Sunday, May 1, 2011

15-for-15 III: Honesty

"It's not lying if they make you lie."
                  --Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), "Queer as Folk" (Showtime)


Now, be honest.  You might not rejoice in the death of Osama bin Laden, but is there no part of you that was at least relieved to hear that he had finally been killed?  And if relieved, grateful?  A seed of inappropriate glee, perhaps, that would taint you as someone who can't quite live up to the great martyrs of peace of the past?

The last thing most of us would want is for people to know all of our true feelings all the time, because a lot of those feelings could affect our relationships, jobs, and general reputations should they be known.  So we have to be selective in what we tell others.  Honesty, true, unadulterated, 24/7/365 honesty, is nearly impossible to have within the recesses of our own minds and souls, and quite impossible to achieve in dealing with others.

But some level of honesty, with others, about ourselves and our views, is absolutely essential to who we are.  We must select what we will present, and in presenting, create the "I" that others see through their eyes.

Honesty is central in coming out of the closet, but it is not simple.  It begins with people being honest with themselves about their true feelings, and that may lead into a crisis that may or may not resolve itself with becoming honest with others.  Some may come out, at an early age, without any complications in their own minds--I've met people for whom this is the case.  But for many others who are gay or lesbian, a wide variety of complex factors and fears affects this kind of honesty with others.


Foremost are the factors of one's fear of losing close relationships with people they think might not take this news well and decide to end the relationship.  And this has indeed happened with a number of people who have come out as gay or lesbian, particularly before the last two decades.  It has happened with me.

At one time, not long ago, and indeed still to this day, the economic factors of losing one's job or not being able to gain employment were key to keeping people in the closet.  I worried, and am not proud of doing so, that I would be disowned if my parents knew I was gay, and I did not see how I could pay for college if I were to come out when I was still in high school.  I sensed anyway that I would become like Stephen King's Carrie had I come out in high school, with a bucket of blood hanging over my head at every turn, ready to end forever any cool factor that I had built up.

The fear of being beaten or abused has also been central to people not coming out, for this is still a realistic fear for many who are young, and more who have moved on into their own lives, yet live within tight restrictions on their expression within those lives.

Even in a society as tolerant as ours, we are far from living in a "safe" place as openly gay and lesbian people everywhere we go.  Where we might choose to hold hands, might give in public the most innocuous signs of affection towards those for whom we feel affection, things that I would guess every heterosexual person takes for granted, is still greatly limited, in many cases only in those establishments that openly accept or cater to gays and lesbians or the neighborhoods immediately around them.

In vast parts of our country, we're still sitting in the Stonewall Inn on June 26, 1969, when the police could come in at any moment and take everything in our lives away at their whim.  Police raids have famously happened within the last few years in Fort Worth, TX, and Atlanta, GA, hardly small and conservative towns.

The fear of not being able to follow out one's calling in life, whether as a pastor, a professional athlete, a teacher, an actor or actress, musician, business person, or in many other walks of life that still carry a heavy expectation of being heterosexual for the sake of those for whom the business or organization is run, still keeps people in the closet and in relationships that begin as relationships of "convenience," though might develop into more.  

One of the hardest things to do is to be honest with oneself about the hard things within oneself, let alone to be frank with others.  But both are essential, I would say, to living other than a life of quiet desperation, in the words of Thoreau.


I first was compelled to be honest with myself about being gay because of an overwhelming sexual attraction I had to someone, who although I didn't know, I knew was gay.  I saw him every day on the bus that I took from the St. Paul University of Minnesota "farm" campus to the main campus in Minneapolis, on the east bank, when I was there in the summer of 1994.

Perhaps it was his mannerisms that first tripped my nascent gaydar.  Perhaps it was the sticker on his bag that said "I fuck to come, not to conceive."  But soon I heard him talking about being gay to someone else on the bus.  That cinched it for me.

I remember getting off that bus and walking behind him, trying to come up with even a lame pick-up line.  But I was afraid of sex, and afraid of contracting HIV, which in 1994 could still be a death sentence for many who were living with it, before the arrival of most anti-retroviral drugs.  Fear of many kinds kept the lid on a boiling pot of hormones and emotions for yet another period of time when it could have come off.  The result was the journal entry that I shared in my first entry in this series.

