Mother, Church: A Gay Catholic Life

Mother, Church: A Gay Catholic Life May 6, 2015

This is an interview I did with my friend Peter. I wanted to talk to him because he’s lived through a tumultuous period in Church and American history and come through with his faith and sunny disposition basically intact. How does somebody end up as a faithful, practicing, openly gay Catholic in his 50s? (Warning: The answer is pretty long! This is a super-long post really.)

I met with Peter in his apartment. The background for our conversation was the sound of opera arias and Cole Porter tunes. Peter’s apartment is a great microcosm of his life: the curving chair from Damascus, inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl; the Harvard-logo VERITAS throw pillow his mom embroidered for him; the poster for “Miss Desmond Behind Bars.”

He showed me some family photos during this interview: Peter at his baptism, Peter and his mom and a nun, Mom with Peter holding a holy card, Peter sitting beside a statue of the Blessed Mother. A pretty intensely Catholic childhood, in what may be a vanished world.

I don’t post this interview to hold up one person’s experience as a model. But a) this is a kind of American, Catholic life we hear very little about; and b) I think Peter’s description of his family may be helpful to families wondering how best to love and care for their gay members. We’re so prone to second-guess our gentlest instincts. We argue ourselves into “tough love” and out of, you know, regular love. So I hope this interview can portray familial love as well as the love of God.

So talk to me about your background. I was born in 1956. I had two priest uncles; none of my siblings stayed in consecrated life [although some spent time in religious life]. My family were stereotypically devout, procreating people. Who has seven or eight kids anymore? One of my uncles and his wife had ten children. My parents had eight of us.

In Lebanon, where the Christians have small families and the [mostly rural] Shiites have big families, when I’d tell people about my family they’d say, “You’re Shiites!”

My [lesbian] cousin, on my mother’s side, had a terrible time. On my father’s side there was a gay boy [cousin], John, but he struggled with his parents. And who was their go-to person for comfort and guidance? My mother! My mother told me how much she loved [the lesbian cousin] and felt and prayed for her. John would have these long phone calls with my mother. My mother was a schoolteacher, she has a husband,—she has all this laundry—and she has the time to listen to John on the phone! So wonderful parents are part of the reason I’m not dead or something.

She wrote long, long letters to me wherever I was in the world.

I would come home from high school and there’s Mrs. Q—- saying, “Oh Ann, my Bernadette’s so disrespectful since she turned fifteen,” and instead of “I’m busy” my mother said, “Oh, what do you think is happening?” A poor old widow with a chronic speech defect, who was depressed, would come over to our house—[she lived next door] and she’d be weeping as my mother would be ironing, saying, “I don’t get out of bed some days, I have no reason to get up.” My mother would talk to her so kindly, give her a snack or something. Me and my little brat brothers and sisters would be thinking, “She’s a depressing crazy lady, we’d like her to go home now.” And my mother would say, “Peter, Joseph, set an extra place, Mrs. F—- is having dinner with us.”

On the gay front—my father’s just as decent and saintly as my mother, but she’s the mother, she’s running the show because Dad’s at work. My mother was playing counselor to two gay relatives before it even arose with me. So that speaks to her character. My family’s very big in my life. They’re wonderful and sometimes maddening.

So [I had a] very Catholic family and parenting; that made it easy for me to be gay and certainly not ostracized from the Church or the family. I also had very supportive siblings, very forward-looking modern siblings. As jerky as they can be, I never had a moment of trouble with any of them [on that front]. The only uncomfortable thing, when I had to kind of make the announcement [coming out] to people, wasn’t any negative reaction—I knew there wouldn’t be—but their oversharing! They thought, “Peter has done the traumatic and heroic thing of sharing something sensitive and shaming, so I’m gonna [help him] by sharing something too!”

[And I would be left thinking,] “I’m trying to unsee this!” But that was their way of trying to be kind.

Our neighborhood was entirely Catholic. We had one Protestant family. We had one Protestant church. I used to run past it! It had no windows! No stained-glass windows. My mother had a lot of Jewish friends [from a nearby part of town—she had a great reputation there as a remarkable teacher and mother.] Our street, it might have been a street in Vatican City. So we’d go marching down the hill, [girls and boys with our mothers], to the church with rosaries, either Mass or rosaries or 40 Hours devotion, or Stations of the Cross if it’s Lent. It was very communal. I wore a cross, I had a scapular.

So I loved the church, did first communion, did confirmation, did the May procession. We were into all of those. My mother belonged to everything. My father was in the choir. My mother was more involved than most. But it was pretty typical. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s so everybody had a lot of kids. The church, every Sunday Mass was packed. Bazaars and bingo and Sunday school.

You would have a nun or a young woman, with a classroom full of mostly boys [in CCD], talking to us about the saints and Catholic living. And I’ll tell you something else, there was a period where I was not churchgoing later in life, and what I blame that on [in part] is that I was really not well-catechized in the ’70s. It was a confusing period in the Church. When I say I love the Church it was the singing, the church itself, I loved God and I loved Jesus and I believed every single particle of it. But I didn’t understand the Mass. And so I didn’t understand the Church [well, despite my faith.]

