Trying to appreciate a thing is a good way of finding out that thing’s best qualities, and men are things, especially to a hustler. Many men are heroic in their refusal to be pathetic, and hustlers are sometimes the only people to get a glimpse of a man in his loneliness, or in the weakness of his desire. And it is sometimes only by seeing this contrast—of a man on his knees who is normally a pillar of strength—that we can see the heroic aspect.
—Rick Whitaker, Assuming the Position
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Since I just wrote about the clobber passages, I’m supposed to write about Theology of the Body next. And I do plan to do that, but not just yet. First I want to explain what being gay means to me, because I was gay before I was Catholic; I brought my gayness to Catholicism, and in some ways I feel more like a gay man trying to make sense of religion than a Catholic trying to make sense of homosexuality.1
I have frequently been asked, not to say challenged, by Christian friends2 as to why I use the word gay instead of saying something like I struggle with same-sex attraction. There are a multitude of answers, one of the strongest (in my opinion) being that the word gay, unlike nearly all its proposed alternatives, is mercifully short. However, in reading Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic, which I just started (finally!), I stumbled on an articulation of another reason, which I’ve long felt but couldn’t express very well. Describing her conversion, she writes:
I tried to get my friends to explain the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. They had never raised the issue with me before, which showed great intuitive insight on their part. I think if they’d assumed that they were ‘supposed to’ witness to me by talking about God’s plan for my sex life, I would have been put off by the arrogance of their assumptions: assumptions that they knew better than me which questions were important to my spiritual life and assumptions that they as well-meaning straight people understood homosexuality better than I did. … People sometimes refer to me as ‘struggling with same-sex attraction.’ That language ignores the fact that I don’t particularly struggle with my orientation. … For many people, this language separates out a part of themselves and animates it, making it into a kind of living enemy, which plays into a lot of self-hatred and makes them feel internally divided rather than united in love of Christ.3
That spoke to me really strongly. I’ve always been put off by the language of struggle, and on reading this, I was finally able to articulate succinctly one of the major reasons why: it suggests that there is nothing to my sexuality except sexual attraction. And that just isn’t true.
The Catechism itself goes—well, not out of its way, but to some lengths, to recognize that there is more to sexuality in general than just attraction: it spends twenty paragraphs4 going over the deeper meaning of sexuality as a dimension of the mystery of the body, a medium of relationship, and a major field of integration and self-mastery. That’s a hell of a lot more than what makes your dick go up.
And what I feel toward men in general—to say nothing of what I’ve felt toward certain men in particular—is not reducible to being turned on, even when that’s part of it. There are times when the beauty of a particular male body literally takes my breath away. I’m not just sexually interested in men: I like them, I admire them, I’m aggravated by them, I’m fascinated by them.
When I crave a partner, it isn’t as simple and crass as wanting someone to fuck, though no, I’m not above wanting that. It’s wanting someone to fuss over you when you’re sick, someone to bicker with about whether to get a dog, someone to try a new restaurant with, someone whose taste in music is clearly wrong but whose errors you generously tolerate. Most of us want that, and I think I can safely say that most of us want that person to be of one particular sex. Because the, I don’t know, energy that each sex brings to those daily things really is different.5 I don’t just want a miscellaneous live-in friend, I want a husband. Whether that desire can be fulfilled, and if not, what it means, are distinct questions; but that’s the point of departure for any accurate discussion of those questions.
That’s why phrases like struggling with same-sex attraction are rather repellent to me; it does precisely what Eve describes, making me feel divided and alienated. I think it’s demeaning to insist on talking about homosexuality as a struggle when, for some of us, it’s also something that’s led us to see enchanting beauty and to feel profound love that we might never otherwise have encountered. The men I’ve loved6 have been occasions for delight in and veneration of beauty in creation, and for coming to a much deeper understanding of disinterested self-gift than I had before.
Not everyone has such a positive experience of being gay, and for them, saying I struggle with SSA might make a great deal of sense. What I’m contending is that this cannot be reduced to a formula. Which parts of the experience of homosexuality matter, and in what ways, are going to be slightly different for every person.
And the brute fact is, I don’t really struggle with the attraction anyway. I mean, here it is. What I struggle with is acting on it, or, to be blunter (i.e. more honest), watching porn, jacking off, and hooking up. I dislike the polite-drawing-room tone of struggling with same-sex attraction nearly as much as I object to it reducing the whole erotic dimension of my personality to those behaviors. Life is not like that, and while there is a place for drawing a discreet veil over things—especially to safeguard the dignity and privacy of others—it should never be allowed to obscure the essential reality of something that needs to be talked about.
For me, being gay isn’t primarily about sex. It’s about relationship, and orientation wields influence over our relationships whether we follow it, fight it, or sublimate it. I think relationship is one of the key aspects of reality; it’s written into it right from the source, the Trinity; and I think that something that profoundly affects how we relate to people can be rightly treated as one of the things that makes us who we are. And for me, being attracted to men affects how I relate to people enormously, in negative and positive and indifferent ways. It’s why I don’t have a wife or kids, even though I was not only raised to expect them, but would daydream about them as a child; it’s why I try very hard to listen to and grieve with other people’s experiences of barbaric treatment by Christians, instead of dismissing them as exaggerated or exceptional; it’s why I watched Freier Fall.7 This is the thing I’m bringing to my Catholic faith and life, and it’s a complicated thing. It can’t be shut away from the rest of me as just something I struggle with.
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1Of course, both are true. But trying to outline the exact nuances of each would be like fitting wheels to a tomato: time-consuming and completely unnecessary.
3Pp. 40-41, 67, with minor adaptations.
5I’m not trying to explain exactly what that difference is here—that’s beyond my competence. Still less am I trying to say that there is no variation between people of the same sex, which is a gender theory for lunatics: two given people of opposite sexes may be far more alike than two people of the same sex. I’m only saying that sexual orientation is an orientation to something that really exists—gender—and that isn’t as simple as what shape your pectorals and genitalia have.
6Usually these loves have been unrequited, but, though that has meant they taught me different things from my requited love, I find that they haven’t taught me any less for the difference.7Excellent film (directed by Stephan Lacant, 2013); warning: butt stuff.