Using the Coming Out Narrative as Allies

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March 30, 2012 by Alex Patchin McNeill

I wrote the following for a panel I was on at Harvard Divinity School this week.

Ten years ago, I came out as a lesbian to my best friend. We were a semester away from graduating from high school, and I knew I couldn’t live the next 4 months without someone knowing what I had suspected for a long time. I was attracted to women, and the new-found discovery of this attraction meant something deeply to my identity. For the next six years I never stopped coming out, my words, my actions, my language were all motivated towards expressing to the universe that I was fundamentally queer. For many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, coming out was our ultimate act of defiance. We’re here, we’re queer get used to it.

Four years ago, my relationship with coming out started to change. As I was coming in to my own sense that the word “transgender” seemed to describe me best, I started realizing that for some people coming out didn’t always feel like a glitter and sequins parade that it had for me. Suddenly, coming out wasn’t always pointing into a future self, but was a constant reminder of a past left behind. For many of my transgender brothers and sisters, coming out as transgender was the very act that threatened their safety, and exposed them to a painful vulnerability they had worked hard to escape.

As I have begun and lived my own process of gender transition, it has been my friends who have been my best advocates and allies. They stand up for me when someone calls me by the wrong pronoun, or slips up and calls me by my former name. The same best friend who I came out to 10 years ago has lovingly corrected high school friends who still see me as my 16 year old former self to remind them of who I am now.

Stories are some of our most powerful tools against oppression. They work when statistics don’t to expose the humanity of all of us. As ministers, rabbis, and religious leaders, we stand at the intersections of the political and the personal, human reality and inhumane treatment. We absorb and hear the stories that can help change the world. What I want to propose is this: when the stories of our personal tragedies or triumphs are too painful or dangerous to bear, that the coming out narrative be the tool of empowerment for our best allies, the ministers and religious leaders who witness our living of them.

A story told to a legislator about a transgender congregant who had to drive 20 miles from her office to find the nearest bathroom since her employer wouldn’t let her use the women’s restroom, is just as powerful as the woman who lived that reality telling it herself. However when our allies tell the stories, it removes the potentially dangerous element of exposing the woman as transgender, and adds the empowering element of another person expressing outrage that it is still legal in 38 states to discriminate against transgender persons.

I want to extend the analogy to work within the reproductive justice community. I believe we can be good allies to those who have faced a protest line as they walked in to a clinic to access their services. We can help tell the stories of women whose lives were saved because of an abortion procedure in a late term of pregnancy. We can work to keep low cost birth control in the affordable care act as we share the stories of the sisters or mothers in our lives whose dreams would not have been fulfilled if they had an unintended pregnancy.

The coming out narrative has served as a device to gain rights for lesbian and gay persons for the past 40 years. As the reproductive rights of women and families are increasingly eroded we must bring the stories of the life saving care provided by courageous doctors into the open.

As ministers and religious leaders, we have the opportunity to do these stories justice without eroding the precious confidence in which they were delivered. We can protect the names and identities of our parishioners while lending our voice to the work for freedom and dignity for all persons. As ministers and religious leaders, we must speak out, because our silence will not protect us, or those we are called to serve.

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