Review: Coming Out of the Closet Without Coming Apart at the Seams

Next week, I have the honor of having a guest blog post from Gail Dickert. Gail is the author of two self-published books: Coming Out of the Closet Without Coming Apart at the Seams and Enlightened-ish.

I found out about her first book when I was looking for resources to help me come out to my parents. In hindsight, I wish I’d read it then, but I was nervous about ordering a book about coming out before I was officially out (because someone could see and realize I was trying to come out and then I’d be outed! So the brain doesn’t work the best when it’s afraid of doing something that it needs to do).

Long story short, I went out on a desperate limb and sent her an email begging for support and advice. She answered back with a kind of big-sisterly care that I had only dreamed of, and in the process, she offered me a friendship I didn’t realize I was looking for.

Before I had officially left Christianity, I made sure to make peace with my sexuality and my old religion–I wanted to know that I had reached a place where I wasn’t leaving because I felt forced out. Unfortunately, that all happened before I met her, so her book never made it’s way into the spiritual resource pile.

I decided to buy her book when I was ready to handle reading about coming out with a spiritual focus again. I was a bit nervous about revisiting those themes, but I also wanted to get a feel for how far I’d come from those days when I thought I couldn’t be a Christian if I were bi. About four weeks ago I finished Coming Out of the Closet Without Coming Apart at the Seams. In preparation for her guest post, I wanted to give my impressions of the book.

She admits in the book that her desire in writing it is to help homosexual Christians find a way of coming out of the closet without losing their faith in Christianity, but she takes a completely different approach to reconciling sexuality with the Bible. Rather than diving into the scholarly research or trying to debunk the “clobber” passages conservative Christians so often use, she merely shrugs them off.

Although I think biblical scholarship and reasoning have their place within a theological setting; far too often I feel that people think you have to use that route in order to be a gay Christian.

Gail ignores that pressure, highlighting the personal nature of both faith and sexual orientation. It’s jarringly obvious and refreshing. When deciding the place of sexuality and spirituality, all you should need is your own approval. Nothing more than that. Coming out doesn’t have to be an apologetics course!

As a survivor of ex-gay therapy, she designed the sections of her book like the twelve step program that has often been applied to “re-orientation,” except that in her book the steps are flipped on their heads. Rather than containing “instructions” for turning “straight” (re-closeting yourself), they’re instructions for how to accept your sexual orientation and yourself.

When I started reading, I took the twelve steps as a serious twist on approaching the closet, but as I progressed I began to feel that the steps themselves were more satirical than serious. My suspicions were confirmed when I got to the last step, summed up nicely in her statement: “Give these ’12 Step’ programs a rest already!”

Coming out is serious business. Anyone who has faced the door of that closet knows how serious it can be. But there is no such thing as the perfect formula for coming out, and Gail rightly recognizes that when we rely too much on the process of others, we harm ourselves by missing the cues to our own process. She knew that whatever her steps were to coming out, they weren’t for everyone. She couldn’t map my path or your path, she could only follow her own.

Which is exactly what she does in between each of the steps. She doesn’t write the typical coming out book. She doesn’t really write a self-help book at all. She writes a memoir of discovering her attraction to girls–the betrayals, the shame, the desperation for change, the torture of religious abuse, and finally the painful process of breaking free.

All she does is tell her story, but it’s a brilliant form of self-help because within her lived experiences she offers so much to others.

There aren’t that many books I’d recommend to LGBT who are struggling to find a place for their faith, but Coming Out of the Closet Without Coming Apart at the Seams would definitely be one of them. Gail tells her story in such a way that she inspires others to tell theirs. She embraces her faith as her own and empowers others to do the same. Both through her words and her actions, she shines a light towards freedom.

I’m so honored to know her as a friend, and I’m excited that next week she will be presenting one of the freedoms from her newest book, Enlightened-ish. Just to entice you to come back, I’ll let you know that it’s about cussing!

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Modesty Culture and Yoni Worship: My Journey Out of Self-Objectification and Into Self-Respect

Warning: This post contains nudity. Respect is expected. Before you comment, please read my comment policy. Sexist or slut-shaming language will not be permitted. 

