Maybe you’ve seen this T-shirt…
I think I want one … and I bet you know why. The message captures an all-too-common experience: the vague knot in our stomachs, the brace of fear, the incipient eye-roll when we know a question about our orientation, our gender, the people we are and the people we love is coming straight at us.
Yes, I’m talking about explaining.
To me, this feels different from coming out. Yes, coming out is also fraught with terror and danger (and hopefully, if it goes well, exaltation and relief and joy). The one big advantage with coming out is that, in most cases, we initiate it. We pick the time and the place, we choose the people we want to come out to, we have time to put our thoughts together before we speak.
Explaining has none of that. The occasion for it can come from anywhere, at any time. It always catches me off guard, and I have to think fast: not only about the question, but about the intent behind it. That’s easy enough with “Why do you have to flaunt it?” It’s more difficult with “Why are you wearing nail polish?”
Now maybe the answer is in the tee. After all, we’re just being ourselves. Why explain at all? I can think of two great reasons to just shut up.
First, it may be a matter of social justice. Even the most innocent question, some advocates tell us, speaks of oppression: it asks us to explain who we are when billions of cis/hetero people never have to. Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone answer the question “When did you choose to be straight?” (Except in videos like this one, where an interviewer asked the question of random people.)
Second, there’s our basic human—and much ignored—need for privacy. At a conference last year, I heard two speakers (one of them Rachel Held Evans) recommend that everyone keep at least a small sphere of privacy around themselves. That’s a pretty stunning statement in the Share Everything Age. It’s also essential for sanity. If I share everything, I’ve left myself wide open for anything that comes at me, from the benign to the dangerous.
Well, that settles it, then, right? Shut up and move on? I wish. For better or worse, we can’t “just shut up” as people in the LGBT+ community. We really can’t shut up as LGBT+ Christians.
Here’s why. It’s a commonplace that the single most powerful way to change people’s minds about any group—to soften their perceptions, melt away their stereotypes, open their hearts—is for them to spend time with a member of that group. When they spend time with us, a safe space develops, and the safety somehow opens the door for all those questions to come tumbling out. If we answer the questions with love and gentleness, we multiply the mind-changing power of our presence.
That’s a pretty compelling reason to explain for anyone. On top of that, we Christians hear about explaining in the pages of our scriptures. “Speaking the truth in love” is touted as a great thing for building up the church (Ephesians 4:15). This is, after all, about our truth.
So. Explaining is good, healthy, and called for—at times. Shutting up is good, healthy, and called for—at times. When do we do which? Here are a few questions I ask myself when the random question comes at me:
- Are you up for this? Sometimes my gender is the last thing on my mind. I may have just lost a loved one, or work is stressing me out, or there’s drama at church. Whatever the specifics, I can’t feel bad about saying, “I would love to talk with you about this, but I just can’t right now.”
- How safe is the questioner? The questions above (about flaunting, etc.) can give me a clue; so can facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues. But the question of safety extends to other dimensions too. Is this person connected to people I don’t want to share with? Can this person be trusted to keep the conversation confidential? Does she hold power over me in some way—maybe it’s my mother, or the aunt who rules the family with an iron fist, or a client for my business—so that the “wrong” answer will cost me?
- Where are you in your own journey? I’ve been more or less out to many friends and acquaintances for a little while, so explaining’s slowly getting easier. Your mileage may vary. If you’ve just started to think about coming out, for instance, explaining may be a lot more fraught. The same is true if right now you’re processing some questions about your sexuality and gender, versus a time when you’re more settled about it all. Does the question touch on elements of your identity that are too sensitive right now? Can you steer it into something that’s safer to talk about?
- Does this smell of God? You know what I mean: sometimes a situation pops up, a question comes out of nowhere, and the God sense tingles. No way it’s just coincidence. This doesn’t necessarily mean it feels good, or the questioner is the safest person I know, or the timing is right. But there’s that indefinable something that speaks of the presence of the Spirit. In that case, I ask for strength, take a deep wobbly breath, and do my best.
Above all, I try (and often fail) to give myself a ton of grace. So often, our life with God seems like one long series of calls and invitations and missteps. God gently beckons us. We come in our own slow, halting way, with our own sin and silliness. God bears it all with infinite patience and love. I think the same is true here. So I watch for that call to explain, lean into it when I can, and above all be gentle with myself. God would want nothing less. And maybe some hearts get changed along the way.
As a spiritual director, an associate of an Episcopal monastery, and a gender-fluid Jesus-lover, JOHN BACKMAN writes and speaks about ancient Christian wisdom and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and contributes regularly to Huffington Post Religion.