Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflections on the Churches and Pastoral Outreach to Gay Persons in Light of the Ex-Gay Movement

Michael Bayly’s Wild Reed blog has a good posting yesterday on the “ex-gay” or reparative therapy movement, which has a Catholic component, Courage. This is one in a series of excellent analyses of this movement Michael has posted on his blog. I’d like to comment on this topic in light of my recent discussion at the America blog, to which I’ve been linking my postings in the last several days.

As I’ve noted, the America thread began with Fr. Jim Martin at America asking what gay Catholics are to do, given the church’s horrendous treatment of us today. I read Fr. Martin’s question as a pastoral one—an expression of pastoral concern for the many gay Catholics who indicate that the church is harming rather than helping us, and who are choosing to distance ourselves from the church as a result.

The question, What are gay Catholics to do?, and the pastoral way in which it was framed naturally invite the honest input of those of us who are gay and Catholic. The set-up invites us to tell our stories—deeply personal stories that often contain pain (and joy and celebration).

Several of us responded with such statements. Most of us who did so identified ourselves. We were, after all, telling our stories. We obviously wanted those stories to matter and to be taken into consideration, because we want our lives to matter and to be taken into consideration. This is what happens when an institution that claims to be about compassion, love, healing, and welcome invites people to share where they are coming from in any honest way.

And what was the response when several of us put ourselves out there in this way, opened our hearts in this risky way, dared to hope that our stories (and lives) might begin to count for the church today? What happened was predictable. This dynamic repeats itself over and over in dialogues that invite gay Christians to share authentically about our experiences in a setting designed to produce pastoral interaction with us and our brothers and sisters who may not hear these stories or think about what it means to be gay in many churches today.

What happened when some of us responded honestly and at a deep level to the question, What’s a gay Catholic to do?, identifying ourselves and using our own names, was that a number of our LGBT brothers and sisters who claim to have been “cured” of the “gay lifestyle” weighed into the discussion to inform the group that being gay is not about living lives of authentic love, but about living in sin.

These posters, whose identities were not fully disclosed (though one did have a full name attached to his posting, but one about which I haven’t been able to find any specific information), informed the group that there is something called the “gay lifestyle,” and that it is all about promiscuity, drugs, and loneliness that results from the refusal to accept God. They used bogus clinical terms to refer to a syndrome called SSA—“same-sex attraction,” a clinical term that has been invented by religious-right groups to try to rehabilitate the long-rejected American Psychiatric Association classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

This is where the conversation (which is really a non-conversation) finds itself today in many churches that wish to retain stigmatizing language about and understandings of the “homosexual lifestyle.” It is because such non-conversations can never go anywhere meaningful (and because fundamental dishonesty is at work in these conversations) that Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong recently declared that he will no longer engage those who want to continue talking about homosexuality in the churches as the great problem to be solved, the big crisis to be faced by a church torn between fidelity to the scriptures and fidelity to its pastoral, healing mission.

As long as these non-conversations continue to take place while people of good will, who should know better, stand on the sidelines saying nothing, treating this as a battle between equals –the gays and their critics, both with legitimate viewpoints—nothing productive is going to happen. In fact, the conversations will only continue to demonstrate the power that those who misrepresent and stereotype gay human beings still have to define norms within the churches. The the contributions of the latter group to these conversations are clearly all about continuing to claim that right within the churches.

The right to define those who are gay as other, aberrant, less human than everyone else, uniquely sinful, worthy of being excluded, not worthy of being heard, because gays are, by nature, deceptive and, well, you know the shtick . . . .

Because the dynamic I’m describing has gone on so long and been used so effectively by the religious and political right, and because it has resulted in the breakdown of any honest, transformative conversation about these issues within many churches, I think it’s important to probe this dynamic carefully, with good analytical tools. I do not by any means intend to lambast any particular person who logged into the America thread recently to share his/her story of being converted from the sinful gay “lifestyle.”

At the same time, I want to note that, until we reach some accurate critical conclusions about what is taking place in these non-conversations, and until we stop using spurious norms about charity to all to offset such critical analysis, we won’t get to the bottom of what these interchanges between ex-gays and gay believers are all about, when churches open conversation spaces to discuss the pastoral situation of those who are gay.

I’d like to note several points here. Those who claim to have been healed of homosexuality frequently enter these pastoral dialogues armed and ready to shoot. They bring with them “literature” that supposedly “proves” that there is a sinful gay lifestyle and that all who happen to be LGBT fit the stereotype. They are there to discredit the stories of gay Christians, even when they profess to be there out of pastoral concern for their brothers and sisters who are gay.

