Another Coming Out
For people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer (LGBTQ+), “coming out,” or identifying consciously as LGBTQ+, whether to themselves or another, is both a rite of passage and a continuous process. It’s never over, since while a person may be “out” to family, friends, church, and work, every new doctor visit, every new acquaintance, may require another coming out. The term, and the experience, have been adopted by a variety of communities to express the process of recognizing (and usually eventually sharing) something about oneself that others may not see.
As a bi clergy person, I have had the privilege of receiving the first “coming out” conversations of many people. As an affirming clergyperson who is part of the community, I’m a safe space to share and to explore what it means to an individual to be gay, or trans, or non-binary.
Recently, connected with my work in prison ministry, I’ve been the recipient of a different kind of “coming out” confidence—people who have been incarcerated and their families. This is so sad to me—people who need and want the support of their communities do not feel able to share that need for fear of shunning, judgment, and scorn. They are cautious or even afraid of revealing their truth—they or a loved one have been or are incarcerated.
The experience of incarceration is traumatic—the long and stressful court process, isolation from loved ones and community and yet crammed into crowded living spaces; little access to sunlight, decent food, proper healthcare; frequent violence; the loss of support networks, of employment, and of home. For the families of those incarcerated, it is also traumatic—the loss of financial support, with all that it means in terms of food insecurity and possibly losing a home; separation from parents or children or siblings; and possible alienation from community networks. I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties of re-entry to the community, or the financial costs to the families.
For someone facing all this, community support and encouragement would be invaluable. And yet, too often, people are met with exclusion and fear. How does this help anyone?
When someone tells me that their relative or friend, or they themselves, have been on the inside, or are now, that is a coming out, too. They are confessing to me something that has been used against them in the past, or could be used against them now. Think of all the times people who are incarcerated are used as scare tactics or boogeymen; think of the disgusting “jokes” made on social media when a prominent person is arrested or sentenced; think of the times transitional housing is rejected from a neighborhood out of fear of “that kind of person.”
The truth is, when those comments are made, we may be talking about the person sitting next to us in church, our co-worker, our neighbor—or their loved one. But because of those comments and the environment they create, we will never know—who willingly exposes themselves to scorn, exclusion, hatred? And in doing so, we have lost the opportunity to show God’s love and grace.
Statistics tell us that 3% of US residents have experienced incarceration of some kind in their lives. Even a one-night stay in a jail can be traumatizing, whether a person is actually guilty or innocent of any charge against them. And it can be very easy to have charges brought against you—we all break laws every day, often without being aware of it. Even something so simple as a traffic violation can land a person in jail, depending on their race, gender identity, immigration status, income level, mental health, and a host of other factors.
A common precept of many spiritual paths is to do nothing to others that you do not want done to yourself. Unconditional charity and care for those in need are also commanded. Jesus, dying on the cross, executed by Rome, accepted the person being executed next to him and promised him entrance to heaven—without knowing anything more than that he was being executed, too.
Of course we cannot be naïve; accountability is not dispensable. But consider that many innocent people are incarcerated, and some are imprisoned for disproportionately long sentences, whether innocent or not.
Can we make it safer for people to come out of that prison closet? Can we understand that people change? Can we accept that a person is not only a harmful thing they may have done? Can we open our hearts to those who most need community and support? Can we, in fact, be mediators of God’s grace, for ourselves and others?
I believe that with a combination of mediation and true support for people who are re-entering the community, we can remove that stigma, we can make it safe for people to come out and receive the support they need.
Rev. Martha Daniels pastors Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, IL, USA. She is also a writer, a singer, and especially active in spiritual advocacy with people who are incarcerated,.
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