Later, I was compelled to be honest with others about what I felt, because I learned that those feelings went beyond mere sexual attraction.  I learned that I had feelings for someone else that were just like those feelings that I had watched in most every movie ever made, and that were described in the vast majority of songs ever written.  If people could make those movies, and sing those songs, then I deserved to value and honor those feelings in myself, as imperfectly even as I expressed them at that time, as well.

I became honest with others when my heart connected, perhaps for the first time, to my head, and I could no longer deny that I, too, had a claim to my feelings and had needs that issued from them, and not only from my penis or my brain.  I still hadn't experienced anything that I longed to experience physically, but I knew what it was that I wanted, to be with another man, and what I could never have:  a Jane to my John, a Mrs. to my Mr.  

As deeply as I had tried to feel romantic attachments to girls, and then to young women, nothing could connect with my deeper reality.  No kiss with a girl could do anything more for me than leave me feeling weird, and that wasn't fair to either of us.  No amount of visual stimulation could have any effect beyond moving my retinas from one part of a page or screen to another.

For a long time, I thought there was just something wrong with me, that I needed to try harder, and I'll be honest, I never prayed to God that things were different--I didn't even think to do so.  Some have described this feeling as noticing at some point that you had boarded the wrong airplane, flying to the wrong destination, yet without any way to alter the course.

It would be a long time before I sat back and enjoyed the flight.


The quotation above, which the character Brian Kinney says several times in the TV series "Queer as Folk," resonates with me on many levels.  Lying, and the moral approbation that might be attached to it, is morally wrong only so long as you have any other option at all.  It is like the legitimate defense of killing only when one's life is in immediate danger, only in the case of outing oneself, it's everything that attaches to one's life, and in some cases, one's physical life itself.  This is a fear that some gay and lesbian people carry with themselves every day.   

I tend to judge those who have not come out most especially when I do not remember what it was like before I came out.  It's easy to cast such stones when you forget that you were once (and perhaps sometimes are still) afraid of being hit with them yourself.

If everyone who could come out would come out, in all circumstances, to all people, all the time, there would be no closets, not because there wouldn't be anyone in them, but because there would be no need for them.  That area of privacy in one's life is there almost exclusively because of the possible repercussions and fears that I stated above.

"It's nobody's business but my own" only so long as were that business to be made known, there would be negative consequences.  Inconsequential business has no need of privacy.  Otherwise, why not put up that picture of your hottie love muffin in the office, like everyone else does, or talk about your weekend, or mention your wife or husband in your sermon, or talk about that experience that changed your life and the person who was there to hold your hand when it happened?

But reality remains:  it's not safe for everyone to come out in every circumstance at all times. The closet is still a place of cold refuge for many, many people.


I do carry a rather unattractive chip on my shoulder about the consequences of honesty I have faced in my own calling to being an ordained Lutheran minister, as one who is yet neither ordained, nor a Lutheran minister.  I have the same training, with the same professors and mentors, as dozens of my seminary colleagues who are now ordained and in church calls.  Yet, my last four years of waiting for even an interview for a first call in my present denomination looks like this:

  • Make sure you file everything on time.
  • Thank you for filing everything on time and completing your requirements.
  • We approve you for ordination and think you will  be an excellent pastor.  You have wonderful gifts for ministry.
  • Why did you have to put your sexual orientation in your paperwork?  Nobody else does.
  • No church will give you an interview unless you "fly under the radar," "don't lead with your sexual orientation," and "feel things out as far as their attitudes go before you say anything about being gay."
  • We don't have any churches for you, but your name comes up all the time in our conversations about churches looking for first calls.
  • That church would be great for you, but it is not a first call church.
  • We gave that church to someone as a first call even though it wasn't a first call church--it just fit them.
  • There are no churches at the moment that would be open to someone like you.
  • We're afraid of even recommending you to that church, so why would you want to interview there?
  • Any church would be lucky to have you as its pastor.
  • The bishop has said that he can do nothing for you.
  • The bishop has your paperwork and will follow up with you shortly.
  • You're too outspoken.
  • All of the bishops admired your integrity, but they cannot do anything as long as you say you will not be in compliance with the rules.
  • There are too many other candidates waiting for a first call for you to be considered in our synod.
  • We gave that church to someone who wasn't in our synod because it was a good match for them, even though we have several other candidates waiting for call.
  • You have demonstrated maturity, compassion, and extraordinary patience throughout this process.  We admire your consistent positive attitude.
  • A lot of people are affected by the economy because pastors are not retiring since they have lost their pensions.  But we still placed 5 of 6 candidates whom we received in the Fall draft in first calls.
It goes on like this, and it is little wonder that a part of my spiritual life has atrophied.  But, to be honest, that is also my responsibility to say "enough is enough," and move on with my life.  

