Why is Pope Francis The Advocate‘s ‘Person of the Year’?

Yesterday on my daily binge-reading of Advocate.com, the daily website of the country’s oldest LGBT newsmagazine, The Advocate, a headline caught my eye: The Advocate‘s Person of the Year: Pope Francis.” 

My heart sank and my brain nearly imploded. The leader of the most homophobic institution in the world with a “NOH8” logo splashed on his cheek? Really?

Pope Francis was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year last week, and that makes a little more sense to me. TIME speaks to a greater audience than The Advocate, for one. Pope Francis has undoubtedly said and done more decent things thus far in his papacy — acknowledged the worthy humanness of female convicts and LGBT folk, conjured an image of the Catholic Church as a church of healing and acceptance, etc. — than popes who came before him, and the man certainly has a lot of influence over the estimated 1,200,000,000 Catholics in the world. For TIME, that’s something worth noting. (Maybe not grand-prize-winner-something, but fine. I’m letting it go.)

But for The Advocate? Absolutely not. I’m deeply disappointed the staff felt otherwise.

I write this hesitantly because The Advocate has, and always will have, a little piece of my heart. It was the first place I ever turned to for gay news, the first publication that taught me LGBT media was both a legitimate field and a viable career path, and the first summer internship that offered real insight as to what I wanted to do with my life. If anything, my friends there taught me to question what I read and contribute to the conversation as best I can.

All year, we’ve talked about Francis as the most “LGBT-friendly” Pope in history. Among a host of shorter statements implying his greater tolerance for gays and lesbians, Francis most famously said to reporters in July, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” This line seems to have won Francis the most support in the LGBT crowd by implying that the Church would no longer look down upon them — even though that’s not really the case.

The Advocate‘s Lucas Grindley wrote:

The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know. In the same way that President Obama transformed politics with his evolution on LGBT civil rights, a change from the pope could have a lasting effect on religion.

This is a problematic comparison in a couple of ways. President Barack Obama, an elected official, made statements in full support of policy changes that served to improve the lives of LGBT people — the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (whose future remains uncertain) and the repeal of DOMA, to name two of the most prominent. Francis didn’t do that for us — and religion often works a lot like politics. Not once has he advocated for a change in the Church’s adherence to the Catechism, the doctrine that continues to describe homosexuality as a mental disorder, nor has he advocated for any change in the Church’s stances toward marriage equality, abortion, or contraception. (Quite the opposite, actually.)

Francis later followed up his quote with an explanation, which The Advocate also cited:

“During [a recent] return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

Again, media harped on those last few words without paying due diligence to the middle part of the quote. Pope Francis claims he was rephrasing the Catechism — the one that says we can be gay as long as we don’t act gay — by saying gays shouldn’t be judged. He was invoking the same “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality we’ve seen pervade religious circles for decades. Sure, it’s nicer than being specifically targeted and abused, but it’s certainly not emblematic of a year’s worth of progress. Not at all.

Look at the next part of Pope Francis’ statement:

He continued, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

True to his word, Pope Francis hasn’t used his biggest moments in the world spotlight to condemn LGBT people, as Benedict had done.

Again, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. “The teaching of the church is clear and I am a son of the church.” Translated: “My stance is the same as any other Pope’s, but I’m deliberately avoiding talking about social issues because my church is in the middle of a PR fiasco.” (Cheap shot? Maybe. But it’s true.) And sure, Francis hasn’t used his fame to gay-bash, but he hasn’t used it to promote greater inclusion for gays and lesbians within Catholicism, either, and that’s the kind of visionary leadership I’d want to see from an LGBT magazine’s Person of the Year. In fact, it seems clear to everyone that this might all be for show:

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring.

Daring? I’m not so sure. Rhetoric? That’s more like it. After a short laundry list of how past popes have failed LGBT people, we are reminded that the Person of the Year doesn’t actually support us:

Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today’s standard. He started his term by issuing a joint encyclical in July with Benedict, in which they reiterate that marriage should be a “stable union of man and woman.” It continues, “This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgement and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.”

This point is reason enough to toss out any other arguments in favor of praising Francis for his not-quite-contributions. In what other context would we honor someone who openly decries marriage equality as one of their first orders of business? Perhaps we hold the Pope to different standards — different, not higher — but it’s completely outrageous to Photoshop a “NOH8” logo onto the cheek of someone who says outright that LGBT people do not deserve equal rights.

