Coming Out: Journey without Maps

by Carter Heyward

Carter Heyward, one of the first eleven women ordained Episcopal priests in 1974, teaches theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. A contributing editor of Christianity & Crisis, she is author of Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice and Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis June 11, 1979. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The author speaks of resistance to all categorizing of human beings, including the use of sexual categories such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. The reason she cites for resisting is that “being human — being sexual — is not a matter of ‘qualitative analysis’ in which relationships of highest value become genital equations: woman plus woman equals gay; woman plus man equals straight.” In her view, the labels we use do not express, but rather distort, the most important things we can know and say about our own sexuality and human sexuality in general.

In another article of mine that is being published this week, I speak of my resistance to all categorizing of human beings, including the use of sexual categories such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. The reason I cite for resisting is that "being human -- being sexual -- is not a matter of 'qualitative analysis' in which relationships of highest value become genital equations: woman plus woman equals gay; woman plus man equals straight." In my view, the labels we use do not express, but rather distort, the most important things we can know and say about our own sexuality and human sexuality in general.

If I believe this -- and I do -- why then break through my own resistance and "come out"? The answer does not come easily. The difficulty here does not rise out of diffidence, for this article will not be primarily biographical but rather an analytic attempt to make sense out of biographical journeying. Quite apart from personal meanings, however, the subject being addressed does not yield readily to our efforts for comprehension. We live, all of us, in uncomfortable ambiguity. We live with contradictions and partial truths. In ambiguity we seek the meaning of ourselves and of the world, and the words to communicate the meanings we find. In its enormous vital complexity, sexuality may draw us as close as we will ever get to the heart of ambiguity. It is to escape from our anxiety-producing uncertainty, I think, that we so readily accept labels and resist our own questing and questioning.

People tend to think of sexual "identity" (or "preference," or "orientation") as something innate. I do not believe this is true. It seems to me that our sexual feelings and behavior are shaped by a variety of interweaving factors. Biology -- our bodily glands and their powerful secretions, along with anatomy itself -- is one, but only one, of these factors. We are shaped also by our ethnic, religious, and class heritages, by our schooling, by the events in our early experience, and certainly by our parents -- by the specifically sexual models they provide, by their values, and by the ways they relate not only to each other, but also to us, and to others.

We are born sexual; our sexuality is indeed a given. But it is from a myriad of sources, and by a process closer to osmosis than to either inheritance or deliberation, that we learn how to feel and act sexually. That is why, I believe, we ought not identify the categories of "sexual identity" with sexuality itself, as though the categories were fundamental and fixed; as though they too were gifts to be accepted and valued without question. To celebrate our sexuality is to make a theological and anthropological affirmation of the pulsating dynamic of created life, the force within us that moves us beyond ourselves toward others. But this powerful affirmation of both creation and Creator is diminished in its truth when sexuality is equated with such categories as "gay" and "straight." For these categories can be boxes; they can be imposed from without, not truly chosen, not reflective of who we are or might have been or might become.

A Dominant Worldview

Yet these categories -- boxes -- are real. We live in them. We are in some significant part creatures of the social structures in which we participate; the boxes we call our sexual identities can be not only influenced, but even determined, by them. These structures, then, demand recognition and responsible attention. With regard to sexuality, what must be realized is that historically the predominant effect of cultural conditioning has been to squeeze all humanity into a single large box labeled "heterosexual." This social structure, this box, is so huge and so all-pervasive that we cannot easily see it; because we are enveloped by it, we cannot often find the distance we need to see and examine it. We accept this boxing of our sexuality as natural, the way things are and therefore ought to be.

Thus the heterosexual box becomes god of our social structures (including the church), our relationships, and our self-images. Functionally the heterosexual box becomes critical to and definitive for patriarchy, nuclear family, private enterprise, male-headship, and derivative boxes such as "masculine" and "feminine."

The social order is constructed, thus, upon a box largely invisible to its inhabitants. The moment a boy child learns that little boys don't cry, the instant a girl child learns that little girls don't fight, the child takes a step further into the heterosexual box. If, for reasons that may have little if anything to do with sex or gender, the child is drawn to protest against boxes, specifically against the heterosexual box designed to transform vulnerable little boys into big strong men and feisty little girls into soft, sweet ladies, the very social effort to implant a heterosexual identity may begin a contrary process. The point is that the result in either case is that the sexuality within is confined, shaped, limited, perhaps diminished by the container built around it.

The reason this is important is that sexuality drives toward relationship. It is a movement shared by all creatures and the creator, an impulse that we are capable of celebrating in every aspect of our lives. A significant aspect of sexuality is that it brings us to physical and emotional ecstasy in partnership. The ecstatic power of the sex act can lead us to identify it wrongly with the whole of sexuality, when in truth sexuality is, I believe, the one most vital source of our other passions; of our capacities to love and to do what is just in the world. I would go so far as to suggest that the capacity to celebrate sexuality is linked inextricably with the capacity to court peace, instead of war; justice, instead of oppression; life, instead of hunger, torture, fear, crime, and death.

Sexuality, which finds its most intimate expression between lovers, moves us into an active realization, and great relief, that we are not alone; that we are, in fact, bound up in the lives of others; and that this is good. That is why, I think, many (but too few) Christians speak of love and justice together; justice is the moral act of love.

This has personal meaning for me. Recalling my past, I can see now that coming out has been a long and puzzling journey out of the heterosexual box, in which I was no more comfortable at age five than I am now at thirty-three. The experience is hardly rare, as we are coming to know from the testimonies of women and men who, when they were girls and boys, were continuously reminded that anatomy is destiny and that sex-role expectations are not to be evaded. My own parents made no conscious attempt to teach me rigid sex roles. Yet, both they and I lived in the heterosexual box that was far larger, and more deeply formative, than either they or their children could realize. Accordingly, I experienced the larger social order as squeezing something out of me, pressing something in on me and eventually depressing into me feelings of shame about wanting to do things and be things that "weren't for girls."

Why did I want to be Superman and not Lois Lane? Matt Dillon and not Miss Kitty? Because Superman and Matt Dillon were more interesting to me. They led exciting lives. They made things happen. They were confident, assertive, energetic. Somewhere inside I knew (and knew rightly) that unless I felt myself to be an interesting, confident, and assertive person, completely capable of exerting as much "will" and leadership as the next person, I could never really love, or allow myself to be loved, by anyone. Not mutually. Not really. I knew also that any effort I might make on behalf of justice would be triggered by my own lack of self-esteem and by the painful inclination to identify with the underdog, rather than by the human and sexual impulse to work for justice on the basis of a strong confidence in both myself and the power of God to love.

In our history, in our society, in our churches, the heterosexual box is that into which girls are pressed into ladies who should marry and who must be held within the social order as subordinate to husbands, fathers, or father-surrogates -- regardless of the unique and individual capacities, needs, and desires of either women or men. There is too little room in this enormous socially constructed box for real mutual love between the sexes and no allowance at all for mutual love between women or between men. There is too little room in the heterosexual box for either spouse in a marriage to develop fully her or his capacities for loving humanity and God out of a sense of self as both strong and gentle, confident and vulnerable, assertive and receptive, equally able to lead and to follow. As a social structure, the heterosexual box intends to permit no androgyny or gynandry; nor does it encourage us to cast off the burden of sex roles -- because the heterosexual box is built entirely out of sex roles. 

New Priorities

Feminism challenges the legitimacy of sex roles Along with other social movements, feminism is rooted in the critique that a society so constructed that certain people and groups profit from inequalities -- between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, etc. -- is a society in which money is more highly valued than love, justice, and human life itself. Feminism moves toward the reversal of these values: Human life must be first; all else, second. As sex roles fall, as more and more women and men refuse to play along for profit and social gain at the expense our true selves, the heterosexual box begins to weaken. This is exactly what is happening today in our society. The box is collapsing: Women and men are coming out.

For many women, and I am one, coming out means that we are beginning to value ourselves and our sisters as highly as we have been taught to value men. Coming out means loving women, not hating men. Coming out means beginning to feel the same attraction, warmth, tenderness, desire to touch and be touched by women as we have learned to feel in relation to men.

