The Religious Duty to Come Out

Before I came out, I was sure that doing so would spell the end of my religious life. Raised in a Conservative Jewish household, I absorbed the message that being gay (let alone acting on homosexual impulses) was about the worst thing in the world. I thought it meant I could never have a family, and could not be gay and Jewish. Ironically—tragically—accepting and celebrating my sexuality was the beginning of my religious life, not the end of it. What we call in our popular culture “coming out” is an awesome spiritual experience, a gateway to the holiness of love. I was able to stop being dishonest, with myself—and with God.

In spiritual communities, bearing witness is a sacred act. We testify to the truth of the gospel, we tell stories about the operation of grace in our lives—and what we say has meaning because it is our experience and it is true. So, let me bear witness to the reality of sexual orientation—not as a choice (though some people may experience it that way, I do not), and not as a deviant pathology, but as a fiber of the soul.

My story is not everyone’s story; it’s a male story, it’s a Jewish one, and it’s by no means universal. But the truth of my experience, and that of millions of other people, is that homosexuality exists as a trait, and it can be, like heterosexuality, a gateway to holiness, or its opposite. This is our shared testimony, and it has provoked uncertainty and reflection among many sincere believers in different faith traditions, because it seems to contradict what some of our traditions say about sexuality. This is not because believers are bigoted or ignorant, but because, like the new roles of women in our society, this new information about human sexuality—not just science, but also personal testimony and witness—challenges some very old traditions. We do need to reexamine what we thought we knew, and reflect upon beliefs which seemed certain. Then again, isn’t that a consummate religious act as well?

What some folks don’t understand about “the closet” is that it’s not just a set of walls around sexual behavior. It’s a net of lies that affects absolutely everything in one’s life: how you dress, who you befriend, how you walk, how you talk. And, more importantly, how you love. How can you build authentic relationships with anyone—friends, family—under such conditions? And if you’re religious, how can you be honest with yourself and your God if you maintain so many lies, so many walls running right through the center of your soul?

When I was in the closet, I lied to myself, willing myself to believe that I was bisexual, or that I could master this evil inclination, as my religious tradition taught me. But I also lied to girlfriends, family members, friends, and teachers. I lied to employers, to students, and to casual acquaintances. I lied all the time, to everyone. Even on the rare occasions when I would sneak out of my life and into the seedy gay underworld of secrecy and sex, I would lie, making up fake names and backgrounds so no one could identify me later.

Somehow, I believed that all this lying was in the service of God. From where I sit now, the very proposition is preposterous: this notion that to be faithful to God requires deceit, falsehood, and deception. “He that works deceit shall not dwell within My house: he that tells lies shall not tarry in my sight.” (Psalms 101:7-8) “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Surely, the “seal of God is truth,” as the Jewish rabbinic saying has it. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9) “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Yet from where I hid for a decade of my adult life, I thought telling the truth would end my religious life—when in fact it enabled it to grow.

The weight of lies is so invisible and omnipresent that it eventually becomes unnoticeable, until at last it is shrugged off, out of despair, desperation, or even hope. I had no idea how much lighter life could be, or how the anxieties that I took for granted were unnecessary—and uncommon. I realized that not only were closeted people unaware of how miserable they were—but that straight people were too. People who have never had to hide the way I hid have no idea what it is like to carry around such a secret—a secret that one uncautious move can divulge. Catastrophe is always around the corner—as close as one unintentional flit of the hand or gaze of the eyes. Locker rooms, cocktail parties, football games, college dorms—all of these were places of terror for me, because, in their casual conversations and erotic temptations, all were traps that could undo years of careful self-presentation.

Of course, as we know from formerly-closeted politicians, musicians, and clergy, the deception is never as perfect as one hopes it to be. My family and some of my friends were surprised when I came out to them—but not all of them. Some said they knew all along.

But in my world of lies, I thought the deception was complete. I’ve already remarked at how tragic and offensive it is to hear homosexuality called a “lifestyle,” as if it’s like living in the country, or enjoying golf or tennis. But the closet, in my experience, is a death-style—a slow, painful draining-out and drying-up of all that makes life worthwhile—even for those of us fortunate enough to live in places where gay-bashing and state-sanctioned violence are comparatively rare. This is true even for those closeted people who seem to be happy and successful. In my work, I have met hundreds of them—mostly men, successful, often married, and with varying degrees of self-awareness. Many have children, careers, and lives that are filled with joy. Yet I almost always recognize in them the same tentative anxiety I once knew in myself—a certain illness-at-ease with life as presented, as if they are wearing clothing a size too small or too large.

To suppose that such a life is what God wants of us is to be gravely mistaken either about the closet, or God, or both. Yet this is exactly what I used to believe, which is why I try not to rush to judgment of those who believe it still. It took a decade of self-hatred, and finally, as I described earlier, a near-fatal car accident and the ending of a long-term relationship, before I at last gave up on trying to be someone I was not.

Finally, all of us can learn from these narratives—the “coming out” narrative may be familiar not just to many other gay people, of course, but also to anyone who has been “born again” or experienced religious conversion. The patterns are similar: the struggle, the surrender, the renewal; the move from one world to another. Perhaps it is for this reason that many LGBT theologians (Chris Glaser, Carter Heyward, Michael Clark among them) have described “coming out” as an important narrative frame that the gay experience provides for all of us, regardless of sexuality or gender. “Coming out is a personal epiphany, a revelation,” writes Olive Elaine Hannant. It is “a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives—our worth, our love, our lovemaking, our beloved, our community, our context of meaning, and our God,” writes Chris Glaser.

Coming out, in the end, is honesty. And surely truthfulness is a cornerstone of any religion worthy of the name.