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)
DavidLRattigan.com (my website)