Tuesday, November 3, 2015

An Unholy Hatred

I was about twelve years old when I looked up the word "homosexuality" in the dictionary and was given a 1970s definition: Homosexuality, I learned that sad day, was a "sexual perversion" akin to "pedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia, which see."

I looked up those big words--and was horrified. After the feelings of horror and disgust washed off, I was left feeling deeply ashamed.

No child wants to be a pervert, not even a twelve year old boy in love with Barry Manilow.

What I learned that day was reinforced by the overly religious, right-wing environment I grew up in. When the adults sat around at their John Birch Society meetings and talked about "pinko commie bastards" I eventually realized they were talking about me, a revelation that only added to my shame. Just because I had weird, inexplicable crushes on other boys didn't mean I wanted to be a communist (God forbid!), or that I hated my country, or that I was the scum of the earth.

Or did it?

My response to this shame was to become extremely religious, to prove, by a life of prayer and piety, that I was a good person. I can't count the number of rosaries I said, the candles I lit, the prayers I offered, the endless hours I spent begging God to "forgive" me, to "heal" me, to "take this cross away."

It didn't work, and it didn't last.

I look back on a life lived in shame, and, ironically, I feel ashamed I spent so many years feeling ashamed when there was nothing wrong with me, when I had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to feel ashamed about.

My life is bound up with shame. The shame of being something I didn't want or ask to be. The shame of being different in a world that is merciless toward those who don't measure up. The shame of being slender, soft spoken, a sissy, effeminate, faggy, girly, limp wristed, a "lady boy," a pervert, what my church calls "intrinsically disordered."

Shame is a very damaging emotion and a deadly dynamic.

Shame leads to silence; silence leads to isolation; isolation leads to depression and, for too many LGBT folks, thoughts of suicide--or worse.

I look back on this life of shame and I wonder: what purpose did it serve?

I am well aware that my life of shame was not an accident. The shaming I experienced was put into place by other people for a reason. What was that reason? What was the point of shaming children like me? Why do we continue to do it? Whose needs are being met by this shaming? Where's the pay off? Who benefits?

The answer is obvious: by and large, it is the churches and religious folk who benefit. And it is the churches and religious people who, by and large, perpetuate this shaming of LGBT individuals.

There are two immediate benefits that come to mind:

1) It serves the needs of heterosexism, which is the attitude that heterosexuality is "normal" and that everyone should be heterosexual. Since heterosexuality is the most common form of sexuality, it is thought to be "normal," or what God intends and wants of us, and any other form of sexuality is a perversion to be discouraged if not eradicated.

2) It is a useful form of social control. The churches, indeed all religions, use shame as a form of social control, the "just ordering of society." While this "just ordering" is supposed to be Biblically based, it is not always so, and shame is used by the dominant group in society as a way to impose its values, whether those values are based on the Bible or not.

There is a great deal that could be said about these two benefits, and a great many arguments could be made for or against them, but that is not my intention. I'm trying to get at the narrative, the structure behind the shaming I experienced (and continue to experience) as an LGBT individual. I'm trying to answer questions like this: Why do people like Pat Robertson and Bryan Fischer continue, on a sometimes daily basis, to shame gay people? Why does the Catholic Church refer to its LGBT sons and daughters as "intrinsically disordered?" Why do so many evangelicals threaten that the wrath of God will fall upon us now that gay marriage has been legalized? What is the point of this? What is the purpose? Whose needs are being met by this constant "culture war"?

Yet there are other questions that are equally important. What has been the effect of this shaming on LGBT people? Has it helped them? Has it brought them closer to God? Has it helped them to live dignified, meaningful lives? Has it contributed to our understanding of the human person? Are we better off because of this relentless culture war? Are families made better and stronger by shaming their gay and lesbian sons and daughters?

Or has all of this fuss and bother, which has caused enormous hurt to so many people, been nothing more than an exercise in bigotry, the bigotry behind the idea that we should all be heterosexual, that it's not okay to be different, that God wants us all to wear our pants the same way?

Or has it been a sort of mass hysteria, a sort of heterosexual panic, that there could exist, among us, people who are profoundly different in their sexuality?

Or have LGBT people been nothing more than scapegoats, the "village idiot," the one group of people in a community that it's safe to pick on and feel superior to as a way to boost one's self-esteem? This is a very traditional role, mind you. You will see it on every play ground at every school. There is always that one child who is picked on, excluded, ridiculed, who simply cannot measure up. By picking on that one child, we feel superior. We also feel part of the "in group." It heightens our sense that we're okay, we're acceptable, we're "good enough." So ... is that the purpose gay people serve? To give society a convenient punching bag?

The shaming I've experienced has hurt me in deep, profound ways that I will never be able to explain to those who have not experienced it.

I spent many years feeling as though my soul had been murdered, that I was a dead person inside a living body, that I was not a good person and could never be a good person because there was something about me that was fundamentally wrong--if not bad, if not evil, if not perverted.

Shame led me into about a dozen serious attempts at suicide, a couple of which really ought to have been fatal.

Shame has left me unable to believe that an entity like "God" could actually love me, or care one way or the other about what happens to people like me.

Shame has made relationships difficult. It's hard to love someone else when you can't love yourself.

Shame has affected me in so many ways for so many years that I will never truly be free of it. It will always lie like a shadow on the past and the future, coloring my choices, poisoning my mind against itself.

I am working my way out of shame.

When I turned fifty a couple of years ago, I decided it was time to come out of the closet-completely and for good. It was a tentative, hesitant step, but much good has come from it.

I continue to process my own shame by trying to understand it, by talking about it, by challenging it, and taking the risk of doing new things and developing new attitudes. It's a lot of work, but it's worthwhile.

What I have come to learn from my experience with shame is that it is a structure. A man-made structure. Someone put it there because it serves their needs. It didn't just happen. It's no accident. Like racism, and all the other -isms, it's serves a purpose. Someone, somewhere, benefits.

I am left with many questions, but the most overriding question for me is this: If you're the one benefiting from the shaming of LGBT people, shouldn't you take responsibility for the harm you've caused, harm that is sometimes so extreme that victims take their own lives? Are you not responsible for your behavior? If your church participates in the shaming of gay people, are you not complicit in the harm this causes? Can you, in good conscience, look the other way and pretend this unholy hatred has nothing to do with you?

Someday churches will have to come to terms with the harm they've caused.

Someday churches will have to recognize their gay and lesbians sons and daughters do not deserve the contempt heaped upon them, that while our mating habits may be slightly different, we are good people, decent people, kind people.

Someday churches will have to understand that you cannot harm others without harming yourself. You cannot demean others without demeaning yourself. You cannot murder the souls of innocent people without murdering your own.

If there is such a thing as Judgment Day, I suspect a lot of believers are in for a hell of a surprise.

"As you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me" - Jesus either meant these words, or he did not. And if gay people are not the "least of these," then who is?

Monday, July 27, 2015

A brave new world

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Marriage Equality on June 26, I was stunned into a strange sort of silence. I wandered through the print shop where I work--we were in the thick of things with the normal Friday morning rush--and I soon found my way outside to the alley, where I had myself a discreet cry.  

For those of us of a certain age, the victory was stunning.  

I keep using that word--stunning--but it's the right word.  

Standing there by myself, in the alley, I felt overwhelmed and … stunned.  

Just stunned. 

Having grown up in the Seventies in a highly religious environment, being gay was considered so shameful one did not talk about it, much less admit to it. About the worst insult one could hurl at another boy was "faggot." There was quite literally nothing worse.  

I knew from an early age that I was one of those faggots. Why, I did not know. Deny it, pray about it, beg God to change me, try to manufacture some sort of interest in girls, curse the gods--I did all that and more, to no avail. My faggotness was wrapped tightly around me like a boa constrictor, never once letting me breathe easy or free or experience sexuality in anything but a tumultuous, desperately unhappy fashion.  

