyze communities, validate experience and define one’s sense of self. How someone identifies is not up for debate. Ever. That’s one of our guiding principles here at The Marin Foundation. It goes back to the cultural humility piece I talked about in my last blog post. People are the experts of their own experience. We should let them be.

 

Note: This post originally appeared on Love is an Orientation here.