By David Morrison
Chapter One: Why this book?
Outside of perhaps the emotional debates over abortion and euthanasia, few more divisive issues tear at the fabric of American culture and politics as those surrounding same-sex attraction and sexual activity. In families and communities, offices and boardrooms, Americans are being asked to reconsider how they view sexuality, sexual expression, tolerance, and compassion. When does “tolerating” something slip into approving of it? Have holidays in your house become battlegrounds where family members who demand acceptance of both themselves and their sleeping arrangements fight other family members concerned with falling moral standards? Can you love others and not approve of everything about the way they live their life? If you think you must approve, and what they are doing is genuinely harmful, are you really being compassionate towards them? What can society demand that a person accept as a condition of participating in public life? To paraphrase a chant which I used to yell at rallies from time to time, if people living with same-sex attraction are “here and queer” what should getting “used to it” mean?
Questions proliferate in the public realm. Should men and women in actively homosexual relationships be allowed to teach school or adopt children? Should teenagers who may experience same-sex attraction be “affirmed” in an identity based upon that attraction? How about relationships? Should society consider all relationships where “love” is present equally good? What is the nature of marriage? What is sex for, anyhow? What is the nature of love?
Questions such as these crowd local and national headlines almost daily, but they also make personal and family news as well. Using a conservative estimate, approximately three million people in the United States live with a predominant sexual and emotional attraction to a member of their own sex. Multiply that by a reasonable number of parents, siblings, and spouses and there may be as many as 12 million Americans whose interest in the societal debate over same-sex attraction could be described as more than academic. That means 12 million people for whom every charge and counter-charge, every misunderstanding, miscommunication, mischaracterization, and slur can strike right at the heart of who they consider themselves to be or the kind of life one of their loved ones is trying to build. No wonder questions of same-sex attraction, gay or lesbian rights, and same-sex marriage or adoption have the explosive emotional force they do.
I hope this book, while addressing many of these questions, will not contribute further to any of this issue’s combustion. To borrow somewhat liberally from Shakespeare, I write neither to praise same-sex attraction nor to condemn it. Those who have opened this book hoping to find denunciations of “evil” gay rights activists will go away disappointed. So will those readers who wish to see opponents of a same-sex agenda vilified. Rather, what I hope this book does will be to point a third way — a path God has been gracious enough to show me in my life, by which one may live with same-sex attraction while refusing to be defined by it or act upon it. In short, for individuals who live with varying degrees of same-sex attraction, as well as their families, friends, pastors, and colleagues, I hope this book offers some light at the end of what may be a very dark tunnel.
The depth of this tunnel’s darkness feels as though it has only deepened with the passage of more time. I must reiterate, since many of this chapter’s facts are rather unpleasant, that I do not report them to stigmatize, bully, or otherwise slam homosexually active men or women. The sheer number of windows in my house would dictate a lot of caution were I inclined to throw stones. But one of the key lessons life has taught me concerns the primacy we, as human beings, must accord the truth. Whether welcome or disdained, convenient, troublesome, or indifferent, truth must be respected and sought. If we do not seek it, we shall never really understand who we are or where, exactly, we stand.
Since the late 1960s, men and women who have engaged in same-sex activity, either part-time or predominantly, have been the canaries in the sexual revolution’s coal mine. As long as what passed as “love” remained widely understood as “free,” society seemed to be opening up, at least in places like New York and San Francisco, for people whose experience of attraction and sexual desire had been denied and kept under wraps for many years. But as soon as the air in the mine began to go bad, the canaries were the first to die. Consider what author and activist Eric Rofes says in Reviving the Tribe about what the years 1981 through 1995 would mean for many men who were sexually active with other men:
By 1995, half of the men you’ve loved, hugged, talked, danced, cruised and had sex with will be dead or dying. You will feel like a time-traveling dinosaur before you reach middle age. The clubs you’ve inhabited will be gone, the music will be trashed and disappear, the history will evaporate into a vacuum. You will rip cards out of your Rolodex like pages from a calendar. You will experience so much death that you will forget who died and who is still alive. You will run into men on the street who you thought were long dead. You will send out Christmas cards each year and receive a half dozen back stamped “deceased.”
