This year, just like last year, Gay Pride weekend coincided with the feast of Corpus Christi.
Washington, D.C.’s Pride parade was fairly restrained: It featured a cornucopia of Episcopalians, and all the marchers went out of their way to sweetly drape beads over the little elementary-school girls standing in front of me. There were Affirming Baptists; as the parade passed by me, a knot of gay men to my right joked — in that gay way that is never really joking all the way down — that maybe they could be Baptists again now. There were strollers, lots of strollers . . . at least five floats’ lengths away from the guys in the padded leather thongs.
The next day, an exaltation of the body very different from the one on the D.C. leather bars’ floats occurred in the same neighborhood. It was the feast of Corpus Christi, a product of medieval women’s intense focus on Christ in the Eucharist. We walked a small, almost shy, almost shameful circuit of the block immediately surrounding the church. We didn’t even attempt to process down to D.C.’s Freedom Plaza, where the Pride weekend booths had settled. We’d retreated from the obvious thing happening in our neighborhood that weekend.
A child asked (I think — my Spanish is high school at best) why we were kneeling on the boiling hot pavement. “Por penitencia!” his mother explained. A young woman knelt on the cement, her whole body arched forward like an Olympian waiting for the gun to fire so she can race, the deep blue ruffles on her blouse pulled taut over her intent and muscled back.
The monsignor walked with Christ’s Body under an umbrella stamped with the papal insignia. No one explained what we were doing. Our witness was real, but enigmatic. Nobody ever said that this was the Body exalted.
I half-jokingly (it’s never joking all the way down) suggested that my coreligionists throw rosary beads next year. Maybe then we’ll finally get around to talking about what the Catholic Church has to offer to gay men and women.
We have what virtually no one else has. Other forms of Christianity have, for the most part, either ditched the prohibition on gay sex or insisted that homosexuality can be fixed, as if our profound longings were a leaky carburetor. In a landscape of gay heresy, blank silence, and secularized therapy, the Catholic Church offers a more compelling alternative: the possibility of shockingly chaste same-sex love.
Frederick Roden argues, in Same Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, that the English Protestants who associated “Romanism” and homosexuality were not simple xenophobes. They were reacting to real features of Catholicism. Although “Romophobia” in the Victorian era probably did partake in the usual resistance to anything that is different or foreign, there were nonetheless particular features that made the Catholic Church more attractive to the people who were, at the time, being psychologized into “inverts” or homosexuals.
Same-sex attracted seekers in the Victorian era responded strongly to Catholicism’s physicality. The incense smoke and flaking paint, the hint of cannibalism that recalled the Church to Her disrespectable origins, the kneeling, and the statues called to gay men and women. If you’re persecuted for your reaction to gender and physicality, you may become intensely aware of bodily realities; and Catholicism, alone in the mainstream Western religious landscape, kept insisting that bodies were both important and bizarre. We alone kept saying that the flat white wafer in the priest’s hands might shiver at any moment into raw and bleeding human flesh. We alone made Communion a horror story.
And the Catholic Church gave men and women an image of Woman whom they could truly love. Catholic lesbians can yearn for Mother Church; we can yearn for the Virgin. Catholicism offered same-sex attracted women the images of womanhood that helped them render their desires sublime. Beatrice makes sense not only to Dante but to me.
I occasionally give talks about being gay and Catholic, and one of the most frequent questions I get is a sort of frustrated bafflement: What is the difference between sublimation and repression? What does it mean when you say you can sublimate your desires — isn’t that just a fancy way of saying, “Pray away the gay”?
I think Roden’s book is one place to begin. Roden gives us portraits of men and women navigating an exceptionally complex cultural moment — as same-sex love was shifting from exalted friendship to despised pathology — who often display a fearlessness and passion no one could deny.
There’s a lot more Catholic history to discover. Alan Bray’s study The Friend looks at the ethics and culture of same-sex friendship in England from 1000 AD to the 19th century; he finds beautiful commemorations of lifelong loyalty, ceremonies in which friends became kin, and much more. It is entirely possible to renew these practices of our faith (Bray wryly notes that he is “returning [the term ‘traditional religion’] to its owners”) without any compromise on the Church’s teaching about the proper use of our bodies and our sexuality.
Doubtless no matter how many models of chaste same-sex love the Church offers, many contemporary gay people will still reject its hard teachings. But it couldn’t hurt to try. So often I’m asked questions that boil down to the angry or anguished plea, “Is there anything in my love and desire that the Catholic Church can respect?” I’d be shocked if as much as five percent of gay people who grew up Catholic even know that there’s precedent for their lives, and faithfully Catholic beauty available to them. I’d be shocked if anyone had ever even suggested a vision of a world where God, Church, family, and community could celebrate their love while still requiring that this love express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.
In a world of Gay Pride, the Catholic Church offers a unique opportunity to celebrate gay humility. Maybe we should start telling people about it.