What Catholics Can Learn from Barack Obama’s “Coming Out” Story

May 15, 2012

In a Newsweek analysis article, gay Catholic commentator Andrew Sullivan has declared Barack Obama to be America’s “first gay president.”  The addition of a rainbow halo on the cover of the magazine (at right) adds a religious flavor to this title.  The article traces Mr. Obama’s notorious “evolution” on marriage equality, but the title of “first gay president” is given for a much more personal connection between the president and LGBT people.  In a long passage towards the end of the article, Sullivan poignantly points out:

“. . .[T]here is something on this subject [marriage equality] with Obama that goes deeper in my view than cold, calculating politics and a commitment to civil rights. The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents’ or their siblings’. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation—of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it—is something all gay children learn. They sense something inchoate, a separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families, the first sharp pangs of shame. And then, at some point, they find out what it all means. In the past, they often would retreat and withdraw, holding a secret they couldn’t even share with their parents—living as an insider outsider.

“And this, in a different way, is Obama’s life story as well. He was a black kid brought up by white grandparents and a white single mother in Hawaii and Indonesia, where his color really made no difference. He discovered his otherness when reading an old issue of Life magazine, which had a feature on African-Americans who had undergone an irreversible bleaching treatment to make them look white—because they believed being white was the only way to be happy. . . .

“Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family. . . .

“This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation. It is easier today than ever. But it is never truly without emotional scar tissue. Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay. . . .

“I have always sensed that he intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own. And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama’s life’s work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve.”

I find this passage not only insightful about Barack Obama’s experience but that it also is applicable to the experience of LGBT Catholics.
Among the thousands of questions I’ve been asked over the past 20 years, the most common one, by far,  is why LGBT Catholics remain in the church.  Sullivan’s point that the gay experience is “the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation” is an excellent answer to that question.

The  LGBT Catholic experience is the experience of feeling different from one’s home community, but still knowing that it is home.  The challenge of such an experience is not the challenge of resolving all the tensions that such difference manifests, but in the discovery of a new community where one can also feel at home and which gives a person the strength and courage to live “without displacement, without alienation” in both settings.

Every single LGBT Catholic that I know who has remained a Catholic has done so because they have been able to find such a community.  Indeed, without such community, life would be unbearable and there would be no way to survive.  Community provides the example and support that one needs to navigate through the many demands of identity made on one’s life.  Community is the place where we learn that we can be ourselves and be part of something larger.  Community is the place where we learn to incorporate the many different aspects of our identity into an integral whole. Community is the place where we learn to be “at home” wherever we are and whoever we are.

Living out these tensions and negotiating these many demands upon the self are part of the gifts that LGBT people offer to the rest of the church.  Other Catholics stand to learn valuable lessons about identity and community if they open themselves up to the life and faith experiences of LGBT people.  As Sullivan pointed out, “The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”   That is a lesson that all people, gay and straight alike, can reap benefits and blessings.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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