Kids like me didn't go to high school proms. We faded into the background, got by, got through, disappeared to some big city or other where there was relative safety in anonymity. Too many of us to count wound up on the streets, on drugs, in jails or morgues.  

Years ago, when the push began for Marriage Equality (I am compelled to capitalize it), I felt ambivalent. To my mind, there were more important matters to address Having been one of those gay kids who sought refuge on the streets, having sold my flesh to survive as so many of those kids do and continue to do, I found it hard to sympathize with older gay men and women who wanted to get married (of all things). It was hard to see the big picture while scraping by on the questionable kindness of strangers.  

When the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down a few years ago, the writing was on the wall. Yet I could not bring myself to believe that gay marriage would ever become the law of the land. Perhaps in a few progressive, forward-thinking states, but certainly not in a state like Mississippi. I was not shy about expressing my opinion that I would be deader than Britney Spears' career before gay marriage ever became a fact of life for everyone in these United States.  

Not once in my entire life did expect to marry a same sex partner, to settle down, to buy a house, to make a family, to have a "normal" life 

Not once.  

Not ever. 

That's something to ponder: So many folks like me never expected to share the same rights and privileges that most take completely for granted. A little pink house and a white picket fence with a couple of kids in the backyard -- those were meant for others. Never once in my entire life did I ever think such things might be possible for me. 

So … 

When I read about the decision that Friday morning, I went outside and cried. I said nothing to my coworkers. How could they possibly understand what it meant to me, what I had been through over the course of my lifetime 

I still don't know what to think about the decision. I'm waiting for some court or other to overturn the ruling. I'm waiting for our state legislators to do an end-run around the matter and somehow legislate this new right of mine away. I'm waiting for the governor to sign a magical decree that will make gay marriage go away, at least in the state of Mississippi.  

I'm waiting for … well, I don't know what, exactly.  

But at least I can breathe a little easier now. 

take great consolation in the idea that marriage will now be a genuine option for younger gay folks. I hope I'm one of the last generations of gay kids who had to escape to the streets, who cheapened themselves for a meal or a place to sleep. I hope today's gay kids can dream about a prince or a princess charming, a little pink house, a white picket fence. I hope they can add to their families by fostering or adopting.  

I hope this means that gay kids will find a place at the table of life, that we, as a society, will have learned that throwing away such kids is not the answer. Including them,. loving them, nurturing them, letting them marry, letting them make families of their own--I hope this is what the future holds. 

I will never know what my life would have been like had marriage been an option. And I hope I'm one of the last to ponder such a question. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sleeping with the enemy

Lately, I've been thinking about leaving the church I've belonged to since I was a teenager, the church where I became a religious brother (until I was asked to leave when I admitted to being gay), the church whose rituals, whose smells and bells, have been the one constant over the course of an often difficult life.

It's not that I want to. It just feels too much like sleeping with the enemy. Each time I drop a donation in the collection plate, I feel like I'm supporting an organization that treats me abusively, that does not value me the way it does its straight members.

Just today, I stumbled across a story from late 2014 about Cardinal Raymond Burke, who advised parents not to invite gay couples to family gatherings when children are around.

Burke said:
‘If homosexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are … then what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?
‘If it were another kind of relationship – something that was profoundly disordered and harmful – we wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it.
‘And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.’
Burke has put his finger on the pulse of my problem: Many members of my church feel that "practicing homosexuals" are committing acts that are "always and everywhere wrong, evil." 

Yet he has nothing to say about young couples "living together in sin" (once upon a time this was known as fornication and is mentioned in the Bible rather frequently), or couples who have been divorced and remarried. He does not warn parents to keep their children away from masturbators and pursuers of pornogtraphy. No, his scorn, his contempt, is reserved only for homosexuals. 

He is careful to distinguish between "practicing homosexuals" and those not involved in sexual relationships, but few make this distinction. The effect of his words is to tar all gay folks with the same brush. So when Mom and Dad sit down to plan Christmas dinner, they are advised by the cardinal to make sure to exclude a son or daughter who might be homosexual because ... well, that is the question, isn't it?

Recently there was a story about a Catholic priest who was fired from his ministry at a college in New Jersey for supporting the No H8 Campaign. Is that the message my church wants to send, that a priest who stands shoulder to shoulder with the "least of these" will lose his job? 

These are not isolated events. Such stories appear every day.

While there are indeed many Catholics in the church who support its LGBT sons and daughters, sadly, there are many in the hierarchy who do not. 

Consequently, like many LGBT Catholics, I find myself thinking it's time to leave, that, for my own spiritual well being, I really ought to leave. 

I attend Sunday mass at a small church in a rural town. Never once have I been made to feel uncomfortable. No one has ever said a word about my sexuality. I am treated decently and compassionately.  

And yet, there is something wrong. 

Some folks go to church to have their "batteries" recharged; I come away feeling that mine have been drained. I do not feel lifted up, or spiritually refreshed. Rather, I am left with the curious feeling that the "good news" of the Gospel was meant for others - parents with their kids, older couples, grandfathers and grandmothers, not people like me. Not people who are "intrinsically disordered" as I am. Not people of questionable morals. 

Some folks enjoy the social aspect, the meet and greet; I avoid these occasions because I've learned the hard way that there is something about me that is deeply troubling, perhaps even distasteful to some people. So I keep to myself and always feel like I've crashed a party that I wasn't invited to. 

I am very much aware that the folks in the pews around me are there to further their own spiritual lives. But what about my spiritual life? Am I not entitled to one? Are the "same-sex attractions" I experience the only thing about me worth noting? Do I not have a soul too? Do I not deserve the spiritual encouragement and uplifting that is offered so freely to parents, to children, to the elderly? 

I often wonder what it would be like to have a church family that welcomed me, that was not afraid of me, not afraid to acknowledge me from the pulpit, not afraid to discuss the issues that have such a deep impact on my life. Seems to me it would be an amazing experience -- to go to church and be surrounded by supportive people, to worship together, to contribute my talents and gifts just like anyone else and not always be singled out as someone of questionable morals. 

How is it that I am now 51 years old, and have never experienced this? 

When St. Peter was given charge of the church, he was told -- three times -- by Jesus to "Feed my sheep." Why is it that I am always left with the feeling that I have not been fed, that the church has nothing to offer me except condemnation and perhaps pity, that it sees nothing about me except a "disordered" sexuality? 

An abusive relationship is one in which your needs are not being met, where you're not free to state your needs, where you're not free to speak for fear of the consequences, where you live in fear of what might happen, what might be done to you if you don't measure up, or keep quiet, or toe the party line. In an abusive relationship, one does not feel properly valued and acknowledged. There is no mutual exchange of respect, love and encouragement. One person always lives in fear of the other, lives in the fear of love being withdrawn, or the fear of being punished, the fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, and bringing down the wrath of the abuser on one's head.  

How can genuine spiritual work be done in such an atmosphere? 

How can the "love of God" be authentically experienced when it comes from the hands of people who are simultaneously abusing you?

A private spirituality is fine and dandy, but a genuine spirituality must be communal, must involve the give and take of others, of a community. Within the framework of community, one discovers who one really is. 

The church's LGBT sons and daughters are handicapped in this regard because they are not free to be themselves. To admit to being what they are is to admit to some moral, irresolvable failing. A cloud will always hang over their heads. How can they live authentic lives and experience an authentic spirituality when they are not allowed to be authentic? 

Hence, my dilemma.

I don't want to leave the church, but there are times when I think my spiritual sanity and well being depend on it. 

The church has been a wonderful place for so many groups of people. It could be a wonderful, uplifting place for gay people too -- but it does not want to be. 

How can I continue to support a church that does not support me, that does not feed me, that has no answers for people like me, that condemns me for a reality that I did not choose, that I find just as bewildering as it does?

Where is all this "good news" that the Gospel was supposed to bring -- and when will the church get around to sharing it with its LGBT sons and daughters? Or must we stand on the sidelines and forever remain second class citizens who need to be content with whatever crumbs from the table that might get thrown?