October 3, 2013 I told my wife, parents, brothers, closest friends and the leadership of the church I was pastoring that I am gay.
My greatest fear was that once people learned of my secret they would treat me differently. I knew people would and they did. A Pastor friend of my said “I get it Robb, it’s like you have had these helium balloons you’ve been trying to hold down your entire life and you’re tired. You can’t do it anymore.” He was so right. I had to tell the truth no matter how great the fear was.
This year has been an incredible year of reflection and shame reduction. How did I get here? I’m 39 years old, divorced with three children. What will I do now? What will I do after working 18 years for the Church? How do I live in my current state of hating myself because I believed I was broken? I wondered how I would change after the truth came out. Did I create so much trauma for myself that my personality and passions in life would dramatically shift? I headed into a new vulnerability that whatever the cost I had to be who I am. I am gay. I did not choose to be gay. I am not ashamed of being gay.
To my surprise, I am still the same person with my passions and personality intact. Coming out, telling people that I’m gay, the pain of divorce, the loss of relationship with people who don’t know how to love and be-friend me has changed me so much. However, I am still recognizable to those who know me and love me. I’m still me. The major difference is that now I’m open and unashamed of what I had kept a secret for decades. My favorite response this past year comes from my dad who I overheard on the phone to one of his friends. He said “yep, Robb is here in Florida for a few days. Yep, he’s doing good, same ole Robb, Just a little different love life”.
This year I’ve dealt with many responses to my coming out. “I’ll call you later Robb to set up a time to take a look at your furnace” and no return call. . Learning later that the guy who had fixed my furnace issues in the past stated that he couldn’t help me because he wasn’t going to condone my lifestyle. I wonder if he has an interview process for all homeowners?
I’ve also had 3 former students who were a part of my youth ministry call me up and say “Robb, we know what’s going on and we want to let you know that we love you. We don’t think any differently of you and we want to take you out for a beer and talk”. They spoke about how I had always been there for them and they now wanted to be there for me because I was hurting.
I experienced the fear of discrimination for the first time as I started my first ever full time job outside of working for the church. I laughed internally as I heard my fellow sales staff correcting one another about their foul language around the guy who was a former Pastor. I thought to myself, I wonder what’s going to happen when they learn that I’m gay? Will they treat me differently? Will I lose my job?
For years the mentioning of homosexuality had caused so much anxiety in me that I would avoid speaking with people about it whenever it would come up in conversation. It was just too close to the truth. A don’t ask and don’t tell (or even talk about “it”) mentality is prevalent among the religious culture of West Michigan. People know that I’ve come out but are paralyzed in how or what to do or say. In some circles I’m brave and in others a coward. People who believe that being gay is not a choice believe that it took great courage to come out. They have told me that they are proud of me. Those who believe being gay is a choice see my announcement pointing to a despicable addiction and will continue to pray (and have told me they are praying for this for me) that I renounce my choice to be gay. Or that I will not enter into any relationship with another man. Consequently, it is this second group that I feel most compelled to influence. I get it. No one knows what to do with the Pastor who comes out and says he’s gay and divorces his wife to live openly as a gay man. It’s not that common.
A young man I met this year was scrambling to come up with a plan “b” for where he was going to live for fear that when he told his parents he is gay they would kick him out. After meeting with him several times he made a decision that he was going to tell them. His report of their unconditional love was remarkable. Unfortunately, this is not always the story as other’s have told me the opposite response from their parents and families. Another friend reported that as he shared the news with his family his mother exclaimed “you have ruined my life”. There is nothing more devastating than being rejected by someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally.
I’m not sure what this “telling” will do. But, I hope that maybe in me telling my stories, engaging in some conversation, that I may be able to help bring some consideration to some of the ways in which our beliefs and actions about homosexuality cause so much damage to the name of the one who loved unconditionally and to the soul of the homosexual.