Friday, 27 November 2009

Coming out liberal: an open letter to my Christian friends

Peggy Campolo once wrote a wonderful short essay entitled In God's House There Are Many Closets. In it she describes how she once hid from others, afraid to be honest about who she really was, and she relates it to the experience of closeted gays and lesbians.

I can identify at least two closets in my own life, and although I with at least one of those I can point to a single moment of "coming out," at the same time I'm always having to come out of the closet. Every time a conversation turns in a certain direction, or every time I catch up with an old friend and face the inevitable questions, I come out all over again.

The first of those closets is of course my sexuality. I am (if it's necessary to put labels on these things) gay. I was over halfway into my twenties before I had the courage to accept myself for who I was, and almost in my thirties before I brought myself to tell others. And each time I am asked, "Are you married yet?" or "Do you have a girlfriend?", I'm coming out for a second, a third, a fourth, fifth, sixth and hundredth time.

The second closet is my faith. Or the ambiguity of it, lack of it or at least its strange metamorphosis over the last seven or eight years. Ten years ago I was a fiery born-again Christian, thoroughly evangelical and unabashedly Pentecostal. I studied theology and was an associate pastor for almost two years. I spoke in tongues, preached the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and condemned unrepentant unbelievers to an eternity in hell. Now I am a confirmed Anglican, too liberal for most liberals and pretty much agnostic on the question of God's existence.

It is unsurprising then that bumping into a Bible College friend, an old church pal, or someone who once knew me as Pastor Dave, is yet another coming-out. Coming out gay and coming out no-longer-evangelical often coincide, since the two journeys are closely intertwined.

The response from Christian friends varies. (Edit: Let me clear up some confusion here. I'm not eager to pigeonhole friends into the following categories. They're just broad categories based on my observations. Chances are if the issue of my sexuality has never come up in conversation, I don't expect a response.)

The most common response is simply to continue as if I never said anything. Some old friends and acquaintances seemingly pretend they didn't hear me. They don't affirm me, but nor do they condemn me; they just go very quiet for a while and then never bring up the subject again. It's odd, and in many ways I'd prefer it if they bit the bullet and just told me I was going to hell. It's strange to exchange emails with people and go through the motions of taking an interest in each other's lives when it's obvious they're avoiding the elephant in the room.

A related response begins the same way, but ends with me gradually dropping off their radar altogether. Eventually I'll notice they're missing from my Facebook friends list, or they've blocked me from their Messenger.

Another response is simply to live and let live. They don't affirm me, necessarily, and they don't go out of their way to condemn me, but nor is there an awkward silence as if I'd said nothing at all. It's not a big deal, and I'm not made to feel there are parts of me and my life that are off-limits.

Then there are those who patently don't have room for what and who I am. Perhaps surprisingly, this has been comparatively rare, but it still happens. These are the people whose only response is to condemn me, exhort me to repent, or worse, try to fix me. This response baffles me, since it indicates to me they haven't heard a word I've said. If after hearing my story you still think that quoting Bible verses at me is going to change my mind, you either haven't been listening or you think I'm a bit dumb. Frankly, when I get this reaction - especially after I've made a heartfelt effort to share my journey - I just feel patronized and insulted. This is what I hear: I don't care about your story, where you've been and where you're going. I'm not interested in hearing about you. I just want to fix you so your story fits my agenda again.

Lastly, there are those who affirm me. They listen to my story and they accept me for who I am and where I am. They affirm me for being who I am and being true to myself, and they know that even though many of the externals have changed, I'm still me. They know I'm still the same Dave and that inwardly I still have the same grace, love, character and integrity that I always had. It goes without saying that this is my preferred response.