You could say Fr. Damien or St. Francis or of course the apostles and Jesus and Mary, I got. My father had Bible study at home, not a common thing for Catholics! He loved St. Joseph. My mother says St. Joseph got a raw deal—he’s not even quoted in the Bible but he made so many sacrifices. But I didn’t know the big church. My [intermittent] lapsing had nothing to do with being gay.

They were trying to be modern, our poor poor struggling Sunday school teachers, just trying to keep these stupid teenage boys interested in Catholicism. “Hey, it’s groovy.” So I didn’t get a serious, informed education. It wasn’t trying to make us spiritual or more pious. It was just trying to keep us in line, keep us in the Church.

The detail that jumps out at me [from my very young childhood] would probably be [that] we said the rosary after dinner. Like a decade each. And they would include me, in the high chair. I’m sure I scarcely knew what I was babbling. But I can hear my father now, saying, “The family that prays together stays together.”

My mother, ’til she died, every house we ever lived in was floor-to-ceiling saints and crucifixes and the Holy Child Jesus—it was a lot of visuals, [especially of the Virgin Mary.]

Did you get anything like “sex ed”? That was a special speaker at Sunday school. My parents answered the questions I asked about where babies came from. But the more gory details came from something they showed in the church.

But of course there was nothing about gay stuff. It was marriage and procreation.

Did they get into contraception at all? No no no, it was a non-topic.

[I remember] something on the radio about abortion, in the run-up to Roe v. Wade. We were getting this from New York; they had New York accents, talking about abortion, a word I had never heard before. [They said,] “Havin’ gabortions.” So I asked, “What is ‘gabortion’?” I was 15, 16, and I had never heard the word “abortion.”

How did you start to think about being gay? It was pre-“gay.” Or “gay” didn’t have the currency [in public life]. My feelings about same-sex attraction would go back to early, early childhood, even to the extent that when we were hearing the facts of heterosexual and married life I was thinking, “This is irrelevant to me unless I magically change.” The way your baby teeth come out and you get a new set, maybe someday this will flip. I thought, “Unpredictable things happen to your body and your mind, your voice changes, so maybe your erotic interest changes too.” At a certain point I thought, “Well, if it’s gonna change it would have changed by now.” That was high school. Early to mid-high school.

[In high school] boys and girls are going steady. If you’re gay you’re just part of a pack, which in my case was mixed [boys and girls], and we were readers and listened to T. Rex and we thought we were kind of special and smart: a little bit bohemian.

One of [my high-school friends], J., was very openly gay. And still good Catholics. In this world none of us were rebellious except that we’d read better books and listen to better music. We’re all from churchgoing families. So some boys and girls were “doing it,” we assumed. Some people thought it was cool, some people thought it was shocking and trashy. There was a lesbian girl too. She went by “Bunny.”

But there was never any suggestion that the gay boys and girls would do anything. No one touched alcohol, no one touched drugs, no one had sex, but people went to movies. I was attracted to many specific boys, and even the gay ones wouldn’t have dreamed of [sex]. “I just know he’s cute, that’s all.” So that was kind of particular to the era.

I knew the term homosexual, I remember looking it up in the dictionary. “Is that what I am? Yes.”

So I was in this cool crowd of people. We saw foreign movies, honey! We saw British movies, even movies with subtitles! I had read the poetry of Rimbaud and Verlaine; I knew that they were lovers. I read Proust. So gayness as a thing—even if I had been not gay I would have known that this is what it is and these characters from history were like that. So there was no trauma, no awkwardness with trying to understand what it was.

First love, first crush” hit me like a runaway train. So that was the first painful thing. Because if it had been otherwise, if we had been male and female, we would have been dating, even if it didn’t go beyond hand-holding. He was one handsome dude. I totally worshiped the ground he walked on. Russian literature was his thing, he read Dostoyevsky. He was an athlete too. I took his sister to the prom. So I learned I had to keep it platonic; I thought, “Alas.”

But then I thought ahead: What will adulthood be like? That was in the back of my head. It wasn’t the religious dilemma, I didn’t see the Church as the problem or solution in any of that. But in my family people tended to marry young. It was unrelated to the Church—I was still a loyal happy little Catholic.

In college I had a crush on my roommate, who was the first person I made aware that I was gay. He was Jewish, wealthy, from New York, very very prosperous family, child of divorce, hated his stepmother, didn’t like his stepfather either, very very handsome guy, very athletic, he played squash. Funny, loud, laughed at his own jokes. Very brash. I got to know his family and he got very attached to me; we were just an odd couple. Part of it was I had really serious feelings for him—thank God it wasn’t as dire and deadly as the first time that happened.

He started dating a girl; they were sleeping together, a really nice girl. But there was a time when he was spending all his time with her. I never knew how much he knew or suspected about how I felt about him. But at one point after he’d broken up with that girlfriend he said, “Was that hard on you, when I was dating her?”

So I thought, What assumptions are being made? And I said, “It was okay,” and he said, “I’m really sorry if that was hard on you.” He was a really decent guy for all the loudness and the brashness.

