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Michele Somerville

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Gay Catholic Ministry and Straight Pride

Posted: 07/01/10 12:20 PM ET

Gay Pride weekend in New York City just passed, and I write this on the 41st anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Two weeks ago, we celebrated Gay Pride in Brooklyn with a fair and a parade on a sunny Saturday in June.

For the fourth year in a row, my Roman Catholic parish had a table at the fair and I was scheduled to "woman" our table. I arrived a little early to find the two women in our Gay Ministry finishing their shift. The table was surrounded by toddler gear. I surveyed the diaper bags, teething toys, baby wipes, board books, bears and sippy cups, remembering the wonders, thrills and trials of life with toddlers (I had three children in four years!).

I asked the two gay moms how things were going, and braced myself for the answer. We expect to catch flak. It tends to fly at us from two opposing directions: from Catholics who accept Church teaching and therefore view homosexuality is a disorder, and from those who believe gay people who stay in a church ruled by self-hating homosexuals in miters are sexual identity traitors.

A reader of my essay "Sex and the City of God" wrote the following in the Huffington Post comment field in response to my speculation on what might happen if every gay Catholic abandoned the Church for a month:

If every gay church worker, closeted or otherwise -- music directors, nuns, priests, and lay ministers -- were to call in sick for a month, Or just quit the RCC and join a church that respects them.

"Devon Texas" has a point, but like many women who remain in a church governed by misogynists, many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people believe they are part of a church that that can be healed -- a church that belongs as much to them as to any of its members. While it is true that the Church hierarchy does not respect homosexuals, many gay men and women know that the people of the Church -- who are the Church -- do, for the most part, respect them.

Though we on the Gay Ministry team at my parish are committed to affecting change (growth) from within, we know it's slow going. Roman Catholic Church leadership is somewhat diplomatic in its hateful disposition toward gay people, but unlike fundamentalist Christian leadership, Catholic teaching does not deem homosexuality an "abomination." Perhaps because so much of Church leadership is gay, the hierarchy does not bother with the vicious, backwards and fallacious notion that homosexuality can be cured.

Technically speaking, every Roman Catholic church in the world welcomes gay people to the altar, so long as they do not have sex lives. Like many Catholics who refuse to be complicit in the hierarchy's penchant for using the Eucharist as a cudgel, GLBT Catholics often disregard doctrine on the matter of being gay.

A year ago I wrote a bit about my work in Gay Ministry in an essay called "Born Again Catholic in Brooklyn" which appeared in the New York Times online. The following remark appeared in the comment field.

Still it's different to admire the courage of a lesbian nun, but not be one. Try being gay in the church rather than being supportive of their ministry. It's a less comfortable and viable position. More like worshiping in a hate crime.

(This comment was signed 'Eileen Myles.' Poet Eileen Myles -- if this commenter and she are one and the same -- is a superb, well-known lesbian poet raised in the Church, which seems important to note here.) Not being gay, I can't know what it is to be gay in the Church. But I am not in "their" ministry -- I'm in "our" ministry. We call it a ministry for "gay Catholics and their families"; I helped to build it, and I am needed in it because heterosexuals have a role in helping this change along. Furthermore, I think women and gay men and women are linked as victims of the hierarchy's bigotry in a way I find slightly comparable to the way "Suffragettes" were connected to Abolitionists. The two causes weren't identical, obviously, but there was psychological, political and spiritual overlap which inspired mutual support.

Am I "worshiping in a hate crime?" I don't believe so. But I'm never sure. I do know that each December 1st, for three years running, some guy who rarely sets foot in a church has approached me at the end of our annual World AIDS Day Interfaith Memorial Service to tell me how grateful he is for the opportunity to remember friends he lost to AIDS in a house of worship. I suspect that some of the partners of the guys in our ministry might agree with Ms. Myles, but I don't believe we are "worshiping in a hate crime." I think we are worshiping next door to a hate crime, trying to improve the neighborhood.

What I am sure about, too, is that anti-gay bigotry in the secular world is fueled by anti-gay bigotry in the clerical world, and I think anyone who works to oppose homophobia in any religious setting is engaging in both secular advocacy and --pardon the pun -- God's work.

Father's Day happened a little over a week ago. I concentrated in praying, this year, for a friend who is waiting with his partner to finalize an adoption. This couple (two men) has been trying for long time. They've endured crushing disappointment, but this pair of fathers-to-be strikes me as men put on this earth to be dads. I notice that parents who overcome extraordinary obstacles in building their families often become extraordinary parents. I am thinking chiefly about what I see in parents who have triumphed over the legal and emotional vicissitudes of adoption, but this would seem to apply to those who have had difficulty becoming parents, too. Often these parents, who worked extra hard to become parents, seem more all the more grateful and all the more conscious.