Those who choose the last option prove that their hearts are spacious enough to accommodate me. They accept my story as I accept theirs. And you know the conversations I most enjoy? The ones I find the most gracious? It's not when an old friend lets me spout off all the arguments I have against their religion and then turns round and says, "Hey, Dave, you're totally right. You've convinced me. I'm going to be a liberal like you!" (as if it ever happens that way, anyway). The conversations I love most are those when a friend genuinely listens to my story and I genuinely listen to theirs. We compare journeys, share openly where we're at in life, and sometimes puzzle over how we ended up at such different destinations. But our differences? No biggie. Friends like that prove that it's not our churches or creeds, but our common humanity that binds us.

This week I took a big risk and stepped out of the closet on Facebook. I've never been secretive about the fact I'm gay or that I'm a (very) liberal Christian, but I've also never publicly revealed the pseudonym I write under. Outing myself as David L Rattigan opens up dozens of old church and college friends to the whole scope of my writings - and some might be offended, some might be shocked, and some might not really want to know me any more. It's a risk I take, but as others have already pointed out, those who can't accept where I am are probably not worth knowing anyway.

If you're a Christian friend or acquaintance, don't mistake the brutal honesty of my writings with a desire to reject you. If you're still an evangelical, I don't want to fix you. My heart is wide enough to love and accept you if you can open your heart wide enough to love and accept me. When I emerge from the shadows of my closet, that's the kind of welcome I love best.

Addendum: For anyone wanting to get to grips with my writings, here are a few links to get you started:

Fantastic Voyage: Surviving Charismatic Fundamentalism from Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, ed G Elijah Dann (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008)
Out and Cowed? Ex-gay in the UK from Third Way magazine (2006)
Leaving Fundamentalism (various articles from myself and others)
Rattigan Writes (my blog) (my website)


  1. You're gay!?? :-)

    I can't believe some people still weren't aware.

    btw, I'm kind of peeved. A couple of months back blogging any you're on CIF, it's not fair. Congrats.

  2. Yeah, I'm sure there aren't many who didn't know I was gay. Very few who knew I was "David L Rattigan," though.

    Thanks for the congrats re: Cif. Nothing to do with this blog, really. I've just been making a go of the freelancing lately, and I made quite a bold pitch.

  3. Of course I *only* knew you as David L. Rattigan!

    A well balanced statement. I can only commend the bravery in coming out on both levels so publicly.

    The longer my own journey is with my faith the more open and accepting I try to be. In dealing with sexuality most of the Christian churches don't really teach tolerance or blind acceptance.

    As a young teenager I would have been fairly intolerant myself - but I didn't know any better. We learn from our parents and teachers. By the time I left school my views had radically shifted.

    For me, it was a combination of increasing friendships with non-heterosexuals and an awareness that my own sexuality was (and remains) a source of questioning for others. When others question you constantly I guess you have little choice but to go through a period of reflection and self-analysis.

    There remains a tension for me between what I have come to learn and appreciate and the teachings of the church if not the Bible itself. I take the view that Christ teaches tolerance and universal love, and I should do the same. One also has to remember that the Christian writings are very much of their time - caught up with the social mores of the day.

    Most Christians (I suspect) will find it hard to adapt to a non-rigid point of view. Something particularly true here in Northern Ireland. The intolerance is probably through fear of the unknown - fear of change.

    I'm rambling, but coming out as yourself is a hugely important step. As you say, some will no longer want to deal with you, but its okay. You are still the same person you always were - if people can't appreciate that then that is their loss. An openness to discussion and even sensible debate with you would do much to enrich and enlighten rather than bury heads in the sand or simply shout you into submission.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Robert.

    I was pretty much as intolerant as you describe when I was younger, but as you say, getting to know flesh-and-blood people who are different from you really challenges you to rethink.

    I find that interesting that other people have constantly questioned your sexuality. Why do you think that is? (If that's not too personal a question.) Of course, I don't know you in "real life," as it were, but from hearing you, I know you're very soft-spoken (personally, I find it almost soothing, and could listen to it for hours!), and from hearing you and reading you, a degree of vulnerability, sensitivity and even self-effacement perhaps comes through. I can see how, rightly or wrongly (probably the latter), those traits could be interpreted by others.

