The closet is the emblem of shame. That is where we hide our scandalous skeletons and where sexual minorities have kept themselves in order to survive. But when a servant of God publicly embraces a refugee from the closet, the act can ripple through time and space.
More than 30 years ago, the pastor at our family’s church in Minneapolis convened a meeting of the congregation to propose hiring a gay pastor who had been dismissed from a rural parish after coming out. My parents were at that meeting and told me that there had been unanimous approval. That act of acceptance emboldened me to come out to my family and friends.
When I moved to New York in 1980, I found that the closet had not yet been publicly pried open, even at Saint Peters. People were quietly tolerant but, while wedding anniversaries were noted in the bulletin, committed relationships of gay and lesbian members were ignored.
When I met my first partner, Bill, in 1984, I wanted the world to know about our commitment to each other. I talked to the assistant pastor at Saint Peters about holding a commitment ceremony at the church followed by a reception at our apartment. After initially accepting the idea, she backed off, saying the ceremony could not be reconciled with church policy. And my cousin, then a member of the church, told me that she would be happy to come to the party but would not attend the commitment ceremony. In the end, we had a beautiful ceremony, reading our vows and poetry around a table at our apartment with a few friends and my brother, who brought greetings from my parents, but not anyone from Saint Peters and not my cousin.
When Bill was six years old, his parents had marital problems and he was been sent off to live with his great aunt and uncle in rural Florida for two years. Then, just when he was feeling secure with them, he was sent back to his parents, who eventually divorced. His lifelong fear of abandonment led him to conceal his sexuality and our commitment from his family.
When Bill was diagnosed with HIV two years after our commitment, his fear of rejection drove him to forbid me to tell anyone, either at Saint Peters or in my family. When we visited my parents in Minnesota, I had to hide his medications and experimental supplements, preparing them only when everyone else was in bed.
Throughout the period of secrecy, I had full confidence that my family would embrace Bill if I could only get him past his fears. Finally, a year before he died, he relented and we invited my parents to visit for Christmas. Their conversations rekindled an interest in faith that had been extinguished when the church had decided that our commitment was not worthy of acknowledgment.
Eventually, he asked my father to baptize him the following Thanksgiving, when my parents planned another trip to New York. That last year he came out to his father and his uncle, who were still alive. The Friday before Thanksgiving, it became clear that he would not live until my parents arrived. That night, after calling his father to tell him to come to New York, I baptized Bill myself. He died at noon on the next day as his father was climbing the stairs to our apartment.