My voice on the topic of SSA and Religion has been heard several times in the “age of the internet”: I was writing about it in the mid 1990s from my desk at the Episocopal Church Center in NYC. I would send an email out to a few friends and they would forward it around. I discovered in those early days of electronic communication just how far an email could get forwarded by the replies I would get. I was making “Reply All” errors before many of the current big names in tech were born. By 1998 I had my own domain and a blog where I continued to share too much information. I was first published on the topic in Touchstone magazine in 2004, using text from a very popular blog post I had made in 2003 called “I was in Hell”. (Appendix A). Other posts on this topic are still among my most-popular content.
Though I’ve been writing in public about SSA since the mid 90s, my internal journey with SSA began well before I started writing, coloring much of my youth and young adulthood.
The sensation (usually noticed in one’s teen years) that one is sexually attracted to one’s own sex rather than the opposite sex is the middle of a long process. My own experience began in early childhood, although it was not sexualized. My grandparents, who raised me, would often find me talking to male strangers. My earliest memory of this was at the age of three. I was in a grocery store, talking to some guy who was stocking shelves. He had blond hair and I had to sit on the floor to talk to him; I was fascinated with his arm hair. Grandma didn’t care that I was talking to a stranger, but sitting on the floor in the A&P in Fort Gaines, GA, was just not something respectable people let their children do. Other men who write about this also report feelings beginning in childhood, which later become sexualized as puberty hits.. In this light, the whole thing is rather like something childish that one fails to grow out of, something that becomes mistakenly and increasing sexualized over time. Was I looking for my lost father (whom I never knew) or simply trying in my childish way to befriend folks? At that age all of my friends were adults: I don’t remember making friends my own age outside of my family until years later when we lived next door to a couple with four daughters in 1972 or so.
Once this feeling became sexualized, there was a long, painful time – from about 5th grade to college – when I kept my feelings hidden from others and tried not to have them. I prayed they would go way. At the same time, I was a victim of some intense bullying. It’s telling that these bullies (jocks, bad-boys, aggressive, “alpha” types) are the sort of men I’m still most attracted to – yet could never “get” or understand.
Finding someone to trust is difficult: someone to talk to, someone you hope won’t talk to others, who will keep your secrets, and maybe even shares your feelings. Finding this person is a different process for everyone. I was a member of the Episcopal Church in High School and my faith was always foremost in my mind. The first folks to hear about my internal discoveries were my youth leader and my priest. My priest was loving if a little awkward: I gather in his college days there was a cologne that gay men wore to identify each other… that seemed to be all he knew about the topic. But he underscored that this made no difference in how he saw me acting in the parish. My youth group leader was the most supportive of all. She was encouraging and a very good, loving friend. These two loving mentors held my hands and waited: they did not direct me to any specific action or reaction. They did not push me in any direction. This was not the case with all the other Episcopal clergy. Three others, adults involved in youth ministry, who met me on a youth retreat later shared that they planned “to stand one on either side of your closet door, while one of us gets behind and pushes you out.”
I went to college at New York University in 1983 and joined a fraternity. NYU was, already, a very gay-friendly school. There was a very active gay community as well as a supportive faculty and staff. The union at NYU already had a non-discrimination clause in their contract. This was well before there was any legal recourse for discrimination in state or city law. In this environment, my fraternity brothers were helpful, even protective of their “little brother” who was experiencing things they didn’t understand. My friends, in the fraternity and out, were supportive. I remember only one bad moment, to be honest. Unlike my priest and youth minister, though, most folks in college were encouraging me to have sex. Everyone was having sex: it was the thing to do after a party on a weekend, or after a few drinks at a bar. I was not at all alone in my explorations – although everyone else in my immediate social circle was straight.
As any newbie would on another topic, I “geeked out”, doing a dive deep into gay culture: learning not only about sex but about bars, books about gay romance, theology (John J. McNeill, Rosemary Reuther, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Malcom Boyd), and movies. While serving as co-chair of the gay student group at NYU, I was able to host meetings with famous speakers, playwrights, and filmmakers. I shored up my new identity in any available way.
