TO DIE IS TO GAIN

By Owen Kim*

About three years ago, I came out to my congregation, a largely conservative Presbyterian body numbering just over 100. Before this, the traditionalist church I attended saw me as one of its most engaged and leadership-bound members; I initiated residential hall prayer groups, organized retreats and social functions, and joined praise and worship teams. Deep friendships formed on the foundations of a common belief, and during community prayers I would freely discuss every struggle I faced as a growing Christian—every one, that is, except for my struggle with homosexuality.

As I considered coming out, the thought of potentially disrupting these bonds was overwhelming. For all of my formative years, faith constituted my primary identity and there was no environment I felt more attached to or at home with than that of the church. A great majority of my relationships were with other Christians, and to pursue a lifestyle the church explicitly disapproved of felt like a form of social and spiritual suicide.

Nevertheless, the decision had to be made, as I could no longer live a public life so distant from my true self. The act of coming out didn’t occur in a singular instance but in a series of individual conversations. Responses were varied, and there were a handful of friends who embraced my new public self. However, the reception of many others was lukewarm at best, and my admission of being gay prompted prescriptive “hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner” interventions that intended to reverse or mitigate my gay identity. It was this latter group’s disapproval and eventual distancing that were most painful, not necessarily because they held true to their core belief of homosexuality as wrong, but because they could not comprehend the immense difficulty of trying to fight an identity I believed was immutable.

For those who were willing to listen, I shared about growing up and trying with every ounce of my existence to abandon homosexuality. In high school, with the support of two close friends, I attended an ex-gay “healing ministry” where Christians like me were trying to rid themselves of same-sex attraction. The experiences there were simultaneously hopeful and horrible, and I eventually dropped out for fear of jeopardizing my sanity and sense of self. In college, I resumed efforts by undertaking months of Biblical and academic study on faith and sexual orientation, coming again to the realization that my emerging gay identity was irreversible and irrepressible.

So it was that three years ago I committed to a life that espoused both fully Christian and fully gay identities. Regrettably, members of my church could not accept this, and I lost ties to many friends and to a community I for years considered my backbone. Painful though it was, and not having the hindsight at the time to realize it, the entire coming out experience gave me incredible perspective. As someone who equally personified two fiercely conflicting viewpoints, I was often the “other’s other,” able to sympathize with both groups and their criticisms of each other.

For example, I could understand why Christians would want to protect marriage as a union between man and woman—a notion rooted in Biblical doctrine—but could also support the LGBT community’s movements to end civil inequalities between heterosexual and homosexual couples. This double perspective has given me strength and insight that I otherwise would not have had. I have come to attach tremendous importance to tolerance and cooperation, to working together towards a solution, and to remaining open to the “1% possibility” that an accepted truth could be wrong or misinformed. Also, my uniqueness as one who has had to embrace very contradictory identities has given me a certain liberty to experiment with roles and activities outside of those expected of me. The logic here is that because my identity was constantly in flux, sometimes migrating to the gay and sometimes to the Christian (but ultimately settling on both), I never felt that anything I wanted to try or become would be too hard, risky, or unusual.

Nine years ago, I surprised many when I—the straight-laced, academically-obsessed sophomore—auditioned for the annual high school musical and was cast as the lead for sold-out performances of Anything Goes. This led me to memorable years of competitive show choir, collegiate a cappella, and acting and directing stints, all pursuits I may have forgone if not for my otherness.

So despite the hardships I faced in coming out of the closet and the loss of many friends, I consider myself fortunate to have realized a tremendous growth and maturity. I also became open to a world of dating and love I hadn’t known before, and just over two years ago was introduced to my current partner Paul. We met while shopping for pillows at an East Village Kmart and, upon discovering that we were both Christian (he the son of a pastor), devoted ourselves to a long-term, monogamous relationship—a surprisingly uncommon and out-of-vogue trend in gay New York. And although we do not typify the classic God-fearing, maritally-bound Christian couple, we strive in every way to follow Christ’s example for our lives and today enjoy a very mutually fulfilling relationship.

When I reflect on the entire coming out experience, I think about a quote from the Book of Philippians: “To die is gain.” In some ways, this Bible verse nicely summarizes the theme of this deeply conflicted, at times agonizing experience. For even though acceptance of my sexuality required sacrificing a cherished past, I was made a stronger, more compassionate, and—lucky for me—happily coupled person.