Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Raw Tact, Part IV: Coming Out Christian

When I was in college, a group of weird fundamentalist preachers came to the campus to yell at us all. I wish I was just contemptuously summarizing what they were doing, but no, they literally stood there for hours, just yelling. While students from the Pride Alliance stood in front of them with a banner, holding a silent protest, the yellers said that God does hate some people, that they themselves didn't sin any more (fascinating), and that we were a university of masturbators. They called themselves Soulwinners Ministries International; we, well, called them other things.

In the wake of that, Campus Crusade's University of Maryland chapter had a counter-demonstration, saying that everyone, including Christians, sin and have sinned, and including public confessions; one girl who was involved with the Pride Alliance said that she was really grateful to see us there saying these things. A journalism student covered the counter-protest, and interviewed a handful of us, including me; I mentioned that I was a non-practicing homosexual, and he, intrigued, asked for a longer interview later on. I assented, and, a few days later, was a little shocked to find a picture of my own face taking up half the front page of the school paper. The article was far from perfect; it makes me laugh now, partly from the very melancholy picture of me it presents, and partly from a few minor inaccuracies; but, in retrospect, I think that was the most public and decisive coming out I ever had. So I guess that's ... something. Not sure what, but definitely very, very something.

That was two years before I entered the Catholic Church. I knew, before I swam the Tiber, that I was in for difficulties of various kinds -- not least the exacting ethic of chastity that the Church believes. But one unexpected thing, which I didn't even begin to pick up on until I had been a Catholic for two or three years, was a great dislike on the part of Catholics for gay people coming out of the closet.

I have always been at a loss to understand this. I've read a lot of the reasons set forth by various Catholic authors, and I think I understand where they're coming from; as that gayness should not be a person's chief identity (and -- let's face it, fellow queers -- a lot of people in the LGBTQ world are pretty immature about gayness as an identity, or a substitute for an identity), or that jumping from any same-sex feelings to a categorical "Well I must be gay then" is foolish, or simply that people's privacy should be respected if they don't want to come out (something else that a lot of folks in the gay world aren't always tactful or tasteful about). The objection that the word gay signifies a moral and political stance in addition to a general disposition of sexual attractions -- i.e., that gay means someone who believes gay sex is morally equivalent to straight sex -- was true, say, thirty years ago and more; but language has shifted and that is no longer the case. Frankly, none of the reasons I've encountered for not coming out, even the reasonable reasons,* seems adequate, aside from a simple desire for privacy. And honestly, if privacy is a person's reason, no further reasons should be necessary.

What has always struck me about a lot of Catholic rhetoric on the subject, though, is how totally it fails to understand the actual lived experience of a gay person. (I say "a lot" because there are exceptions.) The weird abundance of scare quotes in such rhetoric kind of suggests this lack of understanding, but the real evidence of it comes in explanations, from those opposed, of why a person would come out. For example:

"The act of 'coming out' is not the simple moment of openness which the 'gay community' advertises it to be. It is a dangerous trap which puts both persons in the conversation and their relationship at risk ... All the writers coach the person coming out to hear only two possible responses: Total rejection or total endorsement. The mindset is passionately black and white, highly charged, and very difficult to respond to. ... The 'coming out' step is more than a step into full membership in the homosexual movement. A second purpose ... is to seek 'converts' among 'straight' friends and family members to the cause of 'pro-gay' values. The price of refusing those values is often the break-up of the friendship or the family relationship -- a steep price indeed, which has sometimes been termed by those who have been offered those two dark options: 'emotional blackmail.'"**

Yes, because The Gays want their families and friends to reject them, and have never been mistreated or threatened by those they love, ever. Nobody has ever been kicked out of the house by their own parents as a teenager for telling the truth about who they're dating, or berated and beaten when they admitted to same-sex feelings and asked for help; and The Gays are simple-minded creatures who cannot understand the complex moral and emotional factors that influence people's reactions.

Sarcasm aside, the only thing to be said about the passage that I have quoted, is that it is not true. There are people, including authors of books on coming out, who grossly oversimplify the issue and perhaps even contribute to familial conflicts; and there are others who don't. Unlike the person who wrote the passage above, apparently, I've read some of the latter. And I've spent enough time with other gay people, not to mention my own family, to know that, yes, the fallout from coming out is complicated, and has to be handled with tact and patience on both sides, especially when there are conflicting beliefs between the parties. 

