I experience a lot of emotional situations in my work. I’m a clergy person, and I sit with people as they wrestle with questions of life and death. I’m an activist, and I have had more than my share of tense and scary moments on the streets. But tonight’s panel on religion and LGBTQIA+ issues, convened jointly by PFLAG St. Charles and Growing American Youth was one of the most intense emotional roller-coasters of my life, and I sit here crying hot tears, my belly clamped with restrained rage, my head buzzing with hope.
Let me set the scene. We’re in a meeting room provided by Youth in Need, “a nonprofit child and family services agency that is dedicated to building positive futures for the community’s most vulnerable children, teens and families.” In front of the room are tables set in a row, to seat a panel of clergy representing five religious perspectives: a legendary local rabbi; a passionate and sophisticated Reverend of the Episcopal church; a United Church of Christ minister steeped in liberation theology; a conservative Catholic Priest and theologian; and me, the atheist clergy serving a Humanist congregation. In the audience, a full house of more than 60 people brought together by their relationship either with PFLAG (Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays), or Growing American Youth (a major support organization for queer and questioning youth in the St. Louis area), or both.
This was a queer crowd, and we were here to discuss queer stuff.
The panel got underway with a gorgeous exploration of the best of the Jewish faith and tradition, a rousing and personal account of how this Rabbi had come to understand the struggle of LGBTQIA+ people, and make it her own. It continued with equally progressive and affirming expressions from the (gay, married) Episcopal rector and the UCC minister. Then we got to the Catholic Priest, and the feeling in the room shifted. There was a palpable sense of tension as he began to give the orthodox Roman Catholic position on same sex attraction and relationships: sex is reserved for marriage, marriage is between a man and a woman, therefore same sex couples cannot have sex. He said he thought same sex sexual relationships were sinful. He detailed the group he works with, “Courage”, “an international apostolate of the Catholic Church, which ministers to persons with same-sex attractions,” encouraging us to remain “chaste.” And then he passed the mic to me.
People who don’t experience oppression might not understand how things like this affect me. When I hear someone giving a homophobic perspective, my body goes into an immediate defensive mode. I have a physiological reaction. My muscles tense, my head gets buzzy, I breathe shallower and faster, I get hot. If I can’t get it under control I am liable to go full Hulk Smash and just wreck someone – rhetorically, of course. But in this instance, while making my passionate disagreement with Fr. Priest clear, I think I kept it fairly restrained. I even praised him for the courage of being willing to address an audience which he knew would likely be hostile to his views! I was trying to be nice!
Then we took questions from the audience, and the floodgates opened. A lesbian woman spoke, in constant tears, about how she felt betrayed and let down by the Catholic Church. An older man questioned why, if the Church could change its stance on the existence of Limbo, it couldn’t change its stance on LGBTQIA+ people. A woman asked what Fr. Priest was going to do, himself, to make his own congregation more welcoming to queer people.
And the youth. The youth, all floppy dyed hair, and backwards baseball caps, and irrepressible passion, and heaving pain, and undimmable hope. They just spoke their truth. They asked about the Pope, and how he reconciled the Pope’s remarks with his strict stance (Fr. Priest said he didn’t think the Pope should speak to the press, and that he had a tendency to pop off in front of the mic. For real.) They talked about how the Catholic church had made them want to kill themselves every day, telling them that homosexuality was the worst of all sins and that they would go to hell. They talked about how the Church should find beauty and strength in difference – even if that difference is not sanctioned by dogma. One gay youth even thanked the Priest for coming and sharing his views because he, barely out of childhood, has compassion and empathy massively beyond anything the Priest was showing him in return.
Running through the audience statements was raw suffering. These were testimonies of agony, of spiritual and psychological Crucifixion, and they were directed toward the one representative on the panel espousing a conservative theological viewpoint. It was intense.
For a moment, I felt sorry for him. He had walked into a space which he surely must have known would be hostile to his views, yet he had the courage to stand firm in his beliefs. There is something admirable in that. But then he made three unforgivable mistakes.First, he made it all about his feelings: “I’ve been attacked for 25 minutes! I’m never coming to an event like this again!” Hell. No. Kids just said your church made them want to die, and your response is “Don’t be mean to me?” HELL NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Second, he claimed that the Roman Catholic Church is no longer doing violence to LGBTQIA+ people. That is garbage. I couldn’t restrain myself from reminding him that the Archdiocese of St. Louis only recently made a statement objecting to the inclusion of trans children in the Boy Scouts, calling them “girls struggling with gender dysphoria” – a form of rhetorical violence which leads precisely to the feelings of isolation and self-disgust, which metastasize into suicidal thoughts, which one of the young people had spoken about. This is to say nothing of the practices of Catholic schools and agencies which regularly reinforce the idea that queer people are disordered and sinful.
Third, he said there is nothing that can be done if queer people want to kill themselves. If people want to kill themselves, he said, there’s really nothing he can do about it, and they are obviously struggling with other psychological issues which drive them to that. He tried to deny any link between the rhetoric and practices of the church and the self-immolation of LGBTQIA+ people while people in the room were giving living witness to that very link. To say I was stunned by the callousness of this remark is to underestimate my outrage by orders of magnitude.
I want to be fair to Fr. Priest. I know how it can be extremely difficult to face criticism you perceive as hostile, and that people get flustered and upset and say things that they do not mean. But there was something so revealing about this moment, first because it shows how twisted some religious approaches to morality are, when they put dogmas above people. And second because it showed a total lack of understanding of what was going on in the room. Because the truly tragic thing, the wrenching thing, was that many of the speakers were not hostile to Catholicism. They were Catholics, raised Catholic, they went to Catholic school. They were people with a deeply ingrained Catholic identity, one which Rabbi Talve described to me as almost ethnic in character – a sense of religious self-identity I as a non-religious person find hard to understand, but definitely present in that room. They wanted to be Catholic again, some of them: and Fr. Priest missed that yearning, and failed to connect with their pain, so enthralled was he by an inhuman dogma. Tonight a rabbi was pastor to these struggling Catholics while their priest abandoned them.
What do I learn from this?
First, there are some truly remarkable clergy in St. Louis: people of courage and conviction who unapologetically spread a Gospel of love, inclusion, and celebration. I would be delighted were a queer child of mine to find their way to their congregations.
Second, traditional religion, in my sincere belief, can never be a true haven for queer people. The legacy of pain is too deep, and the danger of elevating God over people is too great. In my mind, queerness will always be fluid and transgressive, the opposite of dogma and tradition. Only radically reformed religious movements can harness queer energy and give full life to queer people.
Third, there is something deeply wrong about any philosophy which becomes closed to human suffering. When people express to you their pain, your role is to hear what they are saying and to move immediately to try to relieve the pain. You do not argue or debate or shift the blame: you stop what you are doing which is hurting people.
Fourth, I truly love my work. It is my calling. I was so proud tonight to represent a truly affirming congregation which celebrates LGBTQIA+ people and says no to deadening and destructive theologies which demean life. Humanism, at its best, is an exuberant philosophy of life, calling for celebration, joy, and exaltation of the person over stultifying creeds of death.
Fifth, we have so much work to do. All around the country, and the world, LGBTQIA+ people need support, love, and community. Even just outside liberal St. Louis, there are young people who need to be seen and affirmed because their schools are not safe, their churches are not welcoming. (Of course this is true in the city as well.)
Sixth, and finally, there is so much cause for hope. There was profound love, and community, and strength-despite-suffering in the room tonight, fostered by groups like PFLAG and Growing American Youth. That is where I find spiritual nourishment: among the battered souls of my queer family, singing our song despite the winds which try to drown us out. We are not going anywhere, and we will be heard.