Coming Out

Our preacher yesterday had something very interesting to say about closets. His purpose was to encourage members of our parish, whether gay or straight, to march with the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago in the 2010 Pride Parade, as, in fact, my husband and I (and, for at least part of the way, our dog) did (when she pooped out, she got to ride in the Episcopal car). But what business did we, a clearly (and demonstrably, right there walking through Boystown on Halsted) heterosexual couple (we kissed and held hands--really!), have marching alongside those of our fellow parishioners who have spent their lives wondering whether it would be socially acceptable or, indeed, safe to "come out" about the basis of their sexuality? Surely, nothing could be easier socially to live openly as husband and wife. It's what the Bible says we should do, after all. None of that messy stuff about whether it is "natural": God made us to be each other's Adam and Eve.

Or did He? I am particularly struck by the number of comments (any! plus several via email) on my post last week about taking my husband's last name. Brian put the usual anxiety particularly well: "I am distressed by the assumption that if one member of a married couple changes surname, it should be the woman (presuming heterosexual marriage, which is not the only possibility anymore). It does evoke coverture." As in, the man lying on top of the woman while making love? Oh, no--I looked it up. It means putting the wife under the legal protection of the husband, with the presumption that she have no legal status of her own. But surely that is something different from sharing a name for the sake of defining the couple? Is it just that the custom depends upon this former legal situation (by no means immemorial, if having deep roots in the European past; plenty of medieval wives acted legally on behalf of their husbands, and daughters regularly inherited property of their own long before there were "last names" to confuse the issue)? Or does the anxiety have something rather to do with sex and the way in which husbands and wives interact?

Here's what our preacher had to say about closets: "I know now that to remain in The Closet is a sin and a perversion; indeed, to remain closeted is a desire of the flesh. And, thanks to Paul, we know that the works of the flesh are obvious: 'fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.' It's fornication to pursue sexual relationships based on false premises. It's licentiousness at its most basic to try to ply and shape one's sexuality into whatever one wants. It's idolatry to sacrifice the truth of who one is at the altar of conformity. It's sorcery to try to cure ourselves of our deviance. The fundamental dishonesty of The Closet can only bear the fruits of strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, and dissensions. The envy of those we consider to be normal can cause us to act out in harmful ways, with drunkenness and carousing. My friends, it is the flesh that desires to remain closeted, to remain comfortably enslaved to a law, protected from its own freedom."

"By contrast," he continued, "Coming Out of The Closet is a work of the Spirit." While the flesh wants to stay hidden, indulging itself without the risk of being judged, it is the work of the Spirit to welcome God's judgment and accept God's grace. It is (as our preacher Dan went on) the work of the flesh to desire safety and normalcy, for example, through the security of gay marriage (as opposed to legal protections for domestic partnerships); it is the work of the Spirit to live always on the edge, never quite safe from society's opprobrium, never quite sure about whether what one believes or does is going to shock one's neighbors or alienate one's friends. As, for example, in declaring oneself Christian--belonging to Christ--or "Mrs. Brown"--belonging in Christ to Mr. Brown.

"You see," Dan explained, "the Closet is not just for the gays. I daresay most of us are closeted. We have all submitted our sexuality to a yoke of slavery because in our sexual selves, perhaps more than in anything else, it is just too risky, too dangerous, and too difficult to live with the freedom for which Christ sets us free.... In sex, each partner lays bare his body for the delight of the other; experiencing himself through the other's experience of him, and thereby opens himself to be recreated by the other. In contrast to individualistic notions of self-sufficiency, the fullness of sexuality requires making my joy dependent on the joy of another. This is why there is so much potential in sex for embarrassment and rejection, both in the encounter itself and in the relationship subsequent to the encounter. There's no wondering why all of us seek The Closet, seek to isolate--to segregate--sexuality from the rest of human life by safely submitting our sexual selves to social norms."

