It was the turn of the millennia and I was lonely.
So begins the story of how I watched my first season of reality TV. I had recently graduated from college and found myself in an apartment with three other guys and a cable subscription. I didn’t yet know these guys and all my college friends had spread themselves across the country.
Thus, I found myself watching MTV’s Real World—which, as I quickly found out, was nothing like any real world I’d ever known. In the first episode, we’re introduced to the “characters” as they arrive at the home where they’ll be staying for that season of the show. It’s here we’re introduced to a young man with a “secret.”
He’s quite intent on telling his housemates that he has a “secret” in spite of the fact not one of them knows him or shows an interest in hearing this secret. Seeing this tactic isn’t advancing his mission, he starts sharing the secret (you guessed it)—he’s gay.
Even with my limited experience of sharing my sexuality at that point in my life, I found myself dumbstruck by the way this Real Worlder offered something so personal. In my last post, I briefly described my first experience telling someone about my sexuality. Even as I wrote that post, I had in the back of my mind this young man from the Real World. I couldn’t shake my memory of him because I think he came out badly.
When I say “badly”, I don’t mean from a reality TV perspective (I suspect he did exactly what the show’s producers encouraged). No, I mean to say the way he treated himself and his fellow housemates (as well as what he was suggesting to other young gay people like myself) was not helpful, and perhaps even harmful.
I know it’s passé to suggest there’s a bad way of coming out. In our culture today, the declaration seems to be the most important thing—that act of speaking up for oneself and being proud of one’s sexuality. While that certainly is valuable, it may not be preeminent.In our culture today, the declaration seems to be the most important thing—that act of speaking up for oneself and being proud of one’s sexuality.
Let’s start by naming what “coming out” is not and this might help us begin to form a picture of what it is.
First, it’s not a tool. A person’s sexuality plays a pivotal role in his or her make-up. While not the totality of a person, our sexuality does inform the way we look at the world and move within it. A tool, however, is used to manipulate something in the world for an intended end. To use our sexuality as a means to obtain something for ourselves or to avoid something we desire to avoid seems a misuse of it. We cheapen our stories (and ourselves) when our aim in coming out focuses primarily on what we will gain or avoid by doing so.
Second, sexuality is not a weapon. While a tool may be used benignly, a weapon is always used to dominate or defend. With a weapon, we look to wield something over someone and force that person to behave in certain ways (or else!). Or, we use it to defend ourselves, to protect what we have from being taken away.We cheapen our stories (and ourselves) when our aim in coming out focuses primarily on what we will gain or avoid by doing so.
My heart breaks when gay people use their sexuality as a club to beat others into submission—“You must accept me as I am; if you don’t, you’re a homophobe or bigot.” As a Christian, I follow a King who died for his people, not one who demands respect by threatening an attack or beating people into submission.
I know it’s counter-cultural to suggest that a persecuted minority (as gay people certainly have been and continue to be in some places) should not stand up for their rights, demand change, and defend themselves from attack. But what I see in Christ is not one who wins people over by wielding a tool or weapon, but by inviting people in and opening himself to them and their pain. When our coming out is either a demand for respect or a defense against attack, are we sharing this important part of ourselves in humility or pride?
It seems to me that when this young man from the Real World shared his sexuality, he did so perhaps to stand out or, more likely, to assuage his understandable fears about entering into an immersive experience with a group of strangers. If he’s anything like me, he wanted to be known and loved. These are good and human desires, but one’s sexuality should not be the primary means by which knowing and loving occur.
Instead, I would have preferred to see him show a genuine interest in the stories and lives of his housemates—to ask good questions, listen well, and look for ways to serve them (something I should have been doing with my new apartment mates instead of watching reality TV). In time, his sexuality would have likely come up as a topic of conversation, but then it would have been in the context of others who have a genuine interest in hearing his story. They would want to know because they valued him as a friend—in which case, he wouldn’t have been sharing a secret, but sharing himself in mutual affection and care.
Disclaimer: I don’t know the faith-journey of the gay Real Worlder highlighted in this post. I would not expect a non-Christian to behave Christianly (Lord knows, I barely behave Christianly). Instead, my purpose here was to commend a different way of thinking about coming out—a way less like a sharp line, and more like a circle inviting people into a deeper level of community.