Toward the end of the article, the author cited the LGBT Catholic group Equally Blessed, who were thrilled that anti-gay church leaders could no longer say that the Pope supported their discriminatory practices. (Arguable.) Here’s an interesting excerpt from their statement:

Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so, he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics.

“That may one day make it possible.” One day! Not today and not tomorrow and maybe not for another four or five or 20 Popes. Hinting at the beginning of a conversation that may take place decades (or more) down the road is not good enough for me.

Francis did not articulate change; he smiled for the cameras.

Perhaps he said what was in his heart, but the Catholic schools and hospitals and businesses that proudly discriminate against queer folks do not consider the Pope’s feelings in their decisions. They go by the books — those that the Pope refuses to discredit.

We must also note that The Advocate‘s Person of the Year is not actually gay (presumably). In a year when there was no shortage of options, why not select someone else more worthy of the distinction? There were queer people, trans* folks, and people of color who made incredible strides for the LGBT movement this year by coming out, or speaking out, or just doing a great job at life while being out. Jason Collins? Brittney Griner? Laverne Cox?

(Uncomfortably telling is that one of The Advocate‘s runners-up is Macklemore, the straight, white rapper who made a name for himself as an LGBT advocate with his pro-marriage-equality single “Same Love.” While he certainly contributed positive energy to the movement, hardly half a sentence is devoted to Mary Lambert, the actually-lesbian singer who accompanied Macklemore on the song’s mesmerizing chorus and released her own song, “She Keeps Me Warm,” of the same tune.)

Both TIME and The Advocate shortlisted Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old “matriarch of the gay rights movement” whose case against the federal government brought down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and helped same-sex couples take leaps forward toward equal rights. Truth be told, Edie should have won the title in both magazines. No one has been a more prominent icon in the years-long fight for marriage equality, particularly this year, and she owns the role with humility and gratitude. We need more Edie Windsors out there supporting us, and far fewer Popes.

Decades ago, when this movement was still in its infancy, it may well have been praiseworthy when a public figure said something nice about gays, even if the person’s actions didn’t back up their neutral-to-kind words. But times have changed, and there are too many incredible advocates out there to glorify those who have merely surprised us with their optimistic indifference. As Noah Michelson snarkily wrote for the Huffington Post Gay Voices this week:

  • If you have a gay friend (or sister or coworker or…) but still think that queer people should not be able to get married, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you’re fine with queer people as long as you don’t have to see them kissing or holding hands, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you don’t have anything against queer people but wouldn’t want a gay man leading your son’s scout troop, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you think that inside queer people there is anything lurking — however small — that causes us to have any less integrity or humanity than straight people have, then you are anti-gay.

The Advocate‘s Person of the Year should be someone who has done more than anyone else to amplify LGBT voices and stand up for our rights. While I wholly recognize and appreciate that Pope Francis has made statements that are uncharacteristically left-leaning for a Catholic figure, words aren’t enough. Edie and Mary and Laverne and hundreds of others live some element of the queer experience to the fullest, and they report back to the rest of us to show us how to make our surroundings better. That’s the kind of person I want to see on the cover of this magazine. That’s the kind of person who makes LGBT media worth preserving.

***Update****: One of the editors for The Advocate responded to our inquiry about how the decision was made (via email):

The Pope was not a unanimous decision; there was plenty of debate as to whether we should put a presumably straight man who has not exactly come out in full favor of LGBT rights as our person of the year. But we collectively agreed that we’re not saying Pope Francis is the most passionate ally of our time — we’re saying that his words, “Who am I to judge?” and other similar statements are a major shift in Catholicism… We named him Person of The Year because he has challenged both church leaders and parishioners to think about why they oppose LGBT rights, whether it’s worth the effort to do so when there are real problems the church must address, and whether being antigay is part of Christ’s teachings.

There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and there are countless other people who see the Pope as a legitimate, spiritual leader, no matter their personal beliefs. That’s one in seven people on the planet. While people observe Catholicism in varying degrees, there’s no doubt that the Pope’s sentiments are incredibly influential, especially among those people.

Nearly every major new news outlet in the world had watched intensely, as the Vatican chose a new Pope, immediately followed by intense punditry and reporting over his every move. The influence of the pope — and his words — is nothing to shake a stick at. People care about what he has to say, and as pointed out in Lucas’s article, his words are already influencing the church’s leaders to be even just slightly less hateful toward LGBT people. The church was integral in raising money in so many states to ban marriage equality — you have to wonder, had Pope Francis been in charge then, would that have been the case?

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.