It was one of those “we’re both gay, how about a coffee?” kind of meetings. After a while I told her, “Yeah, it was fun hooking up and stuff… But I’m glad it’s in the past.”
She looked at me seriously, giving the sort of look that goes right into you but without feeling invasive. She said, “You don’t need to apologize for your past. You don’t need to justify yourself to me.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Really,” she said. “I feel like Catholics do this thing, where you tend to apologize for your past by saying it’s all in the past and that you feel bad about it but everything’s different now. But we think about sin more as a symptom where the root problem needs a renewal of your mind. In Romans…”
Her use of “apologize” stuck with me. And it came into the forefront of my mind over a year later, as I started to consider another area of my life.
When I first started seeing my partner, some of our initial conversations concerned language. What were we to call ourselves? What was our relationship?
I come from what many would identify as a conservative background, and he a liberal, though we hold views and live lifestyles that don’t fit into one socio-political category. (I’d say that I’m conservative somewhere in the vein of Russell Kirk and liberal somewhere in the vein of Dorothy Day, but even that doesn’t quite capture it.)
In my world (the world of gay Catholics committed to Church teaching), we first have to deal with our hangups on same-sex romantic relationships. Then, for those of us who are open to such relationships, we have to deal with hangups about what we call them. Some go with “partners.” Most are open to the language of “friendship.” And others insist that if you say “partners” then you need additional appendages like “celibate” or “chaste.”
Intellectually, I’ve been fine with just “partners,” but emotionally I’ve sometimes wanted to grab at “celibate partners.” When I’ve encountered Catholics that I think might be skeptical or disapproving of our relationship, I’ve sometimes said something along the lines of: “We’re partners… but we’re committed to Church teaching.”
But as I’ve considered this, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the add-on.
One issue has to do with veracity. He and I have chosen to live by the teachings of the Church, but (as with all couples) putting that into practice involves real struggle and occasional failure. Frankly, I think we’re pretty good at it and would like an award from the Theology of the Body Institute. But we certainly could do better.
The above paragraph makes me pause. Why did I write it? Why did I feel the need to write it? Frankly, those details of our struggle to live our faith isn’t really your business. How did it end up in this post?
I think I was, once again, apologizing. It’s a reflex now.
That’s something my partner helped me to realize. Every time I added appendages to “partners” or gave the gory details of my sexual life in a posting that was simply supposed to be sharing that I was gay (i.e. “I’m gay, but I’m committed to Church teaching”), I was apologizing. I was saying, “I’m gay, but you can be ok with that as a Christian, because I’m proclaiming that I’m not the sort of gay you would assume I am if I just said I was gay.”
Essentially, the appendages acted as justifications, which usually are simply apologies. You’re saying, “I’m this sort of person, but I make up for it by also being this other way or doing this other thing. I’m sorry that I have to be this way, but I make up for it by also being that way.” I often feel that my sexuality can only be justified by celibacy, and I communicate my apology for my sexuality by also communicating a commitment to celibacy. Over and over again when coming out I’ve wanted to apologize, because no one had ever told me, “You don’t have to apologize to me. You don’t have to justify yourself. You can just say, ‘I’m gay.'”
Now, there’s another side to this. The appendages can also be added as an act of charity. They can act as a way to help people along an unfamiliar concept, that of the gay man in pursuit of the Church’s understanding of chastity. And that’s a good thing to do. Instructing the ignorant is one of the spiritual works of mercy (and Catholics can be real ignorant when it comes to this area). So sure, that can be an act of charity, by instructing those with ignorant (to use the Church’s terminology) presumptions to reconsider.
But I hesitate to make the appendages a general rule for two reasons.
First, it would be awkward and weird for me to identify myself to my coworkers as a “chaste gay Catholic man,” even if that would have spared me invitations to strip clubs at past jobs. My way of sharing my faith isn’t usually that direct. I believe in the more subtle and invitational evangelization of turning down those invitations as they arise and giving explanations as appropriate.
Second, I now realize that my emotional urge to add appendages didn’t come from charity. It came from insecurity. I’ve never felt this urge with my secular friends (or with my gay Catholic friends). It’s only been among straight conservative Christians that I have felt the impulse to explain, to justify, to apologize. And I’ve realized that this urge has come from a position of fear, fear of being dismissed for being gay, fear of being treated with skepticism by Catholics, rather than out of a desire to take them by the hand and walk with confidence. It came from a fear of rejection, rather than a desire to help. And I need to overcome the former before I can fully engage in the latter.
Ultimately, this is why I will be fighting against my inclination to use the terms “celibate gay partners” or “chaste gay partners” or “partners but committed to Church teaching.” Because the appendages are mostly apologies for my relationship. And they’re apologies from me for other people’s assumptions.
For Catholics to expect such appendages from gay people would be like expecting Catholic husbands and wives to identify as a “non-contracepting couple” or “procreative spouses,” particularly those husbands and wives who don’t have children immediately after marriage. It’s good for couples to share that their love isn’t conditioned by the pill. But they shouldn’t be expected to condition the language of their relationship just because people assume everyone uses it. They can share their lives with those who care enough about them to actually get to know them. They shouldn’t need to apologize for their relationship, just because we live in a day and age where most couples are on birth control.
The problem of presumption is embedded deeply in the Church. I remember when I first started coming out, and often people would tell me that they never guessed I was gay, because I was “such a good Catholic.” This presumption is embedded deeply in Catholic cultural consciousness, the presumption that there’s something un-Catholic about being gay. But ultimately, that’s not my problem. That’s everyone else’s. I am not a problem. Their presumptions are.
So let’s think back to the husband and wife. They’re just a couple. They’re just spouses. We’re just partners. No more apologies.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.