For about fifteen years I have been coming out sexually, experiencing my attraction to women as well as men to be a valuable dimension of myself -- as friend, lover, Christian. I have been aware that there is a box, another box, a less constrictive box, for people with this experience "bisexual." As boxes go, bisexuality isn't bad. It may be (if unknowable truths were known) the most nearly adequate box for all persons. The problem with bisexuality in my life (and I can speak only for myself) is that it has been grounded too much in my utopic fantasy of the way things "ought" to be and too little in the more modest recognition of myself as a participant in this society at this time in this world, in which I have both a concrete desire for personal intimacy with someone else and a responsibility to participate in, even witness to, the destruction of unjust social structures -- specifically, the heterosexual box.

If our world and civilization have a future, it may be that in some future decade or century sex roles will be transcended; persons will be defined as persons and modes of relationship will be chosen, not imposed. It has been my experience that to live now as bisexual is to live somewhat abstractly in anticipation of a future that has not arrived. That is why, for several years, I have been coming out of bisexuality, coming out of utopic vision in order to focus my sight on the urgency and immediacy of the concrete present.

At present, I am a student writing a doctoral thesis on a theology of mutual relation, believing as I do that the future of both humanity and God depends upon human beings' willingness to relate as equals. I am a teacher in a seminary in which both women and gay people have to struggle fiercely to keep themselves from being squeezed into the heterosexual box in which women must submit, and gay people must repent. I am a priest in a church which, like most churches, threatens to collapse under the weight of a perverse notion of a sexuality that is to be neither celebrated nor related to other issues of love and justice. I am a woman in a church and a society that patronize women with reminders of how far we have come and of how much we have been given. And I am a lesbian -- a woman who has come out of the heterosexual box and into another box, which, as boxes go, is far superior for my life as a responsible person, a Christian woman, in this world at this time.

Coming out, I come into the realization of myself as best able to relate most intimately -- to touch and be touched most deeply, to give and receive most naturally, to empower and be empowered most remarkably -- best able to express everything I most value -- God in human life, God in justice, God in passion, God as love -- in sexual relationship to a lover who is female.

It is with another woman in this world at this time that I am able to experience a radical mutuality between self and other, a mutuality that we have known since we were girl children, a mutuality that has shaped our consciousness of female-female relationships as the first and final place in which women can be most truly at home, in the most natural of social relations. It is, moreover, with other lesbian feminist Christians that we can witness to the power of God's presence in mutuality -- relationship in which there is no higher and no lower, no destructive insecurities fastened in the grip of sex-role expectations, but rather a dynamic relational dance in which each nurtures and is nurtured by the other in her time of need.

A romantic portrayal? No, it is not easy. There are tensions, fears, the possibility of cruelty and abuse -- just as in any relationship. It is not that lesbian relationships are always, or even most often, characterized by mutuality. It is just that, in the present social order, lesbian relationships offer an opportunity for a mutuality of remarkable depth. Lesbian relationships can make prophetic witness within and to society: a witness not on behalf of homosexuality per se, but rather on behalf of mutuality and friendship in all relations.

Gains and Losses

Coming out, there are things lost: the bearing of my own children and the learning how to live better with male lovers. But the gain outweighs the loss: Coming out, I begin to envision and embrace the children of the world as my own; and the men of the world as my brothers, whom I can better learn to know and love as friends. Coming out involves a recognition of the co-creative power I have always experienced in relation to women. Coming out is a confession that I need and want intimacy with someone whose values and ways of being in the world can support and be supported by my own. Coming out means realizing and cherishing my parents' way of loving and of being in the world; of valuing who they have been and who they are, and of knowing myself both as bound to them and as separate from them in my journeying. Coming out means remembering my other relatives and early friends, in the hope that they can trust, and celebrate, the parts we have played in the shaping of one another's values.

Coming out is a protest against social structures that are built on alienation between men and women, women and women, men and men. Coming out is the most radical, deeply personal, and consciously political affirmation I can make on behalf of the possibilities of love and justice in the social order. Coming out is moving into relation with peers. Not simply a way of being in bed, but rather a way of being in the world. To the extent that it invites "voyeurism," coming out is an invitation to look and see and consider the value of mutuality in human life. Coming out is simultaneously a political movement and the mighty rush of God's Spirit carrying us on.

Coming out, I stake my sexual identity on the claim which I hold to be the gospel at its heart: that we are here to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Each of us must find her, or his, own way to the realization of this claim. I have given you a glimpse into my way. Where the journey began, where it will end, I don't know. I know only that I am glad to be coming out.