The United Church of Christ of Casper, Wyo., is busy preparing for its ninth annual National Coming Out Day celebration Oct. 11. While Rev. Dee Lundberg describes the event as a "fancy potluck," for her and her congregation, it's really much more than that.
"The event is really important to this group of folks," Lundberg said. "They want to take their open and affirming stance seriously. They want to show the community they mean what they say."
On the outside, the event is relatively simple. The pew-less sanctuary is converted into a banquet hall setting, there's a keynote speaker, and people bring appetizers and desserts. But the magic takes place when Lundberg encourages people to talk about their coming out stories. From there, she lets members have the floor. Last year, three young people, including one who is transgendered, came out in a room full of people there for no other reason than to be supportive.
"It was very sweet and powerful," Lundberg said. "This year will be similar to that. I let it go organic and trust it will be wonderful time."
With about 25 percent of the congregation openly gay, the majority of the people who attend the National Coming Out Day celebration are straight. Lundberg also encourages them to share their "coming out" stories, or their open support of the gay community, during the event. She uses this tactic in her congregation, but also in the overall community. She recently got an Episcopal minister who has a gay daughter to stand up for gay rights, but is constantly challenging the people of Casper to stand up even more.
"When a straight person is willing to come out as a supporter of diversity and a supporter of the LGBT community I think it holds more power," she said. "It's not just one special interest group, it's the broader community saying ‘I'm not gay, but things shouldn't be this way.'"
In conservative Casper, the UCC's open and affirming views generally are not accepted by the community. In fact, Lundberg, who says she has been called "Satan Spawn" by clergy of other denominations, has been all but shunned from local ministerial groups. Casper happens to be the hometown of former vice president Dick Cheney, and while "everything around here is named after him," his daughter's recent marriage to her partner has done little to change some of the townspeople's perspectives, Lundberg said. Lack of support put the church in danger of closing prior to Lundberg's arrival in 2008. But this just inspires her to continue to fight for her congregation and is another reason she thinks the church's annual recognition of National Coming Out Day means so much to them.
"We need a few more folks to be fully sustainable, but we're getting there and it's absolutely because of our open and affirming nature," Lundberg said. "People have been slowly trickling in and saying ‘Damn, this is great – they really mean what they say.' You can't put a price tag on that kind of mission."
National Coming Out Day, recognized annually on Oct. 11, is an internationally observed civil awareness day celebrating the coming out of individuals who publicly identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender.