the cost of coming out of fundamentalism

I have been trying to explain to a couple straight friends of mine a bit of the cost of coming out. One friend simply cannot fathom why I would choose not to return home to my beloved mid-sized city once I’m done with doctoral studies, should a job open there. Another sort of understands my situation, but cannot fathom how deeply it runs within me.

So here I try to explain a little of the cost.

I have been deeply religious my entire life. The upshot of that is that the vast majority of my many friends are also deeply religious (we tend to run with those who share interests with us, especially if we run in fundamentalist circles). Now of these deeply religious friendships, about 90% are fundamentalist Christians and in my hometown. Most are or were attending a so-called ‘megachurch’ that I attended when living there. I do not exaggerate when I say I know hundreds, if not around a thousand people, with whom I worshipped or ministered for some sixteen years. It was never an uncommon occurrence for me to be out and about town and to run into somebody from church who knew me.

Add to this the fact that I am the eldest daughter of a gentleman who is very well known around town both for his activity in the community, in business, and in his own church circles (different than mine as an adult, but I certainly grew up in these circles!). I was, for years, known in my role as his daughter. Everything I did reflected on him. It wasn’t so common that I ran into people from my childhood days, but it was not uncommon that I would find out later from my mother that somebody from her current church home knew me from some indirect route of business or academics. In short, every thread of my life in that town was tied to something fundamentalist.

Fundamentalists interpret scripture literally, but according to a carefully constructed dispensationalist hermeneutic laid out in 1908 and 1915. The general thrust is that the world is getting worse and worse as it slouches towards the great tribulation and eventual second coming of Christ. Everything is, in short, going to hell in a handbasket, and there will, in this great falling away, be a large number of what appeared to be good Christians going apostate, abandoning the truth (read: this very careful and precise dispensationalist interpretation of certain Biblical passages) for lies (read: any other interpretation of the same Biblical passages). So it is that any alteration of one’s beliefs away from unquestioning acceptance of the required set of doctrinal claims as interpreted is apostasy.

Included among these beliefs is, naturally, that homosexuality is not only a sin, but worse than any other kind of sin. (Of course, they won’t admit they think this, since official doctrine says that all sins are the same in God’s eyes, but they won’t say that homosexuality is no worse than theft or hatred!)

Most of these many people I know have no clue I’m gay. Quite a few know darn well I’m gay, and have worked very hard to keep me under wraps via doctrinal terrorism (no, they don’t see it that way—they truly believe what they say, and think they were helping me. I love them and don’t judge them for their actions, but the fact remains, the actions were ultimately destructive and powerful in alienating me from God).

Now I have come out. Clearly in the process, I have undergone deep doctrinal changes. I have looked to an older hermeneutic, and am learning how to read scripture differently. I am not fundamentalist, may not even be what is termed ‘evangelical’ any longer. Thus, I am apostate, by their lights. Now if I actually have the audacity to live as God created me, I will be ‘flouting’ my sinfulness. And I will be judged wherever I go, haunted by countless telephone calls, letters, and emails from ‘deeply concerned’ friends who wish to ‘pray with’ me.

And my mother will be overwhelmed with the concerns of those who will interpret my actions as a poor reflection on her. And my mother will not be understanding.

The fact is, I hate personal drama. I want and cherish a peaceful life. People will still find out about me, but I fail to see why I would choose to return to a town that will actively seek to recloset me, a town that forced me to closet as soon as I moved back to it after a painful lesbian break up. I don’t wish to make life more painful (for me or for those whom I love, even though they will never understand or embrace me as gay), and I don’t see anything to outweigh the pain that will come of my moving back there.

One must count the cost. Jesus said of his disciples that if they went to a town and that town didn’t accept them as from him, that they should shake the dust from their feet and move on. So it must be.