And this is to say, those who enter these dialogues with the stated intent of sharing their own personal stories to counter the stories of those of us who are gay believers often have ties to right-wing political and religious groups, which they do not wish to disclose in these dialogic spaces. This is, in part, why those who claim to post true stories of their ex-gay experience in these dialogues often shield their identity.

They also frequently have ties to other posters in the group who are there with a primarily political motive, rather than a pastoral one. They are acting in collusion with these posters, whose intent is to keep these dialogic spaces all about their right, in the name of God and the church, to define and dismiss their gay brothers and sisters.

What should make this behavior particularly troublesome to fence-sitting Christians of the center is not just the willingness of organized anti-gay movements to lie about “the” gay “lifestyle”—about their gay brothers and sisters. As these groups lied over and over in the Maine campaign . . . . As it turns out Ms. Prejean has distorted the truth while claiming moral superiority over her gay brothers and sisters . . . .

What ought to concern fence-sitting Christians of the center, I would propose, is the obvious intent of these anti-gay political and religious groups to prevent any open, honest, pastorally oriented interchange between the churches and gay persons. People like Fr. Martin work to open dialogic spaces in which gay stories might be heard by the whole church.

Organized groups who have invested everything in declaring homosexuality as sinful, the most egregious sin in the canon, the one on whose basis the churches stand or fall, do not intend for these dialogic spaces to remain open. Not even when they enter the dialogue with fulsome assurances that what they are really all about is saving souls, expressing pity for poor, misguided gays who do not realize that our drug use, promiscuity, and loneliness are all due to our refusal to admit that we are sinners standing in the need of repentance.

Keep asking for honest, respectful dialogue that takes your experience as a gay believer into consideration, and allows you to define the meaning of that graced experience as freely as other Christians are allowed to discern the Spirit in their lives, and they'll eventually tell you to move on. Just move on. Join the Episcopalians. Don't expect any honest and respectful hearing here, though we do love you and have all the pastoral concern in the world for you! And we're all about promoting Catholic ("here comes everybody") values and letting you know you are not authentically Catholic because we really care about what being Catholic means.

Those entering conversations about the pastoral approach of the church to gay persons with a gay-bashing intent don't intend to listen respectfully to gay voices and gay experiences, because they have already predetermined that the only voice and experience that count is theirs. They enter the conversation with a total lack of respect for the human beings they claim to be led by the Spirit to save.

It is very important—it is the most crucial thing in the world—for some Christians today, that they retain the right to define their gay brothers and sisters, and to exclude them from the Christian community, even while professing pastoral concern for these sinful brothers and sisters. And that is what is going to continue to happen in dialogue spaces about the churches' pastoral response to gay persons, until Christians of the center make it their business to challenge the dishonest and uncharitable behavior of their anti-gay brothers and sisters.

Or until LGBT persons simply walk away from the churches altogether—which is the real agenda of these anti-gay groups, no matter how much they express pastoral concern for their gay brothers and sisters. And which totally undermines the claim of their churches to be about God, love, compassion, communion, catholicity, etc.

Addendum, 9:30 A.M.: a perceptive reader of this blog has helped me, in an email exchange, too recognize that I need to clarify what I mean when I keep talking about the fence-sitting and silence of centrist Catholics. As this reader notes, many good Catholics are involved in activities to counter the homophobia in the church, and it's impossible to know about all of these, since people don't always choose to act by writing letters or blog postings, but in other ways.

And that's a significant point. I don't by any means want to overlook all of this activity. I know it's going on, and that, for example, quite a few Catholics in Maine worked long and hard during that recent battle to offset the church's homophobia.

My critique is really focused on what I sometimes call the intellectual elite of American Catholicism, on some leading moderately liberal American Catholic bloggers and journalists who remain utterly silent in the face of the church's savagery towards its gay members, or worse, who defend the church's treatment of LGBT persons. These folks have voices that count, and could have an influence, if they chose to speak out. They and the sector of the American Catholic church they represent—well-educated, well-represented in professional circles in important cultural and demographic centers in the U.S.—also do not, in my experience, have significant problems with the use of artificial contraception. Yet even though the same moral norm used to forbid that practice is the norm used to bash gay Catholics, they remain silent about the gay-bashing, and about the disparity between how the church treats its gay members and its straight members using contraception.