When he saw I was reading Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith a friend commented, “I can’t understand why you’re reading that: you’re Orthodox.” Of course he said that without fully understanding the differences or similarities between the two Churches: and in the area of “Teh Gay” they are very similar indeed. While Orthodoxy doesn’t say we are “intrinsically disordered” (or even use the same sort of legalistic language) our Church is quite clear
Homosexuality is to be approached as the result of humanity’s rebellion against God, and so against its own nature and well-being. It is not to be taken as a way of living and acting for men and women made in God’s image and likeness… Those instructed and counseled in Orthodox Christian doctrine and ascetical life who still want to justify their behavior may not participate in the Church’s sacramental mysteries, since to do so would not help, but harm them.
OCA Encyclical on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life
So I read Gay and Catholic because I live in the same world as Eve: a same-sex attracted person living in a community that asks celibacy of all members not living within the bonds of Sacramental Marriage (between one man and one woman). The Orthodox Church’s primary argument is for salvation – is this thing salvific, ie, will it lead to the salvation of this person here. While that may sound way more liberal than the legal language of disorder, the Church’s teaching is clear: giving in to same-sex attraction as with all temptation is a result of a breakdown in the image of God. Please note: this is not a commentary on Same-Sex Attraction, per se. Being so tempted is not a sin. We are all sinners. The same encyclical letter cited above counsels Same-Sex Attracted people to “…seek assistance in discovering the specific causes of their homosexual orientation, and to work toward overcoming its harmful effects in their lives.” Notice we’re not urged to “get fixed” or “become straight” but rather to overcome the harmful effects. It is in seeking that, that I read this book.
Eve’s linking of her experience as a Lesbian with her Alcoholism was joy to read. Not that one caused the other, but rather that she saw the parallels. Her healing process on one topic parallels the other. This was something I learned working in a rehab clinic in North Carolina. The OCA document as well, seems to agree, saying, “People with homosexual tendencies are to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them.” It’s like the first step of a twelve step process. You have to admit there’s an issue to fix before you can work on it. Eve see’s coming out of the closet – being public with her same-sex attraction – as an important step. But it is at this point (which was about 2/5 of the way through the book) that something began to change in my reading. I’m not sure if it was there for Eve or just me.
Any reaction to a book will have good and bad spots: I only had a couple of issues with the book, but I think they are major ones. I want to say here, first – before going into the bad – that I loved the rest of the book. Enjoy the “controversy” but don’t miss the rest of the reflection!
I really have a huge problem with saying “I am gay”. I’m not saying I stay in the closet – I’m certainly out in every part of my life where I have any control over it. But I think the reality is that I “feel” gay: not that I “am” gay. I know that some groups are always trying to pin homosexuality on genetics which would make it like eye color and even more hardwired than race, but sexuality as we understand it in the first world really is a first world problem. History seems to indicate that people with same-sex attraction got married and were culturally straight all their lives with little or no harm. It’s only today with our focus on individuality and “freedom” (meaning, rather, license) that we allow for and expect people to act on every little feeling they have inside. I “am” gay because I like sex with guys as I “am” a carnivore because I love bacon. I can be a vegetarian – but I’d still love bacon. I can even be an “ethical vegan” opposed to the anthropocentric use, objectification and slaughter of other living creatures – but still admit that the taste of bacon is one that I love. I “am” gay rather as I love bacon. It’s fun. It’s a preference, but it doesn’t mean I’m gay in my being.
And there lies the rub, I think: why I’m not “Gay and Catholic” but rather just the first of sinners and Orthodox.
