In a recent article for Crisis, I took to task Fr. James Martin, S.J., for calling it a cause for celebration, when a teenage boy declared to his father, on Thanksgiving, that he was a homosexual. I said that it would be the worst day of the father’s life, because he would know that he and his son had failed as a tandem to negotiate the rough rapids of the boy’s puberty, and he would also be quite sure that his son had already acted upon his confused feelings. The evil habit would already have reached its tentacles into the boy’s flesh and soul.
A good priest then wrote to me to warn me that my words might be misconstrued. He feared that some boy might read them and then be afraid to speak to his father about his sexual doubts and misgivings and confused feelings. The priest is quite correct.
Let me now reassure any boy or young man who may read these words. Talk to your father. Do not talk to a gay man or to your school counselor. If the counselor is a woman, she will know as much about your feelings as I know about being pregnant. If the counselor is a man, he likely has stock in the whole sexual breakdown of our time. Do not talk to your friends, whom you cannot trust to keep your words to themselves. They are, after all, young, as you are, and prone to give way to the impulse of the moment. Talk to your father.
Think of how easily and stupidly your body is aroused. You may be sitting in an odd position. You may be horsing around with the dog on the floor. You may be wrestling with your kid brother. You may be taking a shower. Almost anything can trip the trigger. It means nothing.
But you are in the locker room and you steal a shy look at the kid with the muscles. Big deal. You think you are unusual? Every single boy in that locker room has done the same. They still do. You just don’t notice it, and there’s no reason why you should. You feel some misgivings, though. Let me try to explain what is going on.
Every single culture in the history of the world has been built upon three forms of love. The first is what we have in common with all the animals: it is the most powerful of our natural bonds. It is the love of a mother for her child. The second love gives the first love a haven, and is blessed by God in a special way; it is the love without which children themselves would not exist. That is the love of man and woman in marriage, raised to the height of glory in the marriage of the eternal bridegroom Christ, with his bride, the Church.
The third, we are apt to overlook and neglect. It is the bond of brother and brother. It is not foundational, as is that of mother and child; it is not an image of the eternal, as is that of bride and groom. It is, however, the bond without which no culture comes into existence in the first place, and then survives. It is the bond that builds bridges, tunnels through mountains, raises walls, drains swamps, clears fields, drills wells, fights for the homeland, erects churches and temples, strings the nerves of commerce and power across a continent, and makes a people into a people rather than a confusion of squabbling families.
Is it celebrated in Scripture? It hardly needed to be; it was so taken for granted everywhere. But the answer is yes. We have what a wise friend of mine long ago set before my attention, the “forgotten icon,” the band of brothers we know as Christ and the apostles. Jesus was under no illusions about male perfection. He calls Peter “Satan,” he expresses impatience with Philip for being so slow to understand him, he rebukes James and John—to whom he has given the jaunty and somewhat unflattering nickname, “Sons of Thunder”—for their ambition; and we need not bother to discuss the hard words he has for the important men of his time. Meanwhile his words to women, though they are frank, are always gentle, even when he tests the faith of the Canaanite woman. Yet Jesus chose men for his apostles.
You see, young man, that Jesus himself was a man, and was drawn to the band of brothers, just as he was drawn to every other good thing in our lives: to the flowers of the desert, to happy feasts, to the love of a kind father, to the sacred songs of his forefathers. Let us then pierce through the confusion of your adolescence and the treachery of our times, and see realities again. What Jesus experienced in his humanity—the boy’s attraction to the male band; recall how the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem to trade questions and answers with the learned men?—every boy and young man experiences. Every one of them; it is as natural as breathing. You are not different from any boy or young man in this regard. We are all the same.
But your feelings are powerful. Well, flimsy bonds do not move mountains. Of course they are powerful. The football player you admire, he has those feelings too. But in his case, the feelings are satisfied by a powerful and normal and healthy object. He has his football squad, and that both affirms him as a man and clears up his confusions. The difference between you and him is not in the kind of feelings you have, but in his good fortune, to have had those feelings directed aright and satisfied in a way that builds up his identity as a man.
Take yourself out of your particular situation. Imagine that you’ve grown up in what people would have found normal at most times and in most places. Forget football, baseball, and other sports that require some special skill that you may not have. Imagine that you live on a farm. All your life long you have been out in the fields with boys and men, working, laughing, quarreling, sweating, eating, playing. You have never been in doubt for a moment about your sex and your belonging with others of your kind, because that’s all you have known. You would have the same ordinary feelings that other boys have, yet they wouldn’t be a source of pain or fear. They couldn’t be. Every day you will have been affirmed as a masculine being, just from the work you do. You could have been born with exactly the same genetic makeup, but in that world, a harsh but healthy world, you would have had no doubts about what you were.
Be assured. You are the same, you are one of us.
And your sexual feelings? Your arousal? Meaningless, and transitory, unless you put the feelings into action. Don’t do that. Think: “This feeling is stupid.” Do not take it too seriously. Some people cannot walk across a bridge without thinking of doing something stupid. Meaningless, and transitory. Your sexual feelings during the teenage years are on overdrive. A picture of Michelangelo’s David will set you off. Big deal. Be patient. Do not do anything sexual with anybody. By all means stay away from porn. On the whole matter of purity, see a good priest and take his advice. About your feelings, don’t let them preoccupy you. Consider it a part of growing up.
But if you are worried, talk to your father. If you have done something dumb, something you are ashamed of, by all means go to your father. You may be astounded by the old man’s wisdom. He will have seen a lot more than you will believe. Go to him. Do not go to the school counselor; do not go to any adult who has a vested interest in your failing. Talk to your father.
And remember what I say. Your real need is for masculine affirmation, so often expressed in a broadly physical way—think of a big bunch of coal miners showering after a day under the earth. This is ordinary. Friendship, that is the need. Your father can help you there too. Talk to him.
I will have advice for you too, father, and you, older brothers. More to come.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Snap the Whip” painted by Winslow Homer in 1872.