Safety Nets and Fireworks

The world has hundreds of thousands of coming out stories.
I’ve often wondered why mine would be worth recording – but I had a conversation the other day that showed me why.
This is my story…

To set the scene:
Both my parents are qualified theologians, and both have been Baptist Pastors while I was still living at home. At one point not long after I moved out, Dad was President of the Baptist Union of Tasmania.
They’re amazingly intelligent people, triple-degreed and all. So are their children. We were book-learners.
From time to time, mum and dad would bring home a book on “Personal Development”, sex education, or the like, and there was always a talk along the lines of “This book is going to say that some things, like being gay or sex before marriage, are OK. They’re not. They’re a sin.” (This is blunter than they would have said it, but the meaning was there)
After this statement, the book would be added to the library for us to read when we felt we wanted to know something. (And it is a library, My father has somewhere approaching 40,000 volumes in his collection)

Many gay guys will tell you they knew they liked boys from the start. Not me. Not a clue.
It wasn’t until puberty hit and I started noticing stuff that I eventually put two and two together and realised.
I was 14. I had a surprising amount of respect in the very Pentecostal (read: Happy Clappy Hillsong-style) Church…
I had actually made the decision to continue attending Montello Baptist after my parents had left, organising rides to and from the church which was a town over.
At 14 I helped teach Kindy/Prep Sunday School. I think I had been doing so for a year at that point – sitting in the sermons rather than join in the Youth Group activities when I wasn’t teaching.

But I had this terrible secret. I was gay. I knew it was wrong, sinful, and an abomination, since that was what I’d been told my whole life.
Who could I tell – trust with this thing that could bring my world crashing down? No-one. It was between me and God.
So what did I do? What any good Christian boy would! I prayed, hard. I remember echoing Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane “Take this cup from me. It is a burden I cannot bear.” (I tended toward the poetic when praying)
But prayer without action means little – I made myself obsess over girls. There were three of them I tried to make myself “like”, and I can only be grateful that none of them ever liked me that way, because it would have ended in disaster.

I then felt guilty, as if my faith wasn’t strong enough to make this change though I knew that faith could move mountains. The fault clearly lay with me.
This went on for about 3 and a half years, this prayer and guilt cycle…

During this time, I became a Youth Leader, a Worship Leader, led the school Christian Group, as well as being a good student.
I was, on more than one occasion, pointed to while people asked their kids “Why can’t you be more like him?”
If only they knew… I thought.

Then, epiphany. As a good Christian, I had always included an “if it is your will” clause.
I realised that the reason my sexuality wasn’t changing wasn’t because I didn’t believe enough.
It was because God didn’t want to change me – I had come with a preconceived notion of His Will and when the results failed to match it, I presumed fault.

Why would God give me these feelings and refuse to take them away if they were so wrong?

I accepted myself.

And so now I had a dilemma. How do I hold to my integrity and not tell the people I have convinced that I’m straight that I am gay? I told three people…
I had befriended a staunchly catholic guy over the Internet. He knew none of my other friends, and it wasn’t a close friendship. I braced for the worst and told him. I guess I figured that it was a friendship I didn’t overly care about, and that if I could hold my own with him, I was well on the way for my future battles. We never spoke again.
Then I told my best friend Bryan, who basically shrugged and said “have you told your parents? It might not go down so well if you’ve told all these other people before them.” I had a plan, but I feared the announcement might turn into a fireworks display – spectacular from a distance, but dangerous and terrifying up close… Bryan put me in touch with one of his gay friends who was wonderful!
I told my Uncle in Canberra who I’d been chatting to via ICQ – to this day I still don’t know why I chose him as the person to tell, except that he and my aunt came across as the least likely to have a problem with it, and I trusted them not to tell my parents until I was ready. I think I picked well, and Uncle George and Aunty Rose have a very special place in my heart.

I came out to one group of real-life-friends over the net during the first free-to-air screening of The Matrix. I might kinda have a thing for Neo… All of my real-life friends stuck by me as I dealt with one person in the chat room who complained that “everyone feels the need to screw something” and basically said it should be straight or celibacy.
I came out to other friends as I drove them back to Penguin after our Leavers’ Dinner. It took them a couple of days to process what I’d said.

So I had established a number of people who I knew would have my back if things went really wrong. I was also about to move out of home anyway for uni… (well, within 3 months, anyway)

Then came the daunting part – I was about to disappoint the group of people who had given me confidence to start with – Montello/Coastlands Baptist Church
I wrote letters to those people in the church that I believed had a right to know and who I believed wouldn’t gossip about it.
Each person got a Christmas card with a letter inside. Explaining, in varying degrees of detail, my struggle and how I came to my conclusion.
I had some surprising reactions, with the oldest recipient just telling me to make sure I kept myself safe, and one of the youngest writing me a letter asking if I’d considered the mechanics of gay sex. She described it in surprisingly frank terms.
The most bizarre experience I had was having one of my church Leaders (who happened to be the father of the young letter-writer, but was not, I found out there because of her) arrive at my door asking if I’d like to go for a walk.
Here it comes, he’s here to have “the talk”

We walked up to the high school and back – about a 30 minute walk – where he proceeded to ask me questions like “Are you scared of women?”
I laughed. “If you’d been paying attention over the last few years, you’d notice that most of my church friends are women, Heiko.”
He came at me with all the standard verses. I am proud of myself. I was not yet eighteen, Heiko was a grandfather. Every argument he came at me with, I was ready for and had a response.
The literati in me still chuckles over him telling me that he didn’t think that “it’s unnatural, just that it’s not of nature.”
Yep, that one stopped me in my tracks. “Heiko, you do understand that the definition of unnatural is ‘not of nature’, right?”

