Today thousands of LBGTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) people will celebrate our ability to come out of the closet and be who we are. We will celebrate being able to tell our stories. We will tell those stories over again. We will reminisce about painful experiences we have moved through and the relationships that saved us during those times. We will call others to come out of their closets. We will tell them to not be ashamed of themselves, their sexualities, their genders, their partners. We will tell that that we will love them as they are, and that they don’t need to fear making themselves known.
We are privileged – those of us who have come out. We have found support systems that love us. We have found families (by blood or by choice) that take care of us. We are safe – if not in all areas of our lives, at least in some. We have somewhere to go that isn’t threatening. Today we will celebrate that safety, and the struggles we went through to be safe and let our voices be heard.
So here is what I have to say to you –
to the one who knows that it isn’t safe to come out in rural Appalachia right now; to the one who knows that coming out at 14 in a conservative Mormon family isn’t safe; to the one whose father has said “I will beat the gay out of you” –
Have no shame.
I will love you as you are even if I don’t know you as you are.
Staying in the closet may be the valid choice for you right now, and I am fiercely proud of you for being able to make it. I know that I have an immense privilege because I am able to be out, and I know that that is not something that you have. I am sorry. I am sorry that you are not safe enough to come out. I am sorry that we live in a world where LGBTQ people are still beaten and abused.
Have no shame. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to come out. Don’t let anyone convince you that there is nothing worse than staying in the closet. The closet is horrible, and no one should have to live inside of it, but I recognize that there is a time and place for all things, and that you might not live in a place of safety right now.
Have No Shame.
Do not let your decision to stay in the closet become a source of shame. Do not confuse a decision for safety with a feeling of shame about who you are. You can be proud and gay and fierce and still stay in the closet. You can be in touch with your sexuality, in conversation with your G…d, and still be in the closet. You can have your inner diva singing and dancing, and still be in the closet.
Your life, your body, your beautiful soul – these are treasures and you should keep them safe. There may be a time, a place, an occasion to come out. There may be a time, a place, where safety isn’t an issue and you have a support system in place. Then you can come out and join your voice with all of the others celebrating National Coming Out Day.
But this year, I want to celebrate you instead of retelling my story. I want you to know that I am proud of you for choosing safety. I am proud of you for valuing your life and your health. And I will fight for a world that is safe for you. And I will keep fighting until I hear your voice joined with mine.
About a month ago, I took a friend to get her first tattoo. At the same time, I got new body piercings put in. We are both spiritual people (though she is undeniably more of a mystic than I am). Her tattoo was both religious in iconography and spiritual in personal meaning, so we knew going in that it was going to be an experience that carried deeply spiritual tones. In this post and the one that precedes it, both she and I will explain what the experience was for us.
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Have you ever walked in on someone who was praying? Not a brief, thrown out there prayer but a prayer of the heart, a moment where you knew that the person was talking to God? I’ve been trying for weeks to write about taking a dear friend to get her first tattoo and this is the closest I can get. I walked in on her in a moment where she and God were in conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. It was magical, mystical. I am deeply honored that I was there as audience. But it reminded me of the rare times I take friends to synagogue. While it is a spiritual experience for them, they tend to feel lost in the moments of Hebrew. They explain that they feel more like witnesses than participants. They don’t speak the language of the prayers.
This is how I felt, sitting there, watching Paula get tattooed. She is a mystic. She relates to God in a language I will never speak. Her tattoo carried a language with it of Spirit, of beginning, of relationship to God. It’s a vocabulary we share, but we speak it in different languages.
Rituals of the body – specifically intensely religious/spiritual rituals – are ones I’m not sure can ever be shared. The conversation that occurs between the body, the spirit, God and the heart is one that is so intensely personal, so private that no amount of public ritual can make it wholly understood by witnesses. Paula can explain until she’s blue in the face what the ritual means to her, but I will never feel it. I will never know the conversations she had with God in those moments.
This doesn’t make being a witness meaningless. In some ways, it makes it mean more. We are blessed, in some moments, with the gift of witnessing true communion. We are blessed in the moments we walk in on someone deep in prayer. For those of us who are occasional skeptics, these moments give us proof that God is talking. They give us moments when we know that God is listening.
It doesn’t matter that Paula and I were in different conversations at that moment. It doesn’t matter that that I will never know what she and God said to each other. What matters is that I was there as a witness to her moment of connection. It matters that she wasn’t alone while she worked her way through the ritual. This ritual (if I may speak for Paula) was a ritual of pain and cleansing, a ritual of releasing the old and welcoming the new. I may not speak the language that Paula was speaking, but I carry inside myself the same vocabulary. I spoke the same words in my own ritual, in my own language, with my own piercings, after Paula’s tattoo. She stood witness. She held my hand. She didn’t speak the language, but she understood the vocabulary.
It’s a vocabulary we all carry inside our hearts. Pain, longing, beginnings, renewal. We long for people to understand the language we use for these feelings; we believe we must speak the same language for others to understand what we are saying. I’m not sure I can ever speak the language Paula speaks. Nor am I sure that she will ever speak mine. But in those moments of pain, rebirth, and change, we understood each other. Deeply and intensely, in ways that will never die, we understood each other and witnessed our relationships to God. I’m fairly sure that transcends the boundaries of any language, ritual, or experience.
About a month ago, I took a friend to get her first tattoo. At the same time, I got new body piercings put in. We are both spiritual people (though she is undeniably more of a mystic than I am). Her tattoo was both religious in iconography and spiritual in personal meaning, so we knew going in that it was going to be an experience that carried deeply spiritual tones. In this post and the one that follows, both she and I will explain what the experience was for us.
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Tattoo as Church
guest written by Paula Wells Sinozich
I have spent most of my life horrified at the notion that anyone would mark her or his skin permanently by a tattoo. I think the remark I made over and over, especially in front of my children, was “Why would anyone want to DO that?”
For the life of me, I could not imagine wanting to imprint myself with words or pictures with which I would have to live forever. And yet, I was willing at the tender age of 25 to take marriage vows for life. For that matter, at the age of 10, I was willing (well, if you have a will of your own at 10) to be confirmed as a Roman Catholic. Vows are inward, but human vows sadly do not have the same permanency in this world as a tattoo.
There is no doubt that a tattoo is much less a big deal to people under say, 40. There are far fewer of my contemporaries that have tattoos. Everywhere I go around the southern city where I currently reside, I see more and more body art, some of it quite elaborate. Even around my divinity school (which is admittedly pretty progressive, but it is still a divinity school), tattoos are pretty plentiful. I have been curious as to what a tattoo that cascades down the arm of a young woman will look like when she is 65. I have strained to read what special significance certain words or pictures might have to their bearers. I have tried not to stare or ask questions, and then, I think, I’m supposed to ask questions.
There definitely was a light switch moment for me when I decided to get a tattoo. That moment was strangely like the moment that I knew I had to become a minister — it was a tiny little seed that took root and grew into a fabled beanstalk. The tattoo seed was planted, in fact, by a pastor. He and I were at the Wild Goose Festival this past summer, listening to great music and interesting talks about the emergent church, on comparative theology, on spiritual growth, and he posed the question to me about whether I had ever considered getting a tattoo. At the time, I gave a definitively negative answer. When he asked me the same question a few months later, I don’t think he remembered that he had asked me before. But this time the answer was different.
The first time he had asked, I knew my life was changing rapidly and dramatically; the second time, I knew my life was never going to resemble anything it had resembled before. A transformation — a conversion — was in the making. I had left my law practice and entered divinity school full time. My firstborn left for college. Many other changes, painful but beautiful, were surging in my life.
I had also recently developed a sudden but deep and binding friendship with someone who is a completely different shell than I am, and I am certain that my usual crowd would not understand our relationship at all. She has over 30 tattoos and many piercings, and each one has a story, and I find her more beautiful each moment I know her. And so we went together to the tattoo parlor, and I allowed her to extend to me a radical hospitality to welcome me there. She introduced me to the tattoo artist, who lovingly swabbed me with ointment, carefully chose music that would soothe me, and asked me to bow my head so that he could reach what needed to be reached. My friend took photographs while I suffered the pain that I needed to suffer, and I appear to be in prayer. I appear to be because I was. And during the hour or so with the needle, I confessed some of my fears and longings to her, and she held sacred space for me. When it was done, I accompanied her as she received two surface piercing in her chest, and she allowed me to hold her hand and comfort and encourage her.
Afterwards, we encountered a few people on the way back to her apartment — people who had also marked themselves and nodded knowingly. I am now in communion with others.
My friend took me to her home, sat me before her and washed my tattoo, and sent me out into the world with my message: this tattoo of an ancient Celtic symbol, the wild goose, which was adopted by Christians as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, on my back and over my heart, permanent and perfect lines, urging me forward to do the things that I need to do, in the service of others and in the service of God.
This, this is church. This is a Christian church where suffering is recognized for its ability to help us transcend and transform, where communion is with one another as a reflection of our covenant with God, where we recognize the beauty in one another and love as unconditionally as broken human beings can. It is prayerful, it is loving, it is self-sacrificing, it is confession and assurance, it is holy. Yes, this is church as church should be.
Let me begin as all good letters should begin (when you can well and truly mean it). We love you. Not with a shallow passing love, but with a love that reverberates in our very bones. Nothing we have done in the past should ever cause you to doubt that. And we admit that we should have written this letter a long time ago. We shouldn’t have waited for one specific day to tell you how sorry we are. We shouldn’t have waited for a specific day to admit that:
We have not been patient.
We have lost our tempers.
We have lied.
We have hidden from you.
We have allowed you to hurt yourself.
We have hurt ourselves in front of you.
We have run away.
We have not been honest.
We have not worked as hard as we should have.
We have not been who you wished us to be.
We have been too patient.
We have not been honest about who we are.
We have said unkind things.
We have been careless with your non-human children.
We have been preoccupied with our own pain and ignored yours.
We have not listened as well as we should.
We have heard what we wanted to hear.
We have been arrogant.
We have been blind to what others need.
We have been self-absorbed.
We have hurt people on purpose.
We have damaged the earth.
We have lashed out in anger.
We have betrayed friends and family members.
We have stolen.
We have rebelled against those who love us.
We have persecuted those who need support.
We have led others astray.
We have judged.
We have not praised you enough for how good you can be.
We have yelled when we should have remained silent.
We have held on to guilt beyond its time.
For all of these things, we come to you and repent. We ask your forgiveness, and promise to forgive you as well. Let’s start a new year with more honesty, more compassion, more listening. Let us speak out of love this year, not only out of anger. Let us hold each other accountable on all days, not just one. Out of this accountability and love can grow a more justice-filled world, once where compassion reigns and kindness is of higher value than money. Today, when we are inscribed into the Book of Life, let us together decide to make that Book brighter, stronger, and more centered on love than we have in the past year.