Telling Our Stories

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

– James 3:1

Our brains seem uniquely adapted to making sense of experiences through stories. We tell stories and listen to them not just in our daily conversation, but on the news, in the movies, and in novels. The Bible is filled with stories to help us make sense of the world around us. Most of Christ’s teachings are done using parables. Perhaps even more than the stories we tell in our daily lives, biblical stories and parables invite us to reflect on our most profound experiences whether of God, our families, our community or the terrors and pleasures of life. In other words, these stories aim to make us think about important matters. Rather than telling us how or what to think, they force us to find out what we believe and how to respond. If we’re lucky, we are rewarded with insight and perspective we would otherwise miss engrossed as we usually are in more commonplace matters. 

When studied together, biblical stories help join us to others and shape our identity as a community. These sacred stories are less concerned with facts and details than in the “truth” of experience whether of a moral, a spiritual, or a psychological nature. They teach us about the human condition and the many ways in which human beings have encountered God. They teach us how we might best respond to God in our own lives.

The Bible also contains many stories about individuals who face life’s difficulties leaving home and traveling long distances to meet uncertain futures. Some flee to escape the murderous rage of brothers or abuses heaped upon them. Others are abandoned by lovers. They have journeys just as we do. These individuals are recognizably flawed, and we are meant to identify with them. How these characters handle the events of their lives and God’s role in supporting them through such trials are among the stories’ essential lessons for the reader. 

As a blogger, I tell stories in each of my posts. Sometimes, the story is about my life; other times, the story is about history. Even the “Picture of the Day” tells a story. It’s the old English adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to telling our own stories, we must ask ourselves some questions: Why do we tell our story? How do we tell our story? Which story do we tell? And, to whom do we tell? When I write a post about my life, I consider each of these questions. Storytelling can be powerful, but sometimes it’s just entertaining. Other times, I hope, they are thought-provoking. Storytelling can connect us in many ways, and they can teach us about the many truths in life.

The Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a person. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” When we as LGBTQ+ individuals tell our stories truthfully and honestly, we can change people’s attitudes and make the LGBTQ+ community more visible. Through our stories, we show the need not only for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in all aspects of society, but also for the gifts LGBTQ+ people have to offer to ourselves and to others. Sometimes, this includes digging deep to find the courage to come out, and to give ourselves grace and forgiveness for our past mistakes.

American screenwriter, producer, and actress Lena Waithe said, “I’m writing my story so that others might see fragments of themselves.” What she says in her quote is a large part why I try to be as open and honest about my life as possible. Whether I am telling about my own of coming out journey, living as a closeted gay man in the South, my work and teaching career, the journey of my faith, or my struggles with headaches and depression, I tell these stories, so others might realize they are not alone. The most important thing is to be honest in our stories.

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” –John 8:31-32

Telling stories can be a liberating experience for the teller and the hearer. It can provide us with a catharsis which can be valuable in its own right. And yet, if we want to bring about change, catharsis alone is insufficient. They can inspire, empower, and educate us. They can lead us and those around us to action.

How can our stories lead to action? When we begin with the end in mind, our stories are powerful engines for change. When I tell a story, I always wonder: how will my readers respond? When someone hears how I was afraid in the beginning to tell my friends I am gay, will they realize they too should find someone with whom they can truly trust before taking the first step coming out? When writing about how something as simple as going to an LGBTQ+ event by myself can be daunting because of social anxiety, will others empathize and see themselves in that situation? Will they have the courage to go it alone when necessary? When I share how my faith and sexual orientation have informed and enriched my life, does it show other Christians that churches should be inclusive and allow LGBTQ+ people to participate fully? When I tell stories of the incredible support from my straight friends, will others take steps to be vocal and visible allies? 

Sadly, the often, overriding, public narrative of LGBTQ+ lives is one of shame, sorrow, hurt, heartache, and injustice. Read most LGBTQ+ novels from before approximately fifteen years ago, and you will see they are all about hardship. The earliest gay fiction always ended badly. The first gay book I ever read was the 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. While the book is noteworthy for its complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality, the book ends with David’s mental pictures of Giovanni’s execution and his own guilt. Nowadays, and especially within the male/male romance genre, stories often have a much happier and hopeful ending. With the changes taking place around the world for LGBTQ+ rights, there is hope out there.

A popular counter-narrative to the one of despair is that of normalcy. When people say, “The people in the gay community are just like everyone else; we just happen to be gay,” it’s well-intentioned, but if we’re really honest, it’s incomplete. We are not just like everyone else, and we should value these differences. Equality and unity are not the same as conformity. When we only tell sad stories or stories of normalcy, what stories are we leaving out? How can we relate the real harms we have suffered, and the real injustices which need to be corrected without hosting a pity party? How can we tell stories of our strength and resiliency while noting that our differences are part of what make us beautiful?

Finally, to whom should we tell our stories? We must take our stories to the places where they are not heard. Sharing our stories is inherently a form of activism and must always be a personal decision. No one is required to come out nor share their story. Safety and survival should be the priority. For those of us who can come out and want to, when we take our stories to unpopular places, we bring truth and justice with our mere presence. Where do our stories need to be heard? We can tell our stories at work, in our schools, in organizations we work with, to our friends, our family members, extended family, neighbors, and our blog readers. 

How do you share your story? 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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