Dear Mom and Dad,
Welcome back from the mission trip, Dad. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. While Dad was away I joined a group of over 100 United Methodist clergy and ministry candidates who are coming out together in A Love Letter to our Church from your LGBTQI Religious Leaders. I’m sorry to spring this on you at the last minute, but I didn’t pick the release date. We are choosing to make ourselves visible before yet another contentious General Conference where the validity of our ministry and our personal worth will be debated.
I’m coming out so that those who weren’t fortunate enough to have loving and accepting parents and churches as I did, can see that they are not alone. As the Love Letter to Our Church says, “We come out… to provide hope for LGBTQI young people in hostile UMC churches. [They] are more at risk for suicide …because of the condemnation they hear from the pulpits and pews of their churches. We come out to remind them that God’s love for them is immeasurable…”
You have stood by me and loved me even though my outspokenness on queer rights has stretched your comfort zone. Thank you. Thank you for raising me in a church that made sure I knew God’s love, taught me my value, and prepared me to be the pastor I have become. Thank you in advance for the love and grace with which I know you will respond even if you can’t understand why I risk my clergy credentials by saying out loud what most people probably already guess.
I have always known you love me. You gave me what so many of my gay friends wanted from their own families when you asked me if I was gay and affirmed that you would still love me if I were. I believed you; yet I still told you I wasn’t gay. I didn’t add, however, that I’m not entirely straight either. The words I would have needed were not readily available. So even though I knew you would still love me, I was content to leave the answer at “not gay.”
Please don’t take it personally. It wasn’t just you. If asked, I usually said I was straight—not out of fear or shame, but because it felt less complicated. I knew I wasn’t gay. I knew 50/50 bisexuals, so bi didn’t seem appropriate either. I wasn’t transsexual or transgender, though I rejected the idea of gender as a male/female binary, skirted gender norms, and embraced my weirdnesses. Words, like queer, were only just beginning to be reclaimed. I said I was part of the queer community, but didn’t call myself queer until years later. We didn’t yet have words like cisgender, genderqueer, demisexual, and other gender and sexual identities the people I may date in the future might be. In the past we didn’t have the language for me to name my orientation without a lengthy paragraph. Now I just say I’m queer. If someone wants to know what queer means to me they can ask respectfully, and if I’m comfortable I’ll answer.
Maybe I should have said something sooner, but the topic hasn’t come up for several years. When I began professional ministry I was pastoring congregations that hadn’t fully figured out their relationship with LGBTQI inclusion. It felt like a distraction to say that even though I was in a heteronormative marriage, I identify as queer. I hid a little bit of myself in order to help people better hear the gospel through me. While I was married, my orientation was seldom questioned in polite company. If my queerness was named, I had to be the one raising the topic.
Now that my divorce is finalized and public, speculation about my orientation begins anew. Many people will assume that the marriage ended because I am “gay.” Maybe you wonder too. All marriages are complicated. Ours was no exception from such complication, and my orientation had little impact on what led us to go our separate ways. The fact remains though: I am not straight.
People are asking again, and I now have the language to be clear about who I am. The only thing that might have kept me from naming my queerness would have been fear about your discomfort and disapproval. I am blessed to know you love me.
Even so, I would guess that the word “queer” isn’t going to be easy for you to say.
I still remember a time in 5th or 6th grade when scolded me for playing “Smear the Queer.” I thought you would be more bothered by the aggressive tackling than the name of the game where we chased the person with the ball. You tried to tell me of violence against people who are considered different. I didn’t understand you at the time, but years later as my activist identity began to take root, I remembered that example of your faithful commitment to love the outcast and the stranger. The world has come a long way on sexual orientation and gender expression since I was in middle school. Thank God! The word queer is now ok when spoken with respect. You may be uncomfortable telling people you have a queer son, but unless you want to launch into a lengthy summary of this letter, saying “queer” may actually be your most comfortable option.
You might also be uncomfortable—worried even—about the professional and personal risks I face for signing this letter. I realize there are consequences for you too. Signing on to this letter makes the possibility of me being appointed to serve a church near you in Tennessee much less likely. I’m sorry about that. My coming out may also drag you into conversations you weren’t ready to have in the church that raised me. You will probably read things about me on the internet that are vicious, hateful, and threatening.
I have no intention of changing our family’s unspoken don’t ask don’t tell policy about the intimate details of our love lives, but because I am a pastor some people think my private life is their business to interrogate. You may hear lies, speculation, and maybe even a few truths I wouldn’t have otherwise shared with you. I hope you don’t have to go through that, but if we get to that point, can we just agree to not talk about it? You can assume anything you hear isn’t true unless you hear it from me. As has always been the case, if someone I date becomes important, you will meet them. I’m so blessed to know that you love me so much that you will welcome whoever that may be if and when the time comes. God is love and you have shown me God in the ways that you love me.
Thank you for standing by me as I take this stand with my LGBTQI colleagues and for loving me as I am.
Your queer son, Austin
Rev. Austin L. Adkinson is a member of the Pacific Northwest Conference delegation to General Conference, the conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and will be joining the ministry team at First United Methodist Church of Seattle this summer.
Photo Credit: “shiny happy letters” by Flickr user Markus Mayer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.