Looking forward to a summer wedding, 28 year-old Ashley Dumas carried her wedding dress out of the closet and hung it on the door for all to see. Her partner, 26 year-old Jamie Levine, and their friends admired the gown for its simple linen cloth.
However, coming out of the proverbial closet has been anything but simple for this lesbian couple. Levine, a nursing student living in Massachusetts, remarked that “it is going to be a legal marriage now and it’s really stirred up my whole family.”
Levine’s family is not the only one that is “stirred up” about gay sexuality. The Catholic family as a whole also struggles with how to include its gay members within the faith tradition. As Solidarity Sunday and National Coming Out Day are celebrated on October 10th and 11th respectively, many gay Catholics painfully recall that both their families and faith communities often do not welcome them back to the table after they reveal their sexual identity.
“Bless me Father… for I am gay”
Brian Flanagan, a 27-year old doctoral student at Boston College, knew he was gay by the beginning of high school and began spending a good amount of time trying to keep it from other people. “I was already in sort of damage control mode” he now says.
At his all-male Catholic high school he was paranoid about being discovered. Feeling isolated with the heavy secret he carried, he decided to share his sexual identity with a campus priest during a Lenten confession. “He tried very hard to make me understand that being gay wasn’t something to be confessed, that it wasn’t something wrong” Flanagan says. “I remember walking back from the little chapel on campus to the dining hall on cloud nine that, finally, somebody else actually knew about this.”
Soon after, Flanagan came out to a few friends in high school but he did not share his sexual identity with his parents until college. Over lunch one day his father asked “You’ve been saying stuff about not getting married, does that mean you’re still thinking about becoming a priest? Or does that mean you’re gay?” Flanagan’s admission that he is gay was met with silence. “We just sat there with our hamburgers in front of each other for the next half an hour.” Though he laughs when he retells this story now, Flanagan admits, at the time, he went home crying.
It was the same high school priest Flanagan had originally come out to who eventually helped his parents understand their son’s sexual identity. “This is the same Brian that you already know, he’s got the same values that you’ve taught him” the priest told his parents. “This is a big new thing that you’ve learned about him but it’s not as though he’s changed his identity.”
The Devil made me do it
Though a Catholic priest was instrumental in helping both parent and child deal with coming out, it’s probably safe to assume—to borrow a phrase from faddish television diet infomercials—that, in Brian Flanagan’s case, ‘results are not typical .’ Not all church ministers
or churchgoers would be as welcoming of someone struggling to understand a homosexual orientation. For many gay people, their families’ faith is an obstacle to embracing their child’s sexual identity. Jamie Levine winces remembering the hours she spent tearfully coming out to her mother. But when her father found out and called to speak with Levine she became acutely aware of how difficult this was going to be. “It was the first time I had ever heard my dad cry” she recalls now with tears in her eyes. “He said that I wasn’t his little girl anymore. It was a heartbreaking conversation…”
Like her parents, many of Levine’s friends have also rejected her sexuality on religious grounds. Recently, Levine received this reply to her coming out from a friend she has known since she was three years old: “I think being gay is a choice to sin that humans make because the devil tricks people into thinking that they are born that way or that it’s ok….I will pray for you and that you and Ashley have a change of heart…I hope you can both overcome this temptation from the devil.”
Always Our Children
Pastoral Document from U.S. Catholic Bishops.
Largest national organization that supports gay Catholics in affirming gay sexual expression.
Organization that supports gay students in religious schools.
Organization that supports gay Catholics in following Catholic teaching that does not permit gay sexual expression.
National Association of Gay and Lesbian Ministries
Network that supports Catholic Ministries for the gay Catholic community.
New Ways Ministry
Organization and educational center that supports gay Catholics, families and friends.
The Paulist Center
Catholic parish with a gay support group.
Levine initially finds herself at a loss for words when she re-reads the letter, but she later remarks, “Neither the Catholic Church nor the Bible say anything about the devil leading people to homosexuality…being gay is who I am and who God created me to be…”
Flanagan agrees that being gay is not something people choose. A self-described moderate conservative he admits “I think if I weren’t gay myself, I would probably be one of the people who is most concerned about homosexuality.” But from his experience, he believes that being gay is how God created him and “that must be a good thing.”
Indeed, while the Catholic Church continues to take the stance that a homosexual inclination is “disordered” and homosexual practice is immoral, it consistently affirms the inherent goodness of all of God’s creation. In a pastoral letter to parents dealing with issues around a child coming out of the closet, the bishops of the United States wrote in 1997, “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual. God’s love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it.”
Still, Flanagan understands that it may be hard for the Catholic Church to accept his sexual identity. “This is a new moment in the history of how Christianity understands itself and how people understand themselves and their sexuality” he says. “This isn’t a small change in our way of understanding relationships.”