(since apparently today is my day for Rocky Horror references.)
Anyway, I spoke in Denver at Theology on Tap! This is a quick summary of what I said. Count yourselves lucky to get it in writing btw—I am still learning how to make this presentation SHORTER and borderline coherent. A lot of this is stuff you all have heard many times from me, but people expressed interest in having a post about it. Sorry for length.
There may be video and/or a Denver Post story later so I will post that as I receive it.
I started with a brief bio: I was born in 1978, raised atheist/agnostic/Reform Jewish. I came out to myself around age 13 and to my family sometime shortly afterward. I’ve led a charmed life—despite being a super-weird kid I wasn’t bullied, and my family was wonderfully accepting of my sexual orientation—and I think that background meant that I lacked a lot of barriers which make it harder for other people to come to the Catholic Church. I became Catholic at age 20. I didn’t know any other lgbt Catholics—I didn’t even know of any others—at that time.
Most of the talk was based on the concept, “things I wish I’d known when I converted.” But I do think I approached the biggest question in more or less the right way: I tried to find out why the Church teaches what She does, but when the answers I received were baffling or insufficient, I asked myself, “Which do you believe more strongly: that gay sex is morally neutral, or that the Church has the authority to teach on human sexuality?” And very much to my surprise, I was more certain of the second thing.
And really even since then, no matter what I learn about possible theological groundings for the Church’s position, it has come down to trust and to a sense that, as the disciples somewhat disconsolately point out, “Lord, where can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Since then, however, I’ve not only met other lgbt/same-sex attracted Catholics. I’ve found resources which simply weren’t around when I converted (this is where I plugged Wesley’s book!). Two of the best resources I’ve found are by people who, I’m pretty sure, reject the Church’s teaching in this area: Frederick W. Roden’s Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture and Alan Bray’s The Friend. You can think of that as a sign of Catholics’ failure to catechize in this area, or you can think of it as a sign that the Church’s beauty is attractive even to those who don’t accept Her in Her fullness. I think both of those explanations are true…. Anyway most of what I said about those two books can be found here. I talked about art and prayer as means of sublimating eros, and about vowed friendship, and friendship as a sacrificial form of love.
I said that initially I conceived of my task, as a lgbt/ssa Catholic, as basically a) negative (don’t have gay sex) and b) intellectual (figure out why Church teaching is the way it is). I now think of it much more as the positive task of discerning vocation: discerning how God is calling me to pour out love to others.
I gave examples of vocation, including friendship, art, and service, and talked (not nearly as clearly as I would have liked) about how one might sublimate and therefore express same-sex desire through those pathways.
I noted that every vocation has characteristic crosses and characteristic forms of loneliness, and that I had been quite naive and spiritually unprepared for those crosses. They included jealousy of friends who were marrying and having kids, resentment or anger toward the Church, and (this is the one I’ve struggled with the most) lack of accountability. When I lived alone there was nobody to watch over me except God.
I said that I tried to address these issues through prayer (especially prayer to St Joan when people in the Church hierarchy are being unhelpful, and prayer to Oscar Wilde), service, spiritual direction, and being much more honest and vulnerable with my friends than I’d like to be. I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, and I think that’s been especially helpful for me in terms of same-sex desire not only because it allows me to serve women, but also because it really makes obvious to me the crosses which come with heterosexual practice. That keeps me grounded and saps the urge to self-pity.
I emphasized that there’s a huge variety of paths out there and people need to find the ways of being Christian which work for them. They don’t need to conform their self-understandings to the most common or easily-intelligible ones available. I gave the example that other people often talk about my “struggle” with homosexuality, and that—while perhaps this is just me preferring femme metaphors to butch ones!—I don’t think of it as a struggle at all. I think of myself as needing to surrender more to God, rather than to fight harder for chastity.
I closed with the same story I told at the end of my Fordham presentation, and I’ll just quote it from the essay I wrote for them:
A couple of years ago I received a poignant email from a man who said, among other things, that he did accept the Church’s teaching and was trying to live up to it. But he still wondered: What happens if I change my mind? What happens if, years from now, I look back on my celibate life—will I regret it? Will it seem like an enormous waste?
I think it depends. If one’s celibacy is purely rule-following, then yeah, once you no longer believe the rules I think probably you’ll regret the sacrifices you made to follow them.
But if you pour out your love for others in friendship and service, if you offer your struggles and your need for surrender as a sacrifice to Christ, if you love God and those around you as deeply as you can in the best way you understand right now—I think even if you change your mind later, that won’t be something to regret. One of the biggest truths about love is that it’s never a waste of time.
So that was the speech. The questions were really fascinating and totally different from anything people had asked me elsewhere! Probably the most new-and-different one came from a priest who asked, essentially, whether chaste gay/ssa Catholics should come out, to change the culture. I said that it wasn’t everybody’s responsibility to jump on that particular grenade, but that in every case I’d seen in which people did go through that coming-out process, it had been positive overall for them. It made them more vulnerable to those they loved, and I think that ultimately strengthened many of their friendships.
The one thing I’d fight back on was one aspect of the framing, which is that both before and after, the people organizing the event made reference to an upcoming vote on civil unions. Now a) I am basically pro-civil unions, although I think there are big issues especially around religious liberty, but b) what I actually said in my own speech was that I was not making any political claims, and that there are lots of different political pathways which I think are open to faithful lgbt Catholics. I didn’t talk more about that because I assumed somebody would ask me about civil unions or gay marriage in the q&a, but oddly, no one did! So I hope that means I made my point without having to yowl too much about it. Overall the organizers were fantastic and I’m super-grateful (and they got a huge, wonderful crowd!), but it does seem important to push back on this one point.
