I Wish I Knew How to Quit You: One Bisexual Catholic’s Relationship to the Church
Editor’s Note: Many of us love our faith tradition for what it tells us about ourselves, but just as often, our faith can wound us. This reflection comes from the Catholic spouse of a UU, who has experienced welcome in UU spaces in relation to his bisexuality, while feeling distanced by his Catholicism. In this heartfelt reflection, George articulates the importance of interfaith, multicultural approach to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) ministries UU spaces.
“Three. That’s three to two. Wait, three. Now it’s three to three.”
I’m sixteen years old, I’m a Catholic altar boy serving Mass, and I’m playing what’s become a familiar, stressful game in my head during Communion.
“Six. Seven. Eight. Six. That’s six to eight. Seven. Seven to eight.”
It would go on like this for the duration of Communion, a running tally in my head, designed to keep score and let me know just how damned I was—that day, at least.
I was counting up people in line, people my own age, mostly, whom I found attractive. And I was keeping score between boys and girls.
It was a way to pass the time, of course, while standing there holding out the plate to catch the Eucharist if it dropped—this was back in the days before many, if not most, people started receiving the Eucharist in their hands.
But it was also a way of seeing just how gay I was. And, therefore, since I was a Catholic, just how damned I was.
I didn’t always like the way the score came out on any given Sunday.
Back then, at age 16, in the mid-1980s, I had no concept whatsoever that I was something called “bisexual”—the term didn’t exist in my lexicon. It wouldn’t come into my awareness, my worldview, my sense of self, until years later. Haltingly, at first, in college, and then fully in graduate school.
I thought I was either straight with some attractions to boys and men, or that I was gay with some attractions to girls and women. Neither of these made sense to me, but the theological implications of the latter were supremely troubling.
I’d tried Confession, of course, and tried resolving to repudiate these attractions and inclinations to boys thereafter each time, never to fantasize about them or act on them again. But I’d known since my first crushes at the age of 9 that that was going to be an impossibility. When I was younger, I was merely smitten by cute Mark or cute Nancy; at 16, though, the opportunities for acting on these attractions were real and growing.
As many sixteen year olds do, I took these opportunities. And, as many sixteen-year-old Catholics back in my day did, I confessed them.
I was told I was going to Hell. Particularly for what I did with boys. “You’re breaking Jesus’ heart,” one older priest told me, “with your insistence on acting on your sickness.” I was technically forgiven of my sins, but since I neither truly repented them, nor could I successfully resolve to avoid committing them in the future, I knew I was damaged goods.
Reading around in Catholic doctrine, I came across the concept that I was, like all those experiencing same-sex attractions, “fundamentally disordered.”
That made sense. I sure felt disordered. And despised, disowned, discarded, by the faith and the Church that was my home and my family’s home.
I stopped being an altar boy shortly thereafter. I felt like a fraud, ready to be found out. That feeling would last well into adulthood. The closet—whether the literal one of the confessional booth or the metaphorical one—is a frightening, vulnerable place.
Fast forward to my college years. Like my two elder sisters, I attended a Jesuit school, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. There, my faith deepened, and along with it came my sense of commitment to social justice work. I became active in the Campus Ministry and in the campus chapter of Pax Christi, the Catholic Peace movement.
I became radicalized, to a degree, by reading the teachings of the heroes of the Catholic left: Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, St. Francis of Assisi, and the liberation theology writings of Gustavo Gutierrez and many others. I read feminist Catholic books and readings on Catholic environmentalism and environmental justice. My lay and religious professors and my mentors, include the College’s first female lay Chaplain, encouraged and strengthened these pursuits, this knowledge, this action, this deepening of my faith.
I don’t remember coming across a single positive mention of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities. “Queer” itself was just barely being reclaimed by the academy and activists—at Holy Cross in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was still a slur. Certainly, I encountered no queer theology in any formal way.
So my bisexuality—for I was beginning to understand that was the name it deserved—was walled off from the rest of my faith. I no longer thought only of the Church as a punitive institution, but saw it as a potential force for good in the world with a rich history of social justice action on behalf of the poor, in particular, and against oppressive regimes. It just couldn’t do much good for me.
I knew the Church still regarded me as fundamentally disordered.
And I still counted up my attractions in my head, now sitting in the pew at Mass after Communion, still took my personal sexual damnation index.
During one mostly silent retreat—the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola—in my junior year, I confessed my sexuality and past sexual activities with both guys and girls to a Jesuit. We were calling it “The Sacrament of Reconciliation” by then, not Confession, which was appropriate: I was attempting to reconcile myself to the Church, and to myself.
He looked at me (no more plastic barriers between Confessor and supplicant) and simply said to me, “There are far more important things Jesus wants you to do in this world than worry about this too much. Have you hurt or coerced anyone?”
“Then follow your heart authentically and it will always bring you back to God. You are as He made you. Don’t repeat what has brought you or others harm; beyond that trust in God’s plan unfolding over time. And do His work. What else should we talk about?”
That conversation probably kept me as an active participant in the Catholic Church, and frequent Mass-goer, for another 10 years. It was a gift, and a benediction.
And yet: it was not Church Doctrine. I was still fundamentally disordered according to the Vatican, no matter what a kind, enlightened Jesuit priest said. And I knew this, even when I spoke with my sisters at my father’s funeral Mass, even when I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after college, and even, eventually, when my wife and I were married in the Chapel at Holy Cross when I was 27. I was still damaged goods.
My own personal theology of my sexuality evolved over time, and as I moved into graduate school and out of young adulthood I read more and more about bisexual and queer history, and queer theory in various fields of academia. I came to a strong secular sense of my bisexuality, and became comfortable in that skin, so much so that I was able to begin coming out to people in my life in my mid-twenties, including to the woman whom I would later marry.
In my faith life, I came to believe that God had indeed created me as bisexual, that this was not a mistake or a disorder, that this was tremendous gift and blessing, as all sexualities and gender identities are in their various ways.
I came to think of my bisexuality as a “super power”—an inclusive, open way of looking at the world and relating to people of all genders that others didn’t have, like being able to see in the full range of color instead of muted tones. I found some Catholic writers actively “queering the Church” and took comfort and strength in their writings, and found histories of the Church that uncovered traditions of same-sex attractions and relationships being honored within it.
But these were outliers in Catholic discourse, and not the official doctrine by a long shot. The Church as it was presented in the mainstream experience was still almost proudly, unremittingly, homo/bi/transphobic. As I tried out various different parishes at this point in my life—my 20s and 30s and early 40s—nothing felt like home, except in the most traditional sense. I could not imagine discussing my sexuality, and its impact on my faith life, to any priest I encountered at the local parishes in Brighton or Waltham, MA, where I lived during these years, nor at my “home” parish on the east end of Long Island, where my mother was still an active parishioner of deep faith. And I kept myself in the closet from some of those I was closest to, my family, in part because of the Catholicism we shared.
And yet, I couldn’t truly leave, couldn’t renounce my Catholicism any more than I could renounce my sexuality. I went to Mass less and less often—and walked out during one particularly prejudicial homily during the period just after the Massachusetts State Supreme Court made same-sex marriage here legal—but still thought of myself as a “kind of” Catholic.
Through my wife, who worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association and was becoming increasingly involved in our local UU parish, I did learn of other religious communities that would have welcomed me as a bisexual man. Both the UU and UCC communities were LGBTQ+ positive and had a long and honorable history of having been so. When I would join Mary at some UU services, I would look at the rainbow stole sometimes worn by a minister and know I wouldn’t have to be a fraud in these spaces, wouldn’t have to wall of my sexuality from my faith. I wouldn’t be considered fundamentally disordered.
So why didn’t I join? Why haven’t I still?
It’s hard to articulate. Part of it is that I would feel it a final repudiation of my first faith home, the Catholic Church, and all of the familial and social justice associations I have with that. In the wake of my mother’s recent death that would be particularly painful; I feel more connected to the Church through her passing than I have in years. I would feel like I was committing a kind of betrayal.
(Some of my queer friends, self-described as “ex-Catholics,” tell me I’m suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome on this point, feeling affection and loyalty toward an abusive home; that may be so.)
Another reason for my hesitation to join the Unitarian Church is, frankly, that I’ve perceived a certain sense of self-righteousness therein regarding former Catholics, a certain required glee over those who’ve left that Church to come into UU spaces, and it’s off-putting. No one likes to be made to feel they’ve been wrong most of their life. But I have been greeted by Unitarian Universalists who’ve “congratulated” me on “recovering” from Catholicism.
There’s a paradox, I sense: I could be fully myself in terms of my sexuality in the UU Church, but not in terms of the history of my faith life. The Catholic Church may have no room for my bisexuality, but the Unitarian Universalist Church seems to have no room for my history of Catholicism.
I must note that, despite this concern, when I began coming out to my family at last three years ago in my mid-forties, I turned to a Unitarian Minister for counseling at a particularly tough time in that process. On one of the most difficult days of my life, he, a gay man and UU minister, was there for me; and it didn’t even occur to me to reach out to a Catholic priest. I will forever be grateful to him, just as I am to that Jesuit in confession more than two decades ago.
Where do I go from here? I don’t know. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the tragic bisexual romance Brokeback Mountain, I feel a binding love for something that might be damaging to me and that I may never really be able to be happy with; I just don’t know how to quit the Catholic Church. There’s a kind of spiritual agony in this.
And, like any rejected lover, I’m always on the lookout for signs of hope, whether that hope is justified or not. Of late, I’ve taken great solace and hope from the work of Fr. James Martin, S.J., in his efforts to build a bridge and open a dialogue between the Church and its LGBTQ+ members and former members. (I’ve also noted the pushback he’s gotten with despair, though note that it has not—to date—come from the Church hierarchy itself. Perhaps there is room for hope?) Fr. Martin’s work and his example are, along with a sense of fealty to my mother’s memory, keeping me in the Church these days.
So what do I, as a bisexual man who’s still nominally Catholic, need or want from Unitarian Universalists?
First, keep up the great work on behalf of LGBTQ+ people. Your history in these efforts is rich and you should be proud of it; keep it coming, both within and outside your community.
Second, please specifically weigh in and support the efforts of Fr. Martin and other Catholics like him. Show him you’ve got his back, ecumenically speaking. It’s great that your own house is relatively in order on these issues—can you lend a broom to those of us trying to clean up our own? Your support will help.
Finally, try to make sure that those of us who are Catholic or were raised Catholic and are struggling with that identity know that we are welcome in your community with that faith history in tow. Show us you have room for our baggage, that we will not be required to repudiate our past in order to find our future with you, should we so choose.
I live in hope, for now, that my home Church will change within my lifetime in its treatment and embrace of LGBTQ+ people. In my wildest fantasies, somewhat bolstered by the comments of Pope Francis, the Doctrine with change such that I will no longer be considered fundamentally disordered, damaged goods, that my Church will see me and love me for all the ways God created me.
In the meantime, I take solace in the fact that in my personal experience of the Church, at least, I long ago stopped trying to tally how damned I am. Jesus, I now know, has more important things for me to worry about.