I am a woman in my mid-60s. Last year, we had young man interning in our church. He was partway through seminary and studying to be a pastor. It was a great year and we came to really love him. After he left us to go back to school, however, he wrote the church a letter letting us know that he is gay and that he has a partner. A lot of people were shocked and hurt by that. I don’t understand why he would do that.
I believe that being gay is a non-issue. There is nothing wrong with being gay and it is nobody’s business if you are. It just isn’t something that anyone should talk about. So why would our former intern announce something that is a non-issue?
I’m a big fan of Marnie Goldenberg’s website sexplainer.com. “Sexplainer” is a fabulous resource for talking with kids (and sometimes for talking with older people) about bodies, about gender, about sexuality, and so on. One of the themes that Goldberg returns to repeatedly across her website is her hope is that all of us will learn the distinction between privacy and secrecy.
Privacy is frequently a good and a healthy thing. For instance, what happens when we close the bathroom door is private. But it’s not really a secret: it’s a matter of public record that we all have gastrointestinal tracts. Similarly, most of us who are sexually active choose to keep that aspect of ourselves private. But — especially if we have partners — it isn’t much of a secret that sex is part of our lives.
Secrecy, by contrast, often takes us into dangerous and unhealthy places. When an aspect of who we are becomes a secret, we ramp up the likelihood of hurting ourselves and of exploiting others. To put that another way, when we keep big secrets about who we are and about what is going on in our lives, we ramp up the likelihood that shame, that least healthy of all the emotions, will guide our actions.
I don’t know about you, Carol, but some of the most foolish and reckless and draining things that I have ever been part of got started when I decided to keep secrets. Had I but spoken of those things out loud — had I but, to borrow the language of the 12-Step tradition, named them in front of God and in front of another person — I would have saved myself and the people in my life a bunch of pain.
And that, Carol, brings me back to your question. I’d like to suggest that the scenario that you were hoping for — the scenario in which your church’s former intern never wrote you that letter, in which he remained silent about the reality that he is gay and partnered — would not have been an example of a situation in which something was a non-issue. I’d like to suggest that, rather, that such a scenario would have been an example of a carefully guarded secret.
One of the many privileges that folks like me enjoy (and maybe, that folks like you enjoy) is that other people’s perceptions of me tend to align pretty closely with my perception of myself. I am, to choose the example that is in front of us, hopelessly straight. And you know what? With the exception of a few men who hit on me when I was younger (Hi Chris and Steve!), that’s exactly what other people assume that I am. As a consequence, I can mention my marriage to Mrs. FKB and our three children without explaining anything and without raising anybody’s eyebrows.
By contrast, GLBTQ folks’ self-perceptions frequently differ from the way that other people perceive them. And there is often big social pressure for them to sustain that dissonance by staying closeted. The problem is that living in the closet sucks. The closet demands that you engage in an exhausting dance in which you are constantly scanning your words and your actions to avoid giving away any clues as to who you really are. The closet demands that you self-censor: it denies you the ability to make the references to family and to love that most of us take for granted. The closet demands that you lie.
The closet isn’t a place in which anyone should have to live.
Now, my impression from your letter, Carol, is that you are trying your best. My impression is that it was the best of intentions that gave rise to your wish that your old intern might have participated with you in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. My impression is that you are working hard at figuring out what being an ally to GLBTQ folks might look like.
If I’ve guessed right, then I hope I can give you a suggestion. And I hope that you can hear it. I’m going to phrase that suggestion as a “what if?”
What if the letter that your former intern sent to your church wasn’t a betrayal of the trust and the love that you shared with him? What if, instead, it was an affirmation of that trust and that love? What if he cared about you and the other people at your church deeply enough that he believed that you deserved something better than a secret?
What if, Carol, he gave you the biggest gift that he could think of when he told you the truth?