    Tell me to bug off if I'm being far too invasive here! I just found it curious, and wanted to step into your shoes somewhat and see from your perspective. No no one ever questioned my sexuality before I came out, although there were a few (mostly very open- and pastorally minded Christians) who said in retrospect that they knew.

  5. Very good questions, and I don't mind being asked at all. I've had partners ask me long into the relationship, friends I've known for years (their partners - usually after meeting me once or twice), strangers...

    In the first instance I can only assume that something about me taps into people's gaydar. Some resonance with expectations and perceptions of what gay might be.

    I struggle to find an answer that I'm happy with, but I'm a softie at heart. I'm not oozing in masculinity (other than possibly in the size of my bodily frame - built for rugby, but not mentally prepared for it!). I'm a creative type - which at one time was shorthand for gay ;)

    I dress slightly too foppishly for the repression of Northern Ireland. I'd be quite happy in a pair of boots, leather trousers (I don't fit into my pair at the moment) and velvet jackets. Its too flamboyant for someone that supposedly isn't gay I guess. I've been like this since I was a teenager. My most recent partner suggested that I've been channelling the spirit of Jon Pertwee...

    So from the outside, I'm not instantly bracketable. Talk to me, and I've a range of personalities depending on how well you get to know me. Part of that is learning that I'm very comfortable with my sexuality, and I'm not afraid of homosexuality, or perceived sexuality. I learnt years ago that many people who are aggressively homophobic also tend to homoeroticism and may be harbouring a struggle with their own sexuality. I have a habit of confronting that (works best with near-total strangers, or close friends) head on. I'll ask questions, make the suggestions that need to be made, and allow people to begin their own mental journey.

    My brother's friends had to ask him last year if I was in fact a "bit batty". Well darlings, no. But I know I'm not and so I can embrace being myself.

    Unknown to many of my acquaintances I have a reputation amongst family and friends for my wicked tongue - my use of innuendo. Think of someone like Kenny Everett, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams or Benny Hill. That's a saucy, camp sort of humour. I grew up on it without any knowledge of the actual sexuality of many of those people. Its not that I learned from it, but it connected and continues to connect with me. It doesn't answer the question, but it suggest to me reasons for the perception.

    That I'm a pacifistic, generally quiet and actually quite shy and intelligent person only adds fuel to the fire.

    If I came out few would be claim to be surprised. Except for me. That people try to pigeonhole me is a bizarre thing. But life's like that...

  6. A fascinating insight into your personality and background, Robert. Thanks.

    Over the years I've also noticed that those most vocal against homosexuals and homosexuality are often afraid of what's lurking in their own depths. I'm sure the intolerance of my own youth was fueled at least in part by my desire (conscious or unconscious) to distance myself from any suggestion that I was gay.

    "Creative type." Do you listen to Beethoven and have a statuette of Michelangelo's David on your mantelpiece? Thinking of the nowadays-risible way Derren Nesbitt's villain was portrayed in Victim!

  7. Lol. Nothing wrong with the old Ludwig Van, but my listening is almost solely in the context of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack I'm sorry to say.

    No Michaelangelos either :)

    I'd rather be Dr. Evil, swivelling round in a pod chair in a snappy suit and stroking my pussy.

    'Creative Type' isn't my choice of phrase. One of my best friends refers to me as an 'arty f****er'.

    I don't think I was ever aggressively homophobic but I encountered it a lot. I was always the underdog, the one more likely to be bullied.

    Actually thinking of that, a few other things that added fuel to the fire for those that questioned my sexuality - I liked wearing waistcoats at school (scandalous I know!), I did at various stages experiment with make up - largely goth-esque, eye shadow, eyeliner, nail varnish, that sort of thing; and my couple of piercings. Not that being pierced was a particular issue in itself, but where I chose to get pierced first seemed a little unusual in a male (not nearly as illicit as that sounds!).

    Its all very base, very surface material though for my inquisitors.