When CNN’s Anderson Cooper came out as gay earlier this summer, a few eyebrows were raised because he did not come out sooner. It’s a common story that when a public figure acknowledges a homosexual orientation, he or she is often castigated for having led a private life for so long. I have often found this a strange reaction when it comes from LGBT advocates because one of the values that the LGBT community frequently supports is the right of individuals to lead their own lives as they see fit.
Mr. Cooper’s revelation has sparked reflections about the coming out process on two sides of the world–in the United States and the Philippines. In both cases, Catholicism plays a role.
Rev. Chris Glaser, a Presbyterian minister who is a pioneer in the LGBT religion world, supports Mr. Cooper’s decisions both not to tell and then to tell his sexual orientation publicly. What I found most interesting about Rev. Glaser’s argument is that he uses Henri Nouwen, a beloved Catholic spiritual writer who was also a gay priest who did not reveal his orientation publicly, as his model for this type of decision. In a HuffingtonPost.com essay he writes:
“. . . I have empathy for celebrities who don’t fall all over themselves coming out, despite the good it might do to limit bullying, suicides and inequality.
“A spiritual mentor and friend, Henri J. M. Nouwen, faced the same difficulty. Having written dozens of books on the spiritual life and Christian ministry, Nouwen was a celebrity among Catholics and Protestants alike. But he believed in his call as a celibate priest, while yearning for what Catholic teaching opposed: ‘a particular friendship.’
“He was indeed The Wounded Healer that he wrote of early in his career: those able to bring healing to others while acknowledging personal wounds. Nouwen’s spiritual breakthrough came when he drew too close to a member of his spiritual community, prompting intense self-scrutiny that led to his published journal, ‘The Inner Voice of Love,’ in which he comes to the realization that people will try to hook you in your wounds, and ‘dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.’ “
“His biographer, Michael Ford (Wounded Prophet), told me that Nouwen wanted to come out with that book but had been persuaded its message would reach a broader audience if the gender of the friend were not revealed. Nouwen had mentioned to me his concern that his reach would be narrowed if he were defined by this one aspect of his character.
“Shortly after his death in 1996, I was shocked to receive an e-mail from someone quoting ‘the gay theologian’ Henri Nouwen — a verification of Henri’s concern. Thus we might take Anderson Cooper at his word in telling friends he didn’t want to be known as ‘the gay anchor.’
“I have the opposite but analogous experience. Because I became known for my gay activism, I’ve discovered I have been typecast and whatever spiritual insights I might offer the church have been viewed through a prejudicial lens.
“As one who resisted mentioning Henri’s sexuality after his death even after it had become public, I was nonetheless invited by his spiritual community to write about it for an anthology entitled Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen. They trusted me, they said, to write about it without sensationalizing it.”
In an opinion essay in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rina Jimenez-David examines Mr. Cooper’s coming out and how it compares with the story of a Raymond Alikpala, a Catholic Filipino lawyer who was once a Jesuit seminarian and who recently authored a book that is getting some attention in their country: a book, Of Gods and Men: A Life in the Closet. Jimenez-David writes:
“One of the most affecting parts of the book is how Raymond finally found the courage to tell his family about his entire self, including his sexual orientation. Though he said he had an inkling that his mother had long sensed his gayness, when they read the first draft of his memoir, they at first were repulsed and appalled that he would speak so publicly about his sexuality.
“But at the book launch, Raymond’s parents were both there, as were other members of his family, which spoke volumes about how they had come around to accepting him and indeed being proud of his courage and fearlessness.
“His mother Ciony, speaking at the launch, acknowledged that it is not easy mothering a gay son, more so because ‘it is not easy to be gay in the Philippines.’ ‘Gayness is not a sin,’ she declared in Filipino, ‘God knows how he has lived, and God sees into our hearts and reads our minds.’
“It was important to her, she said, ‘to try my best and show my love and support’ for Raymond. ‘I am very proud of my gay son,’ she declared, urging parents of gay children to love them because ‘they need our love more in a cruel and judgmental society.’
“Anderson Cooper would have approved.”
Coming out will always remain a personal decision based on many factors in a person’s life–personal, professional, political, spiritual. We rejoice when someone has found the right time to do so not only because of the benefit it can bring to the individual but to the greater community, as well. As much as we would want everyone to have the grace to come out, patience and respect for the individual’s personal process in this area need to prevail. As much as coming out can be a grace to the wider community, every individual should enjoy the right to do so on his or her own schedule. Encouragement and support, not criticism and castigation, should always be our response.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry