The No Shame Zone

One young person’s subversive thoughts on church and society


Tad HoppComing out is your choice
In a culture that alternatingly shames those who publicly share their sexuality and those who keep it private, it’s time to recognize a range of valid coming-out choices.

by Tad Hopp

Recently, Oscar-winner Matt Damon has drawn criticism for comments made to The Guardian about queer actors: “Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality.” To many, this sounded like a push for gay actors to stay in the closet. While Damon has since clarified his comments and explained that his meaning was taken out of context, his words can’t be unheard.

October is when we celebrate National Coming Out Day (October 11th), a day that commemorates one of the first marches on Washington, DC, for LGBTQ equality. October is also the month when I celebrate my own coming-out day.

It takes a lot of bravery and a lot of courage to come out of the closet. My hat is off to anyone who is brave enough to do so.

My own coming out took a rather long journey. I knew I was gay when I was 12, but I didn’t feel I was in a safe enough space to fully embrace that as my identity. So, I waited many years before I finally was ready to admit it to myself and to others. I realize how fortunate I am that I had a loving, supportive community that fully embraced my identity. Coming out remains the hardest thing I have ever done but also the bravest.

In contrast to my own experience is the experience of an acquaintance of mine who I’ll call “Doug.” Doug is an ordained minister in a Christian denomination that does not ordain openly gay people. Therefore, Doug has stayed in the closet for decades so that he won’t have to risk his job and his livelihood. This, too, is an act of bravery.

Too often, coming out is lifted up as the only valid option for the queer community. While there are many instances where coming out is indeed the best choice, it is not the only choice that should be honored.

‘The essential factor, in whether someone chooses to come out or not, and to what degree, is simply that: choice. It needs to be something they do of their own free will and not because of any sense of shame.’

Let me be perfectly clear. There is no shame in being gay. It is not sinful. It is not evil. It is not perverted. Queer people have nothing to apologize for and nothing to be ashamed of. But there is also nothing shameful about choosing to stay in the closet. That choice may be what keeps a person safe (since so many queer people live in parts of the world where coming out would put them at physical risk). It may be what enables that person to stay in relationships with their family and friends (since there are still families that will disown their queer children and kick them out).

If coming out is a safe, healthy option for you, allowing you to claim your full identity, then please do so. But please don’t universalize your experience and desires. Stop stigmatizing people who choose to stay in the closet. They are still beloved children of God. They can still be a beautiful part of the Christian community. That fact doesn’t change. There’s no “right” time to come out. There’s only your time.

There are many shades to coming out. One can choose to come out only to oneself but no one else. One can choose to come out to family and close friends only and not let random acquaintances or coworkers know (as I did for the first few months of being out). There’s even the option of coming out as queer and not feeling the need to label oneself any further (this is an option that even some straight people have chosen as a way to express solidarity with their gay brothers and sisters).

When it comes to coming out, there’s no such thing as a binary; there are only different shades. The essential factor, in whether someone chooses to come out or not, and to what degree, is simply that: choice. It needs to be something they do of their own free will and not because of any sense of shame.

Back to what I started this article with—Matt Damon’s comments. His comments, whether intentional or not, shame both closeted and un-closeted queer actors. His statements imply that if you are gay, you can’t be as good an actor when you play straight roles because the audience won’t believe you. He shames those who are out by implying that their ability to play a role will suffer because their sexuality is known. He shames those who aren’t out by saying that they should stay in because it will make their performances more believable. He thus instructs them to stay in the closet and does so through the language of shaming. He takes away their own agency to come out and says, in essence, “Your career will suffer if you come out, so you had better stay in.”

Why would anybody in the entertainment business come out after reading that? I get what Damon was trying to say (and indeed he did later attempt to clarify his comments). The entertainment industry can be harsh, downright cruel. It will eat you alive if you let it. He’s trying to protect their careers from suffering and is also arguing that art should carry with it an impenetrable mystique. However, his words smack of straight white male privilege. No one, especially a straight person, gets to tell the queer community when we can and cannot come out. That is our decision, our choice and our privilege.

Let’s stop shaming those who have made the decision to stay in the closet. Their reasons may not make sense to us, or we may even disagree with their decision. The fact remains, however, that they get to be the ones who make it. Whatever decision they make, we should support and stand by them. Shame should have no place in such a hard decision.

Tad Hopp graduated in May 2015 from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity. He enjoys a good movie, singing karaoke, and anything involving the arts (theater, ballet, opera), and is a self-proclaimed Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter nerd! He served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Chicago (2010–2011) working with the homeless queer population. He is a lifelong Presbyterian, an ordained ruling elder and deacon, and currently a candidate for ordination.