Honesty has not been the best policy in my dealings with the church, and something seems wrong with that.

Thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has moved into a new period of honesty in which it can value the honesty of its clergy and commissioned lay persons and stop forcing its pastors and candidates for ordination to lie about being gay or lesbian, as it did for more than 20 years.  Before August 21, 2009, a pastor could be brought up on trial for publicly admitting he or she was gay or lesbian and in a relationship, and a church could be completely removed from the ELCA in an expensive and embarrassing church trial; thankfully this is no longer the case.  

Yet the pre-change reality remains in the ELCA, and no change has happened in many other denominations.  And gay and lesbian persons are by no means the only people who are disadvantaged in the current ELCA system of approval, call, and ordination.  


Being honest, as being a bully, is not a simple issue.  It's not the picture of George Washington and the cherry tree, or of "Honest Abe," whose early business practices, though unsuccessful, were apparently unflinchingly honest.  These stereotypes of being honest are not such that any mortal can attain, just as no human besides Jesus could be sinless, and I question what that meant for Jesus.

The issue of marriage, beyond being an issue of civil rights for gay and lesbian people, is an issue of honesty:  being able to be publicly honest about who your better half indeed is, as well as being honest about the limitations and realities of any marriage.

The main argument that I would lift up in favor of same-sex marriage is not even equality, because we are equal, and to debate our equality and the equality of our relationships is an insult.  I think a better argument is to state the honest reality:  that conservative moralists are imposing unreachable expectations on those marriages that they do allow, while at the same time, by opposing same-sex marriages, they suggest that these "traditional" marriages could be blown over by the first stiff gay wind to hit them.  I want to think heterosexual relationships are stronger than this.

There are also a vast number of people who vote against same-sex marriage, and a vast number of politicians who introduce this as a wedge issue into political discourse, who are far from being honest about their motives.  

Each Minnesota legislator who has voted in favor of advancing a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, as in all 30 states that ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions, and each citizen voter, should face a crisis of honesty on their position against same-sex marriage.  Is a same-sex marriage going to "destroy" opposite-sex marriages, or are a host of factors already in place, from no-fault divorce, to economic injustice, to exceedingly high societal demands, threatening these marriages?  

Bad relationships, impossible demands of perfection, and economic adversity, among other things, destroy marriage, not gay and lesbian relationships.  


Perhaps death is the most honest thing there is.  There's no saying it is anything that it is not.  There may be many varieties of death, but when someone is stone cold dead, that's that.  Which is why it is so important to live your life while you have it.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if honesty were more constitutionally a part of who we are.  It's not a natural human state, but must be taught by instilling a guilty conscience as constant punishment for not being honest.

Being who one is honestly should not entail being guilty.  Some things about ourselves could benefit from change.  Sexual orientation is not one of them.

What, for you, are the most difficult things to be honest about with yourself, dear reader?  And what in your life has initiated a crisis of honesty in dealing with others?  I think we all have substantial experience in debating these questions within ourselves, and some of these parts of ourselves have forced us into our own versions of the closet.  Closets are not just for people of a particular sexual orientation:  there are endless varieties of closets.  

My hope is that we might someday very soon reach a new level of honesty in our national discourse on sexual orientation, race, gender discrimination, and a host of other issues that can get better only when we start being honest with ourselves and with others about what we think and how we feel, without descending into banning people's relationships constitutionally, breaking off relationships because we disagree, and falling deeper into a pit of partisan tar.

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