The following essay by the Rev. Bojangles Blanchard discusses the challenges and opportunities with National Coming Out Day, along with important questions for the Church to consider in light of those possibilities. He begins by speaking to the bigotry and anxiety surrounding the recent bullying and suicide of Tennessee teen, Channing Smith.
“What is Truth?”
On September 22nd, 2019, a 16 year old Tennessee boy named Channing Smith, shot and killed himself. His good friend had shared a private conversation they’d had about Channing’s bisexuality and it was posted on both Instagram and Snapchat by classmates. In a matter of moments, Channing was overcome with the extreme fear of being “outed” and all that could and likely would follow. Even as an adult, that would have been a tremendous load to bear but knowing he was just 16 makes his suicide even more heartbreaking.
People who aren’t LGBTQ can’t understand what “outing” does to an individual, and there’s no way to really explain it so that they can. I was outed many years ago to my parents, and at the very moment I found out, I felt a tremendous loss of control in my life. My anxiety sky-rocketed. What I’d worked so hard to keep private my entire life for fear of condemnation and exclusion was now completely out of my hands. It had been stolen and exploited, and I was alone at ground zero for the fallout, just like Channing and so many others in our community have experienced.
As a gay man, born and raised in the South, I know that hiding one’s identity for fear of condemnation and even death is a real concern for many in our community. The risk of social and familial alienation is real. The risk of loss of employment or housing is real. The risk of physical violence and even death are real. These consequences of owning our truth and living fully into it are often too great to overcome for some. They remain “in the closet,” not as some cop out to being true to themselves, but rather as a crucial way to survive in a culture and world that is still largely homophobic.
Even at 16 years old, Channing Smith knew this reality all too well. In his anguish, fear and hopelessness, he chose to end his life rather than face what he believed to be worse than death… being outed. Let me repeat that for you, Channing Smith believed that killing himself would be better than facing the homophobia of his classmates, town and others. With one shot, Channing ended his life. The finality of that decision will haunt his family and friends forever. I can tell you that it haunts me.
With Channing in mind, I look at National Coming Out Day on October 11th with much more empathy than I have in the past. Many LGBTQ folk and allies will celebrate coming out of the closet and living openly as LGBTQ people. They’ll give speeches about the bravery of those who came out and encourage those who remain in the closet to live their truth publicly. LGBTQ celebrities will give quotes, participate in parades and be interviewed about how they’ve impacted society by coming out. Yet, on October the 12th in Manchester, Tennessee - Channing’s hometown - there will be no parade. Town leaders won’t be inviting Ellen DeGeneres to town to speak. You’d be hard pressed to see any indication that it’s National Coming Out Day. What you will see if you drive out to the cemetery is a freshly dug grave for Channing Smith with some flowers on it. There may even be a small rainbow flag among them.
I’m not saying that National Coming Out Day is bad. I think there’s great liberation found in coming out of the closet, and it does help to be part of a more visible community. At the same time, I’m saying that the emphasis on National Coming Out Day shouldn’t be on who has come out but rather on how to eliminate the ongoing homophobia that prevents all who identify as LGBTQ from coming out. I’ll never understand celebrating freedom when all are not free. I’d propose changing the name to National End Homophobia Day because the truth is October 11th, 2018, was nothing more than another day for Channing Smith to be reminded of how much he had to lose if his bisexuality was discovered.
When I think about how to change this oppressive reality, I search for the source from which I believe it largely came. For me, the root of Southern homophobia is the homophobic theology propagated by the Christian Church. Like racism and sexism, the Church has stoked the fires of homophobia and transphobia for centuries, to the point that it’s so engrained in the culture that one would believe that being a good Southerner and of course, a good Christian, means hating LGBTQ folk and legislating against their rights. We see this played out day after day in communities throughout the region. It’d be safe to say that it’s likely no different in Manchester, Tennessee.
I’m fortunate in that I have the opportunity to change the homophobic narrative for Baptist preachers, being that I’m openly gay and understand God’s love as inclusive, but it’s not that easy. I must admit that I hesitate to tell most LGBTQ folks that I’m a Baptist minister. It’d be like walking up to an African American to tell them they’re loved and then mentioning that I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s not an unrealistic analogy. The vast majority of LGBTQ folk believe that Christians, particularly Baptists, hate them and will do everything they can to oppress them. That’s the brutal truth of what our culture and our brand of “Christianity” have become. So, can we realistically approach dismantling homophobia through a Christian lens?
The answer is “yes,” but it requires us to approach the LGBTQ issue with the same question Pilate asked Jesus those many years ago. “What is truth?” In Jesus’ understanding, truth was the most sincere and authentic aspect of our total being, not only in relationship to each other, but also to God. Truth is the reflection of God in us that has nothing to do with being alike, but rather about being whole in all of its diverse manifestations. This understanding of truth invites us as Christians to approach LGBTQ folk and their sexuality not as threats but as authentic examples of God’s diverse and divine creation. There is no room for judgement or condemnation when you understand that truth is not about rules, but about living authentically as a reflection of God in you.
We must challenge ourselves to grow beyond the heteronormative constructs our culture and churches have created and begin removing language, imagery, vocabulary and theology that promote the oppression and alienation of our LGBTQ family. I invite you to look at these things with the help of LGBTQ folk who see, hear, and understand them in ways you may have never considered. Let them share with you their truth and treat it as though it was the most valuable gift you or your church has ever received because, in many ways, it is.
Let me leave you with these questions and imagine that God was asking them to you. “What was Channing’s truth?” “Would he have found a safe place to share that truth in your church or with you?” If not, “What are you going to do about it?”
Bojangles Blanchard is an ordained Baptist minister who is married to his wonderful husband. They have a two year old son named Josiah. Bojangles has worked as an LGBTQ activist for the past twenty years and he and his husband Dominique were two of the Kentucky Plaintiffs in the landmark SCOTUS 2015 Marriage Equality case. Additionally, Bojangles has fought for LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation within the (CBF) for many years and now serves as co-moderator of the newly established Affirming Network.