Understanding Closets

Understanding Closets
A Worship Service by David Wright Gibson
Presented to the First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City
Sunday June 12, 2005

Readings

We begin with a brief note from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead #561 Change the World

Now, a brief poem from Alice Walker:

Love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home.
Love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.

Alice Walker #564 Love is Not Concerned

Please join me in response #631 offered by the Congregation Beth El of Sudbury, Massachusetts.

What sacrifices would we make for freedom today?
What would we leave?

How far would we go? How deeply would we look within ourselves?
Our ancestors had no time to await the rising of the bread.

Yet we, who have that time, what do we do to be worthy of our precious inheritance?
We were slaves in Egypt… but now we are free.

How easy it is for us to relive the days of bondage as we sit in the warmth and comfort of our Seder.

How much harder to relieve the pain of those who live in the bitterness of slavery today.

Congregation Beth El. #631 What Sacrifices for Freedom?

Prayer and Meditation

A meditation on fear and silence by Audre Lorde

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going

seeking a now that can breed futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect the death of ours;

For those of us who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon, this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us.

for all of us
this instant and this triumph
we were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning

When we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

From The Black Unicorn (1978) published in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

Sermon

Silence equals death.

I come here today to speak my truth, for silence equals death.

I come here today to break the walls of silence, for silence equals death.

I come here today to uproot my fear of you and your fear of me, for fear brings silence, and silence equals death.

I suggest that we all have some experience of the closet. Sometimes it is a safe place to hide. As a child, I always enjoyed hiding in the closets of my grandmother’s house. It was cool and dark in the closet and usually, I was alone. Safe. Quiet.

But there is a darkness in these same closets. My childhood monsters lived in these same closets. It was where I kept the monsters. The fears kept always out of site. Silent. Deadly.

Perhaps you had a similar experience. Perhaps you also carried this metaphor into your adolescence. In my case, I carried this closet well into my adult life. Fear was something I always knew. I received it as a child. An awareness that I was different from the majority; different from my siblings; not fitting the pattern. This difference was not neutral like the color of my eyes or hair. No, while I occasionally wanted different hair (I was thinking straighter, not less) or striking eyes (I was thinking purple), there was no moral judgment on my hair or eye color. This difference was not something I could articulate, but it was real and it was wrong.

So, what was this wrong-ness? And what should I do about it? The first thing was to hide. I was not feeling a trivial wrong-ness. I didn’t forget to make my bed here. No, this was something I couldn’t express, but when I heard the messages of condemnation of limp-wristed effeminate sissies, I was afraid. It was a message of moral condemnation. The message tied in with sex; layers and layers of taboo. So first, hide.

What did I fear? What do any of us fear when we build a closet, however benign? Ridicule. Disrespect. Disregard. Rejection. Loneliness. Violence. To fear violence when your family and church reject you is to fear violence endured alone. And there can be no support when the condemnation comes from all sides. There are no trusted adults. There are no peers. There are no friends. There is only the declaration of evil. This declaration of evil was not yet directed at me, but only because no one knew what I knew. No one suspected what I suspected. It was a fear of discovery that I bore alone.

Some of us hide better. It is a blessing and a curse. My denial was more convincing. I could present a mask that was what everyone expected. The expectation was clear. My closet must have materials to deflect attention. In a building, this would simply be walls and perhaps some sort of door. I needed an especially good closet, however, because everything was at stake: friends, family, faith. I had to construct the closet with attention to fine detail. I needed more than mannerisms to internalize my own denial. To live as family, church and society instructed, I needed an entire life.

You see, the message was that my sexuality was a choice, a mental disorder or a maturity issue. I can change any choice, treat any disorder, grow with age. Those who are struggling with their bigotry will tell you that they condemn the sin, not the sinner. How does this account for my fear of rejection? How can you reject me when I have not sinned? Is there really a separation between sinner and sin? Is not the one who steals a thief? Is not the liar one who lies? I was condemned.

At age 15, I found the material to build my closet. I found a vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood. I hid in that closet through high school. I hid in that closet into college. As a freshman collegiate seminary student, can you imagine? I found peers. I found friends. I found words for my sexuality. I found acceptance… from some. After a year or so of struggle, the result was a return to my closet. In the end, the priesthood simply was not a sufficient closet. I could not maintain a mask there, but I had learned there that the mask was critical.

I found a greater mask. I found a woman I loved who loved me. In this relationship, my love was not what it should have been. Neither of us could know this. The closet was critical. The abandonment of family and the condemnation of church was a real possibility. The fear was oppressive.

I built a family. I had a bachelor’s degree, a corporate job, two cars, a house, a cat, a dog, a child. I participated in religion with zeal. I had self-righteous condemnation of myself expressed as condemnation of others.

Self-righteous condemnation. Self-loathing. Fear. Lies. Hiding the truth. The truth that sexuality is so much more than some people would have you believe. It is so much more than what I do at any place or time, alone or with others. Sexuality is part of the substance of who we are as humans. I cannot deny it without tearing at the fabric of who I am. The closet of denial cannot stand the day to day testing. I must remain in control of everything, and yet I cannot micro-manage all the details of my life. The truths of these details and this daily stress tore at my closet.

The first major tear was with my family of origin. There were many issues. There are issues that are their story, not mine. There are the issues that stress any family relationship. My issue is that I wore a mask. No one can sustain a relationship while firmly maintaining his grip on a mask. If I wear a mask, I am not truly present in a relationship. As relations with my family of origin became strained and distant, I was able to grow beyond the fear of losing my family. I became increasingly healthy in my attitude toward family and the need to stand on my own feet and to be myself in my relationships.

Standing on my own feet added to the tearing of my closet. My family of origin is a family of institutional Roman Catholics. This is a term I use to show the difference between my experience of that religion versus the experience of those who are on a faith journey. For me, being Catholic was about hierarchy, law, government, elaborate ritual and definitive theology. As I challenged the authority of my family of origin, I clung to the authority of Holy Mother Church. Surely, this would protect me, but questions continued to rise up.

Then there arose a few questions about this hierarchy, this authority, this definitive government. The Boston Globe caught His Eminence, Bernard Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, Prince of the Church. He had covered up horrible crimes. His complicity as Archbishop was unquestionable. As the mortar of dishonesty crumbled revealing the stones of the power structure behind their facade of piety, I began to examine all my beliefs and to allow myself the questions denied for so many years.

In the midst of this crisis of faith, my closet was in shambles. For years, I had feared what we all fear when we build closets of denial. For years, I had built that closet with the help of my family of origin and my religion of origin. Finally, in a conversation that I shall not soon forget, that woman who loved me loved me enough to set me free. In an act of enormous courage, she pushed me out of the wreckage of my closet. It hurt a lot. It scared me. To step out of hiding and state my truth was to face my deepest fears.

Facing this fear brings us to a truth far greater than the truth hiding in my closet. When we abandon the lies, when we move beyond denial into the light of truth, when we have the courage to face our oppressive fear of ridicule, disrespect, disregard, rejection, loneliness and violence, only then do we find freedom, and only then do we begin to understand the transcendence of love.

Recall that silence equals death.

I came here today to speak my truth, for silence equals death, but a living truth brings freedom and life.

I came here today to break the walls of silence, for silence equals death, but a living truth brings freedom and life.

I came here today to uproot and confront my fear of you and your fear of me, for fear brings silence, and silence equals death, but a living truth brings freedom and life.


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