Although not everyone has experienced this degree of loss, and despite the significant emotional and spiritual renaissance that a number of men report after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the overall effect of AIDS on much of the self-identified “gay” community was one of deep loss. The AIDS memorial quilt, with its thousands of handmade, grave-sized blocks, became a unifying symbol for a community that struggled to come to grips with an experience few, if any, expected. The nights Rofes described as giving him “a persistent, low level, sense of doom” and Randy Shilts, in his landmark book And the Band Played On pictured as a potent mix of desire and potential disease, flickered with the signs of approaching disaster, but few were able to read them. Too many actively homosexual men and lesbian women had burned too many bridges to allow themselves the luxury of time to take stock in what they were doing or where, individually and collectively, they were going. Identities forged in opposition to a society that had not understood became, in this terrible hour, not unlike armor that protects on the battlefield but drowns its occupant when the ship goes down. When researchers from the Federal Government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and related organizations told leaders of San Francisco’s actively homosexual community that the community should consider closing the bathhouses where HIV was being spread most rapidly, the activists booed the researchers off the stage. The love that feared to speak its name less than one hundred years before had found its full-throated voice, and it would take more than a whisper of illness to silence it. Until, that is, actively homosexual men began to die, followed soon after by the others whose activities or circumstances made them vulnerable to infection. Then, and only then, did the self-identified gay community pause to question itself about the way it lived and loved.
And, to be sure, the community had, and still has in my opinion, much to question. How wise is it to base an identity on sexual desire? What role does the sexual part of one’s psyche have on the rest? Does “liberation” mean freedom to be dominated by one’s desires, or is taking authority over desire the path to authentic freedom? One of the points Shilts makes in his book, which many have chosen to overlook because of its political incorrectness, is that the actively homosexual community he witnessed was ripe for some sort of infection even before HIV. The virus associated most closely with AIDS was only the latest in a line of aggressive and opportunistic disease vectors to take advantage of a community whose primary sexual expression left individuals easy to infect. In building an identity on sexual desire, early gay activists took their bodies for granted and misunderstood the roles and purposes of sex and freedom. Consider Rofes reminiscing in Reviving the Tribe about the role of a “a gay men’s VD clinic” in forging a sense of identity among actively homosexual men in the 1970s:
Simply walking into Boston’s Fenway Community Health Center, Chicago’s Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, or Los Angeles’ Gay Community Services Center a “gay men’s VD clinic” represented a major step toward self-identity and personal power. I recall looking around the waiting room at the Fenway at several dozen men of different ages, classes, and ethnicities and feeling solidarity and pride. Despite the risks of those years, each of us had seized the moment and claimed status as sexually active gay men.
While I would not want to extrapolate Rofes’s experience to all contemporary men who acted upon, or even merely experienced, same-sex attraction, Rofes is a significant voice for the revival of an actively sexual culture among self-identified gay men, and his perspective, both from memory and research, must be examined and interrogated. How healthy is it, emotionally, physically, or psychologically, to adopt an identity which bases itself on an activity which appears prone to transmit disease as a part of its very nature? Yet this question appears never to have been asked in a broad or systemic way even, as one Rofes’s interviewee notes, it was possible to document “two dozen specific sexually transmitted diseases” running among San Francisco men active with same-sex partners in the heady days of the gay rights movement.
A survey of the relevant medical literature reveals how deep and wide-ranging are the non-HIV related emotional and physical problems of homosexually active men. In the course of writing Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate, Author Thomas E. Schmidt surveyed more than two hundred scholarly, secular, medical, and social scientific publications that had offered research on some aspect of emotional, physical, or psychological health among homosexually active men. All of the journals consulted were either neutral on the subject of homosexuality or took an openly “affirming” position on the subject. As of 1995, here is the poignant way Schmidt summarizes his research findings:
Suppose you were to move into a large house in San Francisco with a group of ten randomly selected homosexual men in their mid-thirties. According to the most recent research from scientific sources, whose authors are without exception either neutral or positive in their assessment of homosexual behavior, and with the use of lower numbers where the statistics differ, the relational and physical health of the group would look like this.
Four of the ten men are currently in relationships, but only one of those is faithful to his partner and he will not be within a year. Four have never had arelationship that lasted more than a year and only one has had a relationship that lasted more than three years. Six are having sex regularly with strangers, and the group averages almost two partners per person per month. Three of them occasionally take part in orgies. One is a sadomasochist. One prefers boys to men.
Three of the men are currently alcoholics, five have a history of alcohol abuse and four have a history of drug abuse. Three currently smoke cigarettes; five regularly use at least one illegal drug and three are multiple drug users. Four have a history of acute depression, three have seriously contemplated suicide and two have attempted suicide. Eight have a history of sexually transmitted diseases, eight currently carry infectious pathogens and three currently suffer from digestive or urinary ailments caused by these pathogens.
