Coming-Out-to-Shawnee Syndrome

As most of us know, coming out of the closet is not a single event, but a process. Sometimes it can be a very lengthy one. We may hem and haw, dreading taking that crucial step with people whose good opinion matters to us. They fit into this or that category we’ve been warned won’t accept us. Not knowing our secret, they may even have made remarks, or taken stands, in the past that are anti-LGBT. We think the stereotype about them must be accurate, or that they will never change.

I don’t mean at all to suggest that nobody ever reacts badly when any of us come out. Only to caution against letting other people set our expectations, based on their bad experiences. Many of us go for years living a double life, or keeping a heartbreaking distance from people we care about, simply because other people have told us we will not be accepted for who we are.

Though some may be warning us because they genuinely want to protect us, there are also a variety of reasons why others might do this. Their political agenda (whether the politics of the State or those of the Church) may benefit from driving a wedge between LGBT people and their families, friends or potential allies. There are many on both the Right and the Left, in both the political and the religious arenas, who answer to that description. There may also be those who think if they keep us distant or estranged from our parents, they will get our rightful inheritance when our parents die. Or we may have a talent of which they are jealous, and by keeping us locked in the closet, they can keep us from openly exercising it and outshining them.

People are simply not as easily-predictable as some would have us believe. A conservative Republican may react very graciously and compassionately to the revelation that you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. While a liberal Democrat may make nasty “homo” jokes and distance him, or herself, from you. An Evangelical Christian might embrace you with open arms, continuing to fully accept you as a friend. While a coolly-rational atheist may express revulsion and turn away, or even suggest that you are an evolutionary mistake who – in a more perfect world – would be eliminated.

I have had every one of those experiences.

Of course there are still a lot of people who don’t accept us, and who repeat the mindless mantra that we “can’t be gay and Christian.” What can we do about them? In some cases, sadly, nothing. But however others choose to react, we can simply be ourselves, live our lives openly and honestly, hold our heads up high and be the best gay (or lesbian, bisexual or transgender) Christians we can be. We’ll likely be surprised at how many of them eventually come around – perhaps sooner than we think – and the remainder will have to answer for their hard hearts not to us, but to God.

When I was a junior in college, I transferred from mind-bogglingly huge Arizona State University to small and reputedly-friendly Grand Canyon College, then on the verge of attaining university status. I found my new school just as friendly as I’d hoped it would be. One of the first new friends I made was Shawnee, a fellow English major about my age and also a junior. After we’d gotten our degrees and moved on in life, we remained good friends.

Now, not only is Shawnee a conservative Baptist, whose parents homeschooled her years before it became a national trend, but she is a conservative Republican. She is also straight. She’s now married to a pastor, and she and he are very happy together. He’s the love of her life.

The summer after our college graduation, she and I took a trip to San Diego to see the Olympic figure skaters on tour. Little did she suspect that I was not merely a “big fan” of Katarina Witt’s, but that I had a huge crush on her. Back in those days, still in my twenties, that was not something I would have admitted to anybody. Shawnee, on the other hand, had a crush on Brian Boitano. Unlike me, she could freely admit this, and sigh over him to her heart’s content.

When I finally came out, just before my thirty-fifth birthday, Shawnee was the one friend I dreaded telling. What on earth would her reaction be? I imagined her crying, “Eeeew … and to think we shared an apartment for a year!” and throwing up all over me. I imagined her never speaking to me again. I imagined lots of things, and frankly, none of them were good.

She and I made plans for dinner, and the big day finally arrived. As the meal began, I announced that I had something I needed to tell her. All through the long and agonizing dinner, I hemmed, hawed and hedged. Meanwhile, she got progressively paler, her eyes growing very wide. I set the stage not only for drama, but for tragedy.

Then, at merciful last, I managed to get it out. I recoiled, bracing for the worst. But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anybody look so relieved. “Is that it?” she said. “The way you were building up to this, I was afraid you were going to tell me you’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer!”

We may be doing more harm because we think we can’t tell people than we would be if we simply went ahead and told them, however negative their reaction might be. I never trusted my mother enough to come out to her, so she died never knowing who I really am. In the last years of her life, after I’d come out to everybody else, I watched her waste away with Alzheimer’s and wanted to come out to her – but knew she would no longer understand. Because she very literally no longer knew who I was. By that time, she didn’t even recognize my father.

That crowd that won’t accept us, which lurks for so many years as a monster under the bed, may turn out to be a python. Or we may find out it’s just a dust-bunny.

Ultimately, the choice is no one’s but mine. I can choose to respond to the rejection of anti-gay Christians by staying in the Church, or I can choose to leave because they don’t want me. But if I do the latter, I am making those who hate me more powerful than the God Who loves me.

Shawnee’s positive reaction did not persuade me to remain a Christian. Neither has anyone else’s. I didn’t tally a vote to determine whether I would stay or go. My relationship with God in Christ does not, should not and must never depend upon the decisions of anyone other than God and myself.

In Jesus Christ, God has accepted me. And in my acceptance, I have chosen to reciprocate. Period.

Coming-Out-to-Shawnee Syndrome is what I have come to call my tendency to hedge and waffle about being true to myself before other people when I’m unsure how they will respond. I remember Shawnee’s reaction, and it gives me the encouragement I need to “come out” in any way I want to at that time. But we are always “out” to the God Who made us. God will never reject what “He” has made. So we need never hedge or waffle before God.