At this time of Pride, marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I wanted to post something on the important legacy of visibility and coming out.
After mulling over some thoughts on what to say, I picked up Richard Cleaver’s “Know My Name” for re-reading, and was delighted by the synchronicity of finding that his Chapter 2, “Knowing and Naming”, deals with exactly this subject. So instead of rehashing or expanding the ideas I presented in my opening post 6 months ago (“Welcome: Come in, and Come out”), I thought I would share with you some of Cleaver’s insights.
First, Cleaver points out that in addition to the modern association of “coming out” with escaping the closet, there are two other important contexts. It can also call to mind the Exodus story of coming out of the land of Egypt, of escaping slavery and oppression; and it was used before Stonewall to mimic the English debutante ritual of “coming out” into society, of achieving the first recognition as an adult in polite society . For us then, coming out is both a liberation from oppression and an acceptance and a welcome into a new society. He then continues by arguing that coming out in the modern sense is an essential first step in hearing the Gospel message of liberation .
To do so, he points to the well-known costs of not coming out: psychological self-oppression, increased suicide risk (especially in the young), and the arrests for sexual activity in restrooms / cottages of men who are usually married or otherwise closeted. Against that, he contrasts the personal rewards of coming out. After speaking the truth to ourselves, the next stage, of meeting with others like ourselves,
“is generally even more of a transforming moment than the private recognition and acceptance of our gayness….Coming out publicly (a continuous process, not a single event) brings a sense of freedom that must be experienced to be believed. Coming out is one of our many seasons of joy.”
This is a sentiment which, from my own experience, I heartily endorse, and to which I would add the observation that “Joy is an infallible sign of the Holy Spirit.”
He then turns to some possible costs of coming out: active discrimination, including in employment; difficulties in securing adequate access to children; a misguided steering into inappropriate marriage, in the expectation of a ‘cure’; and finally the hostility or even misguided interference of the churches. This leads to a stinging repudiation of the Church’s involvement:
“It is no surprise that whether we leave or stay, we react to the church with suspicion. Something about what the church is teaching, something about how the church conceives itself, is not right. In the case of the church’s relation to gay men and lesbians, we can dissect out two particular explanations for this suspicion.
First, the church has allowed itself to subordinate the commandment of love to the demands of heterosexist culture, defying Paul’s injunction, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Rom 12:2) ……It is.. the result of the church’s long-standing obsession with sexual activity, which leads to a reduction of the lives of lesbians and gay men to the realm of sexual experience.”
“This brings me to my second suspicion about the church, which is why it is willing to accommodate itself to the mind of the age, to compromise with bourgeois culture: it hopes to maintain its authority and thus its institutional power in society by preventing lesbians and gay men from speaking about their own experiences. The institution benefits.. from a theology that permits it to hand down decisions without any data even being collected, let alone examined“. (Emphasis added).
To which I add once again that this is why I am convinced we need to be out and visible in the church. As long as we remain closeted and out of sight, as long as we refrain from speaking of our own experiences, we are complicit in our own oppression.
Cleaver then goes on to discuss several well-known Gospel stories, drawing from them important lessons for us in the LGBT community.
Reflecting on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, he avoids some of the better known observations, and makes two other points. He notes that while recognising her sexual noncomformity, Jesus notably does not admonish or condemn her, nor does she express repentance.
“Jesus is no welfare caseworker… his goal is to transform society, not to ‘fix’ those who suffer injustice so that the existing social order may run more smoothly.“
The second point is that after the initial exchange, the woman proceeds to put to Him some “theological” questions on worship. The story, notes Cleaver, is not about promiscuity at all, but about “who is capable of doing theology” .
This point on doing theology is made again when he looks at the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10). While Martha works, Mary sits and listens to Jesus speak. Mary complains, but the reply is that Mary “has chosen the better part”. In Jewish society, women were expected to do the domestic work, only the men participated in religious study or debates, and the sexes sat apart when guests were present for meals. It would have been unheard of for women to participate in religious discussions, yet Christ not only condones this, he commends her for it. Jewish women and other social outcasts were expected to be invisible: but for the Lord, no-one is invisible, all are welcome to join in making theology.
In telling of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 -31), Cleaver compares Lazarus with the LGBT community “outside the door” of the church, while the rich man is compared with the institutional church, which even by its indifference contributes to our oppression.
His final biblical reflection is an extended discussion of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel (Gen 32: 22-32). For Cleaver, there are two important themes in this story: the wrestling itself, and the act of naming. From this he reflects on the importance to us of naming honestly our oppression. Noting that
“We learn to name our oppression by struggling with it”,
he insists that we should present ourselves in full frankness and honesty, implying that we should resist the temptation to mimic conventional patterns of morality out of a mere desire to avoid offence:
“The strategy of putting forward only “acceptable” images of ourselves is doomed to failure… We should be forthright about who we are.”
For me, the 3 key lessons from Cleaver, all of which I endorse whole-heartedly, are:
In spite of the obvious dangers and costs, coming out publicly is invigorating, liberating and life-giving;
We need to extend the “coming out” process into our lives in the Church, where we should expect to be fully visible, and to speak out frankly and honestly of our views and experiences;
and that by doing so, we will be exercising our right to share in making theology, in spite of the efforts of the institutional church to exercise a monopoly.
“We must speak with our own voices, in all their imperfections, when responding to God’s overtures. Moses stuttered; Israel limped. What matters is not image but integrity. If God calls, we must know who answers. We answer to our true names, because these are the names God calls us by. The cost of learning them is wrestling with the divine.”
Amen to that.