Rome, Italy, Jun 29, 2017 / 01:58 am
More than 10 years ago, Steve Gershom (not his real name) found himself scouring the internet for anything that might help him: he was gay, Catholic, and confused. Resources were scarce for a man struggling with homosexuality and trying to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching.
In the intervening years, Catholics experiencing same-sex attraction have become a more vocal presence in the Church.
Google the words “gay Catholic” and one of the top sites to appear will be Gershom’s own blog, a blog with the tagline: “Catholic, Gay, and Feeling Fine.” There, the 30-something writer considers his own experiences as a man struggling with same-sex attraction and trying to live out the virtue of chastity.
What follows is an edited version of a conversation about everything from homosexuality and Batman to poetry and football. The interview is published in two parts.
Why do you live celibately?
I think the act of so-called ‘gay sex’ is immoral. I think it’s immoral, for one reason, because it is intrinsically closed to life and thereby distorts what the sexual act is meant to be.
Where it gets tricky is where we talk about the emotional reality of homosexuality, because some people ask me, ‘well, that’s fine if you think that gay sex is wrong, but what about gay romance?’ For example, some people say, ‘do you think it would be appropriate for two men who are orthodox Catholics to be in a committed romantic relationship which was celibate?’ And my answer would have to be no. There is an intrinsic connection between romance and sex, and you don’t want to start what you can’t finish.
This raises a further question, which is, ‘ok, if it’s not ok for two men to have sex and it’s not ok for two men to have a romantic relationship without sex, is it ok for a man to feel romantically towards another man?’ I think I have to answer yes and no. It’s ok in the sense that it’s something that some people can’t help it sometimes, so you can’t be culpable for feeling that way. But I think it’s not ok, in the sense that it is deeply and intrinsically inappropriate. And I don’t mean inappropriate in the sense of, ‘oh that’s gross, we shouldn’t talk about it,’ I mean inappropriate in that it does not correspond to reality.
What do you mean by not corresponding to reality?
I think for a man to feel romantically towards another man is based on a kind of misapprehension of what that man is and can be.
This is where we get into the really hard stuff – which is also the really important stuff!
I think it’s really hard for a lot of people to understand how a deep love can exist between two men and not be sexual. And I think this is at the heart of the misunderstanding of homosexuality that’s going around. The fact of the matter is when my male straight friend X says ‘I really love our mutual friend,’ who is also male and straight, Y, I don’t think there is any sexual component to the love between X and Y. In fact, I think that is the ideal toward which I should strive in all of my friendships with other men: to be able to have love for them, and in fact to expunge any sexual component.
To return to my earlier question, then, what do you think we as Christian community can be doing to help people who struggle with this?
Somebody said recently that it would be wonderful if there were a branch of Courage in every diocese, and I think that’s absolutely true. It’s a shame that somebody should have to travel far and wide to find help.
The first problem is silence. And the specific problem of silence is that if you grow up Catholic and gay, or at least if you did a few years ago when I was growing up, or before that, then the overwhelming impression you get is not so much that you’re bad or evil, but it’s that you’re absolutely not allowed to talk about this. That it is beyond the pale of what is open for discussion. Now the question is where that impression comes from and what can be done to correct it.
The difficulty is: how can we overcome and correct that, without, at the same time, giving ground on the morality of homosexual actions? I think conservatives in general are more concerned about the latter, and liberals in general are more concerned about the former. And I think the liberals are right.
Ok, so what would you do to help people deal with these issues?
For me to do things is different than for someone who’s not gay to do things. What I actually have done is to write about it and be open about it, because that gives people an example of ‘oh, well, this guy isn’t embarrassed, so maybe I don’t have to be, either.’ That’s what I can do, but of course not everybody can do that.
The question is where does this intersect other people’s lives. Obviously one place it intersects the lives of someone who isn’t gay is if your friend tells you they are gay. Then what do you do?
Yes – what do you do when a friend tells you he is gay?
Well, the absolutely primary thing is to let that person know that your relationship with them is not going to be diminished because of this, or made weird. Because what I was most afraid of in telling people was not that anybody would reject me or call me a sinner, because I don’t know any Catholics who would do that. But I was afraid that people would start to distance themselves from me in small ways. I was afraid that my male friends would not treat me like one of the guys anymore, because they would be worried that I would be attracted to them, or that they would think that I was somehow not like them.
So one of two things is going to be going through the head of someone who is revealing themselves in this way. One is that they will be judged, and two is that they would be treated as weird or odd. I think those two things are distinct, but I think what anyone can do to immediately diffuse those worries is the most helpful thing.
And what do you think we can do more practically, for instance, in parishes?
There has to be a positive element to the message. A lot of young gay Catholics know they shouldn’t do gay things, but they don’t know what they should do.
What should they do?
