Because I’m a lesbian who accepts Catholic teaching in full, I spend a fair amount of time in an ecumenical, patchworky group or movement which some call “Side B.” That term has its own whole history, I don’t love it, but it’s a shorthand for LGBT+/same-sex attracted Christians who believe sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and do not believe that our orientation is something we need to hide or try to “cure.” You can learn more about Side B here, and if it intrigues you, I truly recommend checking out Revoice.
The other day, Bethel McGrew wrote an essay arguing that our approach has “failed,” and citing a lot of my own work as proof. I appreciate that McGrew included links to my writing when she quoted it, and tbh I think if you read the linked posts (rather than just her excerpts!) you’ll have a good sense of what I believe. But I hope I can add a couple useful notes. Lol this post took forever to write because I am hilariously ill with bronchitis or maybe pneumonia, so if there’s a patron saint of diseases Lenny Bruce makes fun of, please pray to that person for me! (And pray that I get an in-person doctor’s appointment asap.)
In what follows I’m speaking solely for myself, not for Revoice or anybody else. If you’d like an executive summary, or what the Youth call “tl;dr,” this isn’t bad.
McGrew criticizes a number of practices by which some “Side B” Christians have sought to show solidarity with gay communities or live out a call to love someone of the same sex. This suspicion is a pretty common reaction, and imho it’s a real barrier preventing same-sex attracted Christians from trusting in God’s love. People, with varying degrees of good intentions!, often act as though our goal is to get away with as much sketchy behavior as possible before somebody notices. Because they identify “being gay” with temptation to sin, they believe that anything we do to grow closer to gay communities, find beauty in gay cultures, or express our longings to love and make a life with someone of the same sex must be indulgence in temptation, or the result of rationalizing our temptations.
I became Catholic in college, because I fell in love with the Church. I know other people who are in some way affiliated with “Side B” would describe the source of their convictions differently, but for me, it has always been about my relationship to my Mother and Teacher, the Bride of Christ. (I know that isn’t technically mixing metaphors but it kind of feels like it is….) I longed for the Eucharist, “as the deer longs for running streams,” and I was willing to bow my head and do as I was bidden. My sexual renunciation has always flowed from a desire to be in communion with the Church: to live within Love.
And this perspective offered me a useful touchstone, a way of testing what I was doing. All of our loves and all of our cultures and communities are motley, made up of a mix of gifts and temptations. I have tried to use fidelity to the Catholic way (which I believe is Jesus the Way) as the sieve by which I sift gifts from temptations. It isn’t always quite so simple! And lol I’m not pretending I always get it right, or that I always act well even when I know what I oughta do. But it’s a better touchstone than, say, the culture around me, or other people’s expectations. Again and again I have discovered that my participation in gay communities and my experience of same-sex love can be guided–educated, not uprooted–by my faith. I have always sought to submit my will and intellect to the Church: not to put words in Her mouth, or assume that She takes sides in a culture war, but to listen and be guided. Again and again, God has shown me that He understands my longings better than I do, and will give me opportunities for ordered love which go beyond anything I expected. I’ve written many a time and oft about the Scriptural and historical precedents here, the many lesser-known forms of Christian love, so I won’t repeat myself.
I have learned so much about self-giving love from my partner. I’ve grown in my faith because I know her. (I really don’t think it’s wise to treat chastity as the purpose of love rather than vice versa, but I will also say that I’ve grown in chastity through our love, for many reasons.) And in spite of complex circumstances, and the losses that come with every life transition, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
I wonder if this is really the crux of it. I’ve read some of McGrew’s other writing about gay people. She is comfortable talking about the emptiness of gay promiscuity. She understands the kind of conversion caused by a revolt against that emptiness–Christ as the path out of the gay abyss. This kind of conversion is real; it’s also the kind most comfortable for the straight majority. It’s all about the bad stuff you, the gay person, did. McGrew glances at the idea that even promiscuity can be the result of damage from a homophobic society, but rejects it, so that only openly gay people are ever in the wrong. Whereas for many orthodox, celibate gay Christians, a perspective like Alan Downs’s has been helpful: You are responsible for your sins, and part of taking responsibility means addressing the ways you’re responding to trauma, isolation, and shame imposed by others. But that perspective suggests that maybe everybody has messed up here, and that gay people have information about the majority’s sins, rather than that gay people are uniquely disordered and can only receive rebuke from the wise majority. Similarly, McGrew doesn’t seem to engage much with the possibility that gay people can love each other in some lasting way, in pairs or as communities, and that therefore the God Who is Love might have some wisdom that would help us live out this love rightly.
It’s telling, I think, that her First Things essay refers to being gay as “carr[ying] a solitary sorrow.” For me, being gay has never been particularly solitary or sorrowful; and so, to the extent that my gay experience prepared me for conversion, it was conversion not as rescue but as deepening. The virtues I discovered in gay communities helped me understand love, and recognize Love when He came to me; the beauty I experienced in women prepared me for the absolute Beauty. It seems to me that “gay” and “straight” are both odd modern conglomerates which include a mix of temptations to sin and possibilities for love. “Side B” is a big umbrella, and there are many people under it whose spirituality centers on Jesus as the light in our solitude, the companion in our sorrow. I have needed that Jesus myself, especially in my sobriety. But I have found that “side B” people are open to the possibility that Jesus may also be found in shared joy.
My partner and I were at Mass several months ago. We were going up for Communion, and she turned around to see if I was following her, and smiled. That moment is what I hope for: that in our love, we’ll lead one another to Jesus in His Church–and delight in the journey.
Rainbow over a Methodist Episcopal church photographed by Kenneth V. Abbott and used under a Creative Commons license.