The other day, Beauty Redefined had a post on their Facebook page about modesty. Several people commented that immodestly dressed women had low self-esteem. Although BR didn’t say anything to indicate that they hold that opinion themselves, they also didn’t contradict those comments either.

I’ve written about modesty once before when I discussed the place that objectification has within modesty culture. If you’re in the mood for a rant, it’s a great post, but I’m not here to rant today. Rather I’m here to wonder.

“Wonder” is such an interesting word. It can either mean “to contemplate” or “to marvel.” Today, I’m going to do both.

I’m noticing a trend within modesty culture that disturbs me. I know of no word that describes it, so I’ve decided to refer to it as anti-corporeality—being against the body.

On one level, I love what BR is doing in trying to expose the patriarchal power structures that dictate beauty and self-worth to women through the male gaze.

Notice how objectifying ads like this one from Tom Ford constantly degrade and dehumanize women, sometimes even violently, using their bodies for male pleasure while denying women agency.

Notice how objectifying ads like this one from Tom Ford constantly degrade and dehumanize women, sometimes even violently, using their bodies for male pleasure while denying women agency. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal interpretation, but often the creators of the ads are obvious in how they wish it to be interpreted. This one says, “my breasts are for men.”

Unfortunately, I often see that attempt hijacked by modesty culture. Rather than teaching women and girls that they are more than just a body, it seems that the teachings edge towards the other extreme—that women and girls are not bodies. There’s an underlying current that suggests that having a body, acting on sexual desires, or being visible is shameful.

Here’s where I wonder.

When you tell women that they are more than just a body, implying that they should keep themselves covered, I wonder if you are also telling girls that focusing on their bodies at all is wrong. When you link clothing with self-esteem, I wonder if you are reinforcing the idea that appearance is the source of self-esteem. When you hastily generalize being “sexy” with being objectified, I wonder if you are telling women that sexuality is dehumanizing.

Self-esteem and “modesty” are not directly related. On the contrary; they’ve been inversely correlated for me. In the IFB, I was taught that my body was a temptation. I was told that it was my responsibility to be modest in order to protect boys and men from lusting after me and that if I caused a man to stumble, I had committed a form of adultery with him.

I learned to be ashamed of my body, to disconnect from it, to fear it. There were times when I considered taking a knife to my face and my chest, mutilating myself to prevent men from wanting to lust after me.

At the same time, I was taught I was supposed to be attractive for my husband when I got married so that he wouldn’t cheat on me. My mother assigned books for me to read that told me that it was my duty to sexually satisfy my husband. At conferences, I listened to speakers who preached that sex in marriage was like going to a restaurant—as long as you fed your husband often enough at your “find dining” restaurant, he wouldn’t be tempted to go to that cheap MacDonald’s across the street.

In that way, I learned to hate my body, for it could never measure up to the ideals I saw on TV or billboards.

Modesty culture destroyed my self-esteem.

Over the last four years I’ve been going through a transformation. It wasn’t just a rejection of modesty culture as a toxic philosophy; it was a journey into the wonder of my body.

Nudity and sexuality can be beautiful and sacred, even with a camera present. In this picture, I see nudity and sexuality that honors rather than degrades. (Photo taken by Solus-Photography and modelled by Alex B. and Mike Cooney; used with permission. Click on the picture to see more of her beautiful work.)

Of course, first I had to do the work to free myself from modesty teachings. Feminism played a wonderful role in opening my eyes to the oppression inherent in rape culture (which I explain is related to modesty culture in my other post). It was key in helping me recognize that I wasn’t responsible for other people’s thoughts or actions—that I had a right to be treated like a human being regardless of my appearance.

Then in February, I started what I now see was a full-blown paradigm shift. I dedicated the month to reading about and celebrating the female body. I threw a yoni party (read about it here), complete with vagina straws and tampon crafts. What began as an archetypal reverence apparently became internalized. I didn’t even realize it until this past week when I saw the modesty post from BR.

