Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 22, 2006

 “Coming Out of Our Closets and Our Shells”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


Bob McGough read a selection from the book Prayers for Bobby. Bobby’s mother found out, too late, that encouraging her son to deny his true self had disastrous consequences not only for him but for her as well. The author of this book is a gay journalist who interviewed Bobby’s mother Mary over an extended period of time, got to know her and her family, and got to know Bobby through reading the young man’s diary.

The author, Leroy Aarons, says that the family loved Bobby very much, and was motivated by love when they told him that homosexuality was sinful and evil. In his introduction, Aarons says that the story of Mary learning what had caused her son to commit suicide was “more than the story of Mary’s overcoming prejudice; it was also the story of her liberation as a thinking, adult woman, at age fifty. Mary had grown up,” he writes, “with a deep-seated insecurity, clinging to approval from her husband, her mother, her church. The awful impact of Bobby’s death undermined all of her old assumptions. She had to start over. In re-creating herself, she not only found justification for Bobby’s life (and death), but learned to value herself.

“In working with Mary and developing the story,” Aarons continues, “I came to think of the scene from The Miracle Worker in which the young Helen Keller has a furious temper tantrum, spilling a water pitcher at the supper table. Her teacher, Annie, ignoring the pleas of Helen’s parents, drags her roughly to the courtyard and forces her to refill the pitcher from the pump, at the same time repeating over and over the hand signal for water in Helen’s palm.

“Suddenly, after months of drilling and helpless noncomprehension, Helen gets it. Water! That’s how you say water! Things have words attached to them, and words are the way out of the tunnel. Helen is spontaneously transformed—a seeing, hearing, talking butterfly soaring from the chrysalis. It is a moment of supreme grace.”

Next week, the Gay Straight Alliance will lead the first workshop in our Welcoming Congregations program. This is an opportunity for us all to talk about issues of sexuality and gender identity that we rarely get a chance to ponder and discuss in depth. What a blessing that we have this liberal religious tradition that encourages us to have these discussions in the context of this caring and ethical community. Dealing with questions of sexuality and gender identity are as deep as it gets. For all of us, I suspect, the sexual feelings that we have—or don’t have—at times have made us feel ashamed. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I bet that all of us to one extent or another are closeted about our sexuality. I don’t mean that all of us are gay and pretending to be straight, or that the people who are out as gay, lesbian or bisexual are actually secretly closeted heterosexuals. What I mean is that surely all of us are sometimes attracted to things that we would rather no one know we’re attracted to. When I taught morality at the Catholic girls’ school, there was a section of the curriculum where we dealt with the issue of pornography, as part of the larger issue of sexuality. I would tell the girls that it was completely human for them to get “hot and bothered” by pictures whose intention was to make them feel “hot and bothered.” They would always groan at how dorky it was for me to refer to it this way. But they would comment that people would e-mail them sexually explicit photographs sometimes and they feared their own reactions to the images.

For some of us, our sexual desires and orientations are easy to deal with. We have very little conflict within ourselves or with family or societal expectations. We find a partner who with whom we feel sexually free and our sex lives are healthy and satisfying. The rest of us hate you.

Part of what I learned about in the Welcoming Congregations workshops that I attended was how very complex our sexual and gender identities are. For me, the workshops didn’t simply make me more open and sympathetic to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people; they gave me insights into my own sexual and gender identity and sources of confusion in myself that I had never taken the time to sort out before.

For the record, I identify myself, quite conventionally, as a straight woman. But over the years, I wondered about that identity, whether it was who I really was. Did occassional feelings of attraction for women mean that I was a lesbian? What did it mean that I never really felt very interested in girly things like dolls and makeup? Did that mean that I was a lesbian? That didn’t seem true, but at the same time, what about the thoughts and feelings that didn’t fit in with what a female was supposed to think and feel?

