This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on January 27, 2014.
I attended a lecture about disabilities recently. At the end of the lecture, a steady stream of students and professors walked up to a microphone in front of the audience and offered questions to the speakers. The questioners mostly came up one-by-one, asking abstract questions about abstract people. Silence fell when the final questioner stepped before the microphone. It was a woman, her left arm clinging to her friend beside her, and her right arm holding a long white stick extending out in front of her—she was blind. And when the conversation changed from an abstraction discussion about disabled people, to actually talking with a disabled person, there was a subtle but obvious shift in tone.
The moment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few months before. I was around a campfire with a group of Catholic friends, discussing the Church. At a certain point, gay marriage came up. One of the guys, with whom I was friends but didn’t know particularly well, said, “I know that a Catholic guy came out in order to defend traditional marriage when it was being debated, and I understand that. But, as a Catholic, I don’t know why same-sex-attracted people would want to be open about and discussing their sexuality. I mean, I don’t go around discussing my sexuality with other people.”
Before I had ‘come out’ and people would say things like that, I used to shift uncomfortably in my seat and hope that no one would notice. I’d become self-conscious and hope desperately that people wouldn’t realize that I was being talked about, that my experiences were being questioned. I would want to hide and hope that the topic wouldn’t come up again.
Some people argue that sexuality is something that shouldn’t be discussed publicly, especially for gay people. This point comes up especially in Christian circles, where critics remark that gay people shouldn’t be so “out and proud” but rather discreet, while at the same time making sweeping remarks about my experiences that are anything but discreet. They would insist on talking about my sexuality, while also insisting that I cannot talk about it myself.
That night I felt a little awkward. But I had already ‘come out’ publicly by that point, and I no longer felt the shame of having to hide myself when people were talking about me. I turned to another friend next to me who knew I was gay, and I whispered to her, “Should I say something?” She responded that she didn’t know, smiling gently. So I did what’s become my standard practice—I just listened, asked questions, and gave general opinions, without disclosing any information about my sexuality. Then I waited a day and sent him a message over Facebook:
Hey, I was thinking about our conversation the other night, and I came across a blog on sexuality that one of my friends recently wrote. I thought it might interest you: What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?
I’ve also written a bit on sexuality. If you’re interested, some of my writings can be found here.
I’ve found this practice to be good for a few reasons. Mostly, when the topic of sexuality comes up, I want people to be able to be honest with me about what they think. I usually wait to disclose my sexuality, because, if I tell them right then, I know that they’ll be nervous about offending me and won’t know what to say or how to properly present their opinions to me. Because, if I come out to them, they suddenly realize that they’re no longer talking about some abstract issue—they’re talking about me.
And this scares them. If I’m gay, then they have a different responsibility towards the things they say about gay people. Their words will no longer be sufficient if they only correspond to the abstract idea of what they think gay people are like. Their words have to respond to me and how I actually am. Getting to know me forces them to rethink, because I—like a lot of gay people—am very different from the things people usually say about us.
Since I’ve ‘come out’, my friends no longer talk about gay people. They talk about me, and they talk with me. They’re forced to break out of their monologues and to engage real people in questions and answers. And, eventually, they come to love gay people. Because they love me.
My friend eventually messaged me back. I think that Christians would have a much better relationship with the gay community if they responded like he did:
Thanks a lot for pointing me to these blogs. I think first-hand perspectives are really valuable to learning about homosexuality and the like, and I hope to keep learning more about it. My opinions are not as formed as I would like them to be so getting a better understanding about the matter is something I hope to do. In particular I liked the end of your post titled “This is Me.” I would love to talk more about this with you if you have time next week to get together over lunch or if we ever run into each other again.