New York was a very interesting place to come out at this time, beginning in 1983. AIDS was not yet a thing, actually. Reading in the gay press we heard of things in LA: men dying of what the doctors called the “gay flu” at first, and then, as more folks died, GRIDS – Gay Related Immune Dificiency Syndrom. Finally the name AIDS was used. Men were dying rapidly: from diagnosis to death was often less than two years. A whole generation of men who would have been seen as my elders were lost. I was chairing a meeting of the Gay/LesbianUnion at NYU the first time I heard the phrase “Safe Sex”. Many of us laughed it off that night – a few of us swearing this wasn’t at all that important. We changed our tunes swiftly!
Coming out to my family was my last step. Well into 1985 I went to the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in Greenwich village and I bought a book called Now that you Know. I gave it to my mother without preamble or fanfare: I simply took it out of my bag and handed it to her.
With all that coming out work finally done I went on to have a “gay life”. I continued going to services in the Episcopal Church, I wrestled with the idea of vocation, I had sex and I did not see any conflict for a while. I had a lot of sex, in fact.
As I moved out of college into the wider world, I discovered these sorts of experiences were present in the Church as much as in the secular world. Openly gay clergy encouraged me to have sex, to experiment, as they would call it. We might imagine this as sexual discernment today. During this time I had dates with church musicians and “encounters” with Episcopal priests. AIDS was also present in the Church. My pastor during my Freshman year of college was the first Episcopal priest to be diagnosed with AIDS. He died in my Junior year.
The 80s were a strange time: I made new discoveries all the time. Heterosexual clergy were part of this world of sexual exploration as well. They broke up with their spouses and married parishioners. They had affairs of gay and straight sorts. Some Episcopal clergy did not know about this world. Revealing that Fr X was gay would lead to political riffs in the diocese. There were gay bishops who travelled the country with their “drivers” even when there was no car present. There were also bishops who would pretend to be gay-friendly to get you to out yourself or others so that they could cause those people to get fired and give their jobs to their friends. I was naive and had to have this explained – several times, actually.
In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh has his narrator, Charles, say:
I was taken to [Anglican] church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy. They never suggested I should try to pray.
It was the same for me. As all educated Episcopalians knew the Biblical texts were ahistorical shenanigans, the best thing to do was just to go along with the complex, beautiful liturgical masque. Once, repeating a joke about the Blessed Sacrament I had heard from a priest, I caused a scandal in the parish. The pastor told me that the laity actually believed this stuff so I should learn to be more careful. “Doing social justice” or singing emotive songs was more important than praying. No one actually believed in it. The “God of Social Justice” is nebulous and as mercurial as the most recent political fad. It takes bending the religion until it breaks to make room for things clearly forbidden by Scripture and Tradition. It’s best just to mythologize the faith, the scriptures, the sacraments so they can all be easily ignored. God, it follows, is only mythically the “ground of all being” who wouldn’t bother us because he is really just, you know, “love” and not real in any way.
In fact, love itself is not real. Love is actually another word for sex.
It was the dysfunction, malice, and hypocrisy that first called out to me that there was an issue. The Episcopal Church, or much of the Liberal Mainline, really, was adrift from the roots of Christianity. Even though they taught the faith – it was only a nice thing to do. Religion was a superficial layer that obscured several broken layers: gay sex, abortion activism, feminism. There were also good things like economic justice for minorities and healthcare for indigenous people. Yet the Gospel, as such, was not the thing.
This led, in 1985, to my exploration of neo-paganism, ceremonial magic, and witchcraft. Here was a religion to believe in, right? Pick a personal pantheon from the myriad gods or goddesses ever worshipped in all of history (and, for some, in the realms of fantasy, science fiction, and horror literature). Neopagans, especially in America, tend to be the hunter-gatherers of religion: picking up convenient deities as needed at the time. I looked at the deities worshiped in Hinduism, pre-Christian Wales, Buddhism, Persia, and Rome. I can talk about Mithras, Quan Yin, Gwyddion… Yet any first-semester student of religion will tell you that the “Credo in” of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is very different from the worship on the Acropolis. Traditional religions are paths of blood and soil, tied to a time and place in the story and mindset of one people, tribe, or ethnic group. Remove the gods or rituals from their proper cultural settings and they become just one more liturgical masque tied to white American prosperity. Yet we picked them because these gods welcomed gay folks. Right? Well, not really, and not always: most pagan religions are remarkably heterosexual and even “heterosexist”. It take bending the religion until it breaks to make room for sexual things that traditional deities didn’t do. Best to psychologize those things, then, so they can be ignored. The gods are only Jungian archetypes who wouldn’t bother us except in our hang-ups. They can’t be real.
Curiously, it was here, as a pagan that I learned how to really pray, immersed in a “religion” in which people do not pray. I missed the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer from my time in the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Tradition’s liturgical highwater mark. To fill this void I wrote a pagan daily office that cycled through the year’s astrological and lunar cycles. It was ongoing yearly process of meditation on the seasons and the myths found in the Welsh Mabinogion. When I missed Mass I found a Gnostic Pagan Mass celebrating the “mysteries of the Goddess and the Grail” in the Ordo Arcanorum Graadalis. I was ordained in what I think is the only religious tradition that uses The Mists of Avalon as a sacred text. Learning to pray in a religion that hasn’t a tradition of prayer – as understood by the Church – helped me to recognize that for Neopagans religion is not a matter of faith so much as role-playing. I needed there to be something out there. Someone? Or was that too much to ask?
Are you real, God? Or is sex the only real thing?
Frustrated, I went back to church in stages. While remaining a gnostic neo-pagan – and teaching that path to others – I returned to Episcopal liturgical practice in 1997. By now I was living in San Francisco. My religious choices and my sexual expression were not at all out of place: there’s something for everyone in this city that, in time, I came to call my real home. Gay Episco-Pagan is perfectly logical. There’s a parish for that, complete with icons of non-Christian holy men and women on the wall and God used it to draw me closer. For a while I rationalized my Christianity as only a “Jesus and Mary Flavored Paganism”. You’d be surprised how far that can get you if you think theology doesn’t matter. It really is just a flavor of paganism – Thaumaturgy, properly called. I returned officially, sacramentally to the Church in 1999, although it took a bit longer to realize that it was not paganism, nor theology, per se, that was the issue in growing my faith: it was all the sex – and being ok with it.
As with the move from paganism back to Christianity and as with the coming out process this moral realization wasn’t a simple, one-step thing. I cannot point to one “A ha” moment. Each gradual transaction invited me to take on the next. It all overlaps like a Doctor Who “timey-wimey” thing. I was coming out while God was showing me the moral and theological problems at the same time.
My first clue to the presence of moral and theological issues was provided by a liberal Catholic priest in my neo-pagan college days at NYU. As I was getting into Tarot and “full moon circles” he said to me, “They don’t need magic, son, they need Jesus.” He identified as gay and rather enjoyed being “the cool priest” with a supply of pot, but he knew “they need Jesus.” Another priest provided a second clue in that he was opposed, as per Catholic teaching, to the practice of birth control for his congregation. He explained this was a grave sin: it perverted the main purpose of the sexual union, resulting mostly in pleasure without responsibility. Despite this, he always advised his gay congregants to use condoms so to prevent the spread of disease. I could not then (1983) nor can I now understand how one could claim to be Catholic and hold this divided view on sexual morality: why is an immoral sex act ok for his gay congregation, but the use of birth control is not ok for a straight couple? Mind you, I’m not questioning the Church’s teaching on birth control. The priest, though celibate, identified as gay. He let his fellows get away with something because he shared this temptation. These clues stuck with me even as I continued to work hard on “coming out.”
Each stage of my “coming out” involved a deeper awareness that I was further and further away from the faith I had started with: an irony since, according to liberal theology, coming out should move me closer to Jesus. Once I found evidence of my teenaged faith: a stack of “Jesus Music” records in a box. I hadn’t heard them in years. I took them out, played them and sang along for a while. I was surprised to find myself crying. I was not just misty but having a full on crying jag. I promptly put the records away, unwilling to admit that my tears were my conscience calling out. Rather they were sadness over the passing of my youth! The recordings were much safer “away”. Years later, reigniting the fire of my faith, I found myself replacing that record collection and singing the same songs again.
The beginning of the last stage of this journey was a fin de siecle exploration of becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. To become a priest you need your parish community to support you: and they are as fully involved as the prospective priest in this question. I had a team of fellow parishioners appointed for this process of discernment. Called my Wrestling Team, they were there to help me ask the right questions of myself and thereby to decide if I – and they – wanted to move forward. One member asked me how would I act if I were an Episcopal priest. How would I, for instance, respond to issues surrounding sex? I replied that I would be about as faithful to the doctrine and teachings of the faith as I could be. When the topic of my sex came up I said I would be celibate. And, should I be asked, I would advise chastity to others who were not married. Remember that I was not living Christian morality at this time: it was only something to do if I got ordained. One member of my Wrestling Team insisted my conservatism would be an embarrassment to my parish and she could no longer support me. Another teammate said she could “no longer trust” me to support “queer youth” in my ministry. A third later admitted he nearly asked, “Why haven’t you become Orthodox already?”
Since I knew that I was giving voice to the authentic Christian teachings on sexual morality – even though my life was contrary to them – these meetings with my Wrestling Team were a warning that the Episcopal Church was not going to make it easy on a priest who wanted to adhere to these teachings. A visit to a seminary which felt to me rather like a “queer youth meeting” added the final confirmation to this. And so by asking “Should I be an Episcopal Priest?” I discovered the Episcopal Church was going to offer me no help. In my mind the issue was only that they allowed for this sexual activity – not that I was doing it. I could stop doing it later, right? So I kept doing it.
In 2002 I was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. Leaving the Protestant world one might expect I would become Roman Catholic. At this time, however, the Catholic Church had guitar masses and pro-choice nuns, and the Boston sex scandal was becoming a church-wide sex scandal. I didn’t need that hassle. I was convinced that while Rome was validly the Western Church, so also was the Eastern Church equally valid. And so, I become Orthodox, knowing that I’d eventually have to make some changes. But still, not yet.
For much of my life in the Orthodox Church I remained sexually active. I was not alone in this: there were “gay-friendly” parishes in the Orthodox Church as well. There were even clergy who advocated publicly for a change in church teaching, and bishops supporting them. Even in the most conservative of places, one could always find a friendly confessor who, with a nod and a wink, would absolve you of all sins and welcome you to communion. These clergy get published in official publications (and later deny they meant anything other than “dialogue”). There are bishops who take gay seminarians and send them to a place where the priest will let them get a boyfriend. The Orthodox Church, I learned, was a lot like the Catholic Church, in fact. There were priests who allow altar girls (a bigger issue in the Orthodox liturgy) and there are priests who give communion to anyone rather than practice closed communion as is required by the Church. I have yet to hear three guitars and a flute in an Orthodox Liturgy, but then I think to myself, give it time.
In 2015, I became a novice at an Orthodox monastery near Denver, Colorado. One can still have sexual trouble even in a tiny community at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. However, by God’s grace, in the time leading up to that journey and after, it has been easier to live chastely, but maybe age has helped here. Still, “easier” is not a full resolution. I found myself still in need of spiritual support and the Orthodox clergy to whom I reached out at this time were not able to help.
I checked in with a priest who was known (to me) to have the same struggle and we decided that it could be good for me to go to meetings of Courage, a Roman Catholic Apostolate which offers support to men and women with same-sex attraction who want to live within the church’s teaching on sexuality. My face-to-face discussion with a Courage chaplain – in June, 2014 – was my first encounter with a Dominican Friar. We talked about my Orthodox Church and the spiritual support I was looking for. He invited me to attend their weekly meetings. Yet every week I had an excuse: it’s too late, I can’t go because I’m tired, I’m washing my carpet. Something always came up. Yet that first conversation with a friar was the beginning of a connection that would lead to my reception into the Roman Catholic Church after the monastery.
When I left the Monastery in August of 2016, I began attending the Catholic Church of St Anne in Columbus, GA, immediately. But, more on that later. After my time in the Monastery I moved in with my parents in Alabama but our heavenly Father was already calling the prodigal son back home. I don’t believe it was a coincidence when, out of the blue, the same Dominican Friar I met with upon joining Courage sent me an email a week after I left the monastery inviting me to an event at St Dominic’s parish in San Francisco.
When I returned to San Francisco in December, 2016 – thanks to a friend offering me a job – I counted my blessings and did not look back to my old ways (or even my old communities). I went to my first Courage meeting and made my first confession to a Roman Catholic priest. The meetings were the first thing in my life that resulted in real reform, real change.
This chapter will seem cut short: for I’m still on my journey and I cannot describe the process any further. I can’t pray in the air like holy saints, nor have I arrived at perpetual purity, like St Thomas Aquinas. I have, however, found a way to struggle towards sainthood. Since that’s the only goal worth having, let’s begin to look at that tool.