They should start by telling somebody about it, preferably a priest who is willing to talk with them and help them.
So you think pastors and others should do a better job of being aware of what people are going through in regards to homosexuality?
Like the Catechism says, the number of people with deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible: this is a large segment of the population we’re talking about, and it’s not a matter of a few ‘edge’ cases.
The other day, I was joking with someone about smoking crack, like you do because people make jokes about using hard drugs with the understanding that, ‘oh, nobody I know deals with that.’ And then literally the day after I made that joke, I found out that somebody who I’ve known for a very long time has been smoking crack for months and months.
And that is exactly the sort of situation I dealt with growing up, which is where it was sort of standard to make jokes, ‘ha ha, gay people’ because nobody we know is gay – and of course if you hear that sort of thing all the time, you begin to think of yourself as outside of the realm of normal human experience.
Is that how you felt growing up?
Do you think that that actually pushed you more outside ‘the realm of normal human experience,’ because you perceived it to be that way?
Very much so. It sounds cliché to say it, but your perception really does become your reality. If you believe yourself to be of such a nature that you don’t actually belong in society with most other people, then you begin to interpret small thoughtlessnesses as large exclusions, and so you become less able to interact with your actual peers. And then they see you beginning to draw back, and start to think of you as someone who doesn’t really want to be part of their group anyway.
How have you managed to overcome that in adulthood?
Partly through therapy; partly through the group, People Can Change; partly through friendship; and partly through my spiritual director.
Is that the general path you would recommend for a young version of yourself who’s out there right now?
Yes, very much.
I was actually very frustrated recently by an email I got from a reader. He had sent me an email when he was at a low state. He was clearly extremely depressed, and so I replied with various comforting things and tried to be as practical as I could for what he might do the next time he felt like that, or what he might do right then, and I asked whether he had a therapist, or a spiritual director, or anybody with whom he could regularly talk about these things.
He emailed me back apologizing for being so dramatic, and saying it wasn’t usually all that bad, and then what he said about therapy was that he preferred to rely solely on the power of the sacraments. And I thought that was just the most horrendous nonsense!
The reason I say that is not because I think it’s nonsense to rely on the power of the sacraments, but I do think it’s nonsense to rely on the power of the sacraments for things that the sacraments weren’t actually designed to do. For example, it would be absurd to say that you weren’t going to go to the doctor to fix your broken arm because you preferred to go to confession. Within human society, there exist certain solutions to certain human problems, and if we don’t take advantage of them, then we’re being very stupid.
But the problem is, actually – and this is something somewhat practical – I think there exists within Catholic culture, this unspoken belief that therapy is for heathens, or that therapy is for people that don’t really take their faith that seriously.
Do you think the same is true for medication in mental health, which you also write about on your blog? And do you think it’s related to the idea you mentioned earlier – people assuming that you are just not trying hard enough?
Oh definitely. I think there’s a stigma in the population in general for getting therapy and for getting medication for mental health issues, but I think that stigma within the Christian and Catholic community is exponentially larger.
Although, I think this might be a bigger problem in the Evangelical community than in the Catholic one. I only say that because I’m thinking of a particular Evangelical friend of mine who constantly has to deal with – he’s gay, but believes basically what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality – he has to deal constantly with people telling him that for him to call himself gay is for him to be embracing a sin. These are people who don’t, in fact, distinguish between the inclination and the action. These are people who say, ‘well, I might go around experiencing temptations to adultery, but I don’t go around identifying myself as an “adulterous Christian,” so why are you going around identifying yourself as a “gay Christian?”’
And what is your response to that?
My response to that is that while it’s true that homosexuality means that a particular kind of temptation is prevalent in someone’s life, it also means a lot more than that. Since sexuality itself is so deeply tied to so many aspects of our personality, and our experience as human beings, then homosexuality has very wide-reaching effects into almost every aspect of our lives, or at least as many aspects of our lives as sexuality effects.
In America, stereotypes on many levels associate gay men with being effeminate. Are those legitimate stereotypes? Or is there some way in which you feel like being gay affects your masculinity?
There is some legitimacy to the stereotypes in the sense that there is some legitimacy to every stereotype. Stereotypes don't arise out of nothing. It's also true that either many or most, or possibly all of gay men I've ever known have experienced some difficulty fitting in with other men, and very many of them have experienced what they feel is a lack of masculinity in themselves.
I believe that among gay men in general there is a higher incidence of personality traits which are generally not considered to be as masculine. For example, most of the gay men I know are more sensitive than most men. Most of them are more artistic than most men; most of them are more introverted than most men.
So the fact is that being artistic and sensitive and introverted are not un-masculine traits, but in culture as it exists right now, those traits are more associated with femininity than with masculinity. (But) those things are not un-masculine, and are in fact, quite masculine.
