Coming Out Of The Spiritual Closet

by Rev. Sarika Dharma

Coming and going,
Without beginning or end,
Like ever changing
White clouds:
The heart of things.

Coming Out Gay

Coming out describes an action known to every member of the gay community, that is, acknowledging our sexual orientation, first to ourselves and then to others.

Most of us grow up feeling different, but not necessarily understanding why. Awareness came very slowly for me. I had no role models. At that time, homosexuality was not acknowledged in the media, in school, in my family except for whispers. Classmates talked about not wearing green on Thursdays, but no one explained why. Students in my class harrassed what they called a "sissy boy," but, again, I wasn't clear why.

When I was thirteen, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist but gave me no hint as to their fears; they told me I seemed unhappy and was nasty to my father and thought this would help. Poodle skirts were of no interest to me nor was the opposite sex. I had the usual crush on my phys. ed. teacher and butched around in blue jeans as often as I could. No one gave me a word that I could look up in the dictionary, if any of those words were in dictionaries then.

In the fifties, homosexuality was considered an illness, and people sought "cures." Many of our brothers and sisters were institutionalized in mental hospitals. This attitude traumatized us and, for some, delayed our coming out; for me it was not until 25 years later that I began to realize.

For some of us, coming out is easier; for others, it remains impossible. When we exchange our coming-out stories, we see the range of difficulties people face. Some families are accepting; some parents throw their gay children out of the house and out of their lives. Some communities are open to gays; some are life-threatening. Work is another area where homophobia can present serious problems from the loss of a job to denial of promotion and harrassment by coworkers and management. We may not get the opportunity to develop our skills or to be perceived as a valuable employee.

Our own first awareness of our sexual orientation may cause us to hate ourselves, to not accept our inclinations, to wish we could be and even try to be heterosexual. This non-acceptance from ourselves, as well as from others, affects our self-esteem more than we may realize. It gets in our way as we try to live a happy, fulfilling life.

Fortunately, we do have ways to overcome the negativity that results from being in a minority that the majority of society rejects. Tools and techniques are available for us to develop our confidence and self-acceptance. Of course, we each need to do the work required to move us along the path. The effort, however, produces results that make the expenditure of energy worthwhile. I see this happening every day; I see it in others as well as in myself. One can gain inner peace and equanimity, more ease in handling social relationships and an appreciation of life less dependent on external situations.

The word "homosexual" focuses on one's sexual behavior. Yet, no lesbian or gay man is only a sexual being any more than a straight person is. Humans are social beings, and being gay may affect with whom we chose to socialize. Human beings are political beings, and being gay may influence how we vote and what issues we become active about. Humans are poets and artists and craftspeople and doctors and lawyers and parents and children and many, many other things. Gays are these as well. We are multi-faceted people, living full lives, including all the interests and activities in which all human beings engage.

If we live in the closet, hiding our sexual orientation, denying part of who we are, we create a very difficult scenario. We are forced to be constantly aware that we can only say certain things to certain people and that we always need to stay conscious of to whom we are speaking. In twelve-step programs, they say, "You're only as sick as your secrets." Those include the secrets we try to keep from ourselves. Closets are full of denial.

Nonetheless, it is much too dangerous for some people to come out. They face rejection and loss and may not be up to dealing with the responses. Yet, once the initial step is made, coming out is not over; it is not something we do once. It is a process that goes on, often for a lifetime, one step at a time.

What does coming out really mean? First, seeing the reality of who we are and then accepting that reality with compassion and loving kindness. When we accept ourselves, we begin to understand that we do not need to live up to the expectations of others. We become more able to allow others to know us exactly as we are. When we come out to friends who already enjoy our company, we give them a very different point of view. Whether they can accept our lifestyle or not, they will eventually realize that they know a gay person who is a fine human being. This may allow them to move into responding to the individual, rather than reacting with knee-jerk hatred toward an entire group of people.

Spiritual Nature

If we are uncomfortable with ourselves as gays and lesbians, we may have problems with developing our potential. No matter how hard we work on our physical beings, our emotional and psychological health, and our place in society, we may still feel something missing from our lives. That something is our spiritual nature, the essence of our humanity.

Our spiritual nature is what connects us to the world, both inner and outer. It directs us to work toward greater understanding. By developing this nature, we become more conscious of what is truly important, and we become happier, more fulfilled, more skillful in handling our lives. In Zen, we say we find our true selves. We become awakened, and thereby add peace and harmony to our own lives and to the world.

It is wonderful to work on our bodies, to make them as fit as we can, as healthy and well-functioning as possible. Even when we are ill with a chronic condition or with a life-threatening disease such as AIDS, we can still help our bodies to fight back by attending to nutrition, exercise and keeping stress levels low. We can also work on our emotional and psychological health, learning more about the human condition, seeing a therapist to work out behavioral difficulties, looking honestly at the underlying causes for actions that cause us problems.

We may, however, miss one of the most effective approaches to improving our lives. In my personal experience, when I started paying attention to my spiritual needs, all the rest began to fall in place.

We do not need to join a group or attend a church or read a lot of books in order to begin this work on ourselves. We can start by becoming aware of what our spiritual nature is and how it manifests in our own lives. This takes effort, but it is work that pays off from the beginning. It increases our understanding, allows us to live life more easily, and enables us to be healthier and happier.

What do I mean by the word "spiritual?" More importantly, what does that word mean to you?

We may think of mystical experiences which have great impact but cannot be explained in words. People in all religious traditions hear of mystical experiences, mostly those of saints or other devoted people, but also from followers of new age religions, Native American practices, and other alternative traditions.