As soon as I read the first comment linking self-esteem with modesty, I thought, “But that’s not true. I wear things all the time that I would have considered ‘immodest’ at one point, and my self-esteem is fine. I love my body.”

The last four words left me in awe.

I love my body.

Sometime between February and now, I fell in love with my body. I love the way it moves during yoga, when I dance, when I run, and yes, even when I have sex. I love my vagina, my sacred yoni. I love my breasts, small as they are. I love my legs, with the varicose veins beginning to form. I love the hive scars that scatter across my chest . . . and the cutting scars that speak of my survival. I love my eyes and my lips and my neck. I love my hair. I love my feet. I love my hands.

I don’t love my body because I look like a model or because it’s “perfect” in form or execution.

I love it because it’s part of me.

I am not just a body. I have a mind too. I celebrate my mind every day with writing, reading, discussions, even daydreams.

But I am not just a mind, which means that I also celebrate my body. Part of celebrating my body can involve things like taking a bath, exercising, eating, or snuggling into clean sheets. However, part of celebrating my body also involves celebrating my sexuality—learning to belly dance, wearing something that makes me feel sexy, actually having sex. If I listened to the modesty movement, I would think those things are objectifying and harmful to my self-esteem . . . except that they’re not.

A yoni puja is the worship of the yoni. There is something beautiful and sacred about the yoni that can only be seen when one stops fearing and hating the female body.

Objectification is not about how much skin is or isn’t showing. It’s about the cultural lens through which we choose to view the body.

I objectified myself all the time when I ascribed to modesty culture because I constantly thought about myself in terms of what I did to others. Am I attractive enough to keep my husband faithful? Am I covered enough to prevent a man from thinking about sex with me? Is it okay to wear shorts on a hot day, or would I be looking like a tramp? Do I compare with a porn star in bed? Should I be like a porn star in bed?

What stopped me from objectifying myself wasn’t clothing. My self-esteem didn’t rise because of an extra inch of fabric. Rather, I learned to stop objectifying myself by living in my body. It is not a temple in which my spirit is housed. It is the part of me that connects to the world. I’m not ashamed of it or objectified by it.

I wanted to insert a video at the end here, but I can’t figure out how to do so. Please visit Hysterical Literature, a project that seeks to film women reading books while being sexually stimulated off-camera. Although there is no nudity, those who fear female sexuality would find this objectionable and uncomfortable. I think it is a beautiful illustration of the body/mind blend of being a woman. Also, if you’re interested in reading some great posts about sexual ethics, check out Sarah Over the Moon’s series

Playing in Possibility (Step Two to Spiritual Freedom)

Back in January, I wrote about embracing uncertainty and sitting with the discomfort of deconstructing my worldview. It was a terrifying but important part of leaving the cult. At the time, I knew that “The Freedom of Uncertainty” was what I would consider the first step to true spiritual freedom, but it wasn’t the last step. I hinted at the next step towards the end of that post.

“I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.”

Play.

I know I’ve written about it several times already, but it seems the more I look at it, the more I feel its importance. But how can I codify this idea of play into a meaningful philosophy? I don’t know if I can, but I’m going to give it a playful shot.

To start I want to look at two fields in which ideas are treasured, science and philosophy.

I find many people worship science as the concrete body of knowledge upon which they can rely. By worship, I don’t mean they think of it as a god. I mean they treat it like a god—with the same rigid certainty that other religions treat their religious texts.

In reality, science is far from certain. Every published study contains a discussion section at the end which should list weaknesses, ways in which the hypothesis could still be wrong, and areas that need additional research, even if the overwhelming evidence of the study was in support of the hypothesis. Of course, when news stories cover a popular scientific or psychological study, they try to leave that part out. They try to make it sound like the results were “proven.”

In science, nothing is proven; it is merely supported. One of the first things I learned in my research methods class is that scientific knowledge is only as good as what we think we know. Every hypothesis can be torn down by a single new discovery.

Now, before people get angry with me for denying science, I’m not.

I love science, but what I love about science is that it isn’t about knowledge. It’s about exploring the unknown and testing the known.

