Wednesday, February 13, 2013

For LGBT Catholics, Will It Get Better After Benedict? An Ash-Wednesday Meditation

A question pulling at my heart as the initial fanfare about Benedict's resignation announcement dies down: for LGBT Catholics, will it now get better? I'm pushing myself to write about this issue today--pushing myself specifically as an Ash Wednesday expression of self-mortification.

I find it hard to write some days--today--because I don't have answers. I don't seem to do answers nearly so well as I do questions. I am anything but a privileged insider. I would not want anyone reading my words here to imagine I'm a guru, someone dispensing wisdom to guide other folks' lives.

I'm just me, tired, aging, trying to piece together the remnants of my life and humanity--of my tired, aging gay Catholic life--and to make some meaningful pattern of them. In the same way my grandmother and her mother before her pieced together remnants of family garments too worn for further use, turning them into colorful quilts. 

I watched my grandmother at this work when I was a boy. She made a point of bringing me to the room in which her quilt rack hung, showing me the pieces with which she was working, some of them carefully cut into patterns by my great-grandmother before she died, telling me the names of the various quilt patterns she and her mother employed. Telling me who wore what garment now a quilt scrap and what that person's contribution to our family had been.

I learned as I watched and listened. And those lessons may, I hope, stand me in good stead as I try to keep finding worthwhile pieces of my life (of my life shared with Steve) in which to find meaning. In a world and a church that refuse to grant those pieces any meaning at all. In a world and church that refuse to allow me a meaningful pattern for my life, for our life together.

In a world and church that keep providing me ashes for my bread, and tears for my drink (Psalm 102:9).

And so I ask, asking only for myself and not to provide some shining template for anyone else: for LGBT Catholics, will it get better under a new pope? My initial instinct: no.

The instrumental use of gay human beings to score moral and political points is far too deeply rooted in Catholicism at an institutional level for its leaders to give up that instrumental use with any alacrity. Not now. Not when using gay human beings to symbolize a moral corruption many Catholics and many Catholic leaders wish to see all around them in the postmodern world is so easy. So cheap.

So much without any significant price for the leaders of the Catholic church and for many Catholics.

Already, I hear the tribalistic drumbeat thrumming again through the discourse spaces of the American Catholic commentariat. Within a day or so after Benedict's announcement, commentators who initially spoke freely about Benedict's legacy--a church divided; large numbers of the people of God wounded by the church under this papacy and walking away--are now drawing in the tribal boundary markers, marching to the relentless tribalist drumbeat that always emerges at times like this: our pope, right or wrong. An ill, frail elderly man who has sacrificed so much to be our leader: how dare anyone make a fuss or raise questions about his legacy!

Yes, I've written about how his actions have harmed the gays, they say, or how they've harmed abuse survivors. But when all is said and done, I'm Catholic. I'm a member of the tribe.

Now's the time to praise our tribal leader, not to talk about his legacy or about all those brother and sister Catholics who have walked away. (Haven't they done so, after all, of their own volition?)

Do you see my point? A pattern that is so easy, of such longstanding duration within power-mongering circles of American Catholicism, assures that, when gay Catholics (or abuse survivors) ask members of the Catholic community to behave like catholics in their response to them, the reflex response of said Catholic community is to define itself once again over against those asking for recognition. For a hearing.

For love and inclusion.

And so members of the Catholic commentariat who have had nice things to say about loving the gays or abuse survivors step back--and they step back hard--the moment a real-life gay Catholic or real-life abuse survivor agrees with these fellow Catholics' critique of the church's leaders. There's an immediate need on the part of tribalistic Catholics to assure the world that, in inviting the Catholic community to listen carefully to the experience of the gays or of abuse survivors, these tribalistic Catholics weren't moving beyond the boundaries of the tribe itself.

Beyond the boundaries of the tribe itself, beyond which the gays and abuse survivors are to be found . . . . If the Catholic tribe has a map of its terra firma and incognita, that map is limned with statements written outside the Catholic liminal boundaries: There be dragons there. And gays! And abuse survivors!

The very discourse of Catholic "concern" and "compassion" and "dialogue" is premised on defining the gays and abuse survivors as outside the circle. It is self-contgratulatory discourse that allows those resorting to it to pat themselves on the back because they're "loving" and "inclusive" and "tolerant" and "understanding" and "Catholic."

When, the moment one of their fellow Catholics who happens to be gay or a survivor of abuse agrees with their faint criticisms of how Catholic leaders treat the gays or survivors, their fundamental reflexive response is to dissociate themselves from the gays and from abuse survivors!

To print disclaimers on their Catholic blogs saying that, if I link to a gay blog, I'm not endorsing what said gay blog says--though I say this precisely as I call for more "love" and "dialogue" with those who are gay!

Is this going to change now, with Benedict's resignation? No. I seriously doubt that it will.

The patterns of tribalistic defensiveness, the self-righteous certainty that my tribe and I own God and love and religious truth, the self-congratulatory way in which I can talk about loving those on the margins without ever acknowledging the insights or even the humanity of those on the margins: none of this is going to change anytime soon.

This is now the default definition of what it means to be Catholic in many parts of the world. And it is shored up right at the apex of the institution, where the chief tribal leaders hold the reins of power.

