Coming Out in a Conservative Family
by Mary Frances Comer
"The world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming it."
I am honored to be a part of a inclusive religious tradition that values not only the worth and dignity of all people but that also actively seeks to affirm and invite diversity, which is not always the case for those of us who grew up in more exclusive religious paradigms. There are, still, many religious institutions which cling to a dying worldview that people who are not heterosexual are not normal. Or they take it a step further, and say that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons are an abomination to God. This is a sad and harmful stance, and it leaves a trail of pain and suffering for those who have endured such teachings. Some of us have been able to escape the bonds of belief systems that condemn us through religious hate-speak. As an “escapee,” I offer you words of comfort: You are not an abomination. You are not flawed. You are good and worthy, and you deserve to live life in an unfragmented fashion—as who you are, knowing that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” that you are loved, and that you deserve to be happy and whole—as well as confident that you deserve to walk your own spiritual path with authenticity.
After over three decades of agony, I sat down with my mother to finally say the words. The long dreaded response to my coming out was only a calm and quiet “I know.” “That’s it?” I thought to myself. Years of worrying about this moment, and this is it? She knows? “This has been a hard life,” I said, as my father walked into the room. “What has been a hard life?” he asked. “Being gay,” I responded. He put on his shoes and walked out the door without a word. His later comment was “Some things are not worth talking about.” Many relatives would echo that sentiment—preferring that I live a more invisible life or at least one that would blend in to their heterosexual schema. In other words, they wanted me to pretend not to be who I was. What an exhausting endeavor.
I regret to say that I spent the first half or more of my life trying to blend in to what I was told was normalcy. And then the day came when I realized that I would no longer be working around my family or my culture’s difficulty with my difference. For the rest of my life, they could work around me.
Perhaps that was my first step to wholeness (other than coming out to myself in front of a mirror at age 29, after years of misery, depression, and desperation). I knew I was different in elementary school, but, again, culture didn’t have a construct for me then. I didn’t have the words, and I didn’t have any role models. But now? We have the words, the role models, the advocates, and a social movement towards justice and equality. We are not alone, and things are getting better.
Unfortunately, coming out is not a one-time experience. It is easier for some than others, depending on background, religion, location, and the risk of prejudice, discrimination, or even hate crimes. And it takes courage and strength, but we have that, don’t we?—Otherwise, we wouldn’t have survived thus far.
I stand with those of you who are struggling with coming out in a conservative home or in a stifling or frightening situation. You may fear the loss or rejection of family or the loss of job or friends. This is an unfortunate reality. Coming out is a risk; therefore, seek out a strong support system even if it means finding new friends or creating your own version of family. In my case, the results were mixed. Some of my family loves me exactly as I am, some are horrified and condemning, and some pretend their way around it. As for my mother, now deceased, I am glad I said the words to her. She deserved to hear them, and I deserved to say them. And in a three minute span, decades of fear and dread fell away. I regret the wasted energy and mourn the loss of my youth which I should have enjoyed rather than spent in fear and dread. My future? Well, it looks much brighter. And so will yours.
God of all Creation, thank you for the opportunity to live life outside of the box that others have constructed for me. Thank you for the hope of a better tomorrow, knowing that I am worthy and whole and loved. May each breath offer me renewed strength to live life authentically, to be who I am, and to know that I am a beautiful aspect of nature’s wonderful diversity. Amen.
A Spiritual Practice
Growing up in the 60s offered a very different venue for my closeted identity. As a young teen, I didn’t even have a word to describe myself. “Gay” still meant “happy” in South Carolina in 1970. There were many challenges and few options for processing or discovering a spiritual practice, but in the last forty years, much has changed. Perhaps you live in a community that offers a gay and lesbian center or a liberal, supportive church (i.e., a welcoming congregation who honors who you are rather than one who seeks to change or “repair” you). You may find support groups, or it may help to research the topic. (I only say this because my own research into the science of sexual orientation helped me accept myself decades ago after growing up in a fundamentalist and very condemning church). It was part of my processing to read books by liberal religionists and to find a church home where I was welcomed. It is important to create connections with others to form a support system—especially if your family of origin does not provide that support. Perhaps a creative outlet like painting or writing poetry or journaling about your feelings would provide catharsis and spiritual expression. You may prefer to meditate or create a personal mantra or prayer such as “I give thanks that I am a worthy, normal, and beautiful aspect of creation.”
May the gift of your existence and the gift of who you are become clear to you and clearer to those around you. May deep peace be yours in mind, body, and spirit.
Mary Frances is studying for ordination with the UUA. She has served as a chaplain intern at a level-I Trauma Center in North Carolina, and she is currently working with CLF as an associate of pastoral care. Mary Frances is a full-time college instructor as well as a seminarian. She will graduate in May of 2012 with her M.Div.
Thumbnail artwork © Kendrick Wronski, www.Kendrickwronski.org
What do you think?
Thanks for sharing your story, Mary Frances. My longtime partner and I accepted a "don't ask, don't tell" behavior around her parents for 15 years. I finally came out to her dad the week before he died, because he had asked me to take care of Joan. I felt like he was telling me he knew and it was okay, but I wanted to hear that. So I told him how much I loved her, that we were committed to each other and that I would certainly take care of her. He put his arms around me and we cried. It was such a blessing, those moments of being honest with each other.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful blog post Mary Frances. There are so many who have been harmed by religious intolerance. A late-blooming lesbian, I've been fortunate to not lose any friends or family over my coming out. AND I am blessed that in the Beloved Community to which I belong, my partner and I are perfectly normal. I rarely think about my own differences, but often think of those who are hurt by family, or clergy or well-meaning friends who are intolerant of their differences. I anticipate the day when all our differences will be celebrated and honored and embraced! Amen.