The power of story – Guest post by Warren for National Coming Out Day

ON Sunday 14th October 2018, Warren Hartley, co-facilitator of Open Table in Liverpool, was invited to speak at the Open Table community service at St John’s United Reformed Church Warrington. As 11th October is now marked around the world as National Coming Out Day, Warren took ‘coming out’ as his theme:

National Coming Out Day logo

I love stories. They have fascinated me most of my life. As a child and teenager I was a voracious reader, reading multiple books a week, and a thousand page tome wouldn’t have put me off. Stories were my way of understanding and creating my world.

Something I’ve come to learn as an Aussie migrant to the UK is that Australians seem natural born story tellers. It seems to be embedded in our culture and our dialect of English, to share our thoughts in narrative form. This is quite different from English culture, I’ve learnt, where the desire to get to the point is often stronger than the desire for narrative when relating stories.

Stories have power. The stories we tell ourselves and the way we well them as people (as Britons, as Christians, local residents etc.) form and shape our identity and how we understand our place in our worlds and in the world. Stories can have the power to inspire and to liberate. Conversely, stories can have the power to control, oppress and even kill.

Anthropologist Michael Margolis says:

the stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions.

I would also like to add nations. Look at the narratives of nations like North Korea who have created a mythology, a story, which keeps a dictator in power. Closer to home, take a look at the leaders of the US and the UK who attempt to push out a narrative of the ‘undeserving poor’ turning people against one another, and that’s just one example of what we see played out each day through our media. Story and narrative really does have power. Those who control the narrative wield the power.

All this is true. Story can control but it also has the power to be subversive and to undermine the power people seek to wield over others. Perhaps this explains why Adolf Hitler was so keen on burning books! Just think about the power and courage of Anne Frank’s diaries, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and the testimonies of women who speak out about the sexual abuse and rape they have received at the hands of men, especially when not believed.

Let’s also think about us LGBTQIA+ folk who have dared to share our stories and seen the world change around us. Think of stories of the Stonewall riots, Ellen DeGeneres, April Ashley, Harvey Milk, and Peter Tatchell. I also think about Peter Wildeblood, a gay journalist in London who in the 1950s was charged with ‘gross indecency’ but made the phenomenally courageous decision to speak publicly about who he was and not be defined by the dominant story that his society told about him and other homosexuals.

Do take the opportunity to watch the BBC’s brilliant portrayal of this story from 2017 called Against The Law. Wildeblood’s trial and his speaking out was part of the catalyst for the Wolfenden report of 1957, and the subsequent partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 which led to greater and greater liberation for our community in the intervening decades.

The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the
world, you need to change your story.

This is the context in which we mark National Coming Out Day – an annual event observed on 11th October. It started in the USA in 1988, birthed from the feminist and gay liberation movement’s belief in the personal being political. The simplest form of activism is for an LGBTQIA+ person come out to family and friends, and live openly i.e. telling our stories. It has long been observed that if people know someone who is LGBT+ they are less likely to hold prejudicial views.[1] Richard Eichberg, one of the founders of National Coming Out Day, said in 1993:

Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact,
everybody does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.'[2]

But where did this expression ‘come out’ come from. You may have heard of a debutante’s ‘coming out party’. This was a celebration where a young woman from the upper classes makes her debut, her formal presentation to society marking her entrance to adulthood and becoming eligible for marriage. This was seen by queer communities in the early 20th Century as analogous to a person’s introduction in to gay society, their coming out. As historian George Chauncey points out:

Gay people in the pre-war years [pre-1914]… did not speak of coming out of what we call the gay closet but rather of coming out into what they called homosexual society or the gay world, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor… so hidden as closet implies.[3]

In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verses 17 to 44, we hear the story of Jesus raising his friend from death. ‘Lazarus, come out’, Jesus says, ‘Unbind him and let him go’. Jesus commands those near him. Is this story describing an historical event or is the story metaphorical? I’ll leave that to you to decide, but we can agree it is an incredibly dramatic story and either way the lives of the people involved would never be the same again. It ;is also one of the longest narratives in John’s gospel. That speaks of its significance.

Stories work at many levels – the factual, the metaphorical, what an individual means by it and what the listener hears. Each listener will have their own filters of dialects, culture and experience. There is no such thing as a simple story. But then nor is coming out simple.

Methodist minister and author Barbara Glasson sought to describe the coming-out process in her outstanding book, The Exuberant Church: Listening to the Prophetic People of God. This book was based on listening to the communities which met in her church, including two LGBT Christian communities. Barbara describes 7 “stages” that she observed:

  1. Disquiet – the hunch that I am not what other people think I am. The sense of living a lie, fear of being discovered and covering up a true identity that lies deeply hidden.
  2. Inner struggle – the hunch has grown into the realisation that I am not what others say I am and wrestling with that growing realisation.
  3. Coming out to self – I am different.
  4. Coming out to others – Barbara describes it: ‘Once a person has acknowledged to themselves the truth that they have suppressed, for whatever reason, concerning their identity, there comes a period of two lives: a gay person may be ‘out’ at work or in their social life but not to their family or friends. But usually there is a moment, either by accident or design, when truth is disclosed. This disclosure holds a huge risk of rejection, a deep wondering whether the framework of acceptance will continue to stay in place – often it has the quality of some kind of seismic shift. It may result in a physical, spiritual or psychological meltdown.’
  5. Rite of passage – Some kind of ceremony, a party or civil ceremony to mark this now public identity.
  6. Community – Finding space to share stories in a ‘communities of solidarity’ to live with authenticity.
  7. Integration – In Barbara’s words: ‘in time and with loving attention, the coming-out process resolves into a place of integration, where the new person is able to bring together all aspects of their lives, to live freely and openly, finding themselves acceptable to themselves and to others. They are able to speak with a voice of authenticity, both to others who are in different places on the journey and to the structures that restrict the true expression of their identity.’

