A Coming Out Angel

A Coming Out Angel

By the Rev. Bethany Joy Winn

It’s the 10 year anniversary of my coming out. Well, this past week or two was. Because it didn’t happen all at once, and it took a particular set of conditions for me to acknowledge who I was and what I needed to do about it.

I had been in Tampa, FL, for 11 days with members of my denomination. It was the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, to which I was a delegate, and as an ally I had attended (again) the National Gathering of the Coalition for LGBT Concerns (now the Open and Affirming Coalition).

Prior to this gathering, I knew I wasn’t exactly happy in my almost 10-year marriage. I couldn’t pin my unhappiness on anything in particular, (he’s a decent enough guy) but I felt resigned to a life and future with him. I rarely admitted this to myself (much less to anyone else) or dared to dream what a happy, hopeful future might look like.

We had two young kids, ages 3 and 5 at the time. How could I disrupt their lives and tear apart our family simply because I wasn’t happy? How selfish of me, right?

And yet I also knew that feeling stuck, trapped, and yearning for something — anything! — outside of the life I was signed up for was not a recipe for flourishing. Not for myself, but also not for my husband and kids.

Enter the UCC Coalition gathering. Folks of many genders and sexual orientations from all over the country, connected to the United Church of Christ. This was the second time I had attended this gathering, and as someone identifying as cisgender and heterosexual was very clearly in the minority. I loved it. I sang with the Coalition choir and we made beautiful music together, praising a God who created us to be exactly who we are, and who loves us, completely, whoever we are. We shared bread and wine at God’s table, remembering and believing the stories of Jesus — that his life and ministry offer us a way forward when it seems that only death lies ahead.

Vulnerability and authenticity were present in the structured worship services, and also in the in-between moments as we gathered in hotel bars or bathroom lines, as we savored the sacrament of convention-center coffee breaks and ventured to Busch Gardens on a rainy day off between business. These queer Christians and clergy folk served each other (and me) with acceptance and affirmation, humor and joy. They ministered from their scars, mostly, and sometimes from wounds that were still fresh. Wounds of exclusion, of abuse and oppression, of isolation and denial.

As previously mentioned, this was my second time attending this pre-Synod gathering, and it was my happy place. This community was (and is) not without its own challenges, yet it represented for me the Church as it should be. I experienced God-in-community there in a way I hadn’t before.

I grew up in a relatively evangelical context with a high emphasis on bringing the message of Christ to all the world. We’d support Bible translators to get Scripture into the languages of all people, so that no matter who or where people are, they might hear/read the truth that they are loved, that they matter, that they are not alone.

Y’all, gathering and worshiping with the UCC Coalition was my language. I couldn’t quite identify it then, but in retrospect I felt that I was hearing and speaking my native language for the first time. I was surrounded by queer people of faith and it all felt so familiar somehow. Easy. Good. Right. Trustworthy. Safe. Holy.

And somewhere in the midst of all this I released a little bit of my hold on the life I thought I was supposed to live.

I then encountered my Coming Out Angel.

She represented so much of who I wanted to be. She was a faith leader. She was confident and professional. She was smart and funny and kind.

She had also recently left a long-term relationship and was trying to figure out how to lovingly co-parent their child together. When I asked why she left the relationship, she said “because I wasn’t happy.” And I was blown away to think that if she could do it, maybe I could too. If her happiness mattered, maybe mine did too.

Thus began a long evening of truth-telling, self-acknowledgement, tears of grief and also of hope. She listened to me for hours as I processed my life and marriage, my unhappiness and wonderings. I couldn’t acknowledge, yet, that I was queer, though I tried out a few labels over the days and weeks (and months) that followed. And the queer Christians rallied! They took me out for tapas and sangria and pastoral care. They brought me to a gay nightclub for some late-night dancing to get out of my head. They prayed with me, and for me, in ways that honored the tenderness of this discernment. I received hugs, validation, testimonies from other folks’ coming-out stories that helped me see possible paths forward. I was gifted with books and stickers and buttons and all the Synod-swag to bless and affirm my faith in the midst of coming out, however it evolved.

And now it has been 10 years since that time. I have experienced some loss along the way. There are friends who faded out of my life, and some family members who perceive my current life and marriage with my wife to be sinful. But I don’t regret it for a minute. And the happiness that felt selfish to yearn for has multiplied so many times over. I’m not sure what I could have poured out into my family or community or world if I had not come out, but God has blessed me with so much love and so many opportunities to live authentically.

June 25 – July 5, 2011 was the culminating, clarifying window in my coming out story, and I am deeply grateful for the people who cared for me and held me up through the stages of figuring things out that came before and after as well. Including my ex-husband, who was an oddly good ally in many ways.

Y’all, this is a long post and maybe you didn’t get this far. But I think I wrote this for myself anyway, mostly. It’s amazing to think that it’s been 10 years since it felt like my whole world and life was breaking apart. And I do not take my life for granted! The marriage I share with my wife, which is mutually satisfying and bears good fruit. The opportunities I have had for learning about myself and others through seminary, CPE, the ordination process, and serving as a hospice chaplain. The many times I have been the contact for a person of faith struggling with the gender or sexual orientation of themselves or a loved one. The ways I’ve held space with queer people and communities struggling with religious or spiritual identities due to the harm perpetuated by some religious ideologies.

Pride month ended when July began, but my ongoing hope, prayer, and intention in this world (and my communities) is flourishing for all. All, all. And until that is our lived reality, I will proudly (and oh, so gratefully) share my story and seek to be the Coming Out Angel someone else needs. If you’re still reading this, you probably are (or can be) as well.

May you be blessed with all that you need as you serve the cause of transformative Love in this world and beyond, in others and in your own self. Amen, and happy Pride.

The Rev. Bethany Joy Winn