The Welcoming Congregations workshops didn’t ask me to discuss such questions in depth with other participants, but the topics we covered got me thinking and gave me information that no one had ever given me before. Learning the simple distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity was an enormous eye-opener for me. In one of the workshops, we were taught that a woman might feel inside more like a man than a woman, but that was not related to sexual orientation. She might be either straight or lesbian, or somewhere in between. In fact, I learned that the majority of people fall somewhere in between straight and gay. Most of us have some level of attraction to both sexes. All of this made me feel much more normal than I had secretly felt before. So, it is very female of me not to feel in all ways female. Lots of girls and women have those feelings. It is natural for me, even though I am straight, to find women attractive, even though my friend Laura in high school used to heap scorn upon any girl who said of another girl, “She’s so pretty.” Laura might have been one of those few females who is pure straight and without any moments in her whole life where she didn’t feel 100% female.

And I had these delightful epiphanies not because I went to the workshops looking for personal growth, but because I went in order to support the congregation in doing the right thing. And this is exactly what happened to Bobby’s mother in the process of dealing with her son’s suicide. She wanted to understand her son, and in doing so she learned to understand herself. I have only read excerpts from the book; it was Bob McGough who found the book and selected the passage that he read today. As he spoke with me about this book, he said that the transformation that the mother, Mary, went through is visible in the book even through her photographs. He described that one can see in the pictures how she went from a frightened woman to a freer, more confident woman.

This week, I was listening to the Leonard Lopate show on the public radio station, WNYC. Leonard was on vacation, but the guest host was interviewing a professor at Yale Law School named Kenji Yoshino. How lucky those students at Yale Law School are to have this man in their midst. He is a gay Asian-American who has spent his life thinking about the ways in which all of us have to closet parts of ourselves. The word he uses for how we hide our authentic selves is “covering.” It is not a term he invented; it was coined in the sense he’s using it by Erving Goffman in 1963, in a book named Stigma.

In his book, Covering, Professor Yoshino says that we all “cover.” That is, “we tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” In his book, he describes four ways that individuals can cover: in our appearance, in our affiliations, in our activism, and in our associations.

By way of example, let’s say we’re someone who enjoys hunting and we are a member of a congregation full of fervent vegan members of PETA. We cover our appearance by making sure that we don’t wear clothes typical of a hunter. We cover our affiliations by hiding connections with hunting culture—perhaps we keep our pick-up truck with the NRA sticker on it quietly hidden away in our country cabin when we come to church. We cover our activism by not engaging in causes that we would otherwise wish to pursue as a hunting afficionado. We cover our associations by distancing ourselves from other hunters—not wanting to be seen as “one of them.”

All of us will, at times, find ourselves in a group of people who we believe would disapprove of us if we were to give full and unfettered expression to who we are inside. Even here at SNUUC, where we are an extremely friendly and accepting group, there are people who feel that they have parts of themselves that they have to hide or downplay. It is inevitable. As human beings, we have both a deep desire for complete freedom to be ourselves and a deep desire to be accepted and respected. These are often competing desires. Especially in our young lives, experience teaches us that even the slightest self-disclosure could result in expulsion from a social group or even hatred and wrath from one’s own family. All of us, I am sure, have lots of incidents from childhood where we were stigmatized for simple and natural expressions of who we were. When I was young, I tended to really, genuinely like the kids that other kids thought were weird. They were usually the smartest and most interesting kids to me. But, I confess, sometimes I “covered”—to use Yoshino’s expression. I downplayed my friendships with these kids and today I look back with regret, feeling that I was disloyal to them as friends. But at the time, my need for acceptance was much stronger than my need for authenticity.

For the young man Bobby, the two needs crashed tragically.

And for all of us, these two deepest of human needs will compete all our lives. As time goes by, though, it becomes more and more obvious how unsatisfying acceptance and belonging are if they we are not accepted as our authentic selves.

I have recently gotten addicted to a British television comedy called The Vicar of Dibley. The show is about a woman who becomes the vicar of a small parish in England, just after women began being ordained in the Church of England. The vicar is assigned to a small village parish full of quirky characters. One of these characters is a man named Frank. He is the church secretary—or, to use the proper terminology, the parish clerk. Although a kind-hearted person, he is deathly boring and pedantic. When one member of the church council begins to speak and then says, “Oh, nevermind,” Frank asks, “Mrs. Cropley, would you like me to put that in the minutes?” Mrs. Cropley says, “Yes, alright,” and Frank writes, “Then—Mrs.—Cropley—said—nothing.” He is not a fascinating character. He is prim, proper, and dull.

