The Lie of Mutual Exclusivity & Other Things I’ve Learned as a Gay Catholic
Walking into the church, I’m greeted by the familiar presence I’ve known since I was little. After crossing myself with holy water, I kneel in the aisle next to the pew, just like I’ve always done. I have memories- really happy memories- of my first Communion, and my sister’s baptism, and even when I was really young, when the kids were all invited to sit down in front of the altar so our priest could read the Christmas story.
Those were happy days; I remember them fondly.
When I think about my childhood in the Catholic Church, I think about how often my faith got me through tough times. My belief in God was always strong. I’ve never doubted that He exists, and that continues to be true to this day. He has taken different forms in my life, but He has always been there, looking out for me when I got myself into situations I alone could not take on.
What did waver, however, was my relationship with Him.
When I was in ninth grade, I fell in love. She was beautiful, funny, and was (in my eyes) incapable of imperfection. She was fearless to me. An age difference and a separation meant it would never work out, and I knew that deep down, but it didn’t stop me from steeping in six months of pining. Still, though I had to grieve her nonexistent romantic love for me, my broken heart was instrumental in breaking through to a question I didn’t even know I was asking; it was the question of who I am. It was the question of one of the many secrets God had hidden for me to discover.
I came out to my family without even knowing what I was doing. I’m blessed enough that they never rejected me throughout this process of self-discovery, and I will forever thank God for that. I always knew it was a matter of controversy within the Church, but I didn’t know the extent to which some religious groups have harmed the LGBTQ+ community. I simply knew it was how I felt, and I didn’t know why who I was would be thought of as wrong. I never fit the whole ‘self-hating gay Catholic’ stereotype in the traditional sense.
That being said, I struggled. I struggled a lot. Though I never rejected myself as gay, my faith in God trembled. I went to Mass each week, and I would hear the lector read the Prayers of the Faithful.
“For the institution of traditional marriage, that governments uphold the union of one man and one woman. We pray to the Lord.”
Echoes of “Lord, hear our prayer” would ring sharply in my ears, and I wondered just how many young queer kids like me were hearing that message. I looked around at my fellow parishioners, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I wondered how quickly each one of them would disown me the second I told them. I thought about the Pew Research Center statistic that some sixty-seven percent of Catholics supported same-sex marriage in 2017. I wondered how many of them were, all out of self-preservation, lying through their teeth, exactly like I was.
Then, I went to school, and again, I was blessed enough to have teachers and friend groups who mostly supported me. I was never completely shut away about who I was. I can’t remember a time where I was actually, properly in the closet. Again, I knew there were people who didn’t approve, but I was also straight passing, and I was far too busy falling for a never-relationship to explore the dating market much. No, homophobia was scarce from strangers. My friends were supportive — until some of them weren’t.
All of a sudden, people I trusted started to hurt me. It was all little things — minor blows — but each time I was asked “what do you think God thinks about that,” a little more of me was chipped away at. I began to see people of faith as people who twisted my heart. All Christians hated people like me. They all hated me. It was this that allowed me to fall into believing the Christian lie of mutual exclusivity.
See, it’s like this: Emily is gay. Emily tells her friend she’s gay, rejoicing in the discovery of another part of herself she has been blessed with by God. The friend pauses, looking down into her Chick-Fil-A before looking back up at Emily and telling her she’s not a true Catholic. Gay + Catholic = liar. Emily, affirming in her own identity, gets defensive. Emily wonders how much she wants to be associated with someone who can’t see that she can’t change such an integral part of who she is. Her mind fights back, surrounding itself with ironclad shields, glancing away anything that holds the name of God.
Of course, the problem with this lie, aside from the pain it causes to all involved, is that it does nothing to bring people closer to God. Each time this happened to me, in its range of patronizing, passive aggressive forms, I drifted away. I began to separate myself from the faithful so much that it wasn’t just me defending myself anymore. It created a fear, manipulating me into barricading myself from anything remotely religious.
When people wished me a blessed day, I started becoming uncomfortable. “I’ll pray for you” morphed into a personal attack. And going to religious events? The few times I went to a Bible study at school, I cringed, anticipating blows every time someone spoke. Religious education classes were something I just had to get through until Confirmation. Mass then became a place where I zoned out for an hour while trying to shut out God and all His works. I would recite the chants as usual, but they held no more power than if a robot was reading them from its programming.
When people asked me my religion, each time I never failed to use a clarifier. “Well, I’m a Catholic, but…” was my stammering response, terrified someone would associate me with them. The homophobes, of course, is what it sounded like I meant; really, though, I was starting to resent most people who were openly Christian. I was starting to resent God Himself.
This resentment was a deeply rooted pain stemming from years of denying myself — not as gay, but as Catholic. As a believer in God. I went to Confession this semester for the first time in about a year and a half. As I sat down before the priest, my heart was in my throat.
“Father, I feel like I’ve just been going through the motions in my faith,” I said, my voice cracking already. “I’ve been really resentful of the Church, and resentful of God, because…”
The reason stuck in my mouth, like if the Eucharist was slathered in peanut butter. The priest waited patiently for me to speak.
“Because… I’m gay,” I stammered, tears rolling down my cheeks. “I’ve been so ashamed to be Catholic.”
And there. It was out. It hung in the air, and a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was like my tears were holy water, washing away the grime of the sin I’d never spoken aloud: the sin of resentment. It was a resentment against the Church, but more importantly, it was a resentment against God. But still I sat there in fear. My confession was finished, but there was one last step in the process, one I imagined would have me fleeing the Church forever.
Instead of a rejection, however, all I heard was love.
“You will always have a home here,” the priest said. “You will always have a home in the Church.”
My heart soared. Something I thought, in that setting, I would never hear. I was welcome. Like a prayer, the words echoed between my ears. I was welcome.
That confession alone did not, of course, heal me completely. No, there have still been struggles. I’ve started forcing myself to bring God into my life again. I want everyone to know that when I say “I’m praying for you” or joke that “God was watching over me yet again,” it’s not just a saying that flows out like milk and honey; no, I mean it absolutely. Every time I reference God in my everyday life, it is a feat of strength coming from years of wandering in the desert, whittling away at the shame that comes along with being a Christian.
Oh, and I could go on about how the “clobber passages,” as some like to call them, have been translated and mistranslated so many times they’re now obsolete, or that God calls us to love one another, or the numerous other arguments in favor of the queer community I have in my arsenal. But I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of having to defend myself as a Catholic. I’m tired of having to Peter myself into oblivion each time I say, “well, I’m Catholic, but not one of those ones.”
No. I am Catholic. I am gay. They do not conflict; conversely, they complement one another. This journey of identity and spirituality has only brought my soul closer to God.
There are hard days. There are days where those I thought of as friends ignore or reject me, or tell me my “lifestyle” (as though it’s something I can control) is incompatible with living a full life in God. These days hurt. They hurt a lot.
But these days only make me stronger, because I can go to Mass afterwards, breathing in the peace and love of God, knowing I have Him on my side. I know He loves me, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of Him. Every time I struggle with myself or others accepting both of my identities, these two complex parts of who I am, I am consoled this bit of scripture from the Word:
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 NRSV)
I am complex. I am a sinner, because I am human. I am a believer. I am how God made me. I have been blessed with a hurdle that rebuilt my broken faith. I am who I am. I pray for others discovering the gifts God gave to them, and I pray for healing of faith through the light and the love of God.
For those looking to learn more, the Vine and Fig community is a fantastic group for LGBTQ+ Catholics interested in reconciling their faith with who they are. Affirming Jesuit priest Father James Martin also has spoken out extensively in support of queer Catholics.