I don’t feel my honesty with the people of Coastlands did them or me any favours at that point. It made them uncomfortable around me, it made me uncomfortable amongst them. All it gave me was some peace of mind that I’d been honest with them.
The safety net I had through my teenage life – the Church Family I was a part of, felt like it vanished from underneath me in the light of the truth.

And then I moved to Launceston – in with people I was already out to and didn’t care that I was gay. And so I started the church journey again at City Baptist, which at that point was under the leadership of Pastor Peter Pinder.

It was then I told my parents that I was gay. We had just returned from a family trip to Melbourne for my Aunt’s 60th, and I had written a letter before I left Tasmania to give them should I fail to bring it up before I went back to Launceston.
They started out with “We love you despite that.” They went away, re-examined what they believed, spoke with other pastors with progressive teachings on the topic (Thank you Adelene from Penguin Uniting!), and returned surprisingly quickly with “We love you.” No caveat, no clause, just love.
The fireworks I had expected and feared never came to be. I am proud of my parents for their shift. I’m also grateful that they got to learn with me before figuring out how to deal with my younger brother coming out while in Japan (But that’s another story).

I started attending a bible study with their Young Adults group. I moved in with my first boyfriend Rodney – and stopped going to church for a while, though I continued the bible study. I can’t remember when I told the group I was gay – whether it was when Rodney and I broke up, or after B and I moved in together to our little unit – the latter, I think. After it became known that B and I were an item two girls from the group, Alice and Miriam, set about trying to turn me straight – they played me videos by Sy Rodgers, and at least read through the studies I provided them on why it wasn’t wrong.
I didn’t sway – I’d tortured myself before with much more emotional connection than Alice was throwing at me. Alice was from Door of Hope – a church very much in the same vein as Coastlands. Miriam was basically the group leader (from City Baptist), but Alice was clearly the one on a mission to straighten me out.
Eventually, they invited me to come to coffee. I suspected something was up, and asked if B could come. “Sure!” they said.
I remember the spot, it was a little muffin shop which I think is now a branch of a larger cafe. I knew it was going to be bad when I saw the small Gideons New Testament on the table. Alice sat and quoted scripture, told me she was telling me all of this because she loved me, and that she had done her duty to tell me that I was hell-bound unless I repented. Did I repent? Oh, and by the way, I wouldn’t be welcome at the study group if I didn’t.
I was there with my *boyfriend*. How *dare* they? I told them “no, I don’t repent. I think I’d like to leave now. OK with you B?”
Alice said “I hope we can still be friends.” as we left. We’ve never spoken since.

Alice’s fireworks tore that safety net apart.

I got involved with Queer Students On Campus. Met some amazing people. Built a support network in Launceston that I knew wouldn’t evaporate once my sexuality came to light.
Just as well.

About a month after the Muffin Shop Incident, I got a call from the City Baptist pastor, who didn’t say what it was about, but asked if he could come for a visit. I was confident I knew what was coming.
I did the good church housewifey thing – I baked a Cinnamon Tea Cake for the Pastor’s visit. To me, Cinnamon is the smell of the kitchen, the smell of home. It’s a smell that evokes feelings of calm, safety, and strength.
I was, sadly, correct. I was asked not to take communion. That’s possibly the biggest “You can’t be good enough” short of “get out and never come back” in Christianity.
I said I wasn’t comfortable leading people into temptation like that.
“How do you mean?”
“Won’t people start wondering why I’m not taking it, and talk amongst themselves? I would hate to be the subject of gossip.”
“People aren’t looking around during communion. Why would they be looking at you?”
“Well for starters, the tray bearers are certainly looking around. And you know as well as I how little it takes to start church tongues a-wagging!”
My concern was dismissed. I told him that this visit made me feel unwelcome at CBC and I would not be returning.

Another “safety net” disappeared with a “Bang” and some theatrics…

And so I went looking for a place that could cope with me, honestly, from the start. I approached the Uniting Church I walked past so often in the Launceston CBD, Pilgrim Uniting Church.
I went in armed with honesty and a preparedness to be told to leave. They appreciated the former and I never ever heard the latter.
Turns out they were Christians of the sort that give the rest a good name. Kind, loving, gentle, passionate, accepting, and with a strong sense of justice.
I was asked to join the Leadership Team at Pilgrim. and did. I was 21. I and my then-partner Don had had our commitment ceremony there earlier that year – in the sanctuary, officiated by my father.

I hear that their pastor performed another commitment ceremony there late last year.  I’m proud of Pilgrim for championing the cause in regional areas. Well done!

Pilgrim also ran a group called TasUnity – a group for GLBTIQ people and their parents and friends to support each other, to hear about each other, and to grow with each other.
The friendships I made in TasUnity are an important part of my emotional safety net even today, years after I left the state.

These days, I don’t have fireworks come into my life. My safety nets are too well-established for a newcomer to disrupt, and I’m unlikely to need to “come out” again for anything else. 

My advice when coming out:
Consider your safety nets – Figure out which networks are strong enough to catch you even when you’re out. Come out to them first.
Identify your fireworks – These are the people who may cause an existing social network to crumble around you. Avoid networks with these people in until you have at least a couple of secure safety nets organised. (ie you’re out to some people who can help you if things go wrong)
Don’t expect instant approval – Think about how long it took you to get comfortable with the fact you were gay. Is it reasonable to expect someone else to go on that journey in an instant when you tell them? This is not to say you should take flak from people, but be aware they may need time to process it.
Consider an exit plan – Especially if you’re coming out to parents you depend on, and might be less than accepting – If there’s fall-out, where are you going to live, how will you pay bills etc. Sometimes it’s worth delaying it until you’re not living with them any more…

I hope this helps some of you somehow, and I’m sorry it’s so long…
With love,
Dylan Carmichael.

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