Relevant truth telling with a queer twist
My coming out helped me realize my white privilege
Uniting women’s, LGBTQ, and racial justice movements
by Layton E. Williams
Five years ago, at Christmas, I went home for the holidays and announced to my family that I was planning on going to seminary. For the most part, my family was excited and supportive of my decision to pursue ordained ministry, but a few were resistant. As it turned out, they felt that my being a woman precluded me from being called to ministry by God.
I was floored. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. After all, I knew that women hadn’t always been allowed to be ordained in my denomination and still weren’t in others. My dad’s concern should have been predictable, given that he was a committed Catholic. But, I had been raised around successful, independent women and had grown up in a church with a beloved female associate pastor. Ensconced as I was in my upper-middle class world, the idea of privilege had never felt entirely real to me. Though I claimed to believe in systemic oppression, I couldn’t really conceptualize that our systems worked against certain people on the basis of their inherent qualities. Yet suddenly I was confronted by the reality that people I loved believed I was inferior just because I was a woman.
This experience was magnified when I came out as queer less than a year later. Having grown up in a conservative Southern family, there were people I loved who had affirmed my sense of call to ministry just months earlier but who were suddenly convinced I was unfit. My path to ministry was now full of risk, judgment, and rejection all because of my sexual identity. The sudden shift made the unfairness of it all seem especially apparent. It was like a switch had been flipped in my brain, so that systemic injustices that had once been invisible to me were now neon bright.
Recognizing the ways that society worked against my gender and my sexuality made me a stronger feminist and LGBTQ justice advocate, but my coming out also made me realize the ways that I participate in systems of oppression. I had the unusual experience of coming out right alongside a seminary classmate and friend. We both came from conservative families. We had both grown up in the South. And we were both newly coming to terms with our queer identity and the upheaval that coming out brings. The primary difference between us was our race. I am white, and she is black. The impact of that factor on our simultaneous coming out experiences was profound and impossible to ignore.
‘The truth is that justice is only real when all people have it.’
My ordination process would make me one of a small number of ordained bisexual women. My friend’s ordination could potentially make her the first ordained out, queer, black woman. I would be limited to churches that were open to hiring queer, female clergy. She would be further limited to churches open to hiring a black, queer woman in our overwhelming white denomination. I would struggle to reconcile my queerness with my home community, while she would struggle to reconcile her blackness with our queer community and her queerness with her home community. These, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg.
I am ashamed that it took encountering my own experiences of oppression to recognize the immensity of my privilege, but I am as determined to work against systemic oppression for people of color as I am for women and LGBTQ people. I aim to be as committed to dismantling my own privilege as I am to dismantling privilege that marginalizes me. As a white person, I cannot fully understand the experiences of people of color, but my queerness and womanness have both helped me understand the need for justice for all people.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that justice movements choose which demographic to advocate for, and that can make queer justice and racial justice seem like they are at odds with one another. As a result, the pressing needs for racial justice get sidelined in favor of queer advocacy—or vice versa. And caught in the middle of all of this are queer people of color whose justice is denied when either movement is sidelined for the other. There is a myth that justice is in short supply and that we must fight each other for who gets it.
The truth is that justice is only real when all people have it.
My particular experience coming out alongside my friend helped me to realize the ways my marginalization and my privilege are intertwined. It helped me to understand how my struggle for justice is bound up with my friend’s struggle. It challenged me to call out my privilege as often as I claim my own right to equality.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we have seen huge strides in LGBTQ justice in the last several years with changes in ordination polity and marriage equality. Now, as we look toward what is next, Presbyterian leaders both within the LGBTQ world and outside of it are prioritizing racial justice as a primary focus going forward. The truth is that racial justice should have always been a priority, but I am glad to see a willingness to confront our own denominational white privilege.
At the recent national conference for The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson offered a challenging truth, naming that white LGBTQ Presbyterians are “a group of people who, once brokered into the denomination, will immediately have a space of privilege based on race and yet those of us who have been struggling for years will never have that privilege – certainly not by any overture to a General Assembly.” We must do the work of learning how we participate in systems of oppression against people of color. We must do the work of dismantling our white privilege and our complacency in the face of racial injustice. Queer and straight, and people of all genders. We must do it because our faith calls for justice, and until justice belongs to all people, the work is not done.
Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.