Could you elaborate on your thoughts regarding civil unions?
Eve’s talk is not about civil unions. She only brought up the issue because the sponsors of her talk tried to frame it in terms of the Colorado vote on Civil Unions. She tried to distance herself from that framing.
If you look at the About page, you will see that “this blog was born out of frustration with the prevailing narratives about homosexuality from those who embrace this traditionally Christian sexual ethic: an excessive focus on political issues, and the ubiquity of reparative therapy in one form or another. We want to see more discussion of celibacy, friendship, the value of the single life, and similar topics.”
This is a place for discussing the kind of questions Eve focuses on in the body of her talk—let’s try to keep the discussion focused on the main themes of the talk, not on the distractions.
Hello! Thanks for commenting. I do think I have nothing particularly interesting to say about civil unions–they’re a compromise measure nobody loves. I more just wanted to flag the fact that I didn’t want my talk to be used for anybody’s political purposes, even my own….
Thank you for this: “But if you pour out your love for others in friendship and service, if you offer your struggles and your need for surrender as a sacrifice to Christ, if you love God and those around you as deeply as you can in the best way you understand right now—I think even if you change your mind later, that won’t be something to regret. One of the biggest truths about love is that it’s never a waste of time.”
I wonder about the point made about coming out. If that topic is mentioned I always get the impression that it is a dichotomous choice, either you are completely in the closet or you are out to everyone. And maybe it is my european countryside background, but why should this information be public? I can see why coming out to family, friends or a priest/pastor/spiritual director, etc might be a good idea, but for the rest, well it is none of their business.
Why is it acceptable to ask about something personal and intimate as sexual attraction, but we wouldn’t even dare to think about asking about salary or checking account balance….
Another aspect is the asymmetry of the coming out process, once you are out, it’s pretty hard to close the closet door again. Shouldn’t that lead us to open the door slowly and cautiously rather than all at once?
These are interesting questions you raise, Thomas. A few thoughts (though, as a disclaimer, I do tend to see it as more important than Eve is indicating):
1) I’m not sure how absolutely dichotomous it is. The phrase “I’m out to [friends, family, insert target demographic]” is very common. The narrative tends to be one of slowly working one’s way out from coming out to oneself to a wider circle.
2) The objection that the informatim is too sensitive is. Particularly in a context where being in a sexual relationship is presented as the sine qua non of living a happy life as a non-straight person, every out person who upholds traditional teaching on sexual ethics makes one more chink in the dominance of that narrative. A huge part of the current problem is this hegemonic discourse on what it means to be gay or lesbian. Since a hegemonic discourse is based on the assumption that this is the only valid narrative, the best argument against it is a counter-narrative which others will hopefully see as valid.
3) The asymmetry of the closet door is a significant issue. As someone who, for the first time, is getting something published in which I out myself, I have been getting all sorts of heebiejeebies about it, precisely because pf this asymmetry. But in the end, I think it’s really a matter of facing fears and doing it, because it is a brand of honesty which both the churches and the wider culture desperately need right now.
Thomas, if I told you the only reason Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love are on my DVD rental list is because I think Ryan Gosling is fit, you would know where I was coming from. It’s fine to be discreet but once you are ‘out’ worrying about what you reveal about yourself in ordinary everyday conversations is much less of problem.
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thanks for your thoughts
I recently spent a few years as a grad student at an american university (of the urban liberal coast variety) and I kind of managed to pretty much never have my ‘singleness’ come up as an issue, Which might have to do with me not being socially adventurous and finding a group of friends which shared a more ‘traditional’ worldview in this regard.
One of the reasons (not the only one, but still relevant) why didn’t come out publicly was an aversion/fear of becoming a poster boy. I was pretty active in the catholic chaplaincy and didn’t want to become exhibit A, a catholic homosexual who actually agrees with church teaching….
Additionally it allows me to keep discussions about sexual morality, marriage, etc on an abstract level. It might be my personal opinion, but I find personal experience irrelevant for the discussion of moral and legal questions, kind of along the reasons that ‘justice shall be blind’. Now by coming out the discussion will pretty much become personalized, which can lead to an unjustified support for my views (if you say anything against me, you are obviously homophobe…) or shift the discussion to the ‘ you are so obviously self-repressed, let me explain to you why you need to leave the church….’
Maybe I don’t have enough faith in other people, but I want my personal narrative to be about something else than my sexual orientation…
Many gay people aren’t interested in talking about being gay but as they are a tiny minority (1-2% of the adult population) there are situations and conservations where the category is unavoidable. Minorities simply get labelled whether they like it or not.
EVE: I’m disappointed that my schedule did not permit me to attend the event. Thanks for sharing details about your talk. You’ve aptly sketched the trajectory of many celibate persons regardless of their sexual orientation: moving from the negative pathway, in which celibacy is conceived merely as abstention from sex and a struggle with the teachings of the Church, to the positive pathway, in which celibacy is conceived more fully as an opportunity for friendship, art, and service. Your emphasis on the positive pathway is much needed and reminds me of what G. K. Chesterton wrote in his essay “A Piece of Chalk”:
“Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colors; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”
Interestingly, you have approached your celibacy in a distinctly Catholic manner by trying “to find out why the Church teaches what She does.” A Protestant like myself who would reframe this: I have tried to find out why the Bible teaches what it does. I don’t intend to set up a false dichotomy between the Church and Bible when there is a deep relationship between the two. Nevertheless, the Protestant celibate surrenders first to the text and then to the community which animates the text.
Keep up the great work!
Gotta say, love the description of chastity as “flaming!”
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