Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Starting the Conversation

This blog is, in part, an outgrowth of discussions that have been taking place on the blog threads of the publication National Catholic Reporter. The posting that follows is an edited version of one I've just posted on a thread there. The thread is entitled "The Intrinsic Disorder Question Revisited (Again)" (http://ncrcafe.org/node/1337). I started that thread on 17 Sept. 2007, to discuss the Catholic church's treatment of LGBT persons. I'm now beginning this Bilgrimage blog to continue the discussions that have arisen at the NCR Cafe, following my 17.9.2007 posting:

"Sylvester, thank you from the bottom of my heart for a heartfelt response that acknowledges the painful passages we have to negotiate to arrive at truth. Particularly when we're walking across a field covered in shards of broken glass, where there's pain for all of us.

There is much I'd like to say in response--too much for this format. What I would like to draw attention to, briefly, is your statement about hurt and self-defense.

You're right: out of self-defense, those whose humanity is trampled may be pushed to extremes in defending themselves. They--we, I--may strike out and hurt in return. I think it is possible that the subtext of your observation here (and it's a wonderful observation) may be that some of my critiques of our current pope's statements about gay persons have an edge of self-defense that others may perceive as extreme, as hurtful in return.

Before we go there, though (and I always want to remain open to critiques that help me see myself better, especially if I am returning hurt for hurt), I'd like to explore one point. It's difficult to make, precisely because of the double bind to which your analysis alludes: the double bind social groups place stigmatized others in, when they force us to be viewed through the lens of otherness and difference.

The truths we speak, the observations we sketch of the world around us, inevitably reflect our social location. This is a point my initial posting starting this thread tried to discuss. We speak from where we have been put by social structures.

A corollary of this recognition is that two people at different social locations may make precisely the same observation, in precisely the same words, and their observation will be heard with radically different ears by the social mainstream, because of the social location from which it arises. A male (straight, white) asserting himself in a meeting will be perceived as forceful. A woman saying the very same words the male has just said, in the same tone of voice, may be perceived as arch or b----y. In some cultural contexts, including the one in which I grew up, a black man asserting himself in any way at all has, until not very long ago, been seen as threatening and uppity, fodder for lynching.

A gay man asserting himself is often perceived as laughable, since gay men are women in disguise. Overt anger and forthright truth from gay men is often seen as an assault, a form of the most extreme b-----ness possible, since it has to be arising out of malicious intent to overthrow all social structures. I'm sketching here the social context within which we often hear and filter people's words and actions, not the actual intent of those actions.

To be bluntly autobiographical, I struggle constantly--more than it's possible to describe--with figuring out how to say what I see very plainly, for fear that what I see and say will be perceived as malicious, as tinged with unwarranted anger, as plain b-----ness rather than plain truth. As I near the age of 60, with publications to my name, with a career of academic leadership, I still question every word I say or write, because I have no choice except to see myself through the lens of otherness and difference that society has imposed on me and uses to interpret me.

I would like for things to be otherwise. I tried to make them otherwise. When I began my career as a theologian, I did so with the naive expectation that my "personal life" would be treated as separate from my vocation as a theologian. I told myself that the personal lives of others who taught theology in the academy, in Catholic universities, seemed to be respected. Why not the same in my case, as long as I toed the line and remained very circumspect about the fact that I was gay and living in a long-term relationship?

Unfortunately, things did not work out as I had hoped. My partner Steve and I soon discovered that our life together did matter--tremendously and ineluctably--in the polarized context of the church of the latter decades of the 20th century. It did not matter whether we worked hard, remained silent about our shared life, achieved, published, lived upright lives, mentored students and received outstanding evaluations. What mattered, in the end, was that we were gay and living together unapologetically, though quietly and without any self-assertion.

I did not want my being gay to matter. I simply wanted to respond to what I have long felt as a deep calling in my life--to be a theologian--a calling that keeps running like a mighty river underneath everything I do and think, even when I try to turn away from it. By inclination, I am a scholar, writer, introvert, perhaps a bit of an artist. The last thing I have ever wanted is to be on the front lines. Had I had my druthers, I'd have spent my life in libraries poring over Latin texts.

But I have not had a choice. Because the church has made it matter--that I am gay, that I am living in a relationship of nearly 40 years with another theologian--I have been forced to respond. I have been forced to think and write about who I am, about how the church relates to me and to other gay people, about how being gay affects my outlook as a theologian.

I am now what I would prefer not to be: a gay theologian. I am not merely a theologian. I cannot any longer address an issue like, say, abortion or birth control or the war in Iraq, without having people filter what I say through the lens of gayness.