Again, the point of this chapter is not to throw stones at men who experience same-sex attraction or even those who act upon that temptation. In fact, it should be noted that Schmidt himself, in later paragraphs, makes it clear that it is same-sex sexual activity, rather than the mere experience of desire, that carries with it these costs. Further, I recognize that this statistical summary does not include all homosexually active men. I myself have known male couples that beat the odds on the average length of time in relationship, though none that remained monogamous throughout. Instead, the point is to make clear that the darkness that afflicts the homosexually active community is not merely a figment of imagination or of anti-homosexual propaganda but is instead a very real shadow with a very real associated price. Actively homosexual men and women who have been lucky enough to duck the darkness are overwhelmingly the exceptions, not the rule. If you are a homosexually active man or woman who has lived your life without any of these surveyed problems, count yourself lucky. The vast majority who have gone before you have not been as fortunate.
But this book seeks to do more than simply cry in the public square about a situation that, some argue, actively homosexual men (and some women too) bring on themselves. Rather, this book wishes to offer hope, even if it seems no stronger than the old gas streetlights, to beat back the deepening gloom from the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men and women around the world.
Nihilism: the changing nature of darkness
In early spring of 1996, on my way to San Francisco to address a conference on chastity and homosexuality, I read in the Washington Post that noted gay activist and author Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of a prominent journal of opinion called The New Republic, had publicly come forward to reveal his HIV status. Sullivan was HIV positive. I recall sitting on the five-hour flight from Washington to San Francisco in a state of minor shock and grief. Sullivan and I were not great friends. Mutual acquaintances had introduced us at a couple of stuffy parties, but our sharply held and contradicting opinions kept our conversation politely at arms length. Yet, Sullivan and I shared enough commonality that I found myself tracking his career, reading some of his pieces and books with a mixture of appreciation and indignation. He and I both lived with same-sex attraction, both wrote, both cared passionately about the issues and problems of the day, both had been or were currently activists. In fact, I identified in some of Sullivan’s “conservatively gay” positions many of my own assertions that I had only recently abandoned for a more orthodox Catholic approach. Most especially it was our common Catholicism from which I drew a link. We both lived lives as Catholics with same-sex attraction and had experienced, I was sure, that odd sense of ambivalent longing common to our position. Both of us experienced, I knew, the feeling of having a foot in two apparently sharply diverging communities. We each, I suspected, felt compelled, by both religious longings and sexual drives that neither one of us completely understood, to join communities whose goals were almost entirely at odds and yet whose roles in our lives felt completely essential. And now he had HIV, and I sat in a plane on the way to San Francisco to give a talk on chastity in a parish church within a few miles of the still heavily gay Castro District.
The news about Sulllvan weighed on my address. Although I had not written it with this situation in mind, I found several of my talk’s themes resonating with my grief until, finally, I mentioned it directly. How sad, how tragic, I said, that one as young, intelligent, creative, and filled with promise should have been sidetracked into something as dark and, then particularly, hopeless as HIV. After all, AIDS and I were no strangers. Helping other friends live with the disease until they died had yanked away any inclination I might have felt to cover the disease in cotton-candy sentimentality. HIV is a potent, relentless agent in the human body. It attacks cells the body so needs that most people never even know of their existence until they stop working. Once these cells are destroyed, the body awaits invasion from armies of other pathogens like Rome open before the barbarians. Fungi, cancers, other sorts of viruses, parasites, and even other forms of degenerative diseases all have their day until, finally, the patient can no longer sustain both himself and the invaders and so dies. Absent a medical miracle, I said, this is what awaits Andrew Sullivan.
After I completed my talk, a young man, a gay activist who had been so upset with my lecture that he had walked out, approached and challenged what I said about Sullivan. After he introduced himself as Wayne he asked if I hadn’t been “a little bit” too pessimistic about Sullivan’s prognosis? Yes, I agreed, the shock of hearing the news might have left my thoughts a little bit too dark about it, although, I added, it was probably better to be too clear-eyed about AIDS than to not see clearly enough. Then, apparently emboldened by a lack of argument, he posed a question that staggered me. He asked whether I wasn’t also being a little judgmental about AIDS. At first I despaired, imagining that he had left so early that he had missed crucial parts of my discussion. “No,” I began, “I don’t blame people living with AIDS for . . .”
“No, no,” he said, “maybe he doesn’t look at AIDS like you do. Maybe having HIV was his choice.”
“I beg your pardon?” I said, certain I had misheard or misunderstood.
