Earlier this week, our Music Director, Susan Jensen, sent me an email in which she reminded me that today is National Coming Out Day. Established in 1988, the purpose of this day is to raise awareness about GLBTQ folks and their allies. (GLBTQ stands for “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered. The Q sometimes stands for “questioning,” so people – often, but not necessarily, adolescents – who are wondering about their gender or their sexual orientation. And it sometimes stands for “Queer”). And as the name implies, the purpose of this day is to celebrate coming out, to celebrate telling the truth about who you are.
As soon as I got Sue’s call, the gears in my head started turning. I thought to myself: there’s a sermon hiding in here. And well, there was. Let’s call this sermon:
Three Things That My GLBTQ Friends Have Taught Me – and the Implications of Those Things for Being a Christian
One. Words don’t have to mean what other people tell you they mean. We can claim – or reclaim – ownership of words.
For a bunch of years I’ve been a fan of the advice columnist, advocate, and author Dan Savage. Savage lives in Seattle. He was one of the primary architects of the It Gets Better Project, an effort to reach out to GLBTQ youth, a demographic that is at disproportionate risk of suicide. And his column appears online and in newspapers across the globe. He predominantly answers questions about relationships and about sex. And he was one of the first gay men I encountered who applied slurs and epithets to himself and who invited his allies to do likewise.
You may have noticed that what we might call an ex-slur is to be found right in the acronym GLBTQ: the second possible meaning of Q is “queer.” Queer used to be the sort of word that would be shouted out by drunken frat boys when they encountered a man on the street who struck them as effeminate. It used to be a way of advertising one’s power and status, one’s anger and hatred and contempt.
But somewhere along the way, the GLBTQ community decided that it didn’t want words such as queer to have power over it. And so, as marginalized groups have done across the centuries, they chose to take this badge of dishonour, this badge of contempt, and wear it as a badge of pride. They choose to proudly and positively announce, “I am queer.” They chose to invite their straight friends to use that language as well.
I want to suggest that this claiming or reclaiming of a word holds a powerful lesson for us as followers of Jesus. I remember hanging out with a bunch of Episcopalians a few years back, for instance, when someone remarked, “We need a new word for ‘Evangelism.’” I know what that guy meant – maybe you do as well: there is something about the term evangelism that conjures up images of door-to-door religion peddlers and angry televangelists and threats of damnation. But I don’t agree that we need a new word. I think that we need to take the old word back.
What if Evangelism meant an enthusiastic willingness to share what a big deal your church community is in your life, what a big deal music or the prayer book is in your life, what a big deal Gospel-oriented service, such as the Friday-night meals, is in your life? What if Evangelism meant an enthusiastic willingness to embody the joy and the meaning that you find in these things? What if it meant – and I know that this is a high-stakes suggestion for a lot of us – a willingness to invite people to come to church with you? To invite people into this community, not through threats or guilt or pressure or anything burdensome, but through joy? If you’re anything like me, when you go on a fabulous hike or read the great book or see a great movie you want to tell your friends – as the old saying has it, when you’re in love, you want to tell everybody. What if you and I told everybody about how much we love Grace Memorial? What if you and I unapologetically declared that we are Evangelists?
Maybe you can think of other words that we might reclaim: salvation and sin both come to mind. Or how about the big one, how about Christian? (I have friends who say that, in the Pacific Northwest, coming out as a Christian was harder than coming out as gay.) Our GLBTQ friends offer an example and a challenge to us: those words don’t have to refer to something small or limiting or broken. They can sing forth the news of something big and joyous and free.
Two. Our hearts are rarely opened by arguments. But they can be opened wide by friendships.
Those people who remember most of society and most of the church getting over the remarriage of divorced people say that what made the difference was not any carefully constructed rhetoric. What made the difference was being friends with couples in which one partner or both were divorced, and seeing the witness of their love. What made the difference was looking at a given couple and witnessing the way that the partners in that couple made one another more joyous and more free and more complete, the way that the couple enlivened the community to which they belonged. Looking at such a couple, people said to themselves: This is marriage. Why do we want to prevent these good people from using that name?
Over the last number of years, something similar has happened as we have witnessed the life giving marriages of gays and lesbians. We have asked ourselves the same question, asked why we suppose that the marriages of our friends are anything other than a sacrament, other than an outward and visible sign of God’s love and grace. That question made us just a little bigger, just a little more Christ like.
I want to suggest that seeing that love through friendships with GLBTQ folks invites us as Christians to wonder with whom else we might be called to enter into transformative friendship, where else we might be invited to get a little bigger and little more Christ like. Maybe you have your own answer. I wonder about the attendees at our Friday Night meal. And I wonder about seeking out friendship with people of other faiths and in particular, as they are regularly vilified and scapegoated, about seeking out friendships with Muslims. I wonder how such friendships might transform us?
Three. Life is happier and better when we don’t try to define the identity of anyone other than ourselves.
Back in 2009, I heard a transgendered educator by the name of Renata Razza speak. Renata had a tonne of helpful information, a tonne of helpful questions and helpful strategies. It was that training session, for instance, that I learned to ask the question, “Do you have a pronoun preference?” There is no need, in other words, to stammer and guess whether a given person self-identified as “he,” as “she,” or as something else. You can just ask. And it was in that same session that Renata shared seven words of advice that have profoundly influenced me. Those seven words go like this:
People are who they say they are.
It is, in other words, neither polite nor generous nor understanding to argue with people when they share the categories or names that they believe best suit them. (There are a handful of exceptions – I will argue with you if you tell me that you are stupid or ugly or unlovable.) To use a classic example, if someone says, “I’m gay,” it isn’t all that helpful to suggest that he just hasn’t met the right woman. Or if someone says, “I’m a man,” it isn’t all that helpful to say, “No, you’re not! You’re a lady!”
When Renata told us that people are who they say they are, I immediately realised that those words had implications way beyond gender and sexuality. I have always disliked it, for instance, when people tell me what is going on in my head, when they diagnose me. In particular, it has always made me grind my teeth a little when people tell me that I am an introvert. I don’t self-identify as introverted. (The category of ambiversion suits me best: I find energy and happiness in a balance of alone time and time with groups of people.)
Church works best when we let people be who they say they are. I have gone to church with a number of people who self-identify as atheists. Now, I suppose that I could have argued with those folks – look at you, you’re praying, you are receiving communion, you had your child baptised, you clearly aren’t an atheist! – but there is something small and selfish about that. People are who they say they are. If you self-identify as an atheist, we honour that, we are glad that you are among us. If you self-identify as a seeker, we honour that, we are glad that you are among us. If you self-identify as someone without a single doubt, we honour that, we are glad that you are among us. The list goes on.
On this National Coming Out Day, three lessons from our GLBTQ brothers and sisters. A lesson about the power of words, a lesson about the power of friendship, and a lesson about the power of letting people be who they say they are. Three lessons for which we are grateful, for which we say thanks.