“Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. This same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it.... We must continually renew this promise. ...This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
--President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010
When Barack Obama’s words, in his first State of the Union address, started to venture into the area of equality and fairness under the US Constitution, I grew more and more hopeful that finally he would stand up to the law and practice that has made it impossible for me to serve in this country's military, that has cost tens of thousands their jobs and service to our country, and cost our country qualified defenders in this time of great need.
That moment came when President Obama said that he would work with Congress this year to strike down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But we have had this long moment of promise for a year already. This promise has hung in the air as more and more people whose service to this nation has not only been damned, but wasted under the existential strangulation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. People whose service is not only needed, but is effective, indeed vital, to ensuring our national security.
The hope continues, but so does the biting at hearts that wish only to be equally respected and defended along side of their heterosexual equals, hearts that pump the same blood and feel the same sense of duty to protect our homeland, and have been encouraged emptily in the past. President Obama, working with Congress in their Constitutionally-mandated capacity as directors of military policy and conduct, could still bring about a full and complete repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I live in hope that this will indeed happen in the next year.
It might come as a surprise to people who know me, and indeed somewhat surprises me, that I would think of being in the military. There are many ways in which I am not standard issue.
I am, in my deepest personality, for example, somewhat antipathetical towards leadership. It is more than ironic that I would be called to Christian ministry, but such is the calling that I have received. I’m not much of one who likes to follow rules, but at the same time, something in my bearing and personality has led people to ask if I’m in or have been in the military. I’ve often wondered myself what it would be like to serve in the military.
I might not agree with the rationale of our nation’s presence in Iraq, and I might question our wisdom of being in Afghanistan, a war that wore the Soviet Union down for years before we got into it, but our troops are there, and they need many levels of support.
Among the very important levels of support given our troops is the support of chaplains, whose presence is not only spiritual, but also psychological. Chaplains are not psychologists, but they are sources of confidence, both in terms of supporting and boosting the confidence of those who are carrying out our campaigns in many capacities, as well as keeping confidences and building trust and morale. Given my theological and ministerial training, being a chaplain would make the most sense for me. It would be an honor to support those who put themselves in harm's way to defend the cause of freedom.
At this moment, however, I could not be a military chaplain. I am way out of the gay closet, and cannot and would not go back in for a job, a calling, a career, relationship, or for any other reason. That makes some people very uncomfortable. That choice to be open has thus far cost me a first call as a Lutheran pastor for three years, when I have been told that I need to “fly under the radar” if I want a church, “feeling [my] way out” as I entered a parish in the closet. That is advice that I cannot heed, and it comes at a cost. But the closet has a much higher cost.
The closet kills, in a free society as ours is, moment by moment, lie by lie, hidden relationship by hidden relationship. Like Act-up activists said in the days of AIDS holocaust, silence=death.
Being and remaining closeted is for some being complicit in this oppression. It is choosing not only one’s own silence, but helping to enforce silence on others as well.
Now, this is a strong statement, which sounds to my ears as judgmental as it sounds true, and I do know that being out of the closet is for others, in societies less free than ours, a luxury that their societies will not allow. Their lives and only sources of income are at stake in such a choice to come out. Their relationships with their parents, oldest and closest friends are hanging in the balance. In Uganda, in Iraq and Iran, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, the very lives of gay and lesbian people are at stake, and the closet is a chief means of survival. That is unfortunately still true for some in the United States as well.
Only by directly challenging this enforced silence in standing up and being counted, starting here in a society that attains to being the freest on earth, a country that tens of thousands have given their lives to keep free, starting here in the United States, and in other free societies, can those of us who have the luxury of being out and staying alive end the power of intimidation wielded by institutions and individuals who would prefer our invisibility, indeed, prefer that we did not exist at all, insofar as we are gay or lesbian, or as some prefer to be known, queer.
If silence=death, visibility=life and strength in numbers.
I recently heard the phrase “don’t let who you are now prevent who you might become.”
This phrase, when interpreted in certain ways, may indeed be very liberating. But it has been lived out in other ways that are ultimately harmful to the whole, as well as to individuals.
If every military chaplain, pastor, priest, minister, rabbi, imam, guru, prior, abbess, mother superior, or any other spiritual leader;
if every politician, congressperson, teacher, and CEO;
if every quarterback, centerfielder, guard, and goalie;
if every person who is gay or lesbian would come out who could come out, even to just a few people whose mind would be changed about gay and lesbian people, it would eliminate the need for a closet, a need imposed on us from the outside that stifles, silences, and strangles. It would finish the work started by the bullet that entered Harvey Milk’s brain, when it ended his life but didn’t silence his prophetic tongue.
There would no longer be any need to be in the closet. If you didn’t want to talk about being gay or lesbian, you wouldn’t have to talk about it. But at least you could share what everyone else can share about their lives without worrying that even one "slip up," one solitary mention of same-sex attraction, partnership, or inclination, would potentially cost you your job, calling, family, or life. And in a country where police raids on gay bars in the last year in Atlanta and Fort Worth have shown a scary turn towards the facism of years past, challenging those who would silence us is still a need.
Being out gives us voice. Being in the closet gives those who wish us out of existence voice and power. There would be no way that everyone who is gay or lesbian could be fired, kicked out, put down, defrocked, ground under, executed, or disrespected, because the voices would be too many to be drowned out with cries of “sinner” or “faggot.”
And the choice is clear: Existence over invisibility. Service over silence. Honesty over duplicity. And open love over overt hostility.
The next reformation will be one of honesty, and that honesty will bring down the walls of every closet from here to Uganda.