“What if he decided that living to age 50 or 60 or 70 without sex wasn’t worth it?” Wayne asked. “What if having HIV is his choice? Aren’t you being judgmental about HIV?”
Two days later, as the continent-hopping jetliner sped me toward home, I returned to Wayne’s question. I hadn’t had an answer for him there, and the intervening two days had been too busy for me to really think about it. The question left me feeling helpless and angry — as though somehow the years spent holding hands, encouraging eating, moving bedpans, and fixing meals for so many dying men had somehow been reduced to little more than a statement of whim. Could life, which I thought so important and worth fighting for, really be considered as something less important than sex? Did Wayne’s question mean sex’s importance as a basis for identity had reached too high a plateau or that life’s importance as a context for everything else had diminished too much? And how many other actively homosexual men felt as Wayne alleged Sullivan might have felt?
Sadly, all too many. I soon discovered that while HIV gave rise to a community that seemed to pull together in the face of disaster, the virus and its diseases fostered in many individuals a powerful nihilism. The fruit of this nihilism runs a gamut from what I have come to call the “sex-at-any-cost” movement among some activists to the numbers of young, self-identified gay men who tell opinion pollsters that they never expect to see their fortieth birthday. An unwillingness to live life without sex or to restrict sexual contact to behavior dictated in so-called “safer sex” campaigns appears to underlie much contemporary gay nihilism. Given the choice of no sex or severely restricted sexual expression and risking even life itself, many sexually active men seem to be choosing risk.
Two attitudes have consistently turned up in my conversations (mostly done by e-mail) with men who confess to choosing sex at the risk of HIV. The first is the almost acidic nihilism that reflects surveys of young men who self-identify as gay and who state, rather blithely, that they do not expect to live to age forty. But the second may surprise, and I believe it represents reaffirmation of truth about sexual activity against the lies that our so-called sexual revolution has promulgated. Essentially, many of the homosexually active men I have interviewed, or have seen interviewed elsewhere, report seeking sex in general and, in particular sex without condoms, because they seek the connection, the deeper meaning and even “communion” they say sexual intimacy represents in their lives. In short, far from being something casual, light, easily manipulated, or cast off (the subject of safe sex “campaigns” for example), many homosexually active men think they have found even in same-sex relations something similar to the profound intimacy the Church teaches is one of sexual expression’s chief aspects.We cannot accept the nihilism, these men seem to be saying, of a life reduced to condoms and masturbation even if practicing safer sex may extend our lives. We will seek a communion of sexual activity in order, we hope, to experience meaning, even if it means taking risks.
It has been an odd feeling as a former gay activist and now (at least striving to be) orthodox Catholic to read articles where Catholic couples and sexually active gay men can almost swap passages of dialogue. In one, Catholic couples returning to a deeper and more active faith describe their decisions to eschew contraception and, in another, actively homosexual men give reasons for why they have stopped using condoms. Both groups, at least on the emotional and physical level, expressed many of the same sentiments about the feeling of intimacy sexual expression brings to their lives, the shared closeness they experience during sex which condoms or other contraceptives help destroy.
This, of course, is not to imply an equality of value or even of approach. The willingness to open their lives to the possible realities of parenthood give the Catholic couples a depth of sexual communion that same-sex or otherwise intentionally infertile couples cannot share. Yet in these men’s recognition of their need for intimacy, a spark of truth about the power and purpose of sex flickers. This spark, properly fed and fanned, might blaze into a fire large enough to draw thousands of men and women into an understanding of themselves and of their lives which does not rely on sexual attraction for identity or accept sexual activity as a price for intimacy.
This, then, is the reason for this book: To give witness to the truth about same-sex attraction and activity both as they are expressed in theology and philosophy and as I have found them in my life and observed them in the lives of friends. By drawing from an understanding about human nature that is defined in both dogma and daily life, I hope to reveal a humanity that goes deeper than mere sexual inclination. There is so much more to life than sex. Our stage as human beings is so much larger if we would but open our eyes to see it.
At its deepest level, this book is not about same-sex attraction per se but about Catholicism and the relationship with Himself into which Jesus Christ calls every Catholic. His is the light that cannot be hid, the city that shines on the hill and the hope that will not die — and He is open to everybody. I hope this book will help lay to rest the debate about whether that hope is closed to any individual or group of people because they live with sexual attractions or desires for members of their own sex. There is a better way of life both in this world and for the world to come. It is open to all, to quote the psalmist, who today hear God’s voice and “harden not” their hearts.