Thursday, February 20, 2014

John Corvino, What's Wrong with Homosexuality?: "Born This Way"

In the chapter of John Corvino's book What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (NY: Oxford UP, 2013) entitled "Born This Way," one line above all stands out for me: as Corvino shares a painful, powerful, and detailed account of his own coming-out process in an Italian Catholic family in which he prayed devoutly to be freed of his homoerotic leanings, and considered becoming a priest, he states, 

For me, the coming out "moment" didn’t involve me telling someone else. It was me telling me (107).

That line hits me between the eyes. It rings completely true for me. Because this was my experience, too--coming of age in a conservative evangelical church (the Southern Baptist church), converting to Catholicism as a young teen, flirting with the notion of becoming a priest . . . . And then quite unexpectedly falling in love with another young man who had the same spiritual aspirations, and who grew up in a strong, faithful Catholic family full of nuns, priests, and brothers for generations . . . . 

We weren't gay, of course: that's what Steve and I told ourselves for an embarrassingly long period of time after we had begun living together, establishing a life together, expressing our love in acts of intimacy. Just a phase. If/when we meet the right girl and settle down, we'll look back on this phase and realize it was a fleeting, transitory attraction.

And as a result, though we were committed to each other, we toyed with the idea of leaving things open so that that "right girl" might come waltzing some day through the door to sweep us off our feet and dispel the transitory dream that had dominated our early adult years together . . . .

And then from college, where we met, to graduate school, and nothing about the "fleeting" and "transitory" attraction diminished for me, though for Steve, it was quite a bit easier to melt into the culture-Catholicism of our Catholic theological graduate program, with its overwhelming heterosexist bias. He had, after all, grown up in that culture and knew its ropes far more intimately than I did.

And so he could pass in a way in which I couldn't--and didn't want to pass--as an oddball, a bookish Southerner among Catholics for whom being Northern and Catholic were much the same thing, with ways that a cousin of Steve's told us she found so soft and dreamy among many Southern men when she began living with us in New Orleans, that she thought all Southern men were gay. 

Steve had been a football player in high school. Sports--of any kind--were my bĂȘte noire. I was the boy always picked last for softball and football teams because I was highly likely (this actually happened once) to be sitting in a patch of clover making a flower chain when the ball was knocked in my direction in the far, far field to which the team relegated me. Totally oblivious. Happy to be that way.

And so it was harder for me, I suspect, than for Steve to convince myself that I had just been going through a phase right up to our years together in a graduate theology program, as we reached our mid-30s. But I did keep trying. Mightily so. The binding force of religious strictures was simply so strong that, what my heart knew, I could not permit my head to know as well--because where would I be then, as a Catholic?

The coming-out "moment" involved me telling me that I was gay, first and foremost, as John Corvino says about himself. It was not until I had walked across that utterly terrifying bridge that I could utter this word about myself to another human being. And crossing the bridge actually made that utterance far easier.

To repeat, nothing about our graduate theological program in a Catholic university made it easy for anyone who was gay--in the years in which we were in the program--to come out of the closet. We've now discovered that a significant number of people we were in school with were gay. All of us were strictly closeted in the years in which we were in the theology program together. None of us knew that the other was gay. I'm pretty sure that the culture of non-Catholic and non-evangelical universities in the same time frame was not anywhere nearly so homophobic.

The only discussions I recall ever taking place about gay people or gay issues in my graduate-school years were all slighting, dismissive discussions between us students, in which homophobic jokes were cracked, eyebrows raised, disgust vented. A friend told a story about someone he knew in high school who fell in love with another boy, and was crushed when the other boy turned out not to be gay--crushed to the extent that he sought to kill himself. 

Disgust was vented.

Unbeknownst to me, Steve was seeking the counsel of a number of people about our relationship during these years, how to handle it as it began to appear that he might well find ways out of it--despite what I thought about the relationship or wanted from it. One of those providing counsel was one of our professors, a former priest who was gay but closeted and married to a woman, a former nun.