To some extent, I want to say by testing the known because one of the strengths of science is building off of evidence. But I left the “and” there because the other great strength of science is that it constantly tests itself. It takes imagination to look at an experiment and see what can be built off of the results, but it takes even more imagination to look at an experiment and envisage how many other ways the results can be explained. Scientific “knowledge” is constantly in flux, changing as technology improves and understanding deepens.

It’s a beautiful dance between imagination and experience.

Science pushes the boundaries of the world to see what we can do. It’s a form of physically playing with possibility, but just because something is impossible for science in this moment doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That’s where philosophy comes in.

Philosophy and science always seemed at odds to me. I actually hated philosophy passionately when I was getting my undergrad degree in psychology. Philosophy doesn’t have to demonstrate validity or accuracy. As long as the philosopher can coherently connect her/his line of reasoning, it’s a valid philosophy. It seemed like such a scam compared to the rigorous experimental method that science and psychology had to go through to get a hypothesis or theory widely accepted.

I don’t know when my opinion of philosophy officially changed, but at some point I realized that without philosophy we wouldn’t have science. Before we can get down to testing anything, we have to first imagine something. Ironically, what I find most frustrating about philosophy is also its greatest asset—the ability to consider an idea and follow a line of thinking without regard to whether it’s true.

Every discovery starts with a “what if” question. As I pointed out above, science is limited to our current understanding and abilities, but there is so much more out there right now that science can’t even begin to touch—and scientists know it.

So does that mean that what science cannot test and verify doesn’t exist? One philosophy might say so. 😉

But we would be in sad shape indeed if we limited our exploration of ideas to only what we can physically play with. Not only would philosophy be out (along with all the yummy philosophical ideas that exercise our brain’s understanding of reality), but so would certain kinds of math and science.

Two seemingly opposing bodies of “knowledge,” but together they encapsulate the essence of play.

David Eagleman has this fantastic TEDtalk on Possibilianism. He describes how the universe is full of  infinite possibilities in the unknown, and he encourages people to embrace them. When I watch the video, I get excited that there’s a man who knows how to embrace uncertainty and play with possibility (there’s a man who’s faced down his fears).

But he contradicts himself! He says that possibilianism doesn’t mean people can believe in ESP because, as far as science has shown, there’s no evidence for it.

I agree with him partially. We do need to work with our worldview to incorporate the evidence that we have surrounding us.

But the part that ESP isn’t a possibility is only true insofar as our technology and understanding work today. Given a good imagination, someone could still formulate a worldview in which ESP is a valid possibility without contradicting the evidence that we currently have. The only way in which ESP is definitely impossible is in the way that we have imagined it to function in the past.

I can imagine some are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, great. Pseudoscientist over here who believes in ESP.”

But that’s oversimplifying it!

I don’t believe in ESP, per se. I believe in the possibility for a valid worldview to exist in which ESP fits.

Eagleman does a brilliant job of showing how science and philosophy can play, but I think there needs to be another layer to this idea of playing with possibility—that of being comfortable with relativism and multiple layers of truth. This is actually very much present in philosophy, but we forget about it when we step into the arena of “knowledge,” which is really just another human construct like time.

This is where true spiritual freedom comes together. It’s one thing to be willing to test your beliefs and figure out if they “work” in the real world. That’s important–necessary even. It’s even better to consider the value of a belief whether or not it ends up being true. But when you combine the willingness to play with ideas with the recognition that truth comes in many shades, then you truly have infinite possibilities. You can find exactly what works for you and appreciate the level of truth that it represents to you without feeling the need to deny evidence or prove that everyone else needs to believe the same.

When Nature Decides to Join in the Firework Fun . . . Things Don’t Go So Well

I had an exciting blog topic for this week that I was working on, but it turns out that I’m not fit for finishing the rough draft or editing what I have. In between long naps and lots of pain medication, I’m just pretty much sitting here in shock that I was mildly electrocuted by a nearby lightning strike (I’m still secretly happy it wasn’t a panic attack).

So this week readers get my fun little tale that will probably seem so much more fun to tell in about a year when I’m no longer freaked out, and I’m getting a break from trying to write something profound.