Now, far be it from me to say that there are no people whose coming out of the closet was downright Machiavellian. All sorts of people behave in all sorts of ways, and that kind of manipulation can't be said never to have happened. And it must be admitted that a lot of us, especially activists, have not been considerate of our families' feelings in the way we've come out; it's understandable, given that just being gay is an emotionally fraught experience, but the difficulties of parents, siblings, and friends have often been disregarded, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes on the grounds that other people's feelings don't matter when the cause of gay rights is at stake. But the notion that such emotional abuse is the chief or sole motive behind the desire to come out is absurd, and, even from the wholly orthodox Catholic view that I espouse, can be demonstrated to be categorically false by a simple perusal of what Joseph Prever of the Steve Gershom blog has called a gay Christian renaissance: Melinda Selmys, Joshua Gonnerman, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, Aaron Taylor, Josh Weed, Wesley Hill, Jeremy Erickson, Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, Daniel Mattson (though he approaches the subject quite differently), and Joseph Prever himself, to name just twelve. (The periodical First Things and the blog Spiritual Friendship house a great mass of essays by the above figures.)

Well, why would somebody come out, unless they were supporting the gay agenda?

First of all, the gay agenda isn't really a thing -- or, it is only a thing in the same sense that the Christian agenda is a thing, or women's agenda, or the black agenda. Any subcategory of "everyone," whether religious or sexual or racial or whatever, is defined by a certain degree of shared experience; but it doesn't follow that everybody in that subcategory has the same views and desires. People are incorrigibly plural. That should point us to the fact that "Why would somebody come out unless they were supporting X?" is the wrong kind of question. Why would a person come out, period?

I cannot speak for everyone. But I get the impression that some of my reasons are pretty common ones. For myself, the following were major causes:

1. Survival. Not everyone reacts to their sexuality this way, but for me, the weight of being the only one who knew about me was crushing. It was like carrying a huge stone on my head, all the time. Telling other people helped me to actualize my theoretical belief that my being gay was not the end of the world. If I hadn't, knowing me, my shame and fear would probably have devoured me: suicide would not have been out of the question. Coming out, far from locking me into a lifestyle, helped me to concretely affirm that there was more to me than my sexuality, because I got to experience first-hand people not reducing me to that once they knew about it. And that helped me learn a little bit of courage and trust. (I experienced a lot of other things first hand, too, but everything has downsides.)

2. Honesty. If there is one thing that I have believed (believed, not practiced) thoroughly for about as long as I can remember, it is that truthfulness is obligatory, about everything, all the time. It does not follow that we have to tell everybody everything or that we have no right to be private, or polite, about some things. But it does mean that one must not tell lies. And it is surprisingly hard to make it through one's life without people assuming that you're straight, for the simple and valid reason that most people are. It is also rather unpleasant, if you're not, to try to carry on conversations and indeed whole relationships, when someone is making a multitude of assumptions about your experiences that simply aren't true.

3. Weariness. Even if a person doesn't feel that they are being dishonest or evasive when others assume they're straight, reworking your instinctive responses to a host of things is necessary if you wish to avoid outing yourself. I'm not just talking about correcting for lisp (when applicable), but about discussing crushes you've had, explaining your difficulties with chastity, telling friends that you aren't interested in dating this cute girl they know, and the like. Even if you're 100% comfortable with both yourself and traditional Christian sexual mores, the mere busywork of keeping it private can be truly exasperating.

4. Witness. The Church says, rightly, that she needs practicing Christians who show in their own lives why her teaching is good, true, and beautiful, not only in spite of but even because of its highly challenging nature. Is anybody in a better position to be a witness to that than a gay Christian, in our time and place? Isn't telling gay Christians that they should stay in the closet, or re-closet themselves somehow, a little counterintuitive? Or, conversely, viewed from the perspective of those outside the Church, doesn't it call into question the Church's professions of love and acceptance, when she doesn't even want the matter discussed by those to whom it most urgently pertains?

5. Concern. I was terribly alone as an adolescent. I would have been anyway -- I was a fairly atypical boy as far as interests, both in terms of liking things many boys don't and not caring about the things most boys enjoy; and my depression certainly didn't help. But one of the worst things was feeling that there was no one who was safe for me to talk to. The silence, and the animosity toward the whole gay subculture, was so oppressive that it made me feel that my orientation was not only bad, but so filthy as to be unspeakable. I decline to regard this as having the least imprint of Christian charity upon it. And I don't think it's a helpful mindset to get teenagers with same-sex feelings in, either; they, of all people, need to feel that the Church is a safe place. I don't want anyone to have to feel as scared and helpless as I did. The Church should truly be a sanctuary.

