This is the first of three parts of a talk given at the University of Dallas on October 19th, 2015. Photographs gratefully used with permission from Elizabeth Kerin.
I want to start by giving you some background. It’s easy to forget to do this, because it’s easy to forget that I’ve been thinking about this question since I was fourteen, which is eighteen years ago, and other people are on their first year. I’m used to being gay and Catholic, and I’m used to taking both of those words seriously, so I forget that there can be some confusion about what I mean when I say “gay” and what I mean when I say “Catholic”. And I forget that, for some people, using those two words together seems like an oxymoron.
So, first my bonafides. I’m a cradle Catholic. I’m the child of two converts, both of whom became Catholics years before I was born. I went to parochial school, I was home schooled, I went to a small Catholic high school in Massachusetts — actually, you might have heard of it, it’s called Trivium. After that, I visited UD and almost went here, but instead I ended up going to the school that I think of as kind of a little sister to UD, namely Thomas More College, which bases its curriculum in large part on the work of your own Dr. Louise Cowan. After that I accepted a job teaching at Trivium, which I did for three years.
All of that doesn’t particularly make me a Catholic, but it does tell you where I’m coming from. When I say I’m Catholic, what I mean by that is what I think most of you mean by it. I mean that I believe the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit protects her from all error in matters of faith and morals. In other words, I accept the teaching of the Church on all matters of faith and morals, even when I find that teaching uncomfortable, or difficult, or opaque.
But I want to go further than that and tell you, my relationship with the Church is not a sort of grit-your-teeth-and-obey relationship. I love the Church. I love her so much that I wish everyone I knew was inside. I love her so much mainly because I love the Eucharist. I think you could almost say that the Eucharist is the Church — it’s where God meets man, and it’s how we stay connected to Christ, who is the vine to our branches.
I hope that clears up what I mean by “Catholic”, even though of course it’s not everything I mean by “Catholic”. At the same time, you didn’t come to see me because I’m Catholic. And this talk isn’t called “Catholic and Catholic”. It’s called “gay and Catholic”.
But of course you may be wondering exactly what I mean by that word. You might also be wondering why I choose to use that word, since I am a Catholic, and since there are other words that don’t carry the same political and ideological baggage — like the word “homosexual” or the term “same-sex attracted”. I will get to that, and actually, in some ways, that point — my willingness to use the word “gay” — is essential to the rest of what I want to say. But before I get to why I use the word, I want to make sure that you understand what I mean when I say the word. You and I might disagree about what that word means in common usage — I find that a lot of Catholics do disagree about this — but I want you to know what I mean when I say it.
As I was writing this talk, I had various things in mind that I wanted to talk about. I wanted to mention the word “gay” and why I use it and why I think a lot of Christians object to it. I wanted to mention reparative therapy, also known as orientation change therapy; what it is; and why I’m skeptical of it, or at least, why I think an approach to gay people that centers on reparative therapy is extremely problematic. I wanted to talk about all these things, and I found out that, when I explained what I meant by the word “gay”, I ended up touching on a lot of them. So I’ll go with that: I’ll explain what I mean by the word, and we will see where that takes us.
So! When I say that I am gay, I mean this: I am persistently and predominantly attracted to members of my own sex. I’ll say that again, because it’s meant to be a precise formulation. To me, the word “gay” means that I am persistently and predominantly attracted to members of my own sex. The tricky words are “persistently”, “predominantly”, and “attracted”. (That’s almost all the words!)
Let’s start with “attracted”. Now this word is actually kind of a big deal, because it can mean a broad spectrum of things. On the one hand, you can say that attraction is all about sex, and that being attracted to men means that I want to engage in some kind of sexual activity with men. On the other hand, we could also use it in a much broader sense: we could say that Dante was attracted to Beatrice, and that would be true, and we would mean a lot more than just sex, right? We might be stretching the word “attraction” a little bit, but when we talk about how Dante sees Beatrice, we mean sex, but we sort of mean sex as a subset of a much larger, much wider experience. Dante might be sexually attracted to Beatrice, but he’s also attracted to her emotionally, he’s attracted to her personality, he’s attracted to her smile and her laugh; and, even more than that, for Dante, Beatrice is theophanic: she reveals God to him, she is a bearer of the transcendent.
