Unapologetically Gay: How I Learned Catholicism and I Couldn’t Work
Getting home after a long day at work last week, I sat down and started going through the major Catholic news sites. I’d started to make a habit of this since early June, staying on top of stories and trying to get a feel for what other Catholics were doing, thinking, and feeling. It was a way for me to plug in, to connect my parish experience to something larger, and to learn.
That evening, I came across this article and given its source I didn’t expect much. Its title was also coded language that I had grown increasingly accustomed to seeing after the release of Father James Martin’s book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. I’d devoured the book within a couple of days and thought it was a decent stepping stone to some sort of progress — if in nothing else, at least the tone of the conversation.
I was fooling myself. That became more clear as the weeks wore on with conservative and tradionationlist ideologues outraged that Fr. Martin didn’t take the opportunity to condescend to the LGBT community, nor did he communicate Church teaching on chastity outside of heterosexual marriage (as though the gay community was somehow unaware). This hand-wringing had become familiar but I figured it’s just the Church being the Church — slow, deliberate, methodical, even a bit neurotic.
Having grown up in a fairly conservative region and gone to a conservative high school, I came of age at a time when gay marriage was just becoming a lightning rod. My best hope of acceptance after coming out was to be the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy caricature that everyone loved to see. So many out-of-the-closet encounters at 16 and beyond were framed by “I don’t like faggoty gays, but you’re pretty cool” or “Oh my God, I love gay people! Y’all are so cute, you’re the best!” While I was struggling to figure out how to own my identity and accept myself, my peer interactions constantly reminded me of what I would have to be like if I wanted to be accepted by others.
But before all that, I began my teen years understanding that my sexual and emotional inclinations were different from those of everyone else. At first it began with curiosity and then, once I started realizing what this meant really, it became fear around 8th grade. I read all the Left Behind novels I could, I began watching evangelical TV constantly, I prayed every night that God would make this go away, I struggled with doubt and self-hatred, and yet still after school I’d go home and jerk off to a guy I had a major crush on, feeling guilt and despondency. It was a vicious cycle of self-hatred that went on until I decided I could no longer do this and something had to give.
When I was 15 years old I started looking more into what the Bible said, since my faith was still important to me. I read the story of Sodom and, looking at it with fresh eyes, I could not fathom how anyone thought this story singled out gay people. The sins of Sodom were many, but a closer look at the text tells a story about a city so lost in its selfishness and greed that it forgot the needs and humanity of others. Even the end of the chapter, culminating in the rape of Lot by his daughters, suggests they have simply repeated what earned Sodom destruction. It’s pretty bleak — but rather than hear about this story as a cautionary tale, a reminder of hospitality, and the temptation to do real evil (as Lot’s daughters did), it was used as a bludgeon against me and people like me.
Something had to give, and it ended up being religion. Reading the story of Sodom began a process that led to more questions and, ultimately, to my abandonment of Christianity. It was apparently a process that I could not simply go through just once.
Reading Fr. Murray’s article set something off in me. It was like the true, inner me had woken up and snapped to his feet. You see, all these years of attempts to return to Christianity I had created this self-narrative that I’d only abandoned it out of anger and typical teenage angst. I figured that had I been more patient, surely I would have gained much more from my experiences. This was the underlying assumption that proved to be gravely false. Sometimes our memories are jogged by scent or a landscape, maybe even an old photo. Other times, however, visceral emotions we haven’t felt in years churn. In my case, those emotions were the trigger.
I’d suddenly noticed in an instant the same terrifying pattern over the last few months that I’d gone through as a teenager. Doubt, growing self-hatred for continuing to act on my urges in the form of masturbation and lust, guilt, despondency, and with more intense devotion and prayer each time. I’d noticed the old patterns of ingrained social acceptability in my faith life — the idea that I’d be most acceptable as a chaste Christian with “same-sex attraction,” thus being defined by my peers rather than myself. My existence as a gay man who likes to wear makeup sometimes and really has a thing for LGBT rights but also Jesus was entirely unacceptable. “Come as you are,” in my case meant, “Come as you are, but be sure to tone it down.” I recognized the old fear, the one of being in the closet — not that I gave two shits what anyone at church might think, but that desire to belong is so overwhelming when you feel as though you’re on the periphery. Additionally, a conversation with a priest made clear he didn’t understand what coming out meant for us. It is a reclamation of yourself to the world. Without that self-acceptance, you can do a lot of things you otherwise would not to feel accepted by others. Fr. Gerald Murray’s article in the National Catholic Register triggered all these feelings I hadn’t felt in over a decade. It was terrifying that I’d let myself get here.
