Gay and lesbian people will be more than familiar with the many sound arguments favour of stepping out of that closet, and openly living a life of sexual honesty and integrity. The process can be difficult and challenging (and in some situations, simply not realistically possible), but where it is undertaken, the benefits can be profound – for the individual, in terms of mental and emotional health, for the community, in building social acceptance and understanding, for younger gay people, by providing a range of appropriate role models, and politically – there is abundant evidence to confirm that people who know openly gay or lesbian friends, family and colleagues are more supportive of equality legislation of all kinds.
What is less well known, is that in precisely the same way, there are enormous benefits in coming out, in church – benefits to the individual, to the community, as providing role models for younger people – and in preparing the way for improvements in pastoral practice, and (longer term), for the inevitable changes in core doctrine that must eventually come. Coming out, in effect, is an important act of faith – which is why the gay theologian Chris Glaser describes it as “sacrament”, devoting an entire book to the theme “Coming Out as Sacrament”.
Just as coming out (usually) represents a time of growth in psychosocial development, with demonstrable benefits for mental and emotional health, many Catholic priests with expertise in both psychotherapy and spirituality, affirm that coming out is also a process of spirtitual growth. John McNeill for example, makes the case in “Sex as God Intended”, Daniel Helminiak in ” Sex and the Sacred”, and James L’Empereur in “Spritual Direction and the Gay Person”.
It is more than simply an opportunity, however. Other writers have observed that it is, in effect, a religious obligation. The Jewish theologian Rebekah Alpert says this is a natural consequence of the emphasis the prophet Micah places on the obligation to “do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God”. Michael Bayley (at The Wild Reed), sees it as a Gospel command, by analogy from Christ’s words to the dead Lazarus, “Come out”. (Many people do indeed, liken the experience of coming out to a resurrection experience, finding themselves fully alive, after a time of emotional near – death).
For Catholics, coming out can even be seen as demanded by the Catechism – which tells us that sexuality is an important part of our human make-up, which must be fully integrated into our personalities. There is of course an immediate contradiction in the Catechism, which goes on to state that this integration can only be done within the context of heterosexual marriage – but states elsewhere that such marriage is not recommended for gay men and lesbians. Also accepting that attempts at conversion therapy to change inherent affectional orientation are also not recommended..Coming out in church, to friends in our parishes. to our pastors and our bishops, will in time help lead the Church to face the simple fact that these contradictions mean the church in effect has no realistic answers on just how LGBT people are to integrate their sexuality into their personalities.
The simplest and most cogent reason for coming out, is that is just a matter of basic honesty and integrity, and honesty is a core Christian value. Ironically, in the CDF letter to the bishops on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, which is otherwise so disordered in its judgements, then Cardinal Ratzinger concludes with a reminder of two important Biblical precepts – “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”. No matter that “speaking the truth” is precisely what the letter does not do, these are important principles for gay and lesbian Christians, of all denominations, to cling to – because speaking the truth about ourselves, in church and in our daily lives, really does have the potential to set us free – emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Conversely, the closet is a place of confinement, and so any deliberate failure to come out where it is realistically possible to do so, is to live dishonestly – and so the closet can be seen as a place of sin.
The challenge is that while the potential is there, in practice there are serious difficulties and challenges, often even greater than those we may encounter in the secular world. For some people, especially those employed by the church and in certain parishes or dioceses, it will be more difficult than for others – and very occasionally, will have real risks associated. Accordingly, I always recommend that people should come out as far as they are realistically able to, in their own circumstances – but no further, until they are ready to do so. Coming out is a process, not an event.
Where and how can the process begin?
The first step must necessarily be simply to come out to yourself – and then, to God, in your prayer life. In doing so, you should be assured that whatever rejection or hostility you may fear meeting from humans, there will be none from God. Chris Glaser writes on just how to do this in another of his books, “Coming Out to God” (and describes in his preface how he found that in his own life, embracing and acknowledging his sexuality enhanced his spirituality – and vice versa).
Once you are comfortable at being out to God, it will become easier to come out to selected humans. Participate actively in a faith community, either one that is explicitly LGBT or LGBT – affirming, or a conventional local parish, and develop friendships with others in that community. With growth in friendship, it will become easier to open up in a degree of honesty about your life and situation, and every inch taken on the road of coming out, makes the next yard easier. When you are ready, confide in your local parish priest or pastor. Most people find that he will be more understanding and sympathetic than they have feared).
And if you really are not able to come out in person, to local people, do it at a remove, by writing to bishops and to the pope, telling your story.