Lesbian, Catholic and Celibate

Eve Tushnet discusses conversion, the theology of friendship and her argument against gay marriage


At a time when the issues of homosexuality and religion are creating enormous rifts and clearly defined factions within many faith communities, Eve Tushnet is a category unto herself. The freelance writer and blogger became aware that she was gay at around age 13 and felt very supported by her parents. (Dad is a Harvard law professor and her mother is an attorney involved with issues surrounding the prison-industrial complex.) Then, having been raised in a Reform Jewish/secular household, she encountered a philosophical debating society while she was an undergraduate at Yale, and the conversations and debates she engaged in there eventually led her to convert to Catholicism.

Now, at age 32, Tushnet is a unique voice in the discussion of religion and homosexuality. She very openly embraces her sexual orientation but is celibate and advocates against same sex marriage. She is the darling of numerous church conservatives but is also a great admirer of radical pacifist and Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day. Ultimately, however — as our discussion below indicates — simple labels and categories are unhelpful with regard to Tushnet , whose greatest commitment appears to be to an “ethos to pursue truth wherever it takes you, and then live up to that no matter what it costs.”

Busted Halo: The philosophical debating society at Yale, the Party of the Right, had a huge impact on your thinking. What was so compelling about that experience?

Eve Tushnet: It was very obvious to me from fairly early on that this group had an ethos to pursue truth wherever it takes you, and then live up to that no matter what it costs.

I knew a bunch of people who converted to various religious beliefs or away from other religious beliefs in which they’d been raised and who had pretty serious breaks with their parents as a result.

I think, as with any really intense intellectual community, it catered to people who were already dissatisfied with themselves and the world around them—and their education. [Laughs.] I was not yet in any way equipped to articulate my beliefs in general. I had that dissatisfaction with the self and world, which I think is the driving force of philosophy in general, and this very weird group in particular.

BH: So this sense of dissatisfaction was not with your sexual orientation? You felt comfortable with that but in deeper terms you felt you weren’t the person you could be?

ET: I do think a lot of the sort of childhood alienation that I felt was probably related to my sexual orientation in some way, but not in the sense of feeling that it was bad. And this is why it was such a relief to realize I was gay because it was like, “Oh, well this explains the entirety of the alienation and dissatisfaction, and it’s something that I don’t think is wrong,” so that was a huge relief. And that’s not completely true insofar as there was a lot of inadequacy left that was not covered by general childhood alienation.

I really didn’t — to some extent still don’t — understand the Church’s arguments surrounding sexuality… There are times when I think I get them, like, Oh, okay, now I know how this works. And then there are some times when I’m like, No, I’m still not persuaded on a sort of rational, philosophical level — I’m accepting this because it’s the rule. And that was very much how I came into the Church — I was like, I don’t get this at all but I really need to be Catholic, so, oh well.

BH: So what brought you from the Party of the Right to Catholicism?

ET: A lot of small pieces and some large things kind of converged. The small things were that I had all these misconceptions about Christianity in general — probably Catholicism in particular. I was very allergic to the language of sin. It seemed to me that it was a way of telling people that they were bad or unclean. And having people say no, that’s not right, let’s think about this differently, was very important. The group included the first people I met who were Catholic who wanted me to be Catholic too.

BH: Was it an evangelical sort of zeal?

ET: It was more like they knew they were right, as with everyone in this group . [Laughs.] They had this position so they wanted you to see it because it was true. So the same way that the Objectivists wanted you see what was so awesome about Ayn Rand, you know, the Catholics wanted you to see what was so awesome about the Catholic Church. And the Ayn Rand thing never did anything for me, whereas the more the Catholics talked, the more what they said resonated with some things I already believed and some things I was really struggling with, specifically the emphasis on the importance of things in the world, of art and stuff. You know, a tree is super-important if you’re Catholic. It has been charged with some sort of specific meaning given to it by God. And that totally resonated with me as someone who loves literature , and I think also as a lesbian. I spent a lot of time thinking about what is it about women that is important to me? And one of the Catholic answers is that you are privileged to be able to see at times glimpses of the image of God in which these women were created, and that really resonated. I was like, “Yeah, I think that’s actually kind of true.”

BH: Did any Jewish members try to make an argument about Judaism for you?