I also have, somehow, to find a way to see what has happened in my vocational life as part of the mystery of vocation itself. My vocation has unfolded as I did not expect or want it to unfold. There are times when I look at the lives and careers of those with whom I was in school with frank (and shameful) envy. It has seemed much easier for many of them, and because of one central fact: they are not gay; I am.

Given what has been done to Steve and me, we/I have no choice now except to write from where we have been placed. I now seek the truth from a social context I did not anticipate having, when I entered academic life. My vocation has not afforded me the ivory tower, the quiet libraries, the dusty books, the afternoon teas in the faculty lounge lazing by the fireside, about which I dreamt when I entered academic life.

Instead, Steve and I have again and again met inscrutable dispossession, sudden twists in our careers in which, despite glowing evaluations and very hard work, an inexplicable damning flaw suddenly emerges in a supervisor's report. In one case, one of us received unanimous approval from a seminary faculty and its students to be tenured. When the interview with the rector to grant tenure occurred, we were told that the seminary could no longer pay the pitiful salary one of was receiving as a lay theologian. \We were denied tenure unilaterally by this rector, who has now gone on to be a bishop. We discovered when this happened that any money we had invested in the diocesan retirement fund was absorbed back into the diocese's coffers. This was done to us just as the academic year ended, when it was well-nigh impossible to find another position. The following year, two priests were hired to replace the one of us to whom this was done, at much higher salaries than the one the seminary could not afford if it tenured us.

This has happened to us repeatedly. Perhaps we deserve it. But what makes us doubt that is a recurrent pattern whereby church-based institutions prescind from evaluations as they do this to us--either avoiding giving us an evaluation at all, or ignoring positive evaluations to trump up specious grounds on which to terminate us (and, in one case, seven other "unmarried" faculty at the same institution, in what the local gay community regarded as a purge of LGBT faculty).

Interestingly enough, we now find ourselves approaching 60 and back in the same situation again, jobless and without health coverage, unable to afford health coverage because of our lack of jobs. If I write about hurt, then, and if my critiques seem to reflect hurt, it's real hurt, and not simply the hurt of being slighted by bigoted co-workers. It's the hurt of not having an income, not being able to save for retirement. It's the hurt of not being able to go to a doctor even when one is ill, because one simply can't afford to do so.

It's the hurt of recognizing that one's humanity counts for very little, in the end, if this can be done to one for no sound reason at all. And by church institutions....When church institutions do this, the knife does cut much deeper.

Not all LGBT persons experience this kind of discrimination any longer. For some people, things are changing. If nothing else, laws increasingly protect people in many areas of the world against such overt discrimination. In the U.S., much depends on where you live, whether there are local support structures for gay persons, what your profession is--and on the churches.

I would submit that it's precisely in church institutions that the discrimination lingers, and it grows perhaps even uglier as the ban lifts elsewhere. It grows uglier, in part, by becoming subtler. The reasons provided for discrimination in church institutions grow more and more specious, because overt homophobia is not longer socially acceptable. One can be told, as my initial posting states, that one is not 'aggressive' enough to do a good job, or that one 'pouts': code language to say that a man is perceived as feminine. One can be told that it's not the fact that one is gay that is problematic, but the fact that one is in a relationship and won't hide it: that one spends lunch-hour time taking one's partner to the doctor, when married employees in the same church-affiliated institution routinely take time to do the same, without reprimand.

In going underground in church institutions, homophobia now uses these and similar reasons to marginalize, discipline, and even disemploy LGBT employees. As when such tactics are used in the case of people of a different color or gender, such discriminatory treatment become harder to fight legally, since it becomes harder to put one's finger on the discrimination at the heart of the specious reasons. At the same time that this goes on, many church institutions still don't even have any regulations forbidding discrimination against gay employees. At least those discriminated against on racial or gender grounds have federal protection from discrimination, and churches and church institutions have to respect federal mandates in those areas.

Arriving at the truth--plain truth--is quite a process, I'm finding. As my initial posting notes in the NCR thread on intrinsic disorcer notes, one of the perplexing experiences with which I have to content as someone who has claimed the identity of a 'gay theologian' is suddenly finding that people seem willing now to believe of me easily disproven defamatory statements.

Nothing in my upbringing has prepared me to know how to deal with this experience. I'm having to revise my understanding of how we discover plain truth. I'm having to recognize that what I now experience because of my social location as a gay person is very similar to what people without power all over the world and throughout history have always experienced: that I have very little power to determine my own destiny; that I am an object rather than the subject of my own story, in the eyes of the power structures of the world.

There's much more to be said about that, and I welcome dialogue with anyone interested in journeying with me on my blog."