There’s a moment in Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic where she refers to herself as a “public homosexual”. That gave me pause to reflect about the irony of my own situation: while I am far from public in the level that Miss Tushnet is, it’s true that I’ve gabbed on far more about that aspect of my life as a celibate Catholic than as a sexually active pagan. A frequent way people reach this blog is by googling terms like “gay celibacy”. I can only imagine the look of horror that would have crossed my 16-year-old self’s face if he had been aware of what his most popular writings would be, ten years down the line. But that kid never really wanted to live what the world at large considered to be a normal life, so in a sense he got his wish. He has yet to become a professional novelist, though.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Eve Tushnet has long been one of my favourite bloggers. In particular, she was the first blogger I stumbled across who was tackling the idea of being a celibate gay. While I had read a fair amount of stuff articulating Catholic teaching on homosexuality, and while I could with some bitterness intellectually take it, I hadn’t encountered any good examples of what living that out looked like; I had no evidence I could point to to suggest that the life I was embarking on wouldn’t just end with me being a lonely, repressed, deeply unhappy man. Tushnet, who had been wrestling with this stuff for a decade or so, was the first voice articulating a more positive vision of how one could actually live a good life in the no-man’s-land I seemed to be moving into. That was helpful, to say the least.
The book presents a more developed form of a lot of the themes touched upon in her blog. It isn’t a work of apologetics – she starts with the assumption that the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is the correct one. Rather, the aim is to give advice to gay people who are not called to the usual vocations of marriage, priesthood or religious life on how they can live out lives which are just as meaningful and love-filled as those are. As such, single Christians more generally may find the book worth reading. (and also, I hope, non-Christians, or non-traditional Christians, who are interested in eavesdropping on the conversation).
It falls into three sections. The first is autobiographical, the second on vocational advice, and the third being a large appendix with resources, FAQs and the like.
Her own story was unusually relatable in at least a few points: we were both outsiders to the Catholic Faith, out and proud gays who came from a secular Jewish background. Our undergraduate philosophical and poetic adventures got a little too crazy, and we found ourselves to our surprise on the other side of the Tiber. We went native.
Through all these arguments and spiritual shifts, I had reached the point where I believed that if there were a god, it was probably the Catholic one. I darkly suspected that the world might be the work of that bloody-minded God. I began to pray, kneeling beside my dorm-room bed, feeling like an idiot. It is instructively humiliating to pray, and for that reason, I think praying on one’s knees or in some other posture of submission is almost always preferable. I continued to struggle with the arguments during the daytime, and then at night I would pray.
Is there any convert whose prayer life didn’t start off embarrassingly awkward like this? And I agree that there is a sort of pedagogical value to the awkwardness – especially for stoic types like myself who don’t like to ask for help.
Her narrative continues past the baptismal font to give a rather honest and poignant depiction on what, she says, has been her most difficult spiritual struggle: alcoholism. On occasion I’ve encountered people who have said things to me along the lines of, “it’s great and kind of admirable that you have this strict moral code you live by, but I could never do that; I’ve got so many issues and vices etc.” But – Christianity isn’t a moral code, and I honestly don’t know any Christians (least of all myself) who exist on some holier-than-thou plane where human failure no longer touches them. The situation is a lot more like this:
When I was trying, unsuccessfully, to quit drinking, I had one night in a hotel room when I was praying pretty intensely and making real progress, albeit haltingly. I managed to call up images of some of the most humiliating things I’d done – not the worst things, not the unkindness and selfishness, which we somehow usually manage to repent without really loathing, but the most shameful things – and invite God into those moments. I imagined him there, as in fact he was there, seeing it all and not turning away from me. I “invited” him, the way you have to invite a vampire in – you have to invite God into your heart and your memory in the same way if you want forgiveness. It was ridiculously painful and to this day, I can’t do it most of the time, but it was also one of the closest encounters I’ve ever had with the truth about the shocking completeness of God’s mercy.
And then I got back from my business trip and bought a comfortingly large bottle of Smirnoff, you know? Mercy and penitence don’t always “work”; they are sufficient in themselves and have no other “point” or purpose. Still, denying yourself mercy will pretty much always make your life worse. Mary Karr got it right when she said, “That schoolmarm part of me – that hypercritical finger-wagging part of myself that I thought was gonna keep me sober – that is actually what helped me stay drunk. What keeps you sober is love and connection to something bigger than yourself.”
There are also more amusing quotes, like this:
Still, I realize I may not be the very best poster child to make the case for gay mental health. All I can say is that I know a lot of queer people who are so healthy and normal, you could just puke. They are veritable pillars of bourgeois stability. Not how I’ve ever wanted to live, but not exactly the movie Cruising either.
This reminds me of an ironic trend which I’ve noticed in my life: when it came to really crazy, dangerous, unhealthy stuff, it was for the most part my straight friends who were into it. Most of the gay people I’ve known have tried to eke out a respectable living. I can see why this is the case; I didn’t start to befriend other gays until university, so I was drawing on a pool of people who at least had some academic/career ambitions and expectations, and whose lives hadn’t already gone off the rails in surrealistic, Hunter S. Thompson fashion. The same cannot be said of some high school era friends (and, in retrospect it is actually weird just how much first-hand exposure I got to drug culture as a teenager without ever actually being a part of it).
I’m not great with children – I’m ideologically in favor of them, but they can be kind of hard to talk to.
To be continued…