Responses to Coming Out'

Gerald Coleman is a nuanced thinker, a faithful churchman and a sensitive pastoral guide. His writing on sexuality is widely respected and justifiably influential in Catholic circles, especially among people involved in the church’s ministry with and for lesbian and gay persons and their families. In his recent America article, Coming Out’ As a Catholic School Teacher (3/19), Father Coleman uses a model drawn from our essay Three Passages of Maturity as a context for his discussion. By offering our model as his starting point, Father Coleman does not necessarily suggest that we would agree with his strongly expressed conclusions. But we are concerned that some readers might draw this inference.

In fact, both in the essay cited by Father Coleman (which we wrote nearly 20 years ago) and in our subsequent work (see, for example, our forthcoming book Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality), we arrive at somewhat different conclusions from his.

In his article, Father Coleman considers the question whether teachers should make public in Catholic schools their understanding of themselves as gay or lesbian. With evident passion and concern, he cautions homosexual teachers (as well as vowed celibates and others who hold positions of authority in the church) against making information about their self-understanding openly available in such Catholic institutional settings.

Based as it is on Father Coleman’s seasoned pastoral experience, this caution may be appropriate in any number of particular cases. If a teacher who is lesbian or gay faces the risk of being fired or a threat of psychological intimidation or abuse, surely his advice is well considered. (The reader can sense Father Coleman’s frustration that these situations continue to prevail in some Catholic settings in spite of official church statements supporting respect, friendship and justice toward persons who are homosexual.)

Even in less dramatic situations, we would agree that the case for prudence and patience can be made. Gay and lesbian friends have taught us that coming out is an ongoing process, not a once-and-for-all event. Most persons come to an awareness and acceptance of their homosexual orientation only gradually and, likewise, only gradually find the settings in which they judge it is appropriate to be known as lesbian or gay. For a variety of reasons, persons who are homosexual may choose not to identify themselves as such at their work site or other public settings.

But as a generalized proscription against identifying oneself publicly in Catholic school settings, Father Coleman’s counsel of silence resonates unfortunately with the failed U.S. military policy of don’t ask; don’t tell. It seems, at least to us, to reinforce a strategy of self-protective privacy that has proved to be psychologically and spiritually injurious to many people. And it seems to deprive Catholic school students of the public example of adults who are gay and lesbian and function as respected members of this faith community. Surely the apparent absence of gays and lesbians among the Catholic leadership (be they lay teachers and principals or priests and religious) plays some part in the continuing prejudice against homosexual persons that the U.S. bishops abhor.

If students have a right to learn from their teachers, might not the reality of a teacher’s lesbian or gay identity sometimes carry an important lesson? Consider the example that Father Coleman gives of the student who is struggling with his own sexual identity. Surely, as Father Coleman recommends, this young person should be discussing this self-perception with his/her parents and school counselor.... (Though it must be recognized that these most appropriate sources of support and counsel are not always available to students struggling with questions of sexual identity.) But the article suggests that the presence of an acknowledged gay or lesbian teacher in this setting would necessarily cause more confusion for the struggling student. Is this always the case? Might not the presence of a respected teacher or administrator who is gay be a sign of hope for the student, offering a positive example of what his own future might hold?

And it is not only troubled young people who might learn from this example. Evidence suggests that recognizing lesbians and gays among one’s own circle of acquaintances and friends is a potent antidote to prejudice against homosexuals in general. For many gay and lesbian persons, the decision openly to acknowledge their sexual orientation is strongly influenced by a desire to contribute to this social transformation. Thus a Catholic institution might consider its sensitive support of acknowledged lesbian and gay staff members as one way of implementing the pastoral goals set out in the U.S. bishops’ statements in support of basic human rights of homosexual persons.

In Three Passages of Maturity we discussed the virtuous instincts [leading] some lesbian and gay Christians to come out publicly as instances of the psychological strength of generativity. This term, borrowed from Erik Erikson, identifies a maturing capacity to care for and contribute to the next generation. To acknowledge oneself within the faith community as lesbian or gay can be a generative act. From the witness of mature lesbian and gay persons, Catholic school studentsindeed the whole faith communitywill learn the patterns of psychological growth and spiritual maturity that can support homosexual holiness. Closeted lives, however holy, provide no wider lessons in religious maturing.

The decision to come out in the third passage of our model may, of course, be prompted by immature motives. But it mayand this was the point of our earlier essaybe motivated by generous and prophetic impulses as well. Sharing one’s sexual identity, appropriately and responsibly, in one’s professional setting may well be a courageous contribution to the church’s ongoing struggle to heal wounded and wounding attitudes about human sexuality. To judge that such a decision is always misguided, [and] pedagogically and psychologically flawed seems to us unwise counsel.

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