There is a huge discussion among those who wish to live the Christian life as to what language to use: am I queer? Am I gay? Am I homosexual? Am I Same-Sex Attracted? I agree with Eve that I do, in fact, experience my sexuality as a huge part of my life. It has, really, driven my choices of friends, my living situations and even my job choices for much of my life. But: is that the way it’s supposed to be? Or are these choices and other things some of the harmful effects in my life? Honestly, this is where language of “intrinsic disorder” may come in handy. A Roman Catholic document on ordaining celibate gay men explained that there is some sort sexual malfunction going on that may, in fact, result in social failure as well. I know that some of my closest and dearest friendships (off line and on) have begun with me saying “Whoa, he’s cute.” It’s taken me nearly 50 years to learn how to develop friendships with women. But I don’t know – I don’t know at all – if this is because I’m sexually attracted to men or because I have spent a huge portion of my life acting on that attraction. I don’t know if the same social failures happen for women, but I do know of the reverse stereotypes and, to be honest, Eve’s book seemed at moments (to a male reader) to display and even justify some of them.
Eve is supported in her choices by other parts of the internet: many people on my twitter feed are not just “same sex attracted” but are “gay”. Spiritual Friends blog seems to agree here. I am aware of Roman Catholic clergy who feel that “being” gay offers some specific gifts for ministry. Even the Roman Catholic teaching on same sex attraction, including the “intrinsic disorder” position seems in some readings to indicate some “beingness” to gayness. (I don’t want to get corrections from Theologians on this: I know that the teach of the RCC says that any sex outside of marriage is disordered.) This is another reason I am not Catholic and yet another place where, legal language aside, Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism agree. But the quoted document on sexuality says that this is not part of my nature.
Eve and others argue that her gayness has provided blessings in her life. I don’t doubt that – I can confirm the same feeling about things in my life – but that is not a quality of goodness: it is rather a quality of God. God will always take what we offer in thanksgiving and return it to us filled with grace. It doesn’t mean that that very thing is not broken. There are whole websites devoted to how to bake communion bread for the Byzantine liturgy. These sites advise that no oil should be used, no milk, no lard, no sugar, nothing other than yeast, flour, and salt. That these pointers have to be made (one site describing even the visible effects of such inclusions) means that some Orthodox baker has at least at times made bread with them. No worries: the Body and Blood of Christ were communicated in that liturgy. It just wasn’t optimal. Ditto gay: I’m not worried about God being able to bless me. It’s just not optimal. Something is Broken. God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness, though.
How we got here and what to do with “here” are all up for grabs and I think (perhaps) Eve and I disagree. But having decided not to stay here, Eve and I agree. Having opted for submission to the teachings of the Church on human sexuality, how to move forward Eve offers a painfully honest – and joyful – assessment of the life we have chosen to live.
Eve confronts the very few options available for the celibate man or woman in the Church today: where to live, what to do. While I am with Eve on this, I know there are some of my fellow churchmen who feel there are only two “really Orthodox” options available for a “really Orthodox” person, Marriage or the Monastery. While there is no justification for that from the saints or from history, I do want to point out that for some Orthodox including some clergy, the conversation stops here. “You’re not getting married, then go away.” Convents and Monasteries thus become a place to send all the troublesome folks. My only comment here is that sending me to a house filled with bearded single men throws a hundred red flags on the play. Sending all the gays to the same place seems too stereotypical. I have also read at least one Orthodox writer who insists there were never any homosexual men in “really Orthodox” monasteries. Both extremes seem wrong to me, and the question of monasticism as salvific has to be answered in each individual context.
Eve assumes we’re going to live in the world at some point. She asks questions about our social life, about our jobs, about volunteer work. She wonders if the “nuclear” families at the parish might open up to include singles. In Orthodoxy this is a given in some ways: when you ask someone to be a godparent they become a part of your family. There are even words in Greek and Russian for the relationship. In Russian tradition there are even words for the relationship between me and the godmother of my godchild as well as his parents. Kum (male) and Kuma (female) are consanguineous, at least as it was explained to me. Anyway, godparent/godsiblinghood are ways to expand the family. In traditional cultures, of course, back in the Orthodox “Homeland”, the extended family was a real thing, including not only blood relations but servants and feudal obligations, social contacts and ecclesial commitments.
Here in America, however, we may only have an option for close friendships: and Eve spends a long time discussing these. This reflection, however, has gone on long enough. I will get to her idas about friendships in part two!