I call this tale: Since When Did I Become the Fireworks? (mostly because I really can’t think right now)

It was the fourth of July, but the fireworks were all wrong. There were no pretty colors lighting up the sky or gorgeous patterns blossoming before our eyes. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the sky was black. Rain poured down in dancing sheets as thunder shook the walls of the store.

It was almost closing, and I was anxious to get home where I could bundle up in blankets and turn a movie up louder than the storm. My heart sank as a group of six people walked in and started browsing around.

They’re just waiting out the rain, I told myself. They’ll leave soon.

They had just enough time to scatter themselves when the power died.

“Oops, hold on!” my coworker called. “Stay where you are, I’ve got a flashlight and will come get you.”

I fumbled around on the counter for the flashlight we’d dug out earlier and handed it to her. As she gathered those in the back, I began herding the few near me.

“You’ve got something to your left, ma’am.” I reached out to guide her, but hesitated. “Do you mind if I touch your arm?”

“No, go ahead,” she replied.

Grabbing her upper arm, I navigated her towards the group with my coworker. A few others had found their way to the light on their own.

“Okay,” Eva said, when everyone was together. “We’re going to have to close the store now, but we open again tomorrow at nine.”

There were a few scattered groans as people pulled on their jackets.

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Hope you have a good holiday!” She followed them to the door, locking it after they were gone. She jogged towards the office with the flashlight, calling behind her, “I have to shut down the back computer before the emergency power dies.”

“I’ll need the flashlight when you’re done so I can count the registers.” I started to imagine the fun of sitting at home with lit candles as I made my way to the counter.

“There’s another flashlight in the drawer,” Eva said.

But it was too dark to see even the outline of things in the drawer. In a stroke of insight that probably should have happened earlier, I grabbed my cell phone and tried to use the backlight as a dim flashlight, but it still wasn’t bright enough. I didn’t find the flashlight until Eva pulled it out for me.

I counted the first register quickly as Eva called the manager to explain what had happened. I had just opened the second register to count it when the store suddenly lit up with white light and the sky growled as loudly as if it were in the room with us.

I screamed, my hand involuntarily flinging quarters across the counter. My heart was racing as I gasped desperately for air I suddenly seemed unable to breathe.

Shit, not a panic attack over thunder, I pled with my body as tingling spread from my head to my fingers. Dropping to my knees, I curled into a ball with my head resting on the tiles. My medicine was in the back, but I wouldn’t be able to get it for this panic attack. My muscles had seized up and my ears felt like they were on fire. I think I was wimpering, but I couldn’t hear anything outside of the roar in my eardrums.

Eva said something indistinct about screaming and lightning hitting the building. I thought she was talking to me, but I couldn’t respond. The roaring began to subside along with the heat. I pulled my head up and saw Eva saying goodbye and hanging up the phone.

Embarrassment washed over me as I tried to get up and failed. My muscles simply wouldn’t respond at first. “I don’t feel good,” I whimpered.

I had begun thinking of ways to blow off the panic attack as funny when Eva asked me, “Did you feel that too?”

“You felt it?” I reacted with as much shock as my body would allow, which wasn’t much.

“Yeah, my head felt all buzzy and tingly. My hair stood up on my neck. I think the building got hit and we got some of it.”

I managed to stand up. “Holy shit, my head hurts.”

“Take it slow,” Eva cautioned when I began gathering the quarters and counting again. “We’re not leaving here until it’s safer anyway.”

The counting was fuzzy, and my fingers felt clumsy. But the calculator helped. It wasn’t until I tried to walk to the back that I noticed my coordination and balance were off. I staggered like I was drunk, catching myself on the counter. I swore, then remembered I was at work and looked around quickly to make sure no customers heard, only remembering that we were closed after I saw how dark it was.

Nausea hit us both soon after and we sat in the office waiting for the storms outside and in our stomachs to pass somewhat before finally locking up and going home.

The END!

Have a good week all! Stay far away from lightning!

(Also, I don’t use real names, just fyi)