In Zen, we focus on experiential learning. Words are often inadequate. We can talk about and around our experiences but not express them in language, except perhaps in a haiku or other poem in images, not labels.

Buddhists and non-Buddhists, religious adherents and religion-avoiders, often describe spirituality as awareness of connections. Spiritual experiences take us outside of ourselves to the awareness of such connections, of oneness and of peace. For many people, the oneness is with God. Of course, people have different definitions of who God is and of how to make that connection from within.

I grew up in a Jewish family not as much a religious family as ethnically and culturally Jewish. We went to synagogue, especially on holidays, and we always had a special Friday night shabbat dinner. I was sent to Hebrew School, but I was not very interested. Being young and not understanding the social aspect of religion, I was offended by all the socializing I saw at the temple; I expected to see devotion.

I was also upset by the position of women in Judaism. Perhaps today I would feel differently. At that time, women were not allowed to touch the torah or sacred books. Orthodox Jewish males woke up each morning and made a prayer of thanks that they were not born a woman. Women were expected to stay home and take care of their husbands and families. Now, I know two lesbian rabbis with congregations in Los Angeles and many other Jewish women who have been ordained as rabbis and cantors.

I felt that something was missing, but I was not able to identify what it was. So I simply dropped out. I moved away from religion into searching philosophies, hoping to find an answer there, without an omnipotent male God, with more opportunity to decide for myself what I believed. I searched, and I started to meditate.

At the end of my first weekend meditation retreat, I understood spiritual experience on a conscious level. I could not explain how I felt, but I knew that the feeling was different from anything I had been aware of before. I had never known such peace and calm. I felt a deep connection to everyone in the room. We had not spoken to each other and barely looked at each other for two days. Yet, I had lost my usual discomfort with myself when around others, especially others I did not know. I was smiling.

You have probably had your own spiritual experiences, even if you have not labelled them as such. Perhaps you were out of the city, closer to the peace of nature. Perhaps you were with someone you love and suddenly realized that your connections transcended your separateness. Perhaps you had a moment of tranquility in the midst of daily life. These experiences happen, but we may not understand that they are spiritual events. We may not know how to enable them to happen again. Once we have the tools and techniques, we can open to such feelings and better understand ourselves. Then we can follow practices that make the spiritual part of our ordinary lives and encourage our development.

Spirituality and Religion

Many churches and ministers are intolerant of the gay lifestyle, consequently many lesbians and gays shy away from established religions. Recently, I heard of a woman who was married to a man and discovered she was in love with another woman. The marriage had not been going well, so the woman and her husband divorced. They both continued to go to the same church that they had gone to for many years. When the pastor found out about the woman's new relationship, he outed her and berated her at Sunday services in front of the whole congregation. People who had been her friends for years would no longer talk to her. No one stood up for her or took her side. She felt devastated and betrayed. These were people she cared about and had known for a long time. People who were part of her life.

Seeing that she was being treated in a most un-Christian way, she tried to talk to the minister and some of the congregation but only got more hatred aimed in her direction. Finally, after suffering a great deal of distress, she discovered a gay church in a similar tradition and was able to live her life again with spiritual support.

What a traumatic experience! Especially at a time when she was going through some heavy changes a new relationship, a divorce, coming out that were difficult enough to handle without the added trauma of ostracism and rejection.

Organized religions do have a long history of rejecting gays, but established churches are not the only path to spiritual development. We can take what works from them, or, if nothing works for us, not pay attention at all. Some people who go through a process of spiritual awakening return to the religion of their birth. Others never enter a church again.

Religion and spirituality are not the same thing. What is important is that everyone has a spiritual nature. In Buddhism, we call it Buddha nature. In Christian approaches, people speak of finding God within. Some people find their spiritual connections in nature and more pagan expressions. Some are humanists, caring about other human beings as their spiritual focus. All of these, and many others, are fine paths.

If we had bad experiences in the religion into which we were born and if we saw lesbians and gays rejected by other religions, we may want to reject all organized religion. It is certainly an understandable and human reaction. However, if we deny our spiritual connections because of our anger, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Today, there are gay and lesbian churches run by lesbian and gay ministers and rabbis. We may blame a religion for the actions of its followers, but the true essence of any religion is in the teachings of the founders, Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha and in the teachings of those who have awakened to the real meaning of the words.

The true expression of our spirituality comes from within. We can connect with others seeking or practicing a path and learn from their practices to the extent that they are useful to us. So, take what you can use and leave the rest behind. Continue to seek, with a certain amount of skepticism, but without total rejection before investigation. We can transcend our past hurts, find our true selves and get on with our spiritual development.

Finding Our Own Path

Hopefully, you will find some suggestions here that will help you get started along the path. What your path will contain in detail, no one can say. Only you can discover it. Whatever the content, the ultimate goal is the same for everyone: inner peace, happiness, a fulfilling life.

Buddhism does not require immediate commitment or even ultimate conversion. The tools are available to all who wish to try them. The Buddhist path, including its emphasis on meditation, was discovered scientifically, and the experiment can be replicated by anyone who wishes to do so. We can use it to push us far enough to see what path we will continue to pursue.

Buddhism takes no official stand against gays and lesbians. All people have Buddha nature. Sexual orientation is not a sin; in the doctrine, it is not a cause for confession or enforced change. In fact, Buddhism does not recognize the concept of sin in the western sense. We do not need to feel guilt or shame. If we make mistakes, we learn from them and try not to repeat them. We constantly pursue our own development. And try, try, try to behave in such a way that benefits ourselves and others and causes no harm to ourselves or others. This is the essence of all spiritual paths.