As have I all these years, refusing (or, more passively, neglecting) to take my husband's name and declare myself, publicly, socially, legally, his wife. No, it's not that I didn't wear a wedding ring or that I pretended to be single when I wasn't. It's just that I, like so many women of my generation and, more important, my social and professional class, was worried about somehow losing myself if I submitted in any way to the status of marriage. Not that there weren't real and present dangers of which I was all-too-painfully aware: my parents divorced when I was 11, as did my husband's parents. How foolish--one might easily argue--to believe even for a minute that our future would be different, that we would somehow manage to survive as a couple (as well as a legal entity) longer than they? Everybody knows how many marriages end in divorce; much better to hedge one's bets, keep one's maiden name and not go through all that messiness, right?

Much easier, that is, to stay in the Closet, lying to oneself and one's friends about the level of commitment that one has made. Much easier to maintain the fiction of seeing oneself as an isolated individual, one who just happens for the moment to be living with this other person, like a long-term roommate or friend. Much easier to think about marriage as something like a contract that one can enter or leave at will, rather than a covenant, sealed before God. Much easier to be a "liberated" woman with her own career than a wife dependent upon her husband not only for her name, but her very being--as, indeed, he is dependent upon her for his. Well, if that's what being liberated means, I don't want to be liberated anymore. Yes, of course, I want to keep my job; yes, of course, I want to be able to do my own creative work. But there is a reason that I dedicated my first book to my husband and our son: I quite literally could not have written it without them, most of all, without my husband's love.

I am, let's face it, far from self-sufficient. I need my husband's love and attention like a fish needs water (not a bicycle!). I cannot breathe without knowing that he cares for me. I wilt when I feel him pulling away from me; I cannot write anything substantive if I do not think he will be willing and eager to read it. Okay, no, this isn't entirely true if we're talking "loving what is." I won't actually die if he stops paying attention to me, but I'm not sure how willing I would be to live. Is this too extreme for a woman of my professional stature and training to admit? Well, so be it. The only freedom I have is in Christ to love my husband with all my heart, body and soul. The only way that I will become truly myself is to surrender to my husband in love. Aha! Have I made you uncomfortable yet? Are any of you itching to make a comment, perhaps even for the first time? Is this too scary an admission for me to make? Would you like me to go back into The Closet of Being My Own Woman And Not Submitting to Any Man?

Well, too bad. I marched with my husband in the Pride Parade yesterday, and we were weirdly (perhaps I should say, queerly) proud to be there, publicly labeled as Christians as well as marking ourselves by our gestures as husband and wife. I certainly hope none of the people watching the parade and cheering as we walked past (usually for the car behind us, representing Chicago NOW, but at times for the young woman dancing topless alongside us) felt threatened or repulsed by our behavior; it was not our intent. We hoped perhaps that being a heterosexual couple clearly welcoming others to our church (we were not the only one; our pastor and his wife were marching, too) would help demonstrate our radical openness to those to whom we were handing out cards. But perhaps we also (consciously or unconsciously, I'm not sure) intended to shock, just as the men baring their buttocks (alas, not for my eyes) clearly intended to do. In fact, I spent part of the march talking with our pastor about my name change, why now, and what it means to me.

How easy it would have been to pretend--and, believe me, I was tempted--to be gay for a day, walking the streets of Chicago wearing my rainbow chain. How easy it is to want to conform, hide ourselves away behind a screen of normalcy lest we appear in some way queer. And yet, as Paul says, that way lies only sin, and more sins: the sin of deceit, pretending to be something one is not; the sins of licentiousness and drunkenness, pretending to be available to others sexually when one is not; the sins of idolatry and fornication, pretending to conform to whatever desires one thinks others expect and to be willing to have sex on terms other than those dictated by one's heart lest one be judged frigid or repressed. I have no idea how many people were pretending to be someone other than themselves yesterday. What I do know is that the Spirit has shoved Mrs. Brown out of the closet and I'm damned if I'm going to let her scurry back in.


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