I told one dear friend over a year ago that I had left the church she attends, that I attended for sixteen years. Moving was just an easy way to go without causing any scandal. Yet when I visited, recently, her first thought was to have me attend a service with her, as if I hadn’t made the break. They don’t understand that leaving has a weight to it, that it surpasses just going elsewhere. I didn’t leave before because I refuse ever to run away from anything, no matter how destructive. I won’t run away—without having something to run to. Until I know where I will go, I won’t leave, not to be stranded in the desert.

So when I left, I left. Not to return. My move from my hometown was long in the coming; finding a doctoral program across the country was just the avenue that worked most conveniently. I left much of my life—I truly came out. I came out Ur, out of my personal Egypt. I cannot go back, not unless I wish truly to go back, back into the closet, back into the roles people need me to play. And if I go back there, I go back into spiritual stagnation. Or, I go back and try not to stagnate, in which case I create chaos wherever I tread.

I can’t.

The cost of coming out? It’s the cost of discipleship, the cost of authenticity in a world that demands you conform to their design for you. Because I cannot go back, I lose friends who cannot come with. Though I love my town, I become a pilgrim who no longer belongs there. The cost is what I know in order to buy a hope for that which I don’t yet know, but believe God is faithful to supply. The cost is to follow Jesus even when his followers refuse to let me journey with them, even when they throw stones at me. The cost is to stand like Stephen under the hail of judgment, eyes fixed on God, even as the religious leaders do all they can to destroy me. May I find the means to afford it.


2 thoughts on “the cost of coming out of fundamentalism

  1. jaded theologian

    I love your image of Jesus’ followers throwing stones at you while refusing to let you journey with them! Who is this Jesus of which you speak? He doesn’t sound like he keeps very good company. And just where in Hell are they journeying to anyway? These are friends you’re concerned about losing!? Oy vey.

    I don’t mean to sound flippant in my response, not in the least. I have an idea of how terrifying and confusing all this is, having gone through something similar in my own family and with my partner who is from a very small town.

    Please take a bit of comfort in the fact that we have lived through coming out and are the stronger for it. Yes, people can be nasty, mean, cruel and ignorant. All in the name of Jesus of course. That “love the sinner hate the sin” thing? That’s just bullshit, a smokescreen, and we all know it.

    In my experience way too many people are busy claiming to love, love, love Jesus while ignoring the implications and responsibility of that love. “Oh God Save Me From Your Followers” is admittedly bumper sticker theology, but it makes a valid point because mean people are every where. Fortunately, Thank God, there are other people, mature Christians—not fundamentalists, who love, respect, support and nourish us as individuals and couples.

    My partner and I were joined in Holy Union, married, in 2006 in a religious ceremony thanks to our United Church of Christ pastor. We are a Christian household. We had about five dozen of our friends in attendance, and only six family members. A good dozen of the attendees and participants are members of clergy in several denominations. The fundamentalist family members could not and would not be a part although they were invited. I get it. They are certain we are headed for Hell. I’m sure they’re praying for us to see the light and be saved. Bless ’em, but I don’t live for them or with them.

  2. Bubba

    Two little thoughts, assuming I can muster them intelligibly: first, for many of us, Sartre was right; hell truly is other people. They constrain our identity by relating to us not as we are, but as they have come to represent us. They demand that we be who they have come to expect us to be, rather than who we know ourselves to be, interfering with the sacred duty that is our freedom to live out an authentic existence.

    Second, “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.” (Matthew 13:57, KJV) A prophet is one who stands in the midst of an invisible, unacknowledged injustice and says “this is breaking my heart, this is breaking God’s heart.” In coming out, one accepts, however reluctantly, the mantle of prophecy. Your very existence is a public challenge to the masses’ comfortable rejection of the ultimate divine imperative–justice. This role will always be made more difficult by the presence and pressure of those who “knew you when,” who are so challenged by the person you have become that they blindly persevere in forcing you into an identity that fits their worldview. Only you can count the cost of returning home, and only you can bear the burden of authentic existence. But know this: wherever you go, you can never move outside the scope of God’s love or of your true friends support and acceptance of the person you truly are, and always were.


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