“Your kisses are worth more than that!” I could see a sort of desperation in her, a painful need to have these words break into my stony surface. She had put her hand on my arm as she said it, maybe hoping that through physical touch, she might also be able to reach something spiritually.
Her comment came in response to a joke I’d made about making out with strangers that weekend. I could’ve balked at her response. A part of me wanted to laugh coldly in her face, but I didn’t. She seemed so sincere.
I thought she was utterly deluded. I can’t remember if that was before or after the assault, the one where I got scared and had actually used the words “I do not consent.” He didn’t really care. Actually, he said, “Come on, we’re just having fun.” We weren’t.
I’d heard about people thinking they’d deserved their assaults. I’d always believed that such thoughts were categorically wrong. But then I understood those people, because I became one of them.
I really did believe that I deserved mine, not necessarily because I did anything to invite it, but because I believed that I didn’t deserve anything. At that time in my my life, I thought that I was worthless, and that this was just what happened when you were worthless. After it happened, I just sat in my car on a secluded dark street and felt disgusting. I felt exactly how I thought I should feel. Not because what he did was disgusting, but because I thought that I was disgusting, and that that was why it happened to me.
I think this is a great part of why the common presentation of the “Christian sexual ethic” fails to convince gay people. Because celibacy only works when you see it as an exalted state, when you hold your sexuality close to yourself because you are convinced of its value. Only when I really see my body as something of great value do I stop treating it as merely a dispensary device for my pleasure or someone else’s. Only when I think my kisses are precious do I begin to see my sexuality as priceless.
But Christians often don’t make gay people feel valuable. They see our sexuality as a curse, rather than a gift. They often make us feel afraid, isolated, unwanted. In the Christian world, being gay is an occupational hazard, a social constraint, and an intellectual problem. We often find our lives reduced to an argument over language, or a political debate, or an “occasion for sin” (or an occasion for someone else’s “complicity” in sin). Christians often struggle in a tension between seeing us as problems to be solved (with as little entanglement in those problems as possible) and seeing us as persons to be befriended (which, as in all real friendships, would involve problems not susceptible to easy or obvious “solutions,” but which friends will find themselves bound up in). We often feel that Christians would rather just not deal with us and the complexities of our lives and relationships.
And when Christians don’t want us, why should we want ourselves? Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “It is only through the You that the I can come into itself.” But gay people spend so much time fearing that we are not a “You” to Christians. And so we cannot come into ourselves as Christians. In this context, the Christian call to celibacy does not become a call to dignity, but a call to worthlessness, to unwantedness, to isolation. In this context, we have yet to experience the deep acceptance which would make celibacy a desirable good.
Instead we experience it as a lack. I now view my old sense of worthlessness as a natural consequence of the ways in which I was treated and spoken about by many Catholics. It was a conclusion flowing easily from the existential presuppositions many Catholics had placed before me, and my willingness to pick them up.
Ultimately, two experiences helped me begin to see my value, my worth, and my dignity, of my person and thus of my body. I needed the stabilizing experience of steadfast friendship, and also the penetrating vision of falling in love. Especially through that vision of another, I was able to see myself as good.
This vision, given by a young man recklessly in love with me, ultimately gave me a new vision of the Church’s understanding of my sexuality. The Church’s vision, like his vision, wants to tell me: “You are good. You are a valuable. You were made for freedom. Though you may not think much of yourself, I think the world of you. And in this vision, I devote myself to you. In this vision, I present to you a liberating and passion-filled way of life. I present to you a new vision of yourself, where you are not only made of value, but made for value, for infinite value.” This is the beginning of the Christian vision of sexuality.
This vision, and its accompanying moral clarity, can only be seen when we Christians place ourselves in danger by embracing the other without fear. The realization and firm existential belief that one is radically and recklessly embraced by Christ and the Church is the precondition for any Christian morality, since this morality rests on the fundamental and irrevocable dignity of the human person. Christian morality rests on the recognition of another as an “irreducible center of dignity and grace” (as that man who loved me once put it).
The challenge for Christians in today’s world when it comes to sexual morality is to bring others to the belief in that dignity and grace, to embrace recklessly and radically. The lack of belief in a Christian sexual ethic does not come from a mere failure of another’s virtue or a lack of conceptual knowledge; it comes from our failure to bring others to a belief in their great dignity, which comes to full realization in the embrace of the Church. Only when we have made others believe in our embrace will they believe in our morality.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou
For gay Christians who may be reading this: Christianity does not promise you a life without conflict or tension, a life where you will always be accepted, or even a life where the Christians around you will treat you as Christians ought to treat others. But do know that you are valuable, that your life is good, and that you can find freedom, peace, and joy. The burdens that some Christians try to inflict upon us may be heavy, but the burdens Christ bears with us are light, the yokes easy. And there are good Christians out there who want to learn to love you. But be patient with them. Friendship is a struggle, and a learned virtue acquired over time and worked out through many missteps and mistakes. I have many friends who, I think, do a great job of staying true to their beliefs while accompanying me with openness and charity. But it’s taken time (years, in fact) and effort to cultivate these friendships. It’s still an ongoing effort. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been good.
For straight Christians who may be reading this: I hope that this post doesn’t cause you anguish over your ability to love your gay brothers and sisters. I hope that it can help you to understand us, and to love us more deeply. I believe that straight Christians are quite capable of loving their gay brothers and sisters, because I have been a recipient of this love. We need your love, just as you need ours. We are, after all, one Church. And I’m thankful for that. If you have done things that have harmed your gay brothers and sisters, you don’t need our forgiveness, because you have already been forgiven by the One who has the power to forgive. All that remains now is the hard work of being reconciled to the Body of Christ, that is, to each other and to ourselves.
More on homosexuality and chastity here.