Meanwhile, here's a story for you. I tell it because I'm firmly convinced that all the Catholic jabbering in the world is so much stuff and nonsense, until talking Catholics become listening and acting Catholics who begin to engage the real-life humanity of those about whom, around whom, and over whose heads they talk . . .

But with whom they don't talk at all, since they've defined the tribal boundaries in a way that excludes these fellow Catholics and fellow human beings from a definition of Catholicism they own with as much certainty as they imagine they own Jesus, the definition of love, or the articulation of truth.

My story: last Sunday, Steve and I made a quick trip out to a suburban area of our city to do some shopping. The store we needed to visit, Whole Foods, is only in the suburbs, and is the only place in town that has some of the items we needed (though I'm very discontent with Whole Foods because of its CEO's recent attack on Obamacare and am trying to wean myself of the place--another story).

I mention the suburban location of the store because to say "suburb" with regard to most urban areas of the South is to say "white flight." It's to say "Republican." It's to say affluent but not conspicuously educated.

And it's also to say disdainful of the gays. Who live in the city. And whom we've escaped just as we've escaped African-Americans by moving away from the urban core of the city.

People who live in Southern cities and Southern suburbs who aren't gay may not pay attention to these sociological realities of life in the urban South as the 21st century gets underway. Many of us who are gay do pay attention, because our safety and well-being may depend on where we shop, where we choose to eat, with whom we choose to interact.

Ever since the fall elections, Steve and I have noticed, on each of our visits to this particular Whole Foods store, growing numbers of men--always men--who seem suddenly to feel quite free to express open hostility to us as a gay couple. What's odd about this is that the staff of the store itself is chock-full of the gays; the staff couldn't be more gay-friendly. (Though their more or less open gay identities may very well trigger some of the hostility from those whose hackles are raised by coming into an environment in which they feel they may now be the outsider, when they've long controlled things.)

I should say that part of what baffles Steve and me about these experiences is that we really don't think we look or act like a recognizably gay couple. We don't hold hands. We don't kiss. We don't carry signs that shout gaygaygay. We both had on conservative (non-matching!) navy blue blazers on Sunday, for God's sake--not scarlet satin trimmed with lace.

Our shoes are dowdy black loafers, not red slippers.

Even so. Even so, on more than one occasion in recent months, out of the blue, there it is: the open, hostile stare. The sneer. The unabashed refusal to look away when one is found staring with undisguised hostility--which is rather the point of the stare, isn't it? It's intended to cow, and so, of course, the one doing this kind of staring doesn't intend in the least to stop the staring when he's spotted.

On Sunday, the man doing the staring was a young man shopping with his wife and daughter--a young tattooed man (his wife was tattooed, too) with, frankly, a rather ape-like carriage and a heavily muscled torso. All of which I mention for two reasons--first, to sketch in the human details of this story which is, as I say, all about real-life gay human beings and those among whom we live, and, second, on the off chance that if this young father should ever come across this posting, he might see himself in it and give some thought to what he's teaching his young daughter through his hateful behavior.

I'm not sure whether Steve or I caught the glare first. We were busy about our herb-gathering, our buying of gay frou-frou steel-cut oats and unbleached flour from the bulk bins, where the man was also shopping with his wife and child. It was as I turned around from the flour bin, having helped scoop flour into a bag Steve was holding, that I caught the man's eye.

And saw that he intended for me to see his disdain, his hostility, his bullying glare . . . . At this point, I did what I more and more frequently do, to Steve's chagrin: I spoke out. I said something like, "Well, that's a nice face to see shopping of a nice Sunday afternoon, isn't it?" Followed by, "Poor little girl, to have a father like this."

Normally, when I get into that mode, Steve tells me I'm over-reacting and nudges me to hold my tongue. On this occasion, he didn't, and as we walked to the car, he said, "What's going on? Do I look gay? Am I dressed gay?" Normally, Steve wants us both to conclude that we've probably imagined that this kind of behavior is all about homophobia.

On this occasion, it was so out in the open, so blatant, so meant to be seen, that he couldn't deny what had just taken place.

And so we drove home asking each other what the future can hold for us as an aging gay couple who in no way try to ruffle anyone's feathers, but who--or so it begins to seem to us--can't count on even a bit of peace and freedom from such overt hostility as we move into our 60s, slow down, try to enjoy what's left of our lives without undue worry.

Try to piece together the fragments accorded us in a very prejudice-skewed world and to make some bright and shining meaning out of them.

Is it going to get better for LGBT Catholics? I wonder.

It's certainly not getting better for some gay folks in some parts of the U.S. Homophobia is rawer and more out in the open in some areas of the nation and some social circles as a direct response to the growing visibility of those who are gay in American society. And as a direct response to the growing sense of many white men that they are losing political control of the country.

I'd like to say that it's getting better or going to get better in the Catholic church. I'd like to say that, precisely because Christian communities recognize that many gay people in the world have to live with experiences like ours on Sunday, Christian communities would be doing something to open healing, including, loving spaces in a prejudice-skewed world. Healing, including, and loving spaces to draw protective circles around those subject to discrimination in society at large.

But I know better. I know better than to turn to any Catholic pastor or any Catholic community in our city for refuge from open prejudice and discrimination in the world in which we live as an openly gay Catholic couple.

And I don't see anything changing anytime soon, for the better. Not when the disdain emanates so clearly right from the top of my church, and is reinforced by clear dictates from the top.

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