This is not your ordinary Pride message. In it I will not be advocating about LGBT human rights or same sex marriage or trans people in the military or any of the other issues you might currently see in the media. I will not be rehearsing the familiar claim that GLBTQIA people are “just like everybody else”—in part because I feel this is a very mediocre goal, but mostly because I think this idea that there is an “everybody else” is a myth and one that has hugely limited our human potential. I would like to suggest that “coming out” is not an experience that is relegated to the LGBT+ community. Instead I believe that the experience of “coming out” is a far more universal human experience.
In my shamanic community in Michigan, we have weekend gatherings where we drum and dance, do ritual and receive instruction from our mentor. To begin the gathering on Friday night, we have a fire circle whereby we share something about ourselves and why we are there. And I’m always very struck by how similar what people share is to the coming out narratives I’ve heard in so many GLBTQ gatherings. It goes something like this: “I always felt like I was different. For much of my life, I didn’t even understand how or why I was different, but it was so painful to feel like an outsider and there was no one I could even really talk to. Then I began to discover there were other people who were like me! And I began to understand that it was ok to be different and to enjoy the human camaraderie that I always longed for.”
Because what does “coming out” really mean? Our human experience seems to pull us in two seemingly divergent directions. As spiritual essence in assorted human forms, we are each completely unique and it is our deepest calling to express our uniqueness—that is our very reason for being born. And yet we have a fundamental deep human need to belong. We are a communal people and each of us belongs to multiple groups over our lifetimes—whether families, religious institutions, racial and ethnic communities, professional affiliations, informal networks of friends, obviously nations.
And each of these groups has rules, both spoken and unspoken, for membership. Each group continually tells us, whether we realize it or not, “this is who you are” and “this is what you want.” Each time I’ve come out, I’ve had to learn new community rules for how to present myself. Although different groups may have greater or lesser tolerance for divergence from community norms, our acceptance in these groups is fundamentally predicated on meeting such expectations as well as demonstrating our loyalty to the group, showing that you are “one of us.” In exchange we are given the benefits and protection of membership, which are many.
I believe this is why we have such a difficult time with the concept of unconditional love—because all of us sense on a gut level, even if we’re not consciously aware of it, that our acceptance is absolutely conditional. And most of us have had experiences, or witnessed the experiences of others, of being unceremoniously out on the curb for violating the rules of group membership. LGBTQIA people are merely more acutely aware of this conditional nature of acceptance than most.
LGBTQIA folks act as an object lesson in this regard, whether in the family unit or in the culture more broadly. Although rejection of LGBT+ people is a painful part of our individual histories, I believe its purpose goes far beyond just the punishment of individuals for their supposed “deviance.” It is actually a broader lesson for supposedly “normative” folks to warn them not to get out of line. The dividing line between straight and queer is not so much to keep queer people out, but to keep straight folks in—and actively jostling towards the center and away from the boundary.
As a college professor, I have often shared with my largely cisgender heterosexual students that homophobia and transphobia are much more policing of their choices than punishing of mine—because once you are outside of what is considered “normal,” after the initial shock and hurt of rejection, you have considerable freedom to do what you want. No matter what you do, you are going to be seen as an outsider so you can stop working so hard to fit in and this is liberating in my opinion. And the threat of punishment loses much of its hold over you because you have already accessed your own self-resilience. Although many students are usually skeptical at first, by the end of the semester the majority of them begin to understand how constrained their lives of supposedly free choice really are.
So here is our human quandary. As spiritual beings, we are all called to grow and develop—and our path of growth requires individuation, moving beyond where we came from. This is the very essence of evolution—whether the physical evolution of species or our actualizing our human and spiritual potential. Our uniqueness is our greatest strength and the foundation of our purpose for being here. Yet it is also our Achilles heel, our deepest human vulnerability. Because in order to stand in our uniqueness, we must come away from the crowd. And we all remember that great and painful lesson of adolescence: it is dangerous to be different! Even those who are the most popular are not immune to this fear because they know that their popularity could vanish in an instant if they stop living up to the expectations of it.
We are under the illusion that when we reach adulthood, such dynamics cease and we are free to live our lives as we want. In truth, I believe, we are merely in a more spacious container. We have more freedom of movement to associate with those with whom we want to associate, but the fundamental dynamics of insiders and outsiders, and the price of belonging, hasn’t changed much at all.
Although you might think that such dynamics would be less intense in LGBTQ communities, among people who understand how painful it is to have to censor yourself to fit in, this is sadly not the case. I have found that the rules for belonging in those communities are just as rigid and punishing as anywhere else.
Individuation demands leaving behind what we have known and frequently those on whom we have come to depend for a sense of camaraderie and support. And this is a lot to ask so generally we must have a strong inner call, or be deeply suffering, to be willing to withstand such potential loss. We all want to be loved and approved of; we all want to belong. I waited for 11 years to go on hormones because I knew it would be very disruptive of the life I had created for myself—not my ideal life, but a life that was quite manageable and familiar. I waited for 11 years to go on hormones because I was afraid of losing the acceptance and support of communities that had been my lifeline.
We are all hungering to connect to our authentic selves, while all living in a culture that continually directs our attention to our external environment and away from what’s going on inside ourselves, and we’re all flailing around without much guidance or modeling about how to access and listen to our inner knowing, and all doing that largely unconscious anxiety dance of how much of myself can I reveal and how much of my truth am I willing to give up in order to be accepted.
I believe that we are currently being called away from the group mind in this particular historical moment because we cannot solve the problems we face with the same consciousness that created them. What we are experiencing—much like I encountered when I finally decided to go on hormones—is going beyond our mind’s version of reality.
Although this burgeoning transcendence is very exciting and hopeful, most of us nonetheless experience panic, disorientation, even terror, when we experience a bigger reality than our belief system allows. This is what is known as a spiritual emergency—when the known world is no longer the known world, whether in our individual lives or our collective experience. Even if the change is entirely positive, our first response tends to be panic when we encounter new information or experience that doesn’t fit into our existing frameworks.
However, moving beyond what we think is possible has been the essence of all great discoveries and contributions of the human community—from scientific and technological advancements to athletic feats and creative genius. So this is a very exciting shift in our collective belief system. We are going beyond our conditioning, beyond the limits of our parents, our teachers, our culture into new terrain. And I believe that trans and genderqueer, intersex and non-binary people are meant to be among those leading the way.
We are meant to be always expanding and evolving, seeking out new discoveries in ourselves and in our worlds, being transformed and surprised by life. We are meant to individuate, to move beyond where we have come from, to follow our own inner directives to create our best, most exciting, most authentic lives.