This all sounds great, though life and coming out isn’t always so linear. Barbara continues:

But this is not a cut-and-dried process. There will be times of returning, of revisiting, of pain, anger and outrage, times of new and justifiable disquiet, as well as the homecoming that results from this transformative process of identity discovery. In short, the coming-out process is a journey from ‘I am not ’ to ‘I am ’, and while it might seem to be a process of meltdown, or disintegration, it is also a path to discovery, of growing up and of emergence. In this way, I believe it is both profoundly human and part of God’s intention that we live life in all its fullness. Ultimately, coming out is a transformative process that can lead to fullness of life.

Does that not remind your of Jesus’s words:

I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. – John 10:10

Each of these steps in the coming out process takes courage. You may not
even be able to take all of them. This isn’t a hard and fast process but the
most important person you will come out to is yourself.

Here we may be talking about the coming out process for LGBTQIA+ folk, but I see these seven steps as identical to the steps we take as Christians in our spiritual journey:

  1. Disquiet – a seeking after something ‘more than ourselves’. That ‘God-shaped hole’ which St Augustine is reputed to have described.
  2. Inner struggle – I am not what others say that I am. I am not a random collection of atoms, a mere pleb or whatever narrative I may have received.
  3. Coming out to self – The acknowledgement, the coming out to oneself of the spiritual insight that I am made in the image of God. I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, as the psalmist says.
  4. Coming out to others – Once you’ve acknowledged that truth discovered within you can create a seismic shift. It may even feel like a death. What I once was, or thought I was, is no longer.
  5. Rite of passage – Then there is ceremony, baptism, confirmation or something similar in which you publicly declare your faith.
  6. Community – You begin to share your story with others and find a community who are also on this spiritual journey and who share their stories.
  7. Integration – The life=long Christian journey of living into the good news of the kingdom.

And just like the coming out process, the spiritual journey is not linear. I don’t know about you but I’ve been back and forth and round this more than once as I learn and discover more about myself, other people and about God. Nor does it offer the triumphalist and false promise that ‘life will all be fabulous’. Life isn’t that simple, indeed others may find your living with integrity deeply challenging, and seek to silence your story. That is also part of our Christian journey. You can’t have the resurrection without the crucifixion. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are all equally important elements of his story. Emphasising his death, as some Christian traditions do, creates an unbalanced spirituality.

I am also daring to say that our churches need to go through this journey towards acceptance of their LGBTQIA+ members. The Church ought to be a ‘community of solidarity’. Sadly it often isn’t, but places like Open Table and others have had the courage to come out.

What if you aren’t LGBTQIA+?  While the experience is different, these steps are often very similar to those experienced by people who are:

  • living with a disability
  • experiencing mental distress
  • divorced
  • changing careers.

Each presents different risks and is distinctly different to a sexual or gender minority but each takes courage.

The Revd Liz Edman, an Episcopalian priest, author and lesbian,  recently published Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ people know about life and love and how it can revitalize Christianity. It is a challenging book, which I can highly recommend. But it’s most important point is that, as LGBTQIA+ people, our experience, our stories, our narratives, our coming out can be a gift to the church and a profound insight into the spiritual journey!

Back to our Lazarus story: Lazarus had been dead for four days. The rabbis at the time believed that the soul hovered over the body for three days.[4] This detail in the story really makes the point that Lazarus was beyond resuscitation, mourned, gone beyond his family and society. There were recriminations that Jesus didn’t act fast enough, but can you get sense that they needed to be prepared for this outing, this new life? The love in which this man was held was so evident in the reactions of Jesus, and Lazarus’s sisters.

Lazarus was dead, beyond friends and family, locked behind a stone, bound in cloth and smelly. The King James Version uses the phrase: ‘he stinketh’… yet he was called to ‘Come out’. Can you hear Jesus say to you, ‘Come out’?. Whatever it is that is hidden in our lives, God calls us on a journey towards authenticity, integration and life.

‘Unbind him and let him go’. What bindings do you need to begin to undo and start this journey towards coming out? Note that Lazarus needed help. Someone needed to role the stone out of the way and help to remove the bindings. We can’t make this journey on our own.

Lazarus is us, bound by death in our current lives, called to life by Jesus who is the Light and the Life of the world. Jesus stands at the edge of our tomb, shouting ‘Come out!’ We are to substitute our own name for that of Lazarus, hear his command, and walk into the light of day, pulling free of our grave clothes as we go.[5]

So go on. Come out. Walk in the light of day pulling free of your grave clothes as you go.

  1. Coming Out Can Reduce Sexual Prejudice – Heterosexuals With Personal Contact Have More Positive Feelings toward Lesbians and Gay Men – Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis
  2. Robert Eichberg, 50, Gay Rights Leader – obituary, New York Times, 15th August 1995.
  3. The History Behind Why We Say a Person ‘Came Out of the Closet, Time Magazine, 11th October 2017
  4. Raphael, Simcha Paull (2009). Jewish Views of the Afterlife (second edition). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p. 140.
  5. Lazarus Is Us: Reflections on John 11:1-45Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie – George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology.

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