Is that what I mean when I say I am attracted to men? Yes. Sort of. Maybe. I don’t want to get that lofty yet, because if I start talking about how my attraction to men is like Dante and Beatrice, people are going to get uncomfortable very fast. I’m going to get uncomfortable too. I do think it might be possible to talk in this way, and I think it’s a discussion worth having, but I’m not ready to go there yet. Maybe in the Q&A.
But to return to the word “attracted”, when I say “attracted”, I mean, as far as I can tell, everything that a man usually means when he says he’s attracted to a woman, or to women in general. I mean I enjoy the company of men in general. I mean I find some men fascinating in a particular way. I mean that I have, at various times in my life, had the emotional experience that most people mean when they say “falling in love”, and that when I’ve had this experience, it’s always been with another man, and never with a woman. I don’t mean to claim an equivalency between falling in love with someone of the same sex and falling in love with someone of the opposite sex, but I think both experiences are extremely similar. I also mean, obviously, that I find the sight of attractive men arousing, and that, as a rule, I do not find the sight of attractive women arousing.
One reason I wanted to talk so much about attraction is that I’ve encountered a lot of disbelief this regard from conservative Christians. I think a lot of conservatives think about homosexuality as this sort of isolated impulse that strikes men who are otherwise totally heterosexual, as if it’s this thing that develops kind of in a vacuum. Which is weird, because I don’t think anybody believes that heterosexual attraction exists in a vacuum. It’s pretty obvious that, for most men, being attracted to women is part of the whole package that they consider “being a man” — you know this whole business of “when she walked down the street, every red-blooded man stopped what he was doing and had to pick his jaw up off the ground.” It’s broadly believed that heterosexual attraction exists, not in isolation, but as part of the larger context of how we relate to the world as men. But homosexual attraction is, for some people, supposed to just be this thing that’s totally cut off from the rest of the personality — and I find it really hard to imagine that that’s the case for anybody!
You will hear conservatives say that we are all heterosexual, because heterosexuality is God’s plan for the human being and the human body and the human form. And this is true, as far as it goes: obviously, biologically, and maybe also in terms of our emotional makeup, we are meant for union with the opposite sex. But the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” aren’t ontological terms; they’re experiential terms. They’re meant to describe how we encounter the world.
Do we encounter the world only in terms of who we want to sex with? Obviously not. Or anyway, it’s possible to encounter the world only in terms of who we have sex with, and if that’s how we are, that’s obviously perverse.
But when we say “sexuality”, we mean something much more broad than that. Your sexuality isn’t something that you turn on right before having sex with somebody and then turn off afterwards. That would be really handy in some ways, right? It would make things much, much simpler if women were only women and men were only men when they were actively engaged in making babies.
But we all know that isn’t true. What does this mean practically? It means that our sexual orientation — and I actually do think this is the right word here, because I’m trying to describe the angle from which we approach the world, in terms of our embodied, gendered humanness — our sexuality and our gender doesn’t just color our interactions with the people we’re making babies with. It colors our interaction with, I think, almost everybody.
So if a man is with his wife, the way he treats her is an expression of his sexuality as a man: he comes at her from the angle of man-ness, because he is her husband and not her wife. But also if a man is with his daughter, the way he treats her is an expression of his sexuality as a man: he comes at her from the angle of man-ness, because he is her father and not her mother.
Now, practically speaking, for me as not only a man but as a homosexual man — or as a gay man — I use those terms interchangeably — how am I going to approach a woman? I’m going to approach her differently than a heterosexual man would. I’m quite literally just talking about my experience here: when I was in high school, everyone was worried about how to “be themselves” around women, and none of them could get the hang of it. But for me, this wasn’t a problem! Why was that? It’s because there was no sexual tension. Talking to women was always super easy for me. It was talking to men that was hard.
I could go on about that all night, but there are some other things I want to get to. I want to touch on that aspect of differentness — of how I approach both men and women differently from the way a heterosexual man approaches both men and women. We’ll come back to this, but I want to move on to the other two words.