I love the celebrations of Pride Month in New York. Some are solemn in remembrance of the violence, both historical and recent, that has been perpetrated against queer-identifying persons. Some are political as they seek to push for legislations to protect LGBTIQ+ persons, especially trans persons, in this moment of backlash. Some are totally celebratory—perhaps best seen in the vibrant, raucous, joyful, and diverse affirmations of pride, dignity, and equality evident at the annual New York City Pride March. For Queer persons, the common theme of “pride” animates an energy to make visible and affirm an authentic sense of self and of community that transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, thereby creating a more inclusive understanding of humanity.
This drive for authenticity and visibility grounds the work of vocational discernment. Indeed, for LGBTIQ+ persons coming out to a deeper understanding of our gender identity and sexuality centers the search for meaning and purpose in our embodied lived experience. Embracing our authenticity, even as it pushes us up against what is considered “normal,” illuminates the directions we must take for greater vocational clarity. We can make an impact in our LGBTIQ+ students’ lives when we help them embrace and celebrate their gender and sexuality as a strength and a resource to draw upon in the process of discerning their vocation. For students from marginalized communities this effort can make it possible for them to see beyond barriers put in their way because of systemic injustice. For students who are LGBTIQ+ this can literally be a lifeline to survival. As we seek to educate and advise students towards vocational development, we can partner with our LGBTIQ+ students in ways that help them to understand themselves more fully and assist their capacity to integrate that knowledge with their emerging sense of vocation.
For me, the process of coming out clarified my sense of who I am most authentically, providing the freedom to better discern my awareness of what I needed to do to live with a sense of calling and meaning. I am someone who never has completely fit in. I mean personally, professionally—you name it and I seem to be an odd combination of things that do not easily slot into established categories. I often hear similar feelings expressed from other queer persons. In my case, for example, I am a cisgender woman who is frequently addressed as “sir” because I do not present in traditionally feminine ways. I am a Christian practical theologian who is openly lesbian and openly Catholic. In many ways my queerness, as an existential aspect of my authenticity, fundamentally orients my embodied engagement with living. Embracing the disparate, non-normative aspects of my authenticity, integrating them into a mature sense of self, making them visible, and acting out of their strengths has made all the difference in my vocational journey. I like to think of it in this way: understanding who I am on a level of being has helped me discern better on a level of doing how to live a life of meaning and purpose.
Our capacity to come out—to ourselves, in our relationships with others, and in a more public expression—creates space and freedom to discern vocational direction more effectively. We have more resources to bring all of ourselves to the journey. However, how we understand the process of coming out makes a difference in its effectiveness for vocational discernment. Queer theorists have rightly challenged an understanding of coming out that views it as the revelation of a hidden, essentialized self that, once disclosed, represents the “true” self. Such an understanding denies the dynamic and ever evolving sense of self that we develop over our lives. At the same time, the reality of queer living in a heteronormative world makes coming out necessary. In Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice, I have wrestled with this dilemma extensively. I argue that, rather than the articulation of an identity, coming out is an embodied ethical practice of truth-telling based in a spiritual practice of testimony. I name this dynamic to be coming out as “disruptive coherence,” an action that both (a) transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, and (b) creates a new coherence of self that is not an essentialized self, but one that continuously grows and develops over the course of our lives. It is a moral formation and an ethical practice that centers a person in an embodied testimony of authenticity that challenges exclusion.
It might be useful to consider my own coming out experience as an example of coming out as disruptive coherence. Many people are often surprised (or shocked) to know that I came out as a lesbian in the early 1980’s through my engagement with The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, a Catholic spiritual practice. Rather than impeding my process of coming to know myself, a traditional religious practice provided support and affirmation for that journey. Coming out was disruptive—both in its transgression of social (and at that time legal) and religious norms, and also in the reality that it thoroughly turned my life upside-down. Yet, coming out was also for me a profound experience of coherence, one in which truth-telling transformed my internal turmoil and restlessness into freedom and a deepened sense of God’s presence in my life. With that freedom I was able to engage vocational discernment with vitality, openness, and renewed clarity. Coming out was an experience of disruptive coherence that created the space for me to embrace more fully the discernment of a vocation. (I discuss my coming out experience in “Disrupting the Theory-Practice Binary” in Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, edited by Kathleen T. Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore, NYU Press, 2015, pp. 184-194).
Through our teaching and advising we can create opportunities and supports for LGBTIQ+ students to better understand and affirm their experiences of disruption and coherence, assisting them in their efforts to integrate this knowledge into vocational discernment. Helping students understand and reflect critically on the intersectional realities of their lives provides deeper insight into their experience of disruptive coherence. Coming out does not exist in a vacuum, isolated from the other existential realities that shape their experiences of living with marginality and privilege. Understanding the many ways that awareness of gender and sexuality exists amidst the influences of race, class, culture, abilities, religious tradition, geographic location, as well as other positional markers, can help LGBTIQ+ students come to a clearer sense of authenticity grounded in that intersectionality.
For LGBTIQ+ students, both coming out and discerning a vocational direction rely on the capacity to embrace and affirm what is most authentic in themselves and allowing that awareness to become a part of their journey to live lives of meaning and purpose. With the opportunities and supports that we provide we can assist them in the process of coming out into vocation.
For more information on mental health issues for LGBTIQ+ youth see the resources from The Trevor Project.
Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom. For other blog posts by Kathy, click here.