ET: There was one — one of the smartest people I have ever met in my entire life — who was working through a very complicated journey from secular libertarian to, ultimately, Orthodox Jew. And one of the moments that stands out — I really remember this as being important to my conversion — was that he had an argument with another guy about Jesus and the crucifixion. I don’t remember the Jewish argument because I was so struck by not only the Christian argument that this other guy was making but, specifically, the fact that I knew that the intellectual way through acuity would probably favor the Jewish guy. So the fact that I was less convinced by that was very striking to me. After that I asked this guy, who ended up becoming my godfather, “I was really struck by what you were saying,” and I think I said something really rude like, ” Where did you get that?”

He told me very basically it’s the argument that Anselm makes in Cur Deus Homo which is basically just that, in order for justice and mercy to be fully satisfied, one who is both God, and therefore able to make an infinite and free sacrifice which we are not able to make, and yet also fully man, therefore able to participate in our life, has to be sacrificed for sin.

The more I explore Catholic history and devotional writing and stuff like that, the more awesome things I find. It’s kind of heartbreaking because there’s so much that contemporary Catholics don’t know about… I think that if people knew more about the faith and about Catholic history, they would be less afraid of experimenting and saying things that are not immediately intelligible to Mrs. O’Grady in the pew, like, it’s okay to be weird. It’s okay to do things that have not been approved by your parish priest.

BH: What was so powerful about that argument?

ET: It played so strongly on the need for justice, which is something I was totally convinced of, in part because of having a very left wing Jewish upbringing where justice is kind of a buzz word, but usually used in terms of getting the bad guys — the other people. And I was convinced that that was great and necessary, but was also sort of thinking, but, well, what if I’m the bad guy? What does justice require from me? And to hear that what it requires from you is that you participate in Christ’s death on the cross was like, oh, that’s not something I would have thought of, but seemed to acknowledge both the impossibility of my making full amends or reconciliation for what I had done wrong, and yet nonetheless giving me something I could do. It was part of what led me into getting baptized.

BH: What were the reactions to your getting baptized?

ET: Certainly I was not accurate in guessing which relationships would be most damaged by my conversion, but I did know that that was going to happen. I think I thought that relations with my family would be worse than they ended up being by a lot, and I drastically underestimated the difficulties it would present in maintaining relationships with my friends. It’s been an ongoing process of figuring out how much Catholic stuff people will put up with from me.

BH: How have you dealt with that?

ET: I always loved, in the Easter readings, the, “We were baptized into Christ’s death,” in part because that was kind of what it felt like . [Laughs.] It was a conversion, and baptism specifically was a very emotionally fraught time in my life, and so having that sense of, No, it doesn’t matter what the consequences of this are, you just have to do it, was very powerful. And of course I knew in the end there would be a lot of other opportunities to sacrifice, which I was not thrilled about but was willing to do.

BH: In what ways?

ET: Like, how does the very abstract idea of entering into Christ’s sacrifice play into daily life? College was the most bisexual I’ve ever been Even though I was interested in guys in college, it was still very clear to me that if I ended up falling for a girl, that that would be a problem with entering the Church as well. That was something that I thought a lot about before becoming Catholic. In part because I really didn’t — to some extent still don’t — understand the Church’s arguments surrounding sexuality.

BH: Oh you don’t? In some of the pieces of yours I’ve read I assumed that you accepted them.

ET: Acceptance but not — they don’t make any sense. There are times when I think I get them, like, Oh, okay, now I know how this works. And then there are some times when I’m like, No, I’m still not persuaded on a sort of rational, philosophical level — I’m accepting this because it’s the rule. And that was very much how I came into the Church — I was like, I don’t get this at all but I really need to be Catholic, so, oh well.

BH: You seem very comfortable with your sexual identity, but you clearly don’t feel you should act on it. Do you struggle with that?

ET: I struggle to understand it. Not totally sure I struggle to reconcile with it. And a bit of language that I would challenge is the idea that to act on being a lesbian is to have sex with a woman. I think there are a lot of things I do in life that are in some way a result of me being a lesbian, and to me that means that I’m acting on it, even if that turns out to be counseling women with unplanned pregnancies. One major reason I wanted to go into that is because I knew that I had some kind of specific vocation to serve women and that this was a way of doing that. I prefer to think of it as alternative expressions of lesbian desire, rather than not acting on it at all.

BH: A lot of gay people are going to say, “she’s just self-hating,” “she just can’t fall in love,” or, “she’s afraid of sex.” What do you say to that?

ET: Well there’s nothing you really can say. People are going to project that on to you. You can say, no, that’s not true, but you can’t convince someone that you have a heart.