In one episode, the vicar has each member of the church council host a one-hour radio program. Frank begins his by saying, “I’ll—be—with—you—for—an—hour—or—maybe—a—little—longer—” Just when the vicar is falling asleep, Frank says, “I—first—discovered—that—I—was—gay—when….” Of course, her ears perk up immediately. He explains, in his excrutiatingly slow way, that although he is in his 60’s now, he feels comfortable revealing his sexual orientation because he has the protection of saying it on the radio, where he can both be authentic and still have the illusion that it is a private communication.

At the next church council meeting, everyone tells him that it was a wonderful and moving radio show. He is so moved, he sheds a tear, runs out, and comes back having been emboldened to put on a bright purple jacket. Later, it is revealed that in fact, no one listened to his show, on the assumption that it would be deathly dull. No one knows that he is gay.

But Frank has a new relationship with the other residents of the village because he feels that he can now be who he authentically is.

On TV, there can be one moment where an individual becomes their authentic self. In real life, of course, it is something that is a process of unfolding.

In one of my television appearances on the Hallmark channel, the topic we discussed was “unfolding.” It was their topic for the episode, and as I think about it now, the word “unfolding” is really another way of speaking about “coming out.” Coming out as homosexual is something that is especially difficult because our sexual identity is so primal, so basic to who we are, and for some reason homosexuality is something that Western culture has long felt is a basic threat to the fabric of society. So the individual’s deepest need is set against what for some is society’s worst nightmare. I don’t know why this should be so. I saw a cartoon online. First, the words, “Advocates for Gay Marriage Have a Hidden Agenda.” Then the cartoon appeared, and it was two elderly men, sitting in a kitchen, sipping coffee and holding hands under the table. That was their hidden agenda—holding hands.

But coming out, or unfolding, is something that all of us wrestle with to one degree or another. On that television episode, I told the story of a dream that Rachel Naomi Remen writes about in her book My Grandfather’s Blessing. She dreamed one day that there was a rock lying upon a daffodil bud. The image stayed with her, as dream images sometimes will do. It was such a simple image—just a rock sitting on an infant daffodil. She told a friend about the image, and that she couldn’t understand why the image was haunting her. The friend said, “Perhaps the rock and the daffodil are having a conversation. Maybe you can listen in.” So Rachel took some time alone in a quiet place and meditated intentionally on the image, waiting to find out if she could hear what the rock and the daffodil were trying to say to one another. Sure enough, the daffodil was crying out to the rock, saying, “Please, you have to get off of me. I must bloom.” And the rock was replying, “No, I have to protect you. It’s not a safe world for daffodils.”

Indeed, it is not a safe world for daffodils, but as the suicide of the young man Bobby illustrates, allowing our authentic selves to remain hidden under a rock is infinitely worse. Each time we allow more of our authentic selves to show, we become more human, more free, more compassionate, and more joyful. But we have so much to lose. We have our pride to lose. We have false friends to lose. We have the illusion of someone else’s approval to lose. We have idealized, fantasy images of ourselves to lose.

It’s really not a safe world for daffodils. But it’s safer than the rock fears that it is. Each of us, of course, is both the daffodil and the rock. We both desperately long to come out of our closets and our shells and we desperately fear it at the same time. Every single person in this room has both that longing and that fear. And yet, it is a deeply personal and private experience, no matter how many others go through the same thing.

But we can do it. We can peak out of our closets and chip away at the shell that surrounds us, and we can nudge the rock off little by little. It’s difficult—and each time we reveal more of ourselves, it is hard all over again. But I know what it’s like to admit to who I really am at times. It leaves my spirit soaring and fills my heart with compassion for others. Each moment that I put the rock of my false pride aside—and have compassion on the daffodil I’m afraid to be—is a moment of astonishing grace.

All it takes is listening to that voice, still and small that is deep inside all. That voice deep inside sings. Sing. Bloom. Come out of the closet.