That professor encouraged him to "explore his heterosexuality" by forming relationships with women, and, if he thought it proper to do so, not to tell me about any of this, since I would surely find someone else eventually and he had, after all, made no binding formal commitment to me. And exploring one's heterosexuality was something of a command for a Catholic, after all.

Our professor sent Steve to consult with another professor at another university who identified as bisexual, who had ongoing relationships with men, while his only publicly acknowledged relationship was with a woman. This man gave Steve the same advice our closeted gay professor had given him.

All of this produced a crisis in our relationship, since--though I had not crossed that terrifying bridge--at some level, I knew perfectly well I was gay (though, unlike Steve, I was talking to no one about our life together or about my probable sexual orientation). And I had hoped that my relationship with Steve could continue uninterrupted at least to the end of our studies, when it was highly unlikely, in any case, that we'd find jobs together and we could then agree to go our separate ways. I asked Steve please to suspend "exploring his heterosexuality" until we could complete our studies and find jobs.

Again, without telling me (I learned all of this later, when we finally had the courage to come out to ourselves), he talked this over with a nun who was a friend of his. Her response: "I'll never speak to you again if you stop seeing your girlfriend and keep your relationship with that man alive." 

Various classmates of ours, including priests and nuns, told Steve that I was too "dependent" on him and that he needed to develop relationships with women in order to "mature"--code words for "gay (i.e., immature and undeveloped)" and "straight (i.e., fully mature and beyond adolescence)," with a clear preference for the latter. Because Catholic

I had clearly been written off by these classmates as really gay, though none of this was discussed out in the open. He was redeemable--by some esoteric Catholic moral calculus obscure to me, since I had not grown up in the culture Steve shared with these Catholic classmates.

And I have to confess that I haven't ever completely gotten the strange, crude, mechanistic notion of sexual morality that hinges everything on the presence of a penis and a vagina, and the insertion of the former into the latter--without any analysis at all of the relational aspects of the act on which all moral weight is placed. What about loyalty? What about commitment? What about honesty? 

What about integrity? What about the quality of one's relationship with another human being, regardless of whether we're talking about penises or vaginas?

In the evangelical culture in which I grew up, those kinds of questions loomed far larger than questions about where the penis was in relation to the vagina. Though that culture was also intensely homophobic, it was homophobic (in those years in which it hadn't yet appropriated half-digested Catholic natural-law arguments about sex) for relational reasons: think what you'll do to your poor mother if you don't marry a nice girl and have children.

Your father will be crushed to know he has raised a sissy son. You will no longer have any place in the family circle. You'll have to be sent to some city far away so that we won't have to hang our heads in shame. For God's sake, do the right thing and don't disgrace your family!

And so, to repeat again: the culture of our Catholic university and its graduate theological program was hardly conducive to coming out of the closet, and did not make facing the meaning of our relationship and identifying our own natures in the least easy for us, even at a period in our lives in which this retardation now seems astonishing and very embarrassing for me to remember, especially as I think of the people we both hurt due to our stolidity and self-deception.

In the middle of our years in this Catholic theological program, Steve and I and a friend of ours, a nun, were elected student representatives to the faculty assembly. Our friend is no longer a nun, and is now an out lesbian. We had no idea that she was gay, however, when we were in school together. In the year in which we served as representatives, the theology program was up for reaccreditation by the group that accredits all theology programs in North America.

We were given a charge: develop a questionnaire to solicit student feedback about our program, and then summarize that feedback in a report for the accrediting body. We did as we were told.

When the questionnaires had been completed and returned to us, we discovered that a significant proportion of them reported--in a section of the questionnaire that asked if students had any other comments to make--that sexual harassment of women students by male professors was a serious problem in our theology program.

We duly reported what the questionnaires told us. And then all hell broke loose. 

"This is radical activism," one professor after another told us. "It's unacceptable in our program," they stated. "You've compiled this report to embarrass this school and pursue your own warped agenda."

