When I was closeted at Westmont College and Fuller Theological Seminary, I remember feeling profoundly isolated. I was unable to share my secret for fear of the consequences in my family, church, school, and professional life, even though I deeply longed for someone who could understand what I was going through, who could help me sort through my emotions and options, and who could help me carry the burden of not being truly welcome in most of my social world.
The most painful lie of the closet, whether it’s our sexuality, our gender identity, our political allegiance, or even the “guilty pleasure” we take from enjoying My Little Pony, is the belief that everyone will reject me, “if only they knew.” This fear, formed through experiences of rejection combined with a cultural climate that all too often others, condemns, and demonizes those who are “different,” silences us when we choose to hide a part of ourselves in hopes of protecting ourselves from the reactions of others.
Unfortunately, this self-silencing cuts us off from those who are most capable of providing us with the support, love, and acceptance we need. While there are, tragically, people who will not respond safely to discovering who we really are, and it is always ok to choose safety when people have not yet earned our trust, the closet also cuts us off from our healing. Our fears about the two lies of the closet – that everyone will reject us, and that their rejection will hurt more than preemptively rejecting ourselves – can only be unlearned through experiences that expose these lies. Only in trusting others with ourselves and meeting acceptance and support rather than condemnation, can we begin to separate ourselves from the lie that who we are somehow makes us unloveable.
Shame is not healed by pride, although healthy self-esteem certainly doesn’t hurt. Brene Brown’s research on shame has made it clear that “reaching out is the single most powerful act of [shame] resilience” (2007, p. 120). As we risk vulnerably sharing our experiences with others who can respond with compassion and understanding, we begin to form new neural pathways that are not governed by the fear that we will be rejected if we risk sharing our truest selves. Along the way, we often find that we are not nearly as alone in our experience as we had allowed ourselves to believe.
Authentic sharing of oneself tends to empower others to authentically share their stories in a similar manner. As one person risks breaking the silence and survives, others are able to believe that they too might be able to get their weight of the truth off of their chest. When this sort of authentic community begins to emerge, it becomes easier to challenge the dominant cultural shame narratives that have caused so many to feel outside the bounds of normal society. Rather than feeling like the lone weirdo, ridiculed by one’s peers, those of us who have shared our stories and chosen to listen to the stories of others, know that we stand in a beloved community of people whose difference, rather than making us vile creatures unworthy of love, enriches our lives and the lives of others.
When Safety Net’s board of directors sought to create a tagline that summarized our purpose as an organization in only a handful of words, we quickly settled on “you are not alone.” We chose this tagline, because each of us has known the isolation of the closet and the power that comes from breaking the silence and learning that you are not alone. As an organization, we stand as a concrete, visible, reminder that those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, questioning, and intersex are not the first people to have faced the difficulty of being authentically yourself in a culture that treats sex and gender variance as taboo. If you are a LGBTQ student, alumni, faculty member, or staff member at one of these institutions please believe us when we tell you that you are not alone, and you do not have to travel this journey on your own. If you are ready to risk trusting someone who has gone on a similar journey, we are here for you, and we will proudly support you as you continue your journey in accepting, and becoming, the person you were meant to be.