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.

Cultural Competency Vs. Cultural Humility

You’re going to say something wrong.

That’s the fear I validated here on the blog last week for those just beginning to engage in this conversation surrounding sexual orientation, gender identity and faith. It’s a steep learning curve, and the chance that you’ll say the wrong thing at some point is very high.

The desire not to offend is good. In my experience, most people play it safe in one of two ways.

The first approach is to say nothing. It’s hard to offend if you don’t open your mouth. There are any number of proverbs about “the fool” defending this position. It’s wise. However, it’s not really sustainable in the long run. The conversation around gender and sexuality has become one of the the defining issues facing the church today. As I wrote last week, moderate voices are needed.

The second approach is to equip oneself with the right vocabulary and the right set of expectations. It’s hard to offend if you don’t say anything offensive. Or at least in theory. In practice, these conversations can be very difficult to navigate, as we’ll see. But this approach is known as cultural competency.

There’s a third approach, of course. It’s cultural humility. In contrast to remaining silent or pursuing competency, humility accepts the probability of saying the wrong thing. It still plays it safe, in a way, but it promotes safety within the conversation rather than the safety of individual egos. The culturally humble person risks getting it wrong and embarrassing herself, because engaging with the other person is more important than saving face.

Here are a few more ways in which this new approach differs from the more traditional approach:

Cultural Competency says, “I’m the expert.” Cultural Humility says, “You’re the expert.” The goal of competency is to equip you with the right answers, as if the culture you are experiencing is a language you have learned to interpret. The cultural humility approach, on the other hand, is meant to equip you with the right questions.

Cultural humility, then, represents a shift in focus from confidence in one’s own knowledge to deference to another’s knowledge.

Cultural Competency is an end product. Cultural Humility is a lifelong process. Many individuals and institutions understand competency as being a kind of certification that you earn, qualifying you to engage in an approved way. Like a license to practice conversation. There’s no certification or class on humility. It’s an attitude you adopt. It’s a desire to learn, not a desire to be learned. It’s the education, not the degree.

There are powerful social instincts we have to approach groups with a desire to become an insider. It’s uncomfortable to remain an outsider, but this is where cultural humility pitches its tent, so to speak.

Cultural Competency implies an objective set of best practices. Cultural Humility implies a subjective set of best practices. I should be quick to point out that, yes, there is preferred language. This is a correct way (and an incorrect way) to conduct oneself as a straight person in a gay venue. There are, in other words, best practices. But that’s not to say that there are terms and practices that are right for every person or every space.

You need to exchange the idea of a universal set of cultural experiences for an individualized set. The term “queer,” for example, isn’t preferred by everyone. But it is by some. And you won’t know who until you take the time to listen. The same with “gay” or “same-sex attracted” or “trans.” What is right for one person is wrong for another.

The interaction you have is not with LGBTQ culture, but with the LGBTQ individual in front of you. After all, one person, with his/her/their limited experience of being LGBTQ, cannot truly represent the entire community. And that’s what cultural humility recognizes.

 

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