6. Humor. Awful, awful humor. I'm a fan of South Park, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and so forth. I really like making terribly tasteless and offensive jokes. And if people don't know I'm gay, I can't safely make gay jokes.***

*There are of course people whose reasons are simply and categorically homophobic -- i.e., based on an irrational fear of and/or dislike for homosexuals. I don't consider these reasons worth answering.

**The full article can be found here, and may explain why, despite its status as thus far the only Vatican-approved ministry to homosexuals, I am not specially eager to touch Courage with a ten-foot pole.

***No, seriously, this was one of my reasons. But, you know, not in a gay way.
Okay, that one was terrible, but you get the point, though.


  1. I enjoy your posts but this one hit home for me. I'm straight but I do know how it is like to be bullied and mistreated. I went through bouts of depression during High School and I even hid what my interests were because of being bullied so I can relate. You are correct that the Church needs to be the safe place where one can freely express who they are and sadly for many people, that isn't the case :(. I think that fear has a lot to do with it. This is also why I am tired of the "culture" wars. All its done is pit us against each other and further entrenching our positions between "us" and "them" with "them" being gays, liberals, muslims, etc, etc. Everyone seems to have an "agenda" hell bent on destroying Christians, except for Christians. Nope, no agenda there, right? We need to do better. I'm curious to hear your reasons for shying away from Courage. It is touted as the best group for gays in the Church but apparently there are problems. What are they? I think that we need to show Christian charity far more than we have and this can only be done by personalizing the other. God bless you :).

    1. I have a collection of reasons for being leery of Courage, its official hostility to coming out of the closet being a major one. It would require an independent post really to do them justice; I may write one. Stated briefly, I think you could say that Courage is socially conservative as well as doctrinally orthodox, and has a tendency to conflate the two (like many Christian groups). I care a great deal about orthodoxy, and not at all about conservatism -- in fact I oppose conservatism in several important respects -- so my attitude is inevitably wary. All that being said, I have to add that I've never directly involved myself in Courage (my dislike comes from reading what they have to say for themselves), and the people I know who are or have been involved have given it mixed or positive reports.

    2. Thank you for your response. I agree that Courage and other doctrinally orthodox groups tend to be conservative. In fact, this is an area that I struggle with because there seems to be an unspoken assumption that if you are orthodox then you must be a conservative in everything and I'm not. In fact, I can't stand the current strain of conservatism that is popular since it reduces the Catholic Faith to what we are against and not what we are for. It also reduces it to politics and only about two issues. We as Catholics should be concerned with more than just two issues (abortion and gay marriage). This is also why I think that the pro-life label should be more holistic instead of just being pro-birth/baby. So, I can see why you are leery about Courage. What do you think can be done for the Church to be more welcoming to gays? How can we make it a safe place?

    3. An important question, which I couldn't possibly do justice to here. However, I'd identify a few fundamental shifts that I think are needed, which I will summarize in extreme brevity here.

      1. Embrace the New Evangelization. Of course, nobody's really opposed to the New Evangelization, but I don't feel it's gotten altogether off the ground yet. I think the innovative thing about Pope Benedict XVI's approach was and is that it is evangelization he called for, not revival. A culture that is still basically Christian would need the latter; a culture whose basis is secular requires the former. Most Catholic language that I hear today -- from the USCCB, from the pulpit, from books and blogs -- seems to be aimed at a world that the authors conceive of as granting a number of fundamentally Christian premises that our secular culture doesn't, in fact, grant; that is one of the things making the discourse about homosexuality so difficult. The New Evangelization seems to me to necessitate an entirely new, from-the-ground-up catechesis -- which means not assuming that everybody secretly knows and accepts Catholic moral theology, and those who oppose it are just rebelling.

      2. Drop the language war. This may seem trivial, but it's caused such a volume of aggravation and even pain that, in practice, it isn't trivial. Popular language should be understood in its popular sense, and used, for clarity if for no other reason; insisting on decades-outdated meanings of terms like 'gay,' in the face of multitudes of gay Christians who explain over and over that it now means something else, only makes the Church look irrational and provides fodder to accusations of homophobia.

      3. Openly condemn acts of hatred against homosexuals. There are places where the Church, to her credit, has done this -- I understand that the Archbishop of Kampala in Uganda has advocated persistently against the horrifying bill that would have introduced the death penalty for gay sex under certain circumstances. But the hierarchy here has been largely silent, except to talk about accusations of homophobia being a campaign to silence the orthodox. That looks an awful lot like paranoia and, well, homophobia, unless accompanied by publicly speaking against the real injustices that gay people do suffer around the globe (Russia being the popular example at the moment).

      Other things, and further specific applications of the above, would be good too, but I don't want to wall-of-text the comments section too badly so I'll stop there.

    4. It seems to me that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were quite right to call for a New Evangelization in the sense in which you point out. But I think we needed, and need Pope Francis to show us how to do it. Examples include riding the bus after his election, continuing to live at Casa Sanctae Marthae, inviting 200 homeless to a dinner/garden party at the Vatican, the visits to slums and prisons, and the question, "Who am I to judge?" I have said several times that with him as Pope the New Evangelization will look much more like the first evangelization, on the hills and in the villages of Galilee, than it would have without him.

    5. Oh, I agree. I love Pope Francis just as much as I loved Pope Benedict (well, and still do); as sad as I was to see Benedict go, I opine that Francis is exactly what the Church needs right now. I toyed with talking a little about Francis as an example/exponent of the New Evangelization, but I felt like I was going on too long. Glad somebody brought him up. :)

  2. So, should we all take #6 as implicit permission to dust off our old Blanche Knott books from the 80s and republish our favorite gay jokes in the comments section?

    1. I encourage my readers to refrain from publicizing jokes that suck. Otherwise go nuts.

  3. Hiya Gabriel -

    I promise that I don't have to weigh in on every post; feel free to tell me to buzz off at any time. Really. But I had a couple of reactions to this that piece I wanted to share:

    First and most important, I think you're awesome. One of the things that comes through powerfully in your writing is a desire to be authentic and a willingness/bravery to be vulnerable. Those are amazing traits. If that's the way non-online Gabriel approaches this life, then this post makes total sense. As someone who survived the closet, I think those traits are essential to living into the fullness of life that I believe God wants for us all.

    Your transparency inspires me.

    Second, and least important, Courage approaches sexuality like addiction. That saddens me. Elizabeth Scalia has talked about how gay people should live out their celibacy with joy. That's not the Courage model.

    Third, I am sick to death of people who hold to the conservative sexual ethic flattening my entire person down to a sex act. My sexuality is important, to be sure. But if I were a car, my sexuality would be one of the tires - one of many essential parts. If you have any interest, I wrote about this here:

    I know you and I have profound disagreement about the sinfulness of homosexuality. Regardless, I think we have some shared experiences with being both Christian and gay.

    Thank you for sharing your life experience so generously.

    All my best

    1. To the first, wow, thank you. For the record, I have yet to be otherwise than glad and grateful when you've commented, so please stick around :) .

      Second, yes, that is another problem I have with Courage. I view it as a weakness more than a positively bad thing; after all, some people (homosexual and heterosexual) are addicted to this or that kind of sexual behavior, often acting out compulsively; and there should absolutely be a safe, and private, place for people to deal with such things, not unlike AA. But the implication that being gay and being a homosexual sex addict are synonymous is at best grossly misinformed, and at worst an example of intensely bigoted and destructive thinking.

      Third -- yeah, right there with you.

  4. I can identify with all the reasons you list for coming out (esp. #6. Does that make me an equally horrible person?). But part of me chafes at these reasons. They all seem (with the exception of #4) so self-centered. Don't get me wrong; I realize there is a massive distinction between a selfish/manipulative act that the Courage article is describing and trying to live in a place of humble honesty so others can give the support you need. But I guess, I tried to be self-reliant for so long that it is hard for me to see the difference sometimes. Does that make sense?

    Some of the first advice a spiritual mentor told me when I revealed that I had SSA (and later my therapist told me the same thing), is that when thinking about having these coming out conversations, I should always be wary of my motivations. Also, that when I do have these conversations, I should give the other the space to have the same honest emotional reaction and growth that I myself have had since puberty. I find it difficult to let others have these reactions when I am focused on these reasons you gave. Any thoughts or advice that you have in this area?

    1. Well, I come at it from a pretty different angle -- possibly because I was already out when I became a Catholic. Your director and your therapist obviously know you personally, which I don't, so that their wisdom is likely more relevant.

      That being said, I'd make a few points. One is that we must distinguish carefully between doing things for our own benefit and being selfish. Eating and drinking done for our own benefit, but aren't selfish (unless, say, we take the last of the Glenfiddich, Bill). Selfishness is an inordinate attention to our own needs and desires, at the expense of others -- not attention to them as such; loving oneself, appropriately, is as much a duty as loving others. If we benefit by coming out -- which I admit I am inclined to think most people do, at any rate in our time and place -- that's sufficient reason to do so, unless other reasons not to come out of the closet are weightier. No different than any other decision in that respect.

      Giving people appropriate space to react authentically is indeed difficult. If you are really coming out for yourself, oddly, it can be easier. If you are doing it simply because you wish to be honest, for instance, and to be a good witness, then you are (or at any rate have the opportunity to be) far less beholden to others' responses than if you're coming out for ideological reasons. Everyone's mode of coming out has to be highly individual, naturally, and has to be adapted to the person they're coming out to, as well -- I've come out to some people via a letter, so that they could have as much space as they needed for a very emotional response, and then we talked about it later. Conversely, there are people to whom I just said without preamble "I'm gay," though that was mostly because I thought they already knew. (Turned out they didn't. Made for an interesting Men's Night at the Catholic Student Center, that.)

      Self-reliance -- nothing wrong with that. It can be difficult to strike an appropriate balance between selfhood and coinherence; both are necessary to us all. If you don't find that it makes it harder to relate to people genuinely when they don't know you're gay, I'm not sure I'd bother to come out; I did find that, extremely so, so I did. I gather a lot of LGBTQ people feel the same way, so I think coming out should be socially acceptable, for Catholics as much as anybody else. But to each his own -- and I will add that I think pressure to come out of the closet is rather tasteless; it is, after all, deeply personal.

    2. To be honest, we shouldn't be TOO worried about giving people "honest space to react authentically" or whatever.

      No one really has any RIGHT to "react" to the fact that you're gay whatsoever. Maybe a mother and father might have some primordial reaction re: biological grandchildren. But for everyone else, at a certain point, I have to think, "If this isn't a problem for me anymore, it most certainly shouldn't be for you. I have to live it every day. You just have to KNOW."

      There's no duty to keep people in some sort of blissful ignorance so that they aren't disturbed by their own prejudice.

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    1. You're quite right that there is no duty to come out; if you reread the post, you may notice that I said as much more than once, and said so in a few of the comments as well. I don't claim to know what the racial makeup of the gay community is, so I can't speak to the assertion that most are Latino or of African origin; but I do realize that a great many people are in sufficiently hostile environments that the drawbacks of going public outweigh the benefits. I'm not saying, and never said, that anyone is obligated to come out; on the contrary, I said that personal preference and desire for privacy -- let alone the hostility of others -- is an adequate reason to remain silent on the subject. The reasons I listed were personal ones, and really, they are far more pragmatic than ideological.

      I find the claim that coming out causes problems like depression, alcoholism, etc., dubious at best. Even if there is a correlation between such problems and coming out of the closet (which is more than I know), correlation does not equal causation.

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    3. Well, Carpe, it's also true that people don't have to come out to everyone. Perhaps Courage is warning against the sort of "Wear it on your sleeve: EVERYONE must know" notion that some gays pick up. But in reality, one can make a case-by-case judgment with family-members and friends and acquaintances. I think, really, most gay people I know are like this. They aren't wearing it on their sleeve. They make the choice to disclose or not with each new person they meet. I'm out to my dad, but not my mom, out to all my friends now, but only some of my coworkers, etc. But the way it was written, it makes it sound like Courage doesn't want people to claim a positive gay-identity in any sense, wants them to live with that information swept under the rug so that the rest of the world (even those who might, in our day and age, be supportive and celebratory) doesn't have to think about the fact that gays exist. Encouraging teens to risk being thrown out on the street merely to make them pawns of a "revolutionary" gay liberationism is of course irresponsible. But at the end of the day, it's still the fault of the bigots, not the kids for being honest (you can't blame the victim), and certainly people with financial independence should probably assert themselves even to hostile families. I'm not saying there is an obligation for each and every person to do so, but we only gained acceptance socially by some people, yes, alienating their homophobic family members (back when everyone was homophobic) until there was such a critical mass of alienation that it couldn't be sustained and acceptance and reconciliation started to take hold.

  6. I'm not sure what to write here, Gabriel, other than to say that I am in complete agreement with you, and I believe you are doing the Lord's work in a magnificent way. I love your transparency, and I believe that is something the Church needs right now in a big way.

    As for having agreed to do that article, I can think of at least one great thing that came of it: we became friends. If you'd not done that, I'd have likely never known anything about you, would never have contacted you, would never have been able to know you as a friend, as I've gotten to do the last many years, and that would have been a tremendous shame. You are one of my best friends. You have meant so very much to me. And I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.

    I'm glad you chose to come out. How else would I have ever known you? :)