I spent many years in (a place that was) a bulwark of ideas about traditional masculinity and what it ought to be, and a lot of those ideas are extremely simplistic, damaging, and wrong. But the problem is, people feel like if they start to question or abandon those ideas, then they are giving too much ground and betraying their faith, somehow. People identify the cultural idea of gender with what the Catholic faith holds about gender.
It does seem to me that our perception of masculinity as a country is changing. And I actually think that is a very good thing, and maybe that is indicative of something larger taking place under the surface. I just think that if a man doesn't express interest in the things that have traditionally been considered masculine, he's less open to ridicule than he would have been 10 years ago. Like I think it's more acceptable to not like football, for example. (Laughs).
So what do you think we can do to help men who struggle with homosexuality not squelch their natural tendencies toward good things, like being talented in the arts or sensitive toward others?
The reason the question is hard to answer is that it is not really about homosexuality at all. It's about how men are perceived in our culture, and how women are, and people worship, and how people relate to each other. It's just about what it means to be a human. That's what all of this is about. The odd thing, or the frustrating thing actually, is that there is, culturally, this huge storm going on about homosexuality. What frustrates me is that no one seems to realize that it isn't about homosexuality at all. It's about what it is to be human.
Well, anytime you start talking about sex, you start talking about what it is to be human. I think the reason people are so interested in homosexuality at all is because people are profoundly interested in how human beings relate to one another, and what sex has to do with any of that – and nobody is really clear about any of those things right now. But suddenly, the question of homosexuality requires us to think clearly about those things, and a lot of us are finding out that we have no idea.
Really, everything is condensing into this one, huge weather system – I don't even know what's going to happen. But there's a big hurricane brewing.
(The challenge is that) you almost can't say anything else other than men are men and women are women and the two are not the same.
Physical differences are not just physical differences, because physicality is not just physicality. It all comes down to the fact that you can't paraphrase the poem. That is to say, if you have a poem which says something beautiful and true, you can't say sum it up by saying, ‘ok, and what the poet meant to say is this syllogism.’ And in the same way, the only way to describe what masculinity and femininity are is to say: ‘here are men, they are manly. Here are women, they are womanly.’ That's literally the only way to do it, because our bodies are poems. They are poems that express the ‘masculinity’ of God and the ‘femininity’ of God and we have to take them seriously, which doesn't mean we can pin down (exactly) what the poems are saying.
So you think a lot of the cultural conversation going on is not precisely about homosexuality, but about humanity? Have you seen this in your own experience?
I'm extremely happy that everyone is talking about homosexuality, not because I think that homosexuality is in itself very important. I think it's incredibly unimportant, actually, in and of itself. I think it's incredibly uninteresting, in and of itself. What I do think is incredibly interesting is the questions of what men and women are; what gender is; what eros is and what friendship is; how human beings relate to each other; and what sex has to do with any of that.
The reason I'm glad that everyone is talking about homosexuality is that we are being forced to confront all of these questions, which we've needed to do for a very long time.
Part of me had imagined that after I came out, then there would be lots of people lining up to talk about my gayness, and that we would be talking about it all the time, and that everyone would talk about it. And of course part of me was attracted by that idea because of course everyone wants to talk about themselves. However, what I found to be the case was that my friends and I generally talk about the same things we've always talked about. And usually homosexuality does not come up. Which on the whole I'm extremely pleased about because on the relatively rare occasions when it does come up, no one's surprised to hear me talk about it. Which is really all that I wanted, actually.
You do run into gay people who just want to talk about being gay and it's just tremendously boring and narcissistic.
I went to a party once where there was this gay couple, and one or two hours in, everybody was clustered in around the gay guys, listening to them talk about being gay. And it was weird and gross, but there are at least two reasons why this happened. One is that it's a great feeling to be talking openly about something that for a long time you thought you could never talk about. And two, when you see a gay guy at a party, a lot of people, consciously or unconsciously, see an opportunity to demonstrate how open minded they are. It's like if you saw a black man at a party in the sixties. You're going to want to, especially if you're a liberal, go over and talk to him and make a thing about how, ‘look, I'm talking to this black guy.’ And it's understandable. But what it does, obviously, is that it objectifies that person. What my friends did was absolutely not that.
What do you wish average Catholics and other Christians knew about people who are struggling with homosexuality and are living in the Christian church?
Number one, you almost certainly know some. Number two, most of us have probably felt excluded from ordinary society for a very long time and in a very deep way. Number three, many of us have devoted a lot of effort to getting rid of our homosexuality, and have failed, already. And number four, which is the final number, (laughs) well, number four is more particular to me, maybe: but to me, friendship is one of the most important things in the world, and so the greatest thing that somebody could do for me is to be my friend, regardless of anything.
This article was originally published on CNA July 1, 2015. It was updated on May 27, 2021.