For Pride Month, a former Methodist minister and activist from North Carolina talks to Cardinal & Pine about his journey to coming out and the support of his longtime wife.
Ray Shawn McKinnon, a 41-year-old former Methodist minister from Charlotte, never thought he’d come out as gay.
But there he was: Coming out while in a loving heterosexual marriage, with children. Not a unique situation, but definitely a complex one.
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McKinnon might not have thought it possible, but all that changed in 2020 during the pandemic. A half-million Americans died between February 2020 and February 2021. McKinnon began to question.
McKinnon grew up in east Greensboro in a Black Baptist family, who, noticing his deep spirituality, encouraged him to pursue the ministry. Along the way, McKinnon met and married his wife Kelly, became a father to four boys, and joined the United Methodist Church, where he served as a pastor in multiple congregations across North Carolina.
McKinnon met up with Cardinal & Pine to share his journey of becoming: coming out at an older age and learning what it means to stand in your truth while holding those you love along the way.
C&P: LGBTQIA+ Pride Month is celebrated around the world in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. It has also become a celebration of LGBTQIA+ pride and visibility. This year, what does “Pride” mean to you?
McKinnon: It means I’m here. This year is my first Pride since I accepted I was gay in 2021 and needed to tell my family. This year I’m here standing in my truth, not for outside validation, but to express who I am.
C&P: Can you talk about the spiritual and personal evolution that brought you to this point?
McKinnon: It’s strange, the evolution in my spiritual and sexual identity began at about the same time, in 2005, 2006. I grew up in the Missionary Baptist Church and graduated from John Wesley University with degrees in Bible Theology and Christian Ministry with Youth and Family Instances in 2005. Shortly afterwards, I started serving as a full time vocational minister, which I did up until 2020.
Although, growing up, my whole community were Christians for Democrats, I was definitely part of the 90’s purity culture and took a purity pledge. I never accepted hook, line, and sinker all of the right wing ideology, but I still thought that homosexuality was a sin.
The first cracks appeared when my close friend Tonetta Landis-Aina came out to me as a lesbian in 2006. She called me up and told me that after years wrestling with female sexual attraction and thoughtful study, she was gay and had a clear conscience about it. And how I responded back in 2006 was, Well, tonight your conscience is clear, or it has been seared by the devil.
I’d been taught my whole life that gay people were going to hell, and with that mindset, it meant that Tonetta was going to hell. The problem was that, even to this day, Tonetta is one of the most devoted Christians I know. Her coming out is what started my evolution and my own personal, theological study on homosexuality. It forced me to face certain incongruencies in my own beliefs. It was part of what led me to practice in the United Methodist Church instead of Black Baptist and it led to questions about my own identity many years later.
C&P: You came on our radar after your coming out video went viral, why did you and your wife decide to share your story via social media?
McKinnon: Sharing something this personal on social media was not normal for us. But we did it this way for many reasons, including a very practical one. My wife Kelly, who works in the public school system, and I are both public figures. If either one of us wanted to start dating, we didn’t want somebody to think that we were cheating on each other. Of course we had already told our kids, close friends, and family already.
Of course we had already told our kids, close friends, and family already. But the video gave us the opportunity to say it once to the wider community. We didn’t want to keep retelling and reliving the story while holding everyone else’s feelings. But it was scary as hell.
C&P: What has the reaction been?
McKinnon: Mostly supportive. But a question that Kelly and other people have asked over and over is why didn’t I come out sooner? Which is a very valid, logical question. My friend and LGBTQ colleague, Jenn Frye, told me this–and I carry it with me: Ray, we come out when we come out, and we don’t come out a day sooner than we can come out.
I don’t think my coming out story would be possible without my wife Kelly being a part of that story.
C&P: One of the most surprising things about your coming out video, perhaps, is that it’s not just you there. You and your wife tell the story together. Why did you choose to share in this way?
McKinnon: Kelly is my best friend and I’m hers. Even though our relationship is changing, we’re still committed to each other as friends and parents. We’re still committed to holding each other’s dignity and honoring one another.
The amount of grace and concern that Kelly has shown me is evidence of the boundless love that she has for me and, vice versa, that I have for her. I’ve never loved a person in the way that I’ve loved Kelly and I never will. And I know that it wasn’t enough. I came out for me because I’m learning to love myself and also because I love Kelly. She deserves better, more.
C&P: While Pride implies joy and celebration of self expression and you have so much, there’s also pain here. Could you talk more about your experience of grief in coming out?
McKinnon: I miss her. You can’t be with a person that long and not. She wasn’t my beard and now we are following very predictable stages of grief for our relationship.
For me, coming out has truly been a bundle of paradoxes. I have never felt more peace nor ever felt that my life has been in more chaos. I have never felt more supported in my life, and also never felt more lonely. I’ve never felt more certain about something: I’m certain that I’m not straight. I’ve also never been more confused about my conflicting emotions.
C&P: What would you say to individuals coming out late in life, their families, and their partners?
McKinnon: To the person coming out, I would say it is never too soon, and it is never too late to live with a view of yourself in mind, to love yourself and to know that you alone are worth loving yourself first. For their partner, there will be no words and there are no words. I would tell them, you absolutely must feel what you’re feeling. Also, you cannot make a person straight or gay, you are in no way responsible for your partner’s sexual identity.
And to folks with kids I’d say, kids are resilient. Kids love their parents. My kids are more concerned about the changes in their family than my specific identity. Also it will be far easier for parents to come out to their kids if they haven’t spent years telling their kids that being gay is wrong.
And I’ll leave you with something my dad told me recently. He’s from Lumberton and is a blue-collar worker. He said, You’re the expert on you. No one knows you better than yourself. Now live who you are and f*** anybody else.