It must be very difficult and require great courage, even now, for gay couples to "start families," and the half dozen or so gay parents I know are some of the most careful and gifted parents I know. I don't mean to suggest that heterosexual couples fall short, but that, as in so much else, the degree of difficulty which accompanies working for a treasure makes it all the more precious. Gay parents, out of necessity, are more attentive to teaching children about prejudice and may be less likely to be enamored of conformity. Gay parents have no choice but to teach their children about the relationship between principle and prejudice. For gay parents, it is not a lesson that is easily postponed.

That some parishes (not mine!) decline to fully accept these children -- and their parents -- disgusts me, but more and more parishes are realizing that they must accept them (If not for the right reasons, then for the wrong one: cash). I'm optimistic. I think it is these children and their gay parents who will change the Church for the better.

My work teaching high school English for two years and college writing for a decade brought me into contact with many young gay men and lesbians in their late teens and early twenties. Because autobiographical writing generally finds its way into all freshman writing curricula, it's not unusual for a freshman English instructor to read highly personal work written by students. I've read a few dozen compositions by gay men through the years, in which they describe the struggles with living in/coming out of "the closet." I always had trouble squaring the hopelessness and self-loathing I saw in these narratives with the talent, warmth, wit, charm and beauty I saw in the authors of these tales of danger, whose accounts of running away, being beaten by parents for 'coming out,' voyaging into the depths of substance abuse, and entering destructive sexual encounters taught me how dangerous both homophobia and being gay are. Escape was always the recurring motif, and suicide fantasies and scenarios were so prevalent that I came view them as mainstays of gay college guy subculture. It was through reading accounts written by undergrads double-teamed by gay-bashing faith and family that I first came to see that people die of homophobia.

In "Catholicspeak" I might say I "consecrate" my gay ministry work to my brother Scott who came out at 40, died at 45, and loved the Church for most of his life. Even though my "Irish twin" Scott, was 13 months younger than I, he was, in so many ways, the father I never had. He convinced me that I was enchanting, defended my honor, and championed my work. His life was marred by depression and substance abuse which were intensified (or brought about) by the hopelessness and strain of having to live a lie.

When Scott came out to me, I wasn't surprised, but I was shocked that he hadn't done so sooner. For all of our conscious lives he knew me to be supportive of gay people. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when he "came out"; I celebrated it. He didn't have to hide who he was anymore. When I asked him why he hadn't come out to me earlier, he responded with a common answer. "I couldn't come out to myself."

The "love the sinner hate the sin" take on homosexuality, which the teaching authorities of a more than a few religions (including my own) espouse, is untenable. Being gay is not a sin. And when Church leaders exclude gay couples from having their children baptized, or deny gay people the sacraments, the Church degrades these people in their entirety.

Thus, I believe, they assail the mystical Body of Christ of which gay and straight people are equally part.

I knew a man who, shortly after coming out to his family, felt that he had been blessed with full acceptance by each family member and planned a visit with his out-of-town brother and his family. At the last minute, the straight brother called the gay brother and asked that the boyfriend stay at the hotel, explaining that his wife and he were not yet "ready to explain homosexuality" to their young children.

"This," the gay brother said later, "is why gay people don't come out."

This injury not only damaged the relationship between the two men, but it profaned the sacred nature of the brave and life-affirming action of coming out. This kind of transgression is usually committed out of ignorance, sexual dysfunction or fear -- not malice -- and this manner of response is certainly not limited to Christians. A few years ago, I attended a wedding of two women, which the father of one of the brides had refused to attend. In this case, religion appeared not to play a role. The bigotry was secular. But secular homophobia has its origins and roots in religion.

The father-to-be I mentioned earlier told me that he encountered resistance when he informed his devout Catholic mother that he would soon become a parent. Then he showed the future grandmother a photo of the baby who might soon become her grandchild. The mother and son put a face on it. Really, one might say, they put God's face on it - acceptance soon followed. This, I believe is how it should go.

I observed my own children at the Brooklyn Gay Pride street fair as they slalomed ahead of us through the crowds, slurping lemonades, eating grilled corn on the cob, checking out the t-shirt tents and Italian sausage booths. They were unfazed by the preponderance of same-sex couples holding hands, and all smooching was "disgusting" or "mushy" -- regardless of the gender of the "old people" (anyone over 22) doing the osculating. If the kids craned to stare, it was the girls noting a transgendered beauty, guilty of the "fashion don't" of being overdressed for a day in the park. For them it was a sunny June day, and another Brooklyn street fair. For their parents, it was a day to luxuriate a bit in our "straight pride."

 

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