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Coming Out at 50: Frank Dunn’s Story

A gay priest's journey to coming out after Stonewall

The senior priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., Frank Dunn was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1970. During the past 10 years, his ministry has addressed the spiritual development of and social justice for sexual minorities. His style is to preach through storytelling, and his goal is helping people make connections between their faith and their everyday lives.

Q: Where were you when the Stonewall riots occurred?
Dunn: I was going into my senior year as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Stonewall was the talk of the campus…when everyone returned in the fall. Ironically, I got married on July 12, 1969.

But…looking back, I was a textbook little gay boy growing up in the South. If I had had the language for being gay at three or four, I would have had a much different path. [I]…went through adolescence and began to realize who I am and had gay experiences then. But I had a strong calling to be a priest and knew they weren’t compatible. At 18, I told a minister, and he told me, 'Well, if homosexuality is your problem, I would go back to campus and scream for help.' It was enough to trouble me. What it led me to think is this problem is a lot bigger than I thought, and there really is no help available that I can find.

Q: What did you do?
Dunn: In 1966, I went to the Medical College of Virginia to seek weekly help from a psychiatrist who operated out of the pervading diagnosis of the day, which was, it’s a behavioral disorder. And [the shrink] bought the narrative that I could change. But that year, I started dating the woman who became my wife and told her the truth. She was understanding. We got engaged. I was thoroughly persuaded that I had conquered the whole thing. Willpower would keep me from being gay, or at least acting out by engaging in homosexual behavior.

Q: What prompted you to come out?
Dunn: Three developments burned a hole in my soul: The first was that I mentored a group called 'Education for Ministry.' Theological reflection forced me to look deeply into my own life. The second was that I spent two or three years in the late 1980s in Jungian analysis and learned that what I thought were aberrations were actually wired into the core of yourself. Your dreams, many of which related to being gay, don’t lie to you. Finally, I moved in 1992 from Connecticut to Virginia, and the move brought into sharp focus for me who I was and what I was about. I experienced a sharp disparity between my public persona and private self. The dissonance between the two was great.

I turned 50 in 1995, and that’s the year I came out. After such a long time, I very deliberately opened the closet door. I was not in crisis. [I was in the] best place professionally. My two kids were in college. Within a few years, I had divorced my wife and entered into my first same-sex relationship, which lasted two years. In 2006, I met Joe, who is my partner now.

Q: What was it like being closeted for so long?
I’d acknowledged feelings long before but decided not to follow them. For me, being closeted all those years was like being a dog chained with too little water, too little food. I finally came around to the thought that, maybe if I just embraced this, maybe it would end the frustration in a way that quick fixes didn’t.

Q: Are you glad you came out?
Oh, definitely. Yes. Of course, there were challenges. I worked at transitioning my family so they’d stay integrated and whole. I had to realize I could not protect other people from their pain or shame. They were going to have to deal with the reality. And I spent much time wondering how would I live as a gay man? How can I develop relationships?

Q: What do you say to others who might be on the fence?
Follow your truth. Figure it out and follow it.

Q: What’s the significance of Stonewall for you today?
I was closeted during Stonewall, but I remember hearing people say, ‘It’s about time the gays stood up for themselves.’ The significance of having a Stonewall is that the narrative of the community becomes your own. Stonewall is the centerpiece of the American gay narrative and all that means. It is our ‘Selma.’ It’s ironic that it’s that name, because I ‘stonewalled’ for years in order to be OK for God, family, and society. Because that stone wall came down 40 years ago, I am able to be myself today.

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