Holding Sacred Space: Coming Out as Welcoming Congregations
This October 11 marks the twenty-fifth annual National Coming Out Day, a holiday that offers a space for sharing core pieces of ourselves with others—and allies and religious communities have a special role to play in supporting that space.
One of the biggest stereotypes about religious communities is that of being unwelcoming spaces for people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities. As a holiday that exposes unconscious assumptions and lifts up the often unexpected diversity that exists in every corner of humanity, National Coming Out Day is a profound opportunity for religious communities to dispel the assumption that they are unwelcoming, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations do just that every October.
But before we get into religious myth-busting, let’s take a good look at some common assumptions about “coming out” itself, and craft a vision of the sort of space we are dedicated to creating.
Myth #1: Coming out is a one-time event; you’re either in the closet or you’re out.
This misconception is incredibly pervasive, yet there is rarely anything black and white about coming out. For one thing, coming out is multi-faceted: there’s the process of coming to understand, accept, and affirm one’s authentic identity and sense of self. There’s the process of sharing that information with friends, family, and other loved ones, as well as with social, community, and cultural groups. There’s the often very different processes of sharing one’s identity and self in environments where one is in a position of need: educational, medical, employment, or living environments, for example.
For another thing, coming out can be a life-long process—every new person who enters one’s life and every new environment one interacts with mean new assumptions about one’s identity. Some people come out every single day by virtue of the pronoun they use for a significant other. For others it is harder to dispel the false assumptions that are constantly laid at their feet. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, identity is not a static, stationary thing—it shifts and changes over the course of a lifetime. Our relationship to any identity that we hold shifts as a result of life experiences and changes in other identity factors such as age and cultural location. It turns out that identity is far more complicated than “in” or “out”!
Myth #2: People who are “out” are liberated and those who are not are living a lie, deceptive, and/or self-hating.
This one is a doozy. Although it’s reflective of many peoples’ experiences prior to coming to understand, accept, and affirm an authentic identity for themselves, it gets applied with a broad brush that erases profound differences around identity and cultural context. Frankly, we could do a lot of good if we stopped conflating the process of coming out to oneself with the processes of disclosing one’s identity to others. Many people are perfectly secure and out in their identities for themselves and have no need or desire to share them with anyone else. For example, being in a life partnership doesn’t keep a person from drawing strength from their bisexual identity, but whether they share that information with the world is solely up to them.
There’s also the fact that disclosure can carry enormous risks depending on one’s identities and context. For many people, the risk of discrimination, violence, and even death means they will never disclose certain aspects of their identity in many or in all parts of their lives. The more powerlessness and oppression a person faces the more extreme the negative consequences of disclosure may be.
And let’s not forget the profound differences between sexual identity and gender identity when it comes to disclosure. Take, for example, a man who went through a gender transition a decade or two ago. Happily, he is seen and experienced by everyone around him as unquestionably male. He is out and proud, my friends! Living as his true authentic self in the world, seen by others the way he sees himself—it doesn’t get more out than that. So if this man chooses to tell someone that once upon a time he was someone’s eldest daughter, that’s a disclosure—it’s not “coming out” because it doesn’t help him live more authentically in the world or be more authentically seen. Rather, it puts him at risk of his gender identity being questioned and disrespected, which makes it harder for him to be his authentic male self. No one has the right to dictate or judge someone else’s level of disclosure in the world.
Myth #3: If I am a true ally, or if we are truly a Welcoming Congregation, everyone will fully disclose their identities to me/us.
As we just discussed, disclosure is a complex topic. At its base, this myth brings up an important question about what it means to be an ally or a Welcoming Congregation. Sometimes it’s tempting to think that the measure of oneself as an ally is the number of friends we can count who hold a certain identity, or that the measure of our congregation as a Welcoming Congregation is the number of same-gender couples who call themselves members. But in actual fact, being an ally or being a Welcoming Congregation has nothing to do with these things; rather, it’s measured by the ways we are of service to those who are marginalized, invisible, or silent whether or not we are aware of their presence.
Being an ally is about coming out again and again as someone who values and is sensitive to sexual and gender diversity, and it’s about using the power and privileges that one holds to actively counter oppression and push back against dominant assumptions. Being a Welcoming Congregation is about working to create a climate of radical inclusion where all people see their identities and cultural context reflected, as well as witnessing and working for justice inside and outside the congregational walls.
Instead of defining “coming out” in a way that puts the burden on a marginalized individual to forcibly create the space for their identity and experience in the world, what if we thought of coming out as the process of an individual or a community creating that space for others—a space that actively challenges dominant assumptions so that the door is flung wide for any person present to hold any number of unshared identities and experiences?
Holding space with this level of radical openness and affirmation makes it possible for each person to feel a sense of belonging regardless of whether or not they publicly disclose their identities or experiences, and it supports all people in exploring and affirming their own ever-unfolding authentic ways of being in the world.
Come Out as a Welcoming Congregation!
This National Coming Out Day, I call on congregations, churches, fellowships, meetinghouses, synagogues, mosques, temples, and all other houses of worship to come out as welcoming and inclusive communities of faith for people of all gender identities and expressions and all sexual and affectional orientations. Bust myth #1—coming out as a Welcoming Congregation isn’t a one-time thing, it has to be a constant re-affirmation. Bust myths #2 and #3—deepen your work to create a culture that doesn’t depend on knowing someone’s identity in order to be welcoming and inclusive of them.
Come out! Come out in celebration of what sexual and gender diversity adds to our world. Come out in affirmation of all peoples’ right to live into their full authentic selves. Come out in joyful recognition of the breadth of identity and experience in our midst, shared and unshared, visible and less visible.
We can create the Beloved Community where, in the words of the UUA Leadership Council, all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled. We can if we come out in prophetic witness of the world that can yet be if we can only imagine it, hold it sacred, and do not rest until it comes.
“10 Ways to Come Out as a Welcoming Congregation” (includes worship materials and stories)
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your congregation’s coming out story.