This realization that the Church’s hierarchy, doctrines, and writings (I have my reasons but I see no point in being Christian if I were to not be Catholic) are structurally designed in such a way that people like Fr. Murray think it is acceptable to write so disparagingly about the LGBT community, knowing fully the discrimination we continue to face across the world, was a kick in the gut. It was Fr. Martin’s good intentions that exposed this for me because nothing and nobody representing what is Good and True could give quarter to discrimination or condescension. Fr. Murray’s words stating, “The truth about homosexual inclination and homosexual activity is that they are not in accord with God’s created order, his plan for mankind” do just that, as do his attempts to promote a gay Uncle Tom’s story — if you can forgive the reference — (Daniel Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay) to repress our seemingly outrageous attempts to gain acceptance.
If we are not according to God’s plan, even in our inclinations, then what are we? Arbiters of a demonic agenda? Are we somehow more broken than the rest of humanity in Catholic theology, somehow inherently more dangerous to the social order? What is our place, then? Why stop at toleration and attempts to promote this idea that we are simply “afflicted” people with a heavy burden? Why not conversion therapy? Why not social and cultural isolation? Why not discrimination? Why not prison?
The failure to account for these things helped me realize something that I’m sure most straight Catholics never consider. Can you imagine Fr. Murray writing so passionately about the dangers of Protestantism, bemoaning the error of divorce in the same sort of language in this day and age? Can you imagine him, for one moment, condemning with such a broad stroke anyone who does not fit the mold but is otherwise part of a powerful and influential group in mainstream society?
No. The LGBT community is a scapegoat because our power is still limited, especially in Christian circles. We are an easy target. When I was asked by a friend what I need the Church to say to me, I said I needed it to accept that gay is part of my identity, that belonging to the LGBT community is something that makes me feel safe and with others who understand me, that I should feel I can say that when telling my story, and that I won’t be condescended to with the “same-sex attraction” designation. This is an issue for me because “same-sex attracted” describes everything gay describes, but stigmatizes it in addition to taking the power to name my identity from me to serve someone else’s comfort level. Given some time to think more, I’ve realized that this is an impossible wish list. My essence and my self-acceptance, neither of which can sustain without the other, are in stark contradiction with the Roman Catholic Church.
Just as it was 14 years ago, the inherent contradictions of (orthodox) Christianity when dealing with my existence as a person has shattered the foundations, though cracks were inevitable. I have always been a believer in following your thoughts and ideas to their logical conclusions and I try to do that with anything I believe; it was something I felt the Church did in good faith even when I disagreed with its conclusions. The concept that God became Man is one so radical that there ought to be something representative of the person He became on this Earth, if it is true.
No Shroud, with all its debate and conflicting conclusions, nor any amount of biblical exegesis can convince me that what the Church teaches is true if the authority which rightfully claims the keys can be so fundamentally off-base. So inhumane. That the Church cannot find a way because it is unable to overcome its internal structures that give more support to those who reinforce societal prejudices is despicable and cowardly. That it is driven to such lengths and pains to deliberately and systematically gaslight an entire community of human beings for who we are is perhaps one of the strongest argument against its own authority as keeper of the Truth and shepherd of the flock.
I simply refuse to believe that the ultimate Good, the underpinning of this entire universe and anything we can imagine and more we can’t, has as a core Truth in its design that I am at odds with creation over feelings of intimacy and sexual attraction toward other human beings. To be glib: Bitch, He wrote the code, not me.
Ultimately, I am grateful for this experience. I am grateful for friends who encouraged and cautioned, grateful for the clarity of actual truth, grateful that I realized my spiritual experiences of the last decade cannot simply be invalidated and ignored, grateful that the lie I’ve told myself for years about my teenage experience with Christianity was ultimately exposed, and I am grateful for the work that Fr. James Martin and others like him are doing. I wish them the best because it is necessary.
But mostly, I am grateful that I learned that what I thought was missing from my spirituality wasn’t that I didn’t give the Church a chance. I have given it more chances than I can count. I am grateful to learn that the contradictions rest with itself and not my failure to see past them. It is a sad sort of consolation but that is one that I will learn to accept, one that I will keep close to my chest as I resume a path more familiar but somehow brighter than it was before.
May you continually learn to love yourselves.