But another thing happened in college, which was that I stopped going to church. Nothing rebellious, no unhappiness with the Church, just I was so darn busy, [and probably intimidated by the secular atmosphere—something new to me]. I felt very bad about it. I was too ashamed to go to confession. I was a fastidious penitent in the confessional because I went so often, so I was used to confessing little tiny sins and never missing Mass. “Too guilty to go to confession,” it took me into adulthood to get over that. But nothing to do with [being] gay.

[Cairo, Egypt was] where I dated the first guy. I always thought it would be gross for two guys to sleep together. I changed my mind about that! My Catholicism was kind of on hold. I was being quite sinful because I was so enthralled by this other guy. My academic year ended in Egypt [and] I went home and I was miserable because I still had feelings for him.

It was obvious to my family that I was sad. I’ve never been a depressive person, always a cheerful happy bouncy gabby person. So my mother said, “Is something bothering you?” “No, it’s jet lag, I’m just readjusting.”

My cousin John, this is when he was going through a hard time with his parents, and he talked about being gay. So [my mother] said, “Peter isn’t himself. He’s quiet and melancholy. I wonder if something terrible happened in Egypt.” And of course John busted out with, “I think he’s probably gay.”

So we broke up but then got back together again. My family was talking and somebody said, “What is eating Peter? He looks like his best friend died!” and my mother said, “I know what the issue is.” So everybody became “witting,” as they say in the intelligence world, and that’s when everyone thought it would be good to share shocking and gross stories [about their sexual misadventures] to make me feel better. [sardonic laugh]

There was never a point at which I thought my church and my orientation were opposed. I always knew what the Church’s teaching was. I bought “What the Church Teaches About Homosexuality” and it said desires, orientation, this is what’s not sinful, this is what is sinful.

There’s this typical guilty thing with Catholics. I started going to St. Matthew’s in Long Beach [Calif.], [with a] super priest, some nuns around. I went to daily Mass but was keenly aware that I wasn’t taking Communion. I felt horrible. I missed the church. [I thought,] “Sooner or later you’re gonna have to get your sorry ass into a confessional.” I didn’t want to have confession with a priest I knew. I wanted to go to the ends of the earth and confess to a total stranger. And I thought maybe a priest in West Hollywood would not be a total stranger to having a gay person walk into his confessional.

I wouldn’t repeat everything I said, of course, but I said something to the effect of, “It’s been a while.” By then I’d had relationships with a number of guys. And I just went through the whoooooole sorry tale. And of course he was one of these great priests who said, “God and the Church have been waiting for you and calling you back.” And I just knew, it just flooded back into me: “Now I know why I missed the church. Because this is the most prayerful thing.” That was the fall of ’89. And I just bounced out of the church, as you do.

That was one of the happiest days of my life. I pray for [that priest] every morning.

[When I wasn’t going to confession I felt like,] “How on earth, where do you start?” And I instinctively knew, “By telling the truth. These priests have heard everything, they’ve heard about murders.” But I didn’t have the nerve. And I paid for it by suffering. By feeling separated. But I didn’t care, to be frank; I was in my 20s and 30s having a lovely time, not terribly promiscuous but dating guys. It was fun. If I had talked to a Protestant I would be Catholic and argue Catholicism in the middle of my extremely unfaithful life, because I never lost that identification.

So the way I grappled with that was, “There’s no way [confession] isn’t going to be painful but am I sorry? Yes I am. Honestly contrite. The only thing the priest can get you on is if you’re not honestly sorry and you refuse to change your life. So I’m gonna humble myself because I know this is what I must do.” All the way I was raised and taught took me there. There was simply no alternative. So I did the confession frankly. It killed me, it killed me! It wasn’t just the sexual stuff. It was many things. So when he was just reassuring me and being kind it blew my mind. [I thought,] “This is home.”

So then I was traveling a lot and I fell away again from regular church attendance. I remained in my tiny little head a good Catholic—but not a very good Catholic. So that led to yet another confession where I had been away, years of non-attendance. And that was another wonderful priest. And that’s kind of it, I can’t think of anything else to say!

Do you worry about the future? The only concern I have for the future is being financially stable. My mother died at 104 in perfect health. If I’m going to live to that age I have to insure myself and invest wisely.

[But] in spiritual, Christian [terms], I don’t have any apprehension.

I’m not a worrier. I’ve maybe even said this in the confessional: It isn’t even that sin and temptation plague me. I’ve gone looking for them! But ultimately there are these deep, deep influences. And the Church is a part of every single one of those [influences from my family]. Obviously the charitable behavior; the endless infinite love and forgiveness, never holding a grudge; the always trying to be helpful. That’s my mother and father to a T. So you see what an advantage I had.

Do you think it’s harder now to be gay in the Church, with so much public pressure and controversy around these issues? I’m not old enough to remember adult gay closeted life. Like in the ’50s. That must have been hellacious. Now we have stuff like gay marriage, which I’m not [necessarily] on-board with, and people expect that you will be. We ask, “What is homophobia, what are microaggressions?” These are real First World problems, that some of our gay friends think we’re weird because we’re churchgoers. I can deal with that.

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