We three student representatives, all gay, all closeted even to ourselves, were caught squarely in the middle of the whirlwind. From our vantage point, we had done only what we were asked to do. But now we were being faced with the unpleasant discovery that fulfilling our charge and reporting accurately what the responses to the questionnaire we had been asked to compile told us was an act of radical activism that was all about pursuing an agenda designed to embarrass the theological school.

To figure out how to handle the whirlwind, we student leaders called a meeting of the students in the program to discuss the problem. As the meeting began, one of the students grabbed a copy of the agenda and ostentatiously walked it down the hall to the office of one of our professors. In a moment, he came beaming into the room, agenda in hand, evidently to let us know that he had our number, and was onto our "radical activism."

He looked around the room and said, "Ladies." "Gentlemen." And then he looked at me: "And other."

Not a culture in which it was congenial to make known to anyone that one was gay . . . . (As it happened, this professor, a married man who later became a Ukranian-rite Catholic priest, was among the worst sexual offenders in our graduate program. Every student in the program knew this, because we saw him with our own eyes hitting on female students, groping them, lurking on several occasions in dark hallways at parties so he could spring on them unannounced.

I had a friend who was one of the objects of his pursuit, a tiny woman who was reasonably afraid of this big, burly man who pressed himself on her against her wishes. On several occasions, he followed her home on the subway. On other occasions, he appeared on the doorstep of her apartment, demanding entrance.)

The upshot of the whirlwind: the faculty held a gathering at which we students were informed that we had behaved inappropriately in reporting that sexual harassment of female students by male faculty members was a serious problem in our theological program. We were informed by several faculty members that our survey was "unscientific" and did not merit attention.

The faculty--all men and one woman--voted on whether or not to expunge the finding of the questionnaire that the school had a sexual harassment problem. When I saw that my fellow student representatives each raised his and her hand to vote with the majority (only the female faculty member voted nay), I raised mine, too, coward that I was. 

I knew I'd be singled out and crucified in a very special way if I did not vote with the majority, after the ugly remark--"Ladies, gentlemen. And other"--that the professor with a serious history of abuse made about me at our student gathering prior to this faculty vote.

I thought of all of this, of course, when I recently read Stephanie Krehbiel's article about John Howard Yoder, which states that "theology is a male-dominated field with a long history of covering, enabling, and trivializing sexualized violence." What makes the memory of this graduate-school debacle all the more bitter is the fact that a number of the nuns in our program, who were among the most vocal behind the scenes about the problem of sexual harassment of female students, absolutely refused in any way to stand with us student representatives when the mess hit the fan.

Those nuns knew the score. They themselves had seen and talked angrily about the way in which female students were sexually harassed by male professors. They were, I have no doubt at all, among the students who wrote reports about this when we were asked to survey the students.

But when it came time for them to take a stand in support of their student representatives, though they  all proclaimed themselves feminists, not one of them backed us. Looking back, I have no doubt that a large part of their refusal to support us was the unacknowledged, hidden, not-talked-about question of sexual orientation, which the professor who sought to out me with his taunt about my being "other" had suggested was central to the faculty's anger about our student report and its "activism."

Misogyny and heterosexist homophobia flow together in the Catholic tradition. Each feeds on the other. Each reinforces a culture of male entitlement, the culture feminist theologians identify as kyriarchal patriarchy.

These memories remain bitter when I recall that several of those "feminist" nuns who refused to support us went on to hold high office in the Catholic Theological Society of America, including the position of CTSA president. 

John Corvino is right: the first, quintessential step in the process of coming out is coming out to oneself. For many of us who are gay, unfortunately, our religious communities and the religious strictures they have imposed on us have, until recently, made taking that step one fraught with danger. There has long been a peculiar kind of Catholic hell reserved for those who are gay, and magisterial teaching continues to keep that hell alive and seek to consign everyone who is born gay to this hell.

I can only hope that the ability of religion to curb and distort the humanity of selected groups of human beings will diminish in the future--because I think the human community and our communities of faith lose a great deal when we don't allow young gay people to become themselves and share their talents freely with us.

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