For years, I believed living outside the closet to be the most important step for gays and lesbians to take in our fight for liberation. If we are public about our identity, we can serve as positive role models for people struggling with their own identity. Furthermore, we can help combat negative stereotyping by exposing people to the vast diversity that exists within the GLBT community. Then I had an experience which radically changed my thinking.
In 2004, I worked as a teaching assistant for a New Testament course taught at a private Christian university. During my first meeting with the instructor, I learned about a heterosexual woman who had been dismissed from the school simply because her pastor was lesbian. Two days later, I glimpsed what living in the closet would mean for me. My partner and I were at a restaurant not far from the university. As we held hands across the table, I suddenly worried about being “caught” by one of the students. This discomfort emerged every time we were near campus and it emerged every time I engaged in conversation with the students. Often I felt the need to edit myself. When a student asked how I became interested in yoga, I responded that a “friend” had recommended it. To anyone else I would have said “my partner.”
The spring semester class was intensely homophobic. A number of students asserted that homosexuality was inherently sinful and that it impeded closeness with God. When I asked the instructor about the possibility of my coming out to the students, she agreed that I could share my story with them.
On the last day of class, I told the students about how coming out was an intensely spiritual experience for me, how it was only in accepting my lesbian identity that I was able to feel the presence of God in my life. I told them how, in all those years prior to coming out, I was filled with so much self-hatred that I could not even begin to love other people, let alone God.
Afterwards, several students thanked me for sharing my story. That evening, several more students responded by e-mail. One student said my story helped her recognize the extent of her own prejudice against gays and lesbians. Another said that my coming out at the end of the semester was especially effective because he had come to respect me throughout the course of the semester.
Had I been open with my students from the beginning, I do not believe I would have been as effective in breaking down prejudices. It is one thing to hear about homosexuality from a stranger. It is quite another thing to hear a first-person account from someone whom one has come to respect. I still believe in the importance of living outside the closet. But what I learned from my experience is that sometimes intentionally and temporarily staying in can be an equally effective means for transformation.
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