I have come out as bisexual, trans and queer, but I cannot come out as Pagan. Which means that this is something else.
I started to identify as Pagan (or, at the time, ‘Agnostic leaning Pagan’) in my sophomore year of college, during the same semester that I kissed my boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend on a kitchen floor. Those two events are separate, but the feeling of them is similar in my memory; a sort of inherited shame giving way to, not wonder exactly, but an ache like the gum over a tooth that wants to come in.
It’s entirely possible that, in other circumstances, I would have come out that semester. Instead, I spent five years tamping down on these new parts of myself, until the relationship I was in eventually collapsed from stagnation. Which wasn’t terribly surprising — most people find it difficult to maintain a relationship while playing an outdated version of themselves. I put my first altar up less than a month after my boyfriend moved out, began to date again — and all of the potential energy built up through four years of college exploded outward.I came out to my parents that fall. We were driving back from a week’s vacation in Ohio, one of the few times I knew I’d get to see my family when I was in grad school. I had chosen that vacation to come out because I wanted to be able to talk to them again about my girlfriends, my thoughts and the new self I was becoming, and I thought they deserved to hear about these things from me in person. I had meant to do it during the week; but as exhausted as I was with sitting, quietly, and keeping my secrets, I found that I was even more afraid of what would happen if I spoke up and destroyed the illusion of the good, obedient, (straight) Christian girl that I’d so carefully maintained. It wasn’t until we were almost home that I realized I was running out of time.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I know the outline of it. Mom, always concerned and just a little bit stubborn, asked me if I would start dating again soon. I had been single for almost six months, at that point, licking wounds I was only starting to recognize and dating casually, serially, exclusively women. So I said that yes, I would. Mom told me not to worry. I’d have plenty of time to find someone and settle down and get married.
With all the tact and clarity of someone who’s been stewing in their own juices for six hours, I explained that, since I was bisexual, there was a fifty-fifty chance I wouldn’t be able to marry them anyway. My father was silent. My mother was confused. And then, more quickly than I had expected, the conversation turned.
“Are you still a Christian?” Mom asked. She sounded scared.
I hesitated. “Well, Mom. I’m agnostic,” I said.
She remained confused. As I explained, I reminded myself that this was the easy option; nothing good or safe was going to come out of Actually, Mom, I’m Pagan.
We got to St. Louis eventually, but nobody enjoyed the ride.
I came out to my extended family a little more than a year later. It was a year in which I had built up enough momentum to realize it was going to be even harder for me to see the place I had come from, the place I was trying to speak to. Knowing this, I enlisted some help. I wrote up a Christmas letter and gave it to three or four straight friends to make sure that I wasn’t using too much jargon; wasn’t speaking in a way my family wouldn’t be able to hear. It wasn’t meant to be comprehensive—I talked about being genderqueer, about my new name and my relationship with my girlfriend, included a picture of us in black and white. It was meant to provoke questions, to start a conversation. It was meant to get them started in getting to know me as I actually am.
The people who read it beforehand thought it was great, with just one caveat. “Why,” asked Eric, who had helped me most in finding my own spirituality, “do you talk about going to church?”
“Because,” I told him. “I want them to listen to me.”It’s hard for me to talk about my queerness in a way that is divorced from my religion. They’re very different sorts of things that come from the same root and have woven themselves together in my life and my understanding. I am a follower of Hermes, of Loki, of Coyote and Prometheus, of those that break boundaries and laugh, of the storytellers, of the fire bringers, of the ones who slide between god and human, woman and man and neither, and show us how to use the divine’s gifts. Certainly my relationship with my gods has informed my understanding of my gender, given me strength as I grow through and into myself. Certainly being a Pagan is as much a part of who I am as my chosen name.
My family knows that name. They don’t know I’m Pagan. I’m all too aware of the need humanity has to pathologize people who are different, and I haven’t wanted my Paganism singled out as the damning source of my queerness. It would be such an easy leap. If I am Christian, they can’t say the reason I’m trans is because I gave up the church; instead I can be cast as the sinner, willful, prideful, lustful. Which is fine, in a way — it’s a story that, at its core, recognizes my agency. As long as I’m not “Satan’s mark,” easily confused and straying from the path, they cannot write me off when I tell them who I am. My family may not have liked what they heard when I came out as genderqueer, but I believe they did hear it.
I would like them to hear this too.
I would like them to hear any number of things, because even saying that I’m Pagan suggests a simpler set of beliefs, a simpler version of me than the true one. I would like to tell them that I haven’t abandoned the church where I grew up. When I leave, I find myself missing the study and the fight to be a better version of yourself that I find in the words of Christ. Solitary practice leaves me lonely, and there is some part of Pagan and Wiccan gatherings that still leaves me lost. I struggle to find a group where I fit; where I am not forced to choose between the God and the Goddess’ circle; where I hear the ceremony with my heart and my head and both are satisfied; where I am received with a welcome and seen in a way that I recognize. So I find myself going back to the church, where at least the ways it does not fit are familiar.
But all of that is complicated, and I have not trusted others to listen to it, and so I have stayed quiet. I have not explained my religion to my family, who still struggle with my name. I have not explained it to my queer friends, who have often been hurt badly by religion, or withdrawn from it for their own reasons. I have not explained it to my Christian friends, or my Pagan ones, for fear that each will see the existence of the other as a strike against me, as a reason for discounting me in other ways. Like all of us on the borders, I know how to be lonely—but that doesn’t mean I have to resign myself to it.
This is not a coming out story. There are certain things that cannot be divorced from their history and made contextless, and the phrase ‘coming out’ is one of them. Coming out is an explicitly queer action, one that carries with it the history of physical, emotional, and social danger that my elders have faced, that queer people still face every day. I have come out as bisexual and trans, but I do not feel like I can come out as Pagan. This is something else. This is flinging open the doors so that others can come in, and know me better.