Busted Halo: It sounds like this was not a huge issue to your family when you came out of the closet, right?
Eve Tushnet: They were very, very supportive but also able to set boundaries and rules. Sort of basic stuff that I think they would do with any teens — like when I was dating this girl, she had to stay in a different room. Basically they didn’t use the fact that I was gay as an excuse to go completely hands-off in parenting.
BH: Were you sexually active? Is that something you explored?
ET: I guess it’s important since people do tend to assume if you’re celibate then it’s because you don’t care about sex. So yeah, [whispers] I was sexually active. Although I think we’ve now officially bumped up against the limits of what I’m comfortable discussing. [Laughs.]
BH: Do you think there’s something of God that is sexual?
ET: Bridal mysticism made sense to me as a way of understanding how I actually related to women. There’s this line that I constantly quote from Maggie Gallagher: “Of course Freud was right that civilization is sublimated eros, but then so is sex.” Sexual attraction itself is merely one expression of some very deep longing, in the same way that an individual tree is one instantiation of the “form of the tree,” so a lot of different forms of longing and attraction are in some way instantiations of the “form of” longing for God.
BH: Eros is popularly construed to mean erotic love. Is that a bit of a distortion of what philosophically eros truly is?
ET: The way that I generally talk about it, eros has to be directed toward a person — it can’t be directed toward a concept — and has to want union with that person without merging into that person, without dissolving the distinction between self and other, between self and beloved.
BH: What do your friends who are lesbians or gay men think about this?
ET: I have more gay guy friends than lesbians.
BH: Why is that?
ET: I don’t know. Some of them just sort of look at me and nod and smile and say, yeah that’s cute but whatever. And some people — like, I have friends who are gay who are trying very hard to live in accordance with the Church teaching and who are not for various reasons related to personality and upbringing — I mean, I have lived an amazingly charmed life in terms of the degree to which my experience with being gay has been overwhelmingly positive. Lots of people don’t have that, and that’s not their fault, it’s the fault of other people.
BH: And also religion, too, I mean, it sounds like when you came into the Church, were you not feeling that your sexual orientation was some kind of baggage or something to be denied? No?
ET: Not something to be denied. Because, again, I have this background — I was never bullied for being gay, my parents were totally supportive, so I had a lot of confidence and it was more like, why doesn’t this priest get it? Or, why can’t he explain it to me in a way that makes sense. I very much, because of my personality and upbringing, put the onus on other people.
BH: So politically it doesn’t sound like you align with either party necessarily. Do you vote?
ET: No, but I mean, that’s cheating for me because I live in DC. If I lived somewhere where my vote would make a big difference then I would feel bad about not voting and probably try harder to find something useful to do with my vote. As it is, it doesn’t really matter so who cares?
BH: There are a lot of spiritual but not religious people out there that we talk to — a lot of folks on that journey. What would you say to them?
ET: I’m not sure that there’s general advice that I could give other than the very basic: Find what you know that you love, and attempt to deepen your connection to that and to explore it in philosophical terms. To take a boring example from my own life, relating it to poetry: Okay, well why does that matter? Why is that interesting or important?
BH: Can you tell me who you’re really attracted to as a Catholic?
ET: Oscar Wilde. Throughout his life he was strongly attracted to the Catholic Church and attempted, after his release from prison at the end of his life, to enter, I want to say a monastery, but was turned down somewhat unsurprisingly, but did end up being received into the Church before his death.
BH: Was he not baptized as a child?
ET: He was, but he was never confirmed. He was actually secretly baptized by his mother if I recall correctly.
BH: Anyone modern?
ET: Well Dorothy Day, as I’ve mentioned.
BH: And what attracts you to her?
ET: I really loved her autobiography. I like radicals. I like that she was able to resist the modern state. I found that very attractive, and she consistently comes across as someone who is living her life in a sort of iconic bigger than life way. And that’s what I pretty much always love about saints.
BH: Do you think you could ever be a gay Catholic who is sexually active, or would that be a complete conflict?
ET: To be honest I don’t know how I would get there from here. I just kind of don’t see it. But no one can predict the future.
BH: Have you ever thought about entering religious life?
ET: [Laughs.] Mmm, well okay. I’m sorry to keep saying “it’s complicated,” but on the one hand I can’t really say I’ve ever considered it seriously because I’ve never met an actual nun.
BH: You’ve never met a nun?
ET: Never met a nun. Never in my life met a nun. I’ve seen nuns, but I’ve never so much shaken the hand of a nun.
BH: Well you realize when this interview comes out you’re going to get thousands of letters from orders that want you to join. We’d be more than happy to meet you, take you to dinner — have you over for the weekend, see what the life is like.
That kind of amazes me. I mean, seriously, how are you deeply involved with your church and there aren’t some nuns around somewhere, no?
ET: There are a lot fewer nuns than there were. I can’t really say this too strongly because I don’t really know anything about nuns. That said, I think I am the last person who would be good at taking a vow of obedience, which might be why I should do it, but that’s something I wouldn’t want to do unless I had to.
BH: That’s interesting. So is that something that maybe priest friends have said: Hey, you should think about this?
ET: I don’t think priests have, but yes, friends of mine have said you should consider being a nun. But, I don’t know, it’s just not real to me, which is again why I don’t think I can speak too strongly about it.
BH: Do you hope to do that for yourself some day? Like a partnership on some level?
ET: I don’t really know. There are a lot of complications that are introduced by this as well. For example, my best friend is straight, so one would not want to impose obligations that would in any way deter her from marrying, for example. There would be a lot of temptations towards jealousy or possessiveness.
BH: Which is understandable, but it’s very human in the sense that, when somebody becomes sexually attracted to another person, there is an element of — I mean clearly you don’t possess another person — but there is a sense of deep attachment, and it can be a good thing, it can be a healthy thing, I guess, the Church would say, when properly directed. Is that fair?
ET: Right, and that occurs within the “just friendship” as well. It’s a little harder to talk about, but even St. Ailred, if you read his dialogues on spiritual friendship, one of the monks that he’s talking to — one of the characters — is very clearly possessive of him and jealous of the other guy for getting to spend time with St. Ailred. And I think that that happens even in the absence of specifically sexual attraction.
BH: That initial rush of conversion is often very powerful. What’s it been like after that?
ET: There were the inevitable disappointments and crises, but luckily for me those happened fairly early on, and I kind of settled down in to day-to-day normal Catholicism.
BH: When you say crises, you mean crises of faith, crises of belief?
ET: Yeah, the two big ones were: One — possibly I just had the stomach flu, you know, you can never tell what prompts these things — but I had this very bad night where I was convinced that it was possible that poetry was just meaningless and if poetry was meaningless then obviously there was no God. This tells you a lot about what I was like in college. [Laughter.]
And then the other one was when a friend of mine who was gay and Catholic was very much struggling to try and live in accordance with the Church teaching and having a much harder time of it than I was. It’s often easier to feel resentment on someone else’s behalf because you can’t fault yourself for being selfish. And so it was very difficult for me to watch what he was going through.
BH: In terms of denying himself? Or he felt he was being persecuted by the Church?
ET: No, just emotional pain. Some degree of cultural and religious persecution insofar as his family was very unsupportive. But what that definitely did bring me to was: “Is what the Church asks cruel and unreasonable?” And even to this day I kind of don’t know what to tell people if they take that position. I try to point out ways in which you can live joyfully as an orthodox gay Catholic, but you just don’t see it, and I kind of don’t know what to say. And that was the longer and bigger crisis, and I was pretty lucky I think that while it was going on I didn’t actually “act on” any of my doubts or turmoil. I kept going to church; I kept going to Confession even though all this other stuff was going on. It was sort of like — you know, if you have something in your basement and you go to work and you do all the stuff you’re supposed to do and then you come home and you like tinker with the thing in the basement. That was kind of what I did with my crisis of faith. And that’s a really good strategy.
BH: When I talk to folks who are converts, there’s this coherence to the Church’s thought that’s kind of beautiful.
ET: I mean coherence is not the first word that springs to mind when I think of the Catholic Church, just because it’s so kind of wild and wooly. But I like the wild and wooliness.
BH: You think there are pastors out there really counseling gay people not to have close friendships?
ET: With people of their same sex because, what if you fall for them? Okay, well maybe we’ll deal with that when it happens! There’s so much fear.
BH: It sounds to me like you’re comfortable with your own sexual identity and as a Catholic, so is it safe to assume you accept the Church’s teaching that sex has to be both procreative and unitive?
ET: Yeah, I mean for me it’s much more complicated. Especially when I am less persuaded by the arguments. I need to be Catholic, and I accept that that means that the Church has teaching authority on this subject. And those were the few things I felt like I could defend, whereas the specifics of the teaching, not so much.
BH: So I’m assuming when you decided to convert you were up front about being a gay woman and it was not a problem?
ET: Yeah. Well, he was this very kind, generous Dominican who was very by the book and did his best to talk to me about why I shouldn’t be gay. And it was just very unsatisfying. I mean he was trying very hard. It’s very difficult in this culture for a heterosexual person to enter into the gay experience. Not that there’s one gay experience, but just that what this guy was saying about what it was to be a lesbian was so bizarre to me. The one thing that really stood out was that he said lesbian sex was like trying to open a door with a doorknob wrapped in barbed wire.
BH: So it’s kind of amazing that you became Catholic in spite of some of these things that were said to you.
ET: Well you have to keep in mind — I have a pretty strong sort of anti-clerical streak so I wasn’t really expecting much from it. I was hoping that I would ask this priest, and because he’s really smart and well trained he’ll be able to explain it, but when he couldn’t, I was like, okay well that’s pretty much what I was expecting.
BH: I’m assuming you’ve come across priests who identify themselves as homosexual since you’ve become Catholic?
ET: No, I’ve met one guy in that position but that was long after I had already become Catholic. I didn’t know any other gay Catholics at all at first. I didn’t really know what made me think I could do it when I didn’t know anyone else who was. But again I was in college, I was totally cocky, I thought I could do anything! [Laughs.]
BH: Do you think you’ve been in love before?
ET: It’s complicated because, you know, you can tell yourself all these stories in retrospect. You know, a guy who’s married meets this amazing woman and falls for her very hard but doesn’t do anything. And then later after fifty years of marriage he looks back and is like, Oh, that was such a silly little crush; I’m so glad I didn’t destroy my marriage over this. Whereas if he had met her ten years earlier when he was